Black Bear or Grizzly Bear? If you run into one in the woods do you know how to tell which one your dealing with? Well after 12 days deep in the heart of bear country I could tell you all their differences, but really the thing you need to know is don’t leave the camper without your bear spray! It’s my new favorite accessory. Luckily I haven’t had to use it… yet.
Our trek through Montana took us off the paved roads and up gravely, bumpy, mountain pass roads to the remoter areas where wildlife still rule. Our first stop was the mountain side campground of Crystal Lake, part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest and about an hour from Lewiston. The big draw for this campsite was the extensive system of hiking trails (if you dared to venture into the woods, I have to admit we were hesitant after reading all the literature that came with our bear spray) and the pristine water of Crystal Lake. The lake is only present during the summer months and during our visit it was a cool, crystal clear lake about 3 feet at it’s deepest point, making it perfect for an afternoon of kayaking. We enjoyed putting our yaks in the water and leisurely paddling around while looking into the water. The water was so clear it was like looking into an aquarium! It was also the perfect spot to sit and marvel at the surrounding mountain peaks of the Little Snowy Mountain Range. At night campfires were the highlight as each site is stocked with firewood for you. The mule deer came right down into the campsites to entertain the campers and eat the grasses and plants. This was a favorite off the grid site for us, especially for $10 a night. The water here was some of the best I have ever drank, so pure and delicious! Lewiston boasts that they have the purest water in America and I have to say I agree.
After Crystal Lake we headed North West with Glacier Park on our mind. We did some research and discovered it is really tricky to get camping there with a 30 foot camper unless you have made reservations way in advance or can be there at the butt crack of dawn. We are not morning people so we opted for staying in another section of Lewis and Clark National Forest about 2 hours south of Glacier at Cave Mountain Campground. Cave Mountain is located about 40 minutes from the charming little town of Choteau. They have a very informative Chamber of Commerce visitor center with lots of info on all the fun things to do in the area and some great tips about getting up to Glacier for the day. It’s also located right next to an ice cream parlor that serves up some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had and some interesting little museums with homemade bear traps on display. The campground itself was located on a clear little river surrounded by mountain peaks. The road in was unpaved and full of large pot holes but the bumps were worth the beautiful scenery. I felt like we were living inside a postcard there! Activities abounded with hiking/equestrian trails and we enjoyed an afternoon riding our bikes along the river and discovering small little waterfalls coming down from the mountains and feeding into the river. Camping in this area was $6 a night or you could really pull up anywhere you could find a spot and do some free camping or “wild camping”. Again the bear spray was needed and we actually had breakfast with a young black bear one morning! We were in our camper enjoying some scrambled eggs and solar powered smoothies and he walked in to the campsite and made himself at home in the brush by us and enjoyed some berries. He didn’t stick around long but you can bet I didn’t go anywhere without my bear spray after that!
While camping at Cave Mountain we also spent an hour visiting the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center located in Bynum, about 40 minutes from our campground. Montana is a hotbed for paleontology and as life long students we felt we had to go learn more about the dinosaurs in the area. It doesn’t look like much from the road but the small building houses a full size replica of what is believed to be the world’s largest dinosaur the seismosaurus. The center is also home to the first discovered nest of young dinosaur bones showing insight into how dinosaurs cared for their young. They have current dig sites in the area and you can schedule a dig day to go out to the sites and learn how to spot, uncover, and handle actual dinosaur fossils. We didn’t participate in a dig day but the $5 tour of the museum was worth it!
And that leads me to our two days we spent at Glacier National Park. It deserves it’s own post so I will try to be brief. It is the most beautiful place I have been so far in my life. Driving in we were greeted by the clear water of St. Mary’s lake, surrounded by towering mountain peaks. We spent the first day on the scenic drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring road that goes for 50 miles from one end of the park to the other. The best part is the drive from St. Mary’s Visitor Center up to the Logan Pass Visitor Center. Waterfalls, lakes, and weeping walls greet you around every corner. A Big Horn Sheep could be in the distance or you might see Mountain Goats and Grizzlies play in the mountain meadows. There are spots to pull off and just gaze at the amazing scenery around you. I could have spent hours in one spot just trying to drink it all in. The second day we were in the park we went hiking and wow, I thought the view from the road was great, this place turns to magic when you go investigating it’s hidden secrets on the trails. We parked at a visitor center and jumped on the free shuttle to get around to the trails. We hiked to St. Mary’s Falls and Virginia Falls, and to Hidden Lake. We also did a small section of the Highline trail, where we bumped right into a mountain goat! It was raining and he was pretty smelly but very cool to see one that close! When we started our hike up to Hidden Lake a storm was rolling in from a distance. By the time we reached the overlook we had our rain jackets on and had been pelted by very spiky hail. It actually added to the hiking experience and made getting to the top and seeing the majestic Hidden Lake surrounding the mountain tops that much more satisfying. We also were able to see some of the 25 glaciers that are still left in Glacier National Park. In 1850 there were over 150 glaciers in the park. Due to global warming it is estimated that all of the glaciers will be gone by 2030. It is overwhelming to see first hand how global warming is effecting our ecosystems and to know how changed the park may be if I make it back some day. The pictures don’t even do the place justice, the raw beauty of this place truly needs to be experienced in person.
There is so much to say about our Montana trip, I can’t even fit it all in. I understand why it is called Big Sky and it’s hard to explain it, except to say that we could see four different types of skies happening at once here, something I’ve never experienced in Illinois. I also loved how they force you to put down your cell phones and really get into nature, there is no cell service between most towns. The cows run freely on the road and the people you pass on secluded mountain passes wave and smile. The radio at our camp only had one station and we got to listen to announcers read the ads for cattle and horses for sale. Parents covered their children with bells hoping to ward of grizzlies that might snatch them. Montana is the experience of waiting in line at the one gas station to get gas because it’s been 50 miles since the last town and the next one isn’t for another 70. It’s stopping at a lone stoplight in the middle of nowhere for a construction zone because the road ahead is only going to be one lane and reading the construction sign instructing you to “wait for the pilot car” and sure enough 10 minutes later a little car comes buzzing over the horizon to escort people safely through the construction zone. These are the experiences we won’t forget. Thank you Montana for sharing your beauty and hospitality with us.