The Big Sky Trip

An adventure in the Pacific Northwest

The Big Sky trip is a 10-night driving trip to the northwestern United States. The trip begins and ends in Portland, Oregon, but spends much of the time in and around Glacier National Park in Montana.

You might notice that this trip follows a similar route as the 2006 Northern Rockies trip. Just like then, I started my trip with a drive through the Columbia River Gorge. This time, though, I took a longer route through eastern Washington and Idaho, before ending up in the Kalispell area near Glacier National Park. In '06, I was able to drive across Going-to-the-Sun Road. This time, the road was closed at Logan Pass, so I had to circle around on US 2. I also ventured into Canada briefly on this trip -- something I didn't have time to do in 2006.

On both trips, I headed south from Kalispell to Missoula. In 2006 I headed on into Idaho, then cut across Oregon to get back to Portland. This time, I made a bee-line on I-90, then spent a little time in Yakima before finishing the journey.

Day 1

Through the Columbia Gorge to Pasco, Washington

This is really just a half-day, since my plane landed around noon. For the remaining daylight hours, I had two goals: enjoy a drive through the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, and finish the day at Pasco, Washington. I had to cover enough ground on Day 1 to make Day 2 possible.

It took a while to get out of the traffic mess of Portland, but eventually I made my way across the Columbia River and into Washington. Once there, my route was simple: take Highway 14 eastbound, for most of the rest of the day. Washington 14 parallels Interstate 84 and historic US 30 -- both of which are on the Oregon side. On the Washington side, the pace is slower, but the views are equally spectacular. The Oregon side offers access to several waterfalls, but you can see the biggest one, Multnomah Falls, from the Washington side as well.

Another benefit of sticking to the Washington side: you can visit the Stonehenge replica, a war memorial in Maryhill, Washington. After admiring the concrete recreation of England's ancient attraction, I continued up the Gorge. I found a great place to enjoy the sunset at some irrigated farmland near I-82, the highway that heads north to Pasco.

Day 2

The Palouse, and scenery in Idaho

More driving awaited on this day, but if you're planning a trip to Glacier National Park, you have to accept a good bit of driving. I could have made the trip quicker, by driving up to I-90, then cutting across Washington and Idaho. Instead, I chose to explore the Palouse -- a region of rolling hills, where every turn looks somewhat like that desktop image on Windows XP computers.

Washington Route 124, then US 12 cuts across the Palouse, to the twin cities of Clarkston, Washington and Lewiston, Idaho. At Lewiston, I drove up the Spiral Road -- an historic section of US 95 that includes dozens of hairpin curves, to climb the mountain north of town. From there, I continued up US 95, the "North South Road" in Idaho, through Moscow, Coeur d'Alene, and eventually Sandpoint, where a miniature Statue of Liberty stands watch over Lake Pend Oreille. With the evening approaching, I drove east along Idaho 200, then Montana 200. Montana 56 and US 2 then took me to Libby, where I spent the night.

Day 3

Exploring Northwest Montana

To start the day, I backtracked slightly on US 2 to Kootenai Falls, where a nearby swinging bridge spans the wild rapids of the river. The bridge and falls were used in the movie, The River Wild. Then, I headed back to Libby, where I explored the town for a few minutes, before heading out.

I could have stayed on US 2 for the drive to Glacier National Park, but instead I chose a route that looked more scenic on the map. Outside of Libby, Montana 37 heads north along the banks of Lake Koocanusa (a combination of Kootenai -- the river that feeds it, Canada and USA -- the countries it spans). I checked out Libby Dam, then drove north, almost to Canada, then took US 93 south to Whitefish. While Montana 37 was pretty, US 93 was somewhat boring and filled with traffic.

I checked into my motel in Columbia Falls, then spent the rest of the day on the west side of Glacier National Park. My first hike was to Johns Lake, which was unimpressive, but I added a walk along McDonald Creek, which was quite nice. Since Going-to-the-Sun Road wasn't open past Avalanche, I couldn't go all the way to Logan Pass, so I found another trail on the west side, at Rocky Point, where I hiked to finish the day (and ended up in a thunderstorm).

Day 4

Glacier National Park's East Side

I anxiously checked for news about Going-to-the-Sun Road on the morning of Day 4, but it was still closed. Knowing that, and having explored the west side of Glacier National Park the previous afternoon, I decided it would be best to circle around the park and check out the east side. I took US 2 around the southern end of Glacier, to my stopping point for the next two nights: East Glacier Park Village.

When I arrived, it was too early to check in, so I headed on into the park. The closest access point to East Glacier Park Village is the Two Medicine area. Thanks to the late-season snowstorm (which dumped the snow that was keeping GTTS Road closed), many of the trails in Two Medicine and other areas were soggy, muddy, or outright flooded altogether. Hiking around Two Medicine Lake would likely have been messy, so I opted for the scenic boat cruise. At the far end of the lake, I hopped off (and waded through some frigid ankle-deep water) to get to the trail to Twin Falls. As trails go, it was okay, and as waterfalls go, it was alright.

Arriving back at the dock, a long line of hikers were already waiting for the boat to return -- so many, the boat couldn't hold us all. So, it left three of us behind -- two ladies and me. It took nearly an hour for the boat to drop them all off, and then return to pick us up, but I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful place to be stuck. And when it finally did return, the three of us had the whole boat to ourselves.

With a few hours to go before sunset (the days are incredibly long in late June, this far north), I gave myself an ambitious goal. I set out to hike the Scenic Point trail. Or at least, I told myself I'd hike as far as Appistoki Falls, and then see if I wanted to go further. Often, I do this to trick myself into longer, tougher hikes. I tell myself I'll hike for a while, then turn around -- but inevitably, once I'm up there, I go further. And this time, I kept going, as far as time allowed. I kept a close eye on my watch, constantly calculating the time needed for the return hike before darkness arrived.

The hike to Scenic Point wasn't just time-consuming, it was strenuous. As is often the case, the Scenic Point is at a very high point, overlooking everything, and to get there, you've got to go uphill. After a very full day of driving and hiking, I was exhausted by the time I approached the destination. I was also running out of time, but I pushed it to the very last minute. I didn't make it all the way, but I did see some very scenic points along the way.

Day 5

Another great day on Glacier's east side

My cabin in East Glacier Park Village proved to be more than adequate. It was tiny, and probably built a half-century or more ago, but it was affordable, comfortable, and clean. I started the day refreshed, and drove up to the stunning Many Glacier area.

On the way there, I took Montana 49, also known as Looking Glass Hill Road. This is an impossibly bad road with unbelievably good views. Tight curves, narrow drops, and endless potholes and dips make the drive slow. All the while, you're staring at gorgeous views that appear before you, around every corner.

As Montana 49 ends, US 89 continues the scenic drive, all the way to the entrance to the Many Glacier area. I understand why so many people consider this to be the 'heart' of Glacier, with some of the best trails, and best views.

I tackled two trails while I was in Many Glacier: the Grinnell Glacier Trail (which starts with loops around Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine), and the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail. Of course, I didn't make it to the end of either one. In the case of the Grinnell Glacier Trail, snow was still blocking the upper portion of the path. The Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail had a washed-out bridge above Ptarmigan Falls, so I made the falls my turn-around point. Both hikes combined probably amounted to 11 miles or more of hiking. That was plenty for one day.

As I finished up the Ptarmigan Falls hike, I was dodging storm clouds. After a few brief showers, I made it back to the car, and drove out of the Many Glacier area. The rest of the drive back to East Glacier Park Village was more extraordinary than I could ever express. At least half the way, I had a rainbow and storm clouds to my left, and sunshine and mountain peaks on my right.

Day 6

The drive north into Alberta

As I checked out of my cabin, I had reached the end of my reserved accommodations for this trip. From here on out, I was making it up as I went along, day by day. I decided on this day, I'd head north into Canada, check out Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, then spend the night in Pincher Creek -- a town I grew quite fond of, during a wintertime stay in 2012. I reserved my same cabin for Day 7, giving me one more night in East Glacier.

I was now getting quite familiar with Montana 49 and US 89. I drove the treacherous curves a bit more quickly this time, but still stopped to gaze at the incredible eastern side of Glacier National Park. North of Many Glacier, I turned off onto Highway 17, the Chief Mountain Highway -- named for the prominent peak that stands watch over the road to Canada.

Once across the border, it was just a short drive downhill to the town of Waterton, where I ate my first real meal in several days. It's pretty common for me to skip meals and survive on food from the cooler while on vacation, but on this trip, it was a necessity. There were few places to eat, everywhere I went, and with the sun setting so late, I wasn't getting back into civilization until well after 10 p.m.

My first visit to Waterton in March, 2012, was snowy and cold. Almost everything in town was boarded up, and Waterton Lake was frozen. Now, in late June, the town was alive, and thankfully the restaurants were open. After the rapid consumption of a burger and fries, I drove the Akamina Parkway and Red Rock Parkway -- two scenic routes that are snowbound in the winter.

As Waterton clouded up, I drove north towards Pincher Creek, and quickly ended up on some dirt roads west of Highway 6. These roads criss-cross farmland and ranchland in the rolling prairieland at the foot of the Rockies -- an area known as the Castle Special Place. It is, indeed, a special place, made even more special by a magical mix of rain, clouds, and sunshine. Once again, I had a rainbow following me around. I drove aimlessly, in any direction that looked like it might yield a good photo. Around sunset, I ended up at the railroad tracks and grain elevators north of Pincher Creek.

Day 7

Waterton Lakes, then back into the USA

I drove around Pincher Creek on the morning of Day 7, just to see what it looked like when the streets weren't piled with snow and stained with salt. It's quite nice -- and the endless chain of mountain peaks in the distance were an unexpected addition to the landscape. When I was here in 2012, I think it was foggy in Pincher Creek every day.

Now, it was time to head south, and that's what I did, but of course I took my time, with detours out towards the Castle Special Place (west of Highway 6), and to St. Henry's Catholic Church, an historic structure east of Route 6. Eventually I ended up in Waterton Lakes National Park, and did some more driving around (this time I hiked Red Rock Canyon, out to Blakiston Falls). And of course, I got rained-on again.

The charm of that rainy weather was wearing off, and by the time I was back in the USA, the clouds were no longer picturesque. It had grown grey and cold, and I didn't feel much like hiking or picture-taking in that kind of weather. I explored the east side of Going-to-the-Sun Road just briefly, then called it a day, and drove back to my familiar cabin.

Day 8

The drive south, then exploring Missoula

On Day 8, my goal was to make it to Missoula by nightfall. That was it. I had no other plan. And unfortunately, the plan I eventually chose could have been better.

I talked to the person at the front office as I checked out of the cabin. She recommended circling around the park on US 2, then taking US 93 south, past Flathead Lake, towards Missoula. It was the shorter route, for sure (although still a long drive), but it was the same route I had taken during my 2006 trip. My other option would swing widely to the east and south, then eventually end up at Missoula. It would be a longer drive, and further from the mountains, but I'd cover new territory.

I opted for the shorter, familiar route. It's not ugly by any means, but it's slow-going through the traffic of Kalispell. Even outside the city, US 93 is an overused road that's still two lanes in many parts. Long story short, I spent a few hours regretting the road not taken.

On the bright side, I ended up in Missoula early enough to hike in two places. First, I tried the spot recommended by the guy at the front desk of my motel in Missoula: Rattlesnake Canyon. It was beautiful, but it was just a nice walk in the woods, without any real payoff. If I had a mountain bike, I could have covered more ground and seen more, and I think it would have been more rewarding.

I gave up on Rattlesnake Canyon after a while, and found another trail that did have a payoff. The Mount Jumbo trail climbs a very noticeable hill above Missoula -- a hill that's adorned with a huge letter "L" (it's right next to a hill with the letter "M" on it, which I hiked in 2006). I hiked to the "L" and beyond, then came back and sat on the "L" for a while, and thought about dinner. Some online reviews led me to the pizza at Ciao Mambo, near the University of Montana.

As I walked back into my motel room, the guy at the desk asked me about Rattlesnake Canyon, then noticed the pizza box. He told me it was one of the best pies in Missoula.

Day 9

A long drive back to Washington

This day was a mess, at least, weather-wise. And, I had to cover a lot of ground. I reserved a room in Yakima, Washington, exactly 400 miles away, via Interstate 90. Yep, I had no choice but to skip the side roads and stay on the interstate. Making it worse, it was rainy and foggy, almost all the way. I only made one worthwhile stop, at the Center of the Universe in Wallace, Idaho. It's such a neat little town, that I always enjoy walking around there.

Near the end of my day, I had made up enough time that I decided to treat myself to some two-lane roads: one was straight as an arrow, the other was a very squiggly line on the map. The straight road was Rosenoff Road, west of Ritzville, Washington. It paralleled I-90 through some scenic farmland. The squiggly line was Washington 821 through Yakima Canyon. Just like the Spiral Road from Lewiston, Idaho, this used to be the main highway for years, until a better road was built (Interstate 82 to Yakima). I thoroughly enjoyed both roads, but I was very happy to call it a night, once I got to Yakima.

Day 10

Through Washington, to the Pacific Coast

I had much more driving to do on this day, but I figured I had enough time to enjoy one more hike, before starting the long push to the coast. So, I drove back up Yakima Canyon to Umtanum Creek, where a suspension bridge takes hikers over to a trail that winds up a side canyon. The trail was somewhat overgrown and hard to follow, but I was still happy, because the weather was nice, and I knew it would probably be my last hike of the trip.

In order to get over to the coast, I had to take US 12 past Mount Rainier. Of course, the weather near the mountain was sloppy. I pushed through the rain and made it to my stopping point at Longview, Washington, by late afternoon. With sunset still hours away, I wasn't ready to quit -- so after checking into my hotel, I drove over to the coast, to see the famous shipwreck half-buried on the beach at Fort Stevens Park near Astoria, Oregon. I drove back to Longview after dark.

Day 11

Finishing the trip near Portland, Oregon

My flight home departed from Portland in mid-afternoon. Since I'm the kind of person who likes to squeeze every last minute out of a vacation, I decided to do some more sightseeing. I drove down to Portland, then took Interstate 84 into the Columbia River Gorge. I stopped at the always-beautiful Multnomah Falls, and somehow found the energy and motivation to hike to the top. It's a pretty exhausting climb -- and quite muddy, too, thanks to some passing rain showers. I tried to stay as clean as possible, since I wouldn't have time to change before my flight. I did the best I could, but there was probably some mud on my pants on the way home.

I had to hurry to finish the hike, and then hurry back to the airport, but I made it with time to spare. Not a lot of time, mind you, but just enough.