The first days of trips are often magical simply because they’re the first days of trips. Everything is still laid out in front of you. Fatigue isn’t a problem yet. You and your traveling companions aren’t annoyed at each other over minor things that accumulate in a car. It’s easy for the first day of a trip to just be an absolute banger.
You could sort of see July 12, 2022 setting up to be a banger. Already, we’d gotten a free rental car upgrade, and incredible huckleberry smoothies. Now I was driving north on I-15 out of Great Falls, several hours ahead of what I’d dared hope our schedule could be an sucking the last whipped cream through my straw. The suburban scenery rapidly transitioned into an arid Plains landscape that wouldn’t have been super out of place in western Oklahoma. The one thing that stuck out to me, though…
“Now I know why they call it the Big Sky Country!”
It was, in fact, Big Sky Country. Like, blue skies as far as the eyes could see. Vast on a scale I’d previously only associated with the rolling plains of the Texas panhandle. I can’t describe why it was bigger, but it was. And in addition to being bigger, it was faster – 80 mph on the Interstate, to be exact. That was all to the good, because Montana is a big state and Great Falls isn’t the closest airport to Glacier by a long shot. Our AirBNB for the night was in Babb, right up along the Canadian border outside of the Many Glacier entrance. That called for two and a half hours of prairie driving to get there. It’s a good thing that spirits are always high on the first day of vacation, because the travel demand is usually the highest. I was cheerful, eager to make the drive. Spurring me on was a vision to the west, no more than a broken blue smudge on the horizon full of jagged tops – Montana’s famed Rocky Mountain Front. Elizabeth kept asking which of those peaks along the Front were from Glacier. Obviously I had no way of knowing that, but Glacier was far-off. So I assumed the answer was “none”, or “to the north a long way”.
We continued to parallel the undulating mountain range to our west. I noticed that the grass was already getting a bit greener here than it was in Great Falls. An interesting sidenote – much of Montana was stuck in a pretty bad drought in 2022, but Glacier and its immediate surroundings got slammed by multiple heavy snowstorms in May and June. This meant that the snowmelt was putting a lot of water into the grass, and even on the supposedly arid High Plains that became noticeable the further north we got.
I drove on I-15 for a little over an hour, catching “Forever After All” by Luke Combs on the radio an impressive amount of times. After that hour, navigation directed us onto the Valier Highway, a 2-lane highway that shot straight west toward the mountains in the distance. The terrain rolled beautifully through farmland, only finally broken by the little town of Valier itself. Even the railroad town was little more than an interlude – a few streets, a bar that informed you that it respected the troops, and a big lake right along the roadside. Then it was back to the highway through farmland.
The US-89 intersection was exciting for two reasons. For one, on the north branch of the intersection there was a sign for “Glacier Park 43”. And if you aren’t excited about being no more than a 40-minute drive from your dream national park, what are you doing with you life? And for another, we’d gotten a lot closer to those jagged mountains during our westbound jaunt. Now you could see snow on individual peaks, gaps in the Front where streams run out of the mountains, and just more definition. We were about level with the southern end of Glacier National Park, which meant that when we looked west and north we could now see the Crown of the Continent. It looked so… exciting. And on the far north end, that extremely narrow, pointy mountain?
“That must be Chief Mountain!” I exclaimed.
Not to be outdone by its neighbors, US-89 was also insanely elite. It reminded me a little bit of the Sandhills in Nebraska by North Platte – endless sky, long rolling hills, except with roaring creeks at the bottom of them. And the names of the streams conjured up pure “I’ve looked at the map of Glacier Park before” tingles (the Sun! The Two Medicine!). Each one of them rushed through rocky streambeds in a way that belied the sunny sky. Otherwise, it could have been the Texas panhandle during a wet spring. Cows on the hills, cows in the valleys, cows everywhere. I was loving every second of this drive.
Some Yelp scouting had helped me locate dinner for us on the way into Babb. To be fair, it was a lot earlier than I had anticipated, but not so early that we couldn’t still eat. Browning, Montana lies within sight of the eastern fringe of Glacier National Park. It’s populated by the Blackfeet Nation, who calls the High Plains directly abutting Glacier home. I saw tourists staying in teepees while driving in, a sure sign that we were approaching the Glacier-Industrial Complex. Browning is a bit rundown but charming, with 1,000 people and some pretty incredible views on the west side of town. The online review were pretty unambiguous – go to Nation’s Burger Station, right off of 89 in town. What I had not apparently read well enough to realize is that this was a drive-through only place. Oops. Guess we were having an unintended picnic. Again: first day of vacation, if something like that happens, it’s fun and we’ll figure it out. I would not advise doing that on the 5th day of vacation.
Nation’s Burger Station had some fancy options on their menu for a drive-thru location. Elizabeth went fancy with a jalapeno burger that had some phenomenal fry sauce. In fact, while sitting at our little shaded picnic table, trying to keep everything from blowing away, she went as far as to say that it was “the best burger” she’d ever had. I would not go quite so far with my double bacon burger, but it was really, really good. The french fries were also delicious, served in huge portions, and delivered with more of that incredible fry sauce. I would 1000% stop at the Burger Station again if for whatever reason I found myself back in Browning.
The sun was slow to lower off of directly overhead on a mid-July Montana afternoon. There was still barely any evidence that it was evening when Elizabeth took over behind the wheel on State Highway 464 northbound out of Browning. The High Plains undulated dramatically underneath us, soaring well up onto ridges that provided panoramic views of Montana all around before plummeting into streambeds with more of those names that excited me. The Cut Bank Creek! The Milk River! Cows and even bison serenely chewed on grass as green as my poor Oklahoman eyes had seen in a long time while the fields blurred by. And in the distance, definition began to fade as the sun sunk toward the big granite walls to the west. Chief Mountain, if that’s what it was, formed the northern rim of those walls that stood imposingly. Was this heaven on earth?
The road finally bore westward directly toward the tantalizing mountain peaks. Unbeknownst to me, we passed by our first continental divide of the trip here, into the Hudson Bay drainage from the Atlantic. One more picturesque scene by Duck Lake, with Chief Mountain in the distance:
And then the views gradually receded as Elizabeth pulled back up alongside 89. She yelled, “Look!” as we crossed the St. Mary River just below Lower Saint Mary Lake. And I understand why. If those gushing streams were picturesque, this bigger river was impressive in its own right tumbling past us. But within of this valley, we were now so close to the mountains that the panoramas were cut off. We drove the last few miles northward along US-89 through Babb past the Many Glacier entrance to the park. Only a few miles to go.
Our AirBNB itself was just short of the Chief Mountain Highway a few miles from the northeast fringes of the park. The Glacier Elkhorn Cabins were easy to miss, being located along a little pulloff in the highway that occurred without much warning. But once we’d driven a little bit, guided by a friendly local dog, Elizabeth pulled the rental around the corner and a clean little cabin + campground area opened up. There was a rental office that was a little larger than the cabins, and then the quaint, small cabins themselves dotted the outside of the camping area. Elizabeth had outdone herself with our spot, I quickly discovered. It was seriously a gem of a find. The older couple who owned the land and rented out the AirBNBs were super nice, accommodating, and let us pet the dog and cat that freely wandered around the property. They clearly loved Glacier country and their business, and had some sharp advice on where to go to best enjoy the upcoming sunset. Sunset? Elizabeth and I hadn’t planned anything for this Day 0 in the park, mostly because I hadn’t been willing to believe the two of us could actually get up here so fast. Did that mean we could now do something with our evening?
First thing first: back the RAV4 into our cabin’s parking spot and bring our stuff inside. The cabin was tidy, tiny, and cozy – wood exterior, wood interior with a small porch and not much space for anything besides a queen bed, some nightstands, and a table. What more could we really need, though? A creek bubbling right behind the parking spot? Well, we had that too.
Elizabeth and I discussed taking the property owner’s suggestion and heading to Chief Mountain for sunset. There was certainly plenty of time to do so, and the allure of a relatively quiet corner of Glacier along the Chief Mountain Highway for our first evening was tempting. Furthermore, we wouldn’t end up going back to Chief Mountain – it wasn’t in the plan, chief. (Rimshot) So this would be our best chance. But on the other hand, if we had a complete bingo free space this evening to do whatever we wanted, maybe it would be worth it to hunt down a picture of a moose. Moose had been the one entry on my Big Mammal List 2021 that I had failed to find in Grand Teton or Yellowstone. Glacier is a park overflowing with moose sightings, in particular along Fishercap Lake. Fishercap Lake was located at the end of the Many Glacier Road no more than half an hour away from our cabin. We would get there just as the sun started to recede behind the mountains – and not coincidentally, get a view of some of the most famous mountains in North America. If I had just one day at Many Glacier, would I commit to sitting along the banks of a lake in the hopes of seeing a moose? Probably not. But this was a bingo free space. Our minds made up, Elizabeth and I got back into the RAV4 and made the short backtrack into Babb down 89. This time in Babb, when we saw the sign heralding Many Glacier just off the highway, we pulled off. The road wound through a forested valley next to a swift-currented creek (Swiftcurrent Creek), past a food truck well-advertised with clever signs about bears and food, and into a broad, open valley facing to the west. Why was the sky so hazy? Were early wildfires impeding the view with smoke? No, as it turned out. The road to Many Glacier just was unpaved while getting repaired, and gravel was getting kicked up by hundreds of cars into a dust cloud. Elizabeth drove the at-times blinding dust while we strained to see anything. All of a sudden, out of the blue, a cattle guard appeared. A familiar-shaped wooden sign passed by on the right side of the road before we could react. My 18th national park – Glacier National Park, Crown of the Continent.