The Horowitz family explores Montana and Idaho, visiting a ghost town, hot springs & a gold mine!
We had two weeks to explore Montana (and a bit into Idaho). The first week we'd mostly be in cities and towns: Missoula, Deer Lodge, Butte, Helena, and Salmon (Idaho). The second week, we'd head to Glacier National Park. But we took a less-than-straightforward path: because of various appointments, including one my wife Dina made to tour the state prison for research on her novel, we made a big loop. From Deer Lodge to Butte is only a short distance, but we went via Salmon. We put about 2000 miles on the rented Plymouth Neon crammed with four people, every bit of warm clothing we owned, and all our camping gear.
We flew into Missoula, and almost the first thing we noticed was Montana's addiction to strong coffee. We saw espresso shops everywhere on our trip, even into the remote small towns. There's a free circulator bus around the downtown and we hopped aboard. As soon as people realized we were tourists, passengers and driver alike started pointing out all the sites: our introduction to Montana hospitality. Prominent on the tour was the famous Missoula community carousel--of great interest to my 6 year old son--who was also fascinated by the huge letter M on the side of the mountain. (Letters on the sides of mountains are common in Montana; we saw quite a few of them on our trip. The one in Missoula was a popular hiking destination for University of Montana students, we were told. My daughter was more interested in the rock and mineral shops lining the boulevards. Missoula is an odd mix of very seedy and trendy Yuppie elegance--often on the same block. You can get Thai food and a bagel (though neither as good as in the Northeast), or hang out in a smoky bar that hasn't changed much (or even been cleaned) in decades. The downtown, though generally uninteresting architecturally, is clearly turning around, but it's got some distance to go.
Then it was off to Deer Lodge. We dropped Dina off at the prison and went off to explore the town's only tourist attraction: The Grant-Korr Ranch. This had once stretched thousands of acres across several states, but its home base was right there in sleepy Deer Lodge. Now a National Historic Site, the spacious grounds are uncrowded and offer excellent scenic views. Many of the outbuildings are open for self-guided tours (plenty of informative signs thoroughly explain the activities of cowboys a hundred years ago), and the farmhouse is open for group tours-but we skipped the tour so as not to keep my wife waiting.
By the time we got to Anaconda, home at one time to one of the world's largest copper smelters, the town was pretty much shut down for the evening. Too bad, as there's a nice looking free museum and some other small attractions. The tourist information booth, located in an old train station replica (and with antique trains and railroad equipment parked outside) was still open, and the woman staffing it gave us some good advice about camping nearby. So we had a lovely time camping by a river in Beaverhead National Forest--and were glad of our hats and mittens as the temperature dropped down into the 30s.
We also stopped at Crystal Park, where amateur prospectors fill their buckets with quartz and amethyst. Most of the folks there wee serious collectors with plenty fo tools, but we found plenty of small fragments right on the surface.
From there, it was just six miles to Elkhorn Hot Springs, where we had our choice of two pools and a sauna. Compared to many other area hot springs, this was a real bargain at $5 per adult, $4 per child--and the kids were thrilled to discover that a one dollar ice cream cone had four scoops! Most visitors were out on the horse trails, so we had the pools almost to ourselves.
Butte was only about 30 miles away, but we had someone to visit in Salmon, Idaho. This small town of about 4000 souls (and yes, several espresso bars), is the cultural and commercial center for many miles around. It's deep into the Rockies, with mountain ranges visible in almost every direction. On the way to Salmon, we followed the Lewis and Clark Trail and pulled into all the turnouts to read the historical markers. My daughter had studied the expedition in some detail, and it was fun to put that knowledge together--and astounding to look at the steep, rocky terrain and imagine plowing through it without roads, cars, maps, or most of the other things we take for granted.
The highlight of our Salmon experience was a visit to a small gold mine about an hour away, up the Salmon River in the little hamlet of Shoup. The guide, who had bought the mine several years ago, gave a great tour, explaining the variety of mining methods that had been used, the life of the miners during the mine's heyday, and how he came to retire to a played out mine in the middle of nowhere. Retired from the corporate world, he and his wife now made his living between the tour and an enterprise taking photographs of the numerous rafters, developing them rapidly, and selling to the adventurers on their return trips.
After Salmon, we did make it to Butte, by way of Bannack. Bannack is an old ghost town, preserved in a rather advanced state of decay. The houses and most of the stores are flimsily built and haven't done well exposed for decades to the elements. It's a snapshot of miner life during the boom times, but also an interesting lesson in preserving a later moment in time: a time of abandoned buildings with doors flapping on their hinges, plaster falling from the ceilings, and glimpses into the memories these builds hold: a wallpaper pattern, a faded photograph.
Of all the cities we saw in Montana, Butte was far and away the most interesting. The city has numerous architectural gems, including Victorian mansions, elaborately decorated downtown office buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and even the poor side of town, where even the little cottages have beautiful paint jobs and fancy gingerbread trim. Butte also has many attractions, and we toured several of them. The World Museum of Mining (accessible through the rather unimpressive Montana Tech campus) is a place to spend several hours--and here we were really grateful to our guide in Shoup. Signage was poor and staff invisible outside the admission booth and gift shop, so much of what we saw made sense only because of our learning experience in the gold mine. The museum has several sections: an outdoor area filled with enormous relatively modern mining equipment, indoor buildings with typical museum exhibits (including a wonderful collection of beautiful minerals that was a highlight for my daughter the rockhound), a recreated miners' settlement with all the shops and institutions the miners patronized--some unusual ones here, including the Irish social club and a sauerkraut shop in addition to the usual run of cobblers, banks, post offices and barrelmakers. In the giftshop, we got to listen to an "Orchestron," a rare instrument that combined a player piano and drums, organ, xylophone, and various other instruments. Feed coins in the juke box and it plays piano, organ, various bells and other instruments. The shut-off mechanism jammed and we got to hear about ten songs for our fifty cents.
Also in Butte, we toured the Berkeley Pit Mine, once the largest truck-operated open pit copper mine in the U.S., and now filling slowly with water-the lady in the giftshop said the mine had just put in brand new brass pumps before they abandoned the mine, and they left them to rust under the water. Several still-working mines are visible from the site. Butte had been a mining center for copper and molybendum, among other minerals--and much of the town's wealth had come from this industry.
Dinner was a bit of a challenge, as most of the Uptown (business district) restaurants were closed for the evening. We finally settled on a Pan-Asian fast food noodle and wrap shop, where all four of us had a surprisingly nice meal for $13.
A clear highlight of Butte was the amazing Copper King Mansion--one of the most ornate Victorian homes I've ever toured, with opulence in every detail from the wood work to the stained glass to the wallpaper to the most outrageous-looking full-body-massage shower (not too common a century ago, I'd hazard a guess). It's now a working Bed and Breakfast. Had we known that rooms started at only $65 and the master suite was only $85, we'd have stayed there instead of at the horrible urban campground where we pitched out tents in a 20-foot square and listened to highway traffic all night. Oh well! The tour guide was excellent and the tour was well worth the admission.
Our final tour in Butte was of the Dumas Brothel. The building was constructed for the purpose, and windows faced into a central courtyard, so that the customers could peruse the "wares." The tour we got there was desultory, the tour guide uninterested. But she turned us loose to explore on our own, and she did explain that there was a class ladder by floor. The basement rooms offered cheaper women and dreary surroundings, and each successive floor the price went up and the accommodations were classier. It was in active use into the 1940s. The most interesting part was the exhibit on prostitutes' rights organizations around the world, complete with posters advertising hooker conventions and costume balls.
It's a short, smooth drive from Butte to Helena along the Interstate. We prowled around downtown Helena a bit, seeing the state capital and the magnificent cathedral, and a well-trod pedestrian mall featuring a candy store that looked just as it might have 40 years ago--and that day, an annual music festival. Then we drove around looking for a place to camp. We had made reservations at a private campground some distance out, but when we got there, we rejected it-no running water, sites almost on top of each other, and a general feeling of grossness that was far worse than the KAO we'd stayed in in Butte. A nearby state park was full, so we went back to Helena and stayed at--you guessed it!--a Victorian Bed and Breakfast. Neither as fancy nor as inexpensive as the Copper King Mansion, it was still a pleasant and restful place to stay. And a conversation there with another guest, an Indian geological engineer from Billings, changed our route (adding still more miles) to go north by a much more scenic road.
Not long out of Helena, we stopped along the Missouri River at Gates of the Wilderness for a guided boat tour, well worth doing. We learned much about the history (back to Native times) and pre-history of this spot where the Rockies meet the high plains. Lewis and Clark came through here and gave it is name when they saw a rock formation that looks like a massive stone gate, opening and closing on the river as we changed our angle of view. Our guide also pointed out a range of sights from ospreys to an ancient buffalo jump, and told us of a terrible forest fire that had claimed the lives of many men fighting it. And then, on to Glacier National Park.
Glacier is large, diverse, and very scenic. Our introduction was through the west side, with incredible tall forests 100 feet and higher, and lush moss canopies. That section is full of fast-moving streams, gorges, and waterfalls; it's like something you might expect to find in the Carolinas, and not the arid West.
Near the continental Divide, it's more like what I'd imagined: barren stretches of rock above the treeline, harsh winds, temperatures in the 30s and 40s in midday August, steep climbs-but even there, we found astonishing Alpine flower meadows near Logan Pass.
The east side of the park is more typical western Montana forest: connifer trees in the 20-50 foot high range, fairly dry but not desert, lots of Saskatoon berries (also called Savice, Savage, Service, and various other names)--they grow on low trees and look and taste similar to blueberries. Not bad, but mushy texture and sometimes a less-than-pleasant aftertaste. In some parts of the park, there are the wonderful thimbleberries: cousins to the raspberry and blackberry, growing in small quantity: typically, one to three berries on a large-leafed plant. Though it's hard to gather any meaningful quantity, their taste can only be called divine.
We camped in the town of Babb, home to a great breakfast spot called the Two Sisters Cafe (wonderful home fries and a license plate collection covering all of North America!)--and our tent site, in the Chewing Blackbones campground, had private lake access.
Another, more remote section of the park is the area near Many Glacier. This is perhaps the most scenic section, with lots of snow-capped peaks, crystal-blue lakes...and yes, an actual glacier, much reduced from its original size. It's also where we saw both grizzly and black bears from a safe distance, through a spotting scope). Wildlife watchers will definitely want scopes, or at least a pair of powerful binoculars.
The park continues north across the Canadian border into Alberta, where it's called Waterton Lakes. The town of Watertown is dominated by the Prince of Wales Hotel, an ugly faux Bavarian lodge on a hilltop. The lobby is elegant, however, and offers a fabulous view. But the restrooms were run down, the Grand High Tea was wildly overpriced, and we felt sorry for anyone who chose to stay there.
We did enjoy an excellent splurge meal around the corner, at a place called the Lamp Post. The grilled portabello mushroom topped with two separate sauces--one made of pureed red pepper and the other with cream and brandy--was so good I asked for the recipe. And from the restaurant patio, we watched a family of 11 sheep stroll through the town square. $43 Canadian (about $30 U.S.) got us two entrees, a kid's meal, and a huge dessert.
And then we drove to Red Rock Canyon, about ten miles outside of Waterton. Though it was short, the drive felt endless. But we were rewarded, finally, with an easy 20 minute walking trail through a very pretty canyon.
In fact, the whole Glacier area is filled with great hikes of all lengths. We took several dozen short hikes and a couple of longer ones. Almost every day we found an interesting trail, and each trail was different. It would have been easy to spend the entire two weeks in the park and not begin to exhaust its treasures.
But for us, it was time to head back. We stopped to peruse the galleries in Whitefish, drove along scenic Flathead Lake, enjoyed the mountain vistas on both sides of Route 93, and returned to Missoula to catch our plane home.
Shel Horowitz, editor of Global Travel Review, is the author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook--the only book on how to have fun cheaply.
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