I bought a car this summer so I could drive and explore the states around Colorado. And first on my wish list was a Western Montana road trip. I hadn’t been to Montana since I was 11 years old when my parents and I did a road trip from Illinois to Oregon and back.

All I remember from that trip was being terrified of encountering a bear in Glacier National Park and eating only cheeseburgers for the entire two weeks.

Those were the days of being able to eat endless cheeseburgers…

I think it was about time for me to see Montana with adult eyes now on my own road trip from Denver.

western montana road trip

I’m still scared of meeting a bear on a trail, but I have developed my culinary interests past cheeseburgers these days. In fact, I was pretty excited to drive through Western Montana’s small towns, see the mountain scenery, have a few outdoor adventures, find the distilleries, and enjoy the farmers markets and local cafes. And I would do all of this from my new road tripping car!

When you think of Montana, What comes to Mind?

Cheeseburgers? Bears? Fly Fishing? Brad Pitt? (ok – maybe that’s just me…) Glacier National Park?

Glacier national park many glacier
Glacier National Park – Many Glacier

I think for most people Glacier National Park is one of the big draws to Montana; especially this summer as the pandemic lingered on. Yes, the park is lovely, however the beauty doesn’t stop at the park exit…it’s all over Western Montana. Nature has no boundaries and the National Parks don’t have the only beauty and cool things to do.

So when everyone is headed to Montana to go to Glacier National Park in record numbers, I have some suggestions of where you can go that is outside of the park but just as fun, beautiful, and cultural (probably more so) than just Glacier.

Why Explore Beyond Glacier National Park?

My first answer is because exploration is cool. Leading is cool. And finding your own new experiences are more impactful.

Lewis and Clark in Montana

Lewis and Clark famously traversed Montana not once, but twice, so as a way to honor them, I set out to really explore beyond the National Park in western Montana. I took the mindset of someone who is leading a team of explorers who are about to step into the great unknown!

montana road trip explore

ex·plore /ikˈsplôr/ verb
to traverse or range over (a region, area, etc.) for the purpose of discovery

I know – many people don’t like the unknown – but I thrive on it. In fact, I am always excited about encountering the unknown because I normally think that I can find a place better than what others have found.

And on this Western Montana road trip…I did.

Now you get to reap the benefits of my discoveries! I’ve split them into the categories of Eating, Drinking, and Being Curious. Just like Lewis and Clark, I’ve created a map of my route, where I stayed, and given you an idea of what I loved and why…and what to stay away from!

Western Montana Road Trip – Eat, Drink, and Be Curious

Even though I drove from Denver (a 2 day leisurely drive), I basically started this trip from Missoula. It’s a super jumping off point for Western Montana. You can also fly into Missoula and rent a car.

Renting a Car

I have consistently found the best rental car prices on RentalCars.com (international and at home) and use them when I have to rent a car. They work with all of the major car companies; check out their prices and see what you think. I also love their cancellation policies that are easy to find and understand – a must in these times!

I stayed in Missoula getting to know this awesome college town for 2 nights. The beautiful thing about Missoula is that it’s so easy to get out to nature – in fact you are surrounded by it! We used the elegant AC Hotel in Missoula as a hub for two nights while we went rafting and hiking – just a short drive outside the city. Then we came back at night and enjoyed all of the food, drink, and nightlife. We even went to a concert there at the historic Wilma theater.

From there we went West – out to experience the mountainous landscapes. However, we had one problem – wildfires.

Explorers Have to Be Flexible

wildfires montana

One of the first rules of being an explorer is to be ready for anything – and to be flexible when you encounter it. This is a trait of any good traveler – and Mother Nature put us to the test. Wildfires were burning around Western Montana so we had to make a few changes to our plans, but thanks to that we discovered other fun things like antique stores and a really cool jail museum! We didn’t get to do as much hiking or landscape photography as I normally would have, but I still had an incredible trip!

Each morning before hitting the road we’d check the latest news on the wildfires and then have to possibly reroute a bit. Don’t let things like this ‘ruin your vacation’ – just roll with it and see where it leads you. This is part of being a responsible traveler. In fact, Western Montana actually has Responsible travel tourism guidelines that range from campfire maintenance, to parking, to fast changing weather, and even where to take and how to tag selfies!

Learn more about the Glacier Country Tourism Pledge

Western Montana Road Trip Map

Click on the box in the upper left corner to get information on lodging, restaurants and experiences along the route.

As you can see, I actually did go to Glacier National Park, but I tried to stick to the less-visited Many Glacier area. While everyone was vying to get into the Going to the Sun Road, we went to a different area that required no reservation and was absolutely beautiful.

In addition, we were also able to experience the Indigenious culture of the area – it was my highlight of the trip to be able to connect with the land and the people in this unique way.

Eating my way Through Western Montana

Food glorious food! It’s one of my favorite things about taking a vacation. Thanks to recommendations from locals I had some incredible meals on the road trip. Here were some of my favorite experiences.

Indigikitchen – Babb Montana

The Glacier National Park tourist market has been traditionally centered on the west side. However, I discovered the east side of Glacier and was introduced to a much less crowded area as well as Mariah Gladstone of Indigikitchen.

Indigikitchen was formed to foster an appreciation and love of traditional Native foods. The name is a combination of Indigenous, digital, and kitchen — Mariah creates short video cooking tutorials on Youtube for recipes that use pre-contact ingredients.

But as travel starts to open up again, Mariah is working on a new experience that will give visitors a better grasp on the landscape; a foraging and cooking class based on indigenous foods.

Foraging with Indigikitchen
Foraging for sarvis berries

Her goal is to offer people a meal made of native ingredients, especially things that they can have a part in foraging and harvesting, thereby ‘immersing themselves in the landscape’. It’s a way to look at the small parts of the landscape rather than looking at a glacier or mountains. Instead, visitors can really look at a glacier as berries, and flowers as flavors.

“People will be able to just get a deeper sense of place. It goes beyond Pinterest pictures. People will be able to have a meal and get that deeper experience.”

Mariah Gladstone

We started by walking around her yard picking sarvis berries. The pinkish purple berries were bursting with flavor – I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of them before considering their prevalence in the area. She taught me about the different native plants and how they were traditionally used for culinary and medicinal purposes.

We had iced cedar tea with maple syrup and stuffed peppers. Mariah cooked up ground elk that was harvested up on Chief Mountain and mixed that with wild rice from Red Lake. I loved the idea that she knew where the meat and rice came from, something we never really know when we eat at a restaurant. For desert I helped with forming cookies from ground up sunflower seeds and maple syrup. We topped our ‘cookies’ with the freshly foraged pink sarvis berries all mashed up.

Not only do you get an education about the land, the Blackfeet people, a wonderful meal, but you also get to meet Mariah. She’s one of these special people who brings the whole area to life. She grew up here and her life and culture are woven into the landscapes. In addition, she has worked as a park ranger and knows the areas inside and outside the park really well – so it’s a good way to get some super hiking advice too! It’s a truly special experience.

stuffed pepper indigenious cooking

To do this experience, go to Mariah’s website and contact her and request it.

Minnie’s Café – Thompson Falls Montana

The little town of Thompson Falls has one of the biggest cinnamon rolls I’ve ever seen! Made fresh every morning, Minnie’s Café is known for this giant plate of cinnamon-y goodness. It’s also known for its authentic small town America feel and hospitality. Minne’s is what small towns are made of – great homecooked food, and a gathering place for locals.

Sit at the old counter and order things like meatloaf, roast beef with gravy, and malts. I chatted with some locals about what to do in the area and asked the status of the nearby wildfires. Then came my giant cinnamon roll with ice cream scoop of butter on the side! I had never seen a side of butter served with a cinnamon roll…but oh my…it’s worth it.

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here