One moment, twilight was spilling forth brilliant oranges and pinks across the northern Montana sky. The next, it was morning and early sun rays were lighting up those same mountains golden-green. At least that’s how it seemed to me following a wonderful night of sleep at the Belton Chalet. You can easily overexert yourself on vacation, and yesterday had been the prime sort of candidate for doing so – early departure, long road, many activities. I felt like it was important that Elizabeth get as much sleep as possible before I woke her up for all of our fun on the second full day in Montana.
What exactly our fun was on that day, Elizabeth had little idea. I had a pretty good clue myself, but not 100%. That’s part of the whole Grand Teton lesson I blogged about last year – plan your trip and then let in a little room for wiggle. Either way, I had told Elizabeth that today was going to be a surprise from me and that her only hint was that we would be west of Glacier National Park’s boundaries.
That’s not as much of a hint as it may sound. US-2 winds through a similar valley down the Flathead River to the west of West Glacier before opening up into the broad Flathead Valley, and it’s here that much of the region’s tourism is found. There are several ski towns and tourism centers in the area: Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls.
With that much space, she really couldn’t have a firm clue what we were doing, only that we would be back into the national park in time to set up the tent for the first time on the trip at Sprague Creek along Lake McDonald by nightfall. For the morning, though, I was winging it. A guy at Avalanche Lake yesterday had told us to hike to one of the little lakes near Whitefish, and if you can’t trust a guy you meet on a hike to tell you where to hike, who can you trust? I did have a firmer plan for breakfast. Elizabeth rolled out of bed and we got packed up so I could show her.
We emerged to a bright and gloriously mild morning in West Glacier. I couldn’t get enough of the temperatures after suffering through Oklahoma summer for as long as I did. Montana summer mornings are apparently built for people with puffy vests, kind of like the Michigan summer mornings of my childhood. I was especially happy to see the cool weather because of my choice for the Nolan Planned Breakfast at Beargrass Cafe, just a mile west of us down US-2.
The mile made an insane amount of difference for the view. Not that I’m complaining about the view from the night before at the Belton Chalet, which provided a beautiful view of the sunset over the rolling ridges. But the view from further to the west peered directly back into Glacier itself, including those famous granite peaks along the continental divide.
There was plenty of time and space to enjoy the view from the Beargrass Cafe, because it’s really not much of a cafe. It’s just a food truck in the parking lot of the Glacier Outdoor Center.
I should probably include quotes around the word “just”, because the Beargrass Cafe came very highly recommended by the good people of Yelp. The people of Yelp are going to come in with a fat W for their recommendation here, because breakfast was delicious. Elizabeth was thrilled with her signature latte: the “Mr. Huck L Beary’s Fav”, a latte made with huckleberry, white chocolate, and honey. We each also got a breakfast burrito that hit the spot. My personal touchstone for breakfast burritos was from the Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton, and while this one could not quite reach that lofty height, it was still a solid 8.5/10. A good measure of my satisfaction with Beargrass and overall hunger level can be found in my decision to also get a homemade Rice Krispie treat. The extra $3 doesn’t seem like a lot until you understand my finances in July 2022 – or lack thereof. We’d had to spend a lot of money to get a fridge, washer, drier, lawnmower, and other true necessities of house rentership. I was in my last days as a grad student. And so all I had to my name, really, was the sports betting profits that I’d tucked away toward this trip – a couple hundred dollars. With the benefit of hindsight, it absolutely was worth it to use 1% of the money to my name on that treat.
US-2 winds through a very narrow valley on the western side of the continental divide. Looking at how the train tracks are all jammed up into the canyon, it makes sense how the Marias Pass Route was a godsend to the early European expansion through the area. I cannot imagine trying to jam a railroad through an even more inhospitable route, which is pretty much all that the rest of the Northern Rockies offer. Elizabeth drove the CRV so that I could direct her to our hike – and not so incidentally, make a final decision on what hike we were going to do. AllTrails was giving a strong recommendation for a hike not in Whitefish but closer to Kalispell. The trail was called the Foys Lake Overlook via the Notch Trail, and looked promising. What the hell. Spontaneity, right? Elizabeth drove through the tiny tourist traps of Coram and Hungry Horse, dotted with stores promising all sorts of huckleberry products. We were going off-plan.
The very narrow valley through which the Flathead winds opens up very abruptly just east of the town of Columbia Falls. In its stead is a broad, flat valley – the Flathead Valley – bounded by a solid wall of mountains to the east. To the south is the massive Flathead Lake, to the north is the Whitefish Range, and rugged hills eventually rise to the west, but this valley itself basically looks like Kansas. It’s a pretty cool experience to see.
We followed US-2 south into Kalispell. If all of the other towns we’d passed were tourist-y edges of civilization, then Kalispell was at least civilization-adjacent. It has a Wendy’s. It has a Taco Bell. Delta will fly you to Kalispell for an exorbitant sum of money. It felt weird to be in this town in the middle of our great wilderness experience.
Our final destination was a little park just south and west of town, past a weird roundabout. There was a little lake along the route with startlingly blue water (are all lakes in Montana that blue?). It would be the lake we would overlook in a little bit. The parking lot was in a picturesque field of overgrown tallgrass, with rolling forested hills in the backdrop. The day was warming rapidly. It was a perfect day for a quiet morning hike.