Montana Road Trip in Flathead Indian Country

Route Details Length: About 320 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Popular year-round, but especially appealing in the spring

Flathead Lake
The sky colors with dusk as twilight settles over Flathead Lake.

Route Details

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.

Print a map of this route.

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.

1. Missoula

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.

6. Polson

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.

10. Kalispell

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.

11. Whitefish

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.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest