Montana may be known as Big Sky Country, but in the state’s rugged northwestern corner, the landscape looms just as large. Like the cowboys, prospectors, and pioneers who staked their claim to its riches, nature exists on an epic scale in Flathead Country — where the mountains seem the highest, the valleys the broadest, the rivers the wildest, and the lakes the bluest of blue.
A brawny western town, Missoula sits in a fertile basin where the Clark Fork, Bitterroot, and Blackfoot rivers converge. Through the years the site has served as a natural thoroughfare — first for Salish Indians and much later for travelers on the Northern Pacific Railway.
Despite a devastating fire in 1884, much of historic Missoula remains. The old downtown district on the north side of the Clark Fork showcases many lovely old structures. Across the river the University of Montana, a major research institution, is surrounded by leafy blocks of lavish 19th-century homes.
Missoula’s mile-long Greenough Park provides a refreshingly scenic hike through stands of conifers and cottonwoods lining the banks of Rattlesnake Creek. Bird-watchers gather here to glimpse warblers, pileated woodpeckers, American dippers, Bohemian and cedar waxwings, and other avian rarities.
2. Flathead Indian Reservation
Traveling northwest from Missoula on I-90, the drive traces the Clark Fork for eight miles through grassy bottomland and then turns sharply north on Rte. 93, where it begins to climb. Seven miles later — and about a thousand feet higher, amid forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pines — you arrive at Evaro and the southern boundary of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Home to more than 5,000 Indians, the reservation encompasses over 1.2 million acres, including much of the valleys to the north and the mountain ranges on either side.
From Evaro, the road descends into the Jocko Valley to Arlee, site of the largest powwow in the northwest, held every summer in July. From there a short, steep climb leads to a turnout with an eye-popping view of the Mission Mountains. Reaching 10,000 feet, these stunning peaks form a barricade of ice and stone that seems to launch skyward from the valley floor. So protected is Mission Valley that the Indians knew it as the “place of encirclement.”
3. St. Ignatius Mission
As early as 1840, Jesuit missionaries — known to Indians as Black Robes — visited western Montana, choosing this hillside spot to build their mission in 1854. The structure’s plain brick exterior gives little hint of the beauty to be found within; about 50 murals and frescoes with biblical themes adorn the walls and ceiling.
4. National Bison Range
Backtracking five miles south on Rte. 93 to Ravalli, take Rte. 200 west to Rte. 212, then head north to Moiese, the starting point for a drive through the National Bison Range. Once darkening the plains by the millions, these splendid beasts were the victims of wholesale slaughter in the 19th century. Today relatively few remain, but their numbers are growing, and the National Bison Range is a cornerstone of these restoration efforts. A 19-mile auto tour weaves through a rich pastiche of high-country landscapes — swirling grasslands, timbered hillsides, streamside groves — where bison and a variety of other wild animals live.
5. Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge
Continuing a few miles farther north on Rte. 212, you will reach the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. It encompasses a wetland habitat of marshes, reservoirs, and glacial pothole ponds that each year attract more than 200 species of birds. A viewing site on the east side of Ninepipe Reservoir offers some of the most fascinating viewing, especially in the spring and fall, when the refuge serves as a stopover for migrating flocks.
Famous for its cherry orchards, Polson sits atop the rough glacial moraine fronting Polson Bay, at the southern end of Flathead Lake. It’s an energetic town, with a busy waterfront of shops, restaurants, and docks that is perfect for an afternoon stroll. At the bay’s southwestern corner, the lake drains into the Lower Flathead River, which runs into a canyon plugged at one end by the Kerr Dam — a spectacular concrete edifice that measures 204 feet in height. To reach the dam, which is two miles downstream, head west on Seventh Avenue to Kerr Dam Road and follow the signs; a long flight of steps leads to a lookout point above the dam with bracing views of the Lower Flathead canyon, a landscape where roiling rapids contrast with arid hills that are virtually inaccessible by road.
7. Flathead Lake
First visible from the top of a gentle rise near Polson, Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, and one of the loveliest. Embraced by rolling hills, deep green forests, and snowcapped granite peaks, the lake recedes 28 miles into the distance, where its shining surface mingles with the sky. Wooded islands and white sails dot the surface; tidy coves, rocky points, and picturesque camps line its shores. Like the glacier that created it some 12,000 years ago, Flathead Lake leaves an indelible impression on all who behold it for the first time.
Heading northwest from Polson, Rte. 93 cuts briefly inland across grassy hills and then rejoins the lakeshore at Big Arm. At the town marina you can rent a boat for a trip to Wildhorse Island, just offshore. After arcing around westward-pointing Big Arm Bay, the road heads due north, hugging the lake’s ragged shoreline for about 15 miles. Evergreen forest marches straight to the water’s edge, and toward sunset the Mission Mountains to the west drape long shadows across its surface.
8. Lake Mary Ronan
Lake Mary Ronan may seem positively petite — and pleasantly secluded — compared to immense Flathead Lake. To reach it, take the turnoff in Dayton; then follow the signs for a short, three-mile trip on paved and gravel road to the lakeshore, hemmed in on all sides by a close, hilly forest of ponderosa pines. At dusk the only sound you are likely to hear is the splash of jumping trout and salmon, which reach record sizes in these protected mountain waters.
9. Lone Pine State Park
A pretty state park with trails that wind through wildflower meadows and forest glens, Lone Pine would be worth a stop even if it didn’t offer some of the most arresting views in Flathead Country. From the visitor center a loop trail leads to three cliffside lookouts whose commanding perspective stretches from Kalispell to the jagged peaks of Glacier National Park, serrating the horizon.
Situated on grassland within sight of Swan Peak and the Whitefish Range, the town of Kalispell stands as a living monument to the entrepreneurial spirit and good timing of one man, Charles Conrad. His Virginia plantation lost in the Civil War, Conrad headed to Montana, establishing a successful freight operation. In the process he amassed a considerable fortune, but restlessness got the better of him; on a tip from the head of the Great Northern Railroad, Conrad took a chance and moved his enterprise to the Flathead Valley. When the railroad arrived in 1891, Conrad was waiting, and Kalispell was born.
Since those days Kalispell has served as the northern Flathead Valley’s unofficial capital. The Conrad family mansion, on Woodland Avenue, is the city’s showpiece. An elegant Norman-style home with 23 rooms decorated in period furnishings, it abuts a picturesque city park with rose gardens and a duck pond, part of the original Conrad estate.
Fifteen miles north of Kalispell, Whitefish is home to Montana’s largest ski resort, 7,000-foot Big Mountain. The peak lures visitors in the warm months too, when its slopes are dressed with wildflowers and the views from up top stretch all the way from Flathead Lake to southern Canada. A gondola will whisk you swiftly to the summit, or you can take a “Walk in the Treetops” at Big Mountain on platforms and paths 30-60 feet high, in a canopy of fir, cedar, and tamarack.
At the foot of the mountain, Whitefish Lake stretches seven miles into Flathead National Forest. The town of Whitefish, on the lake’s southern tip, touts itself as the “recreation capital of Montana” and hosts one of the state’s most exuberant winter carnivals, held each February.
12. Hungry Horse Dam
How they survived is a mystery, but when a pair of freight horses wandered away from their logging team during the winter of 1900-01, they headed straight for the pages of history. Found a month later in chest-deep snow, the two were half-starved but otherwise none the worse for the wear — prompting the comment that this was the “mighty hungry horse country.” Just as marvelous as their tale of survival is the Hungry Horse Dam, an arched wall of concrete 564 feet tall and about 2,000 feet across, capable of producing enough electricity to light a city five times the size of Missoula. Behind the dam, 34-mile-long Hungry Horse Reservoir reaches deep into backcountry forest. Encircled by a gravel road, the reservoir is flanked by the Great Bear Wilderness and Jewel Basin Hiking Area.
13. Swan Valley
Heading south, the drive passes through the village of Bigfork, heads east on Rte. 209, and turns south onto Rte. 83 — a beautiful stretch of road that, for more than 90 miles, parallels the Swan and the Clearwater rivers before terminating at Clearwater Junction nearly due south. Presided over by the stony peaks of the Swan Range to the east and the Mission Range to the west, the highway seems to meld gracefully with the idyllic wilderness that surrounds it. The Swan River National Wildlife Refuge, at the southern tip of Swan Lake, is but one of several pleasant stopping places along the route, and it promises superb wildlife watching. In this undeveloped tract of swampland and lakeshore, keep alert for signs of moose, bears, tundra swans, and bald eagles.
14. Holland Lake
It’s hard to say precisely what makes this small body of water so special. Perhaps it’s the lake’s remoteness; perhaps, too, it’s the unassuming beauty of the place, the utter calm of the lake’s blue surface in the mists of dawn or the blaze of an evening sunset. Located at the edge of the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, Holland Lake also serves as a trailhead for one of the most popular hiking and horseback riding routes into this immense natural reserve. Larger than the state of Rhode Island, “the Bob” (as it is known locally) straddles the Continental Divide and embraces almost 2 million acres of forest.
15. Seeley Lake Area
Flowing south to the Blackfoot, the Clearwater River forms a chain of picture-perfect lakes — Alva, Inez, Seeley, and Salmon — with wide-open views of the Mission and Swan mountains. A unique way to explore the area is by taking the Clearwater Canoe Trail, a three-mile downstream float with a one-mile hike back to the put-in point. Splendid by day, the ride is doubly so at dusk, when loons suffuse the air with their tremulous cries. Farther on, the drive turns west on Rte. 200 at Clearwater. It then returns to Missoula via the Blackfoot River corridor, the locale celebrated in A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s memoris of his boyhood in Montana.
Length: About 320 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round, but especially appealing in the spring and fall.
Words to the wise: Watch out for deer and elk crossing the roads.
Nearby attractions: Gatiss Gardens, east of Kalispell (includes some five acres of perennials). Glacier National Park, West Glacier. Museum of the Plains Indians, Browning. Towe Ford Museum, Deer Lodge (contains one of the world’s largest collections of antique automobiles).
Further information: Travel Montana, 301 S. Park Ave., Helena, MT 59901; tel. 800-847-4868, www.visitmt.com.
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