A six-day road trip to Wyoming and Montana delivered much more than the landmarks…
Editor’s Note: Before the word “blog” even existed, Mark Loftin was an adventurer and contributor to our website. 17 years later, I’m glad to see he hasn’t lost his adventurous spirit. In this post, Mark discovers an unexpected theme to his journey. I always recommend that travelers set a theme before they leave, but even better is when they return home to discover how they grew in unexpected ways. Here’s a great lesson in enjoying the journey by learning how to discover all the places in between. By the way, I also recommend you read Mark’s previous post Discoveries of American Highways. You’ll be amazed at the difference in his photography these past 17 years. Back then photographs were scanned from film negatives. And images needed to be only a few kilobytes so that you could download them with a phone modem; now they are digital (with a different color gamut) and thousands of times bigger.
When I embarked on a six-day road trip of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, I had high expectations of both; I’d already seen their grandeur and beauty in endless photos and media. What I wasn’t expecting was how rewarding the roads in between would be. I’ve always enjoyed the abandoned buildings, random road curios and lost-in-time towns that pop up on a road trip, and Wyoming and Montana did not disappoint.
I arrived at Old Faithful minutes before it erupted, and it was a spectacular show, living up to the hype. I then headed north towards what the park ranger told me was the most photographed feature of the park: Grand Prismatic Spring. (Pictured above.) It was easy to see why, as this steam-covered lake features a picture-perfect blend of orange, aqua and yellow hues. Heading north from Grand Prismatic Spring, other turn-offs featured multi-colored pools of bright oranges and blues, boiling mud and moon-like steam-emitting craters. And I almost forgot: there are waterfalls also, but they looked cliché compared to what I’d seen so far.
Resembling a set piece from some science fiction space fantasy (Star Wars? Planet Krypton?), the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces featured stacks of white and rust limestone “stairs” glistening with thermal water. It was the final stop before an epic valley drive to Gardiner Montana, my resting spot for the night. An unexpected surprise popped up at the town entrance: the massive, medieval-looking Roosevelt Arch, resembling a set piece from Game of Thrones. Gardiner features rustic yet well-preserved turn-of-the-century buildings and straddles the Yellowstone River. The balcony of the Iron Horse Bar and Grill, overhanging the river, was a perfect place at sundown to read about part two, Glacier National Park.
Leaving Gardiner early the next morning, a couple hours later I found myself in another rustic, turn-of-the-century town; Butte Montana originally made its fortune from copper mining but was now in a state of decay and repair. While Gardiner was somewhat polished, Butte was grit, dust and crumbling brick. This gave the town a rougher yet more authentic feel. As I wandered the downtown streets, I could almost hear the chaos of yesterday’s saloons and bordellos, many of the buildings still standing in various states of decay.
Back on the road towards Glacier, I turned off the main interstate as soon as I could. It wasn’t long before Montana State Highway 1 rewarded: a massive smokestack came into view as I entered the town of Anaconda. I found out Anaconda Smelter Stack is the tallest masonry brickwork structure in the world, rising almost 600 feet. Another copper mining town from yesteryear, Anaconda’s downtown streets had some eye-catching architecture, and not all of it was of the brick mining era variety: Club Moderne, built in 1937, is a pristine art deco gem you wouldn’t expect to find in a sleepy town of 9000. It was in this town that I first tried the pasty — Montana’s hearty pride and joy of breakfast. The hot pastry of ground meat and vegetables kept me filled for hours as I continued towards Glacier.
I couldn’t wait to reach my hiking first trail in Glacier, and the drive getting there could not have been more thrilling. Featuring edge-of-cliff drop-offs, hairpin turns and tunnels cut through rock, the “Going to the Sun Road” truly gave me the feeling I’d be reaching the sun before any hiking trail. The stunning drive’s peak is at Logan Pass, and I parked there to embark on the Highline Trail. After 7 miles of beautiful ever-changing mountain terrain, a lone building came into view perched on a hill. The Granite Park Chalet, a registered historic landmark built in 1913, provided a great resting spot before turning back. While there were many bear warnings for this trail, I came across a different surprise on the return hike: a ram! Looking proud and gallant, he looked at me for a bit and then walked off the trail to eat some grass.
The next morning I was back for hike number two, the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail. After a moderate four-mile hike through forest, mountain, and lake scenery, I headed up a couple long switchbacks as some rain set in, and suddenly a huge steel door was in front of me – carved out of the side of the mountain! I opened and found a dark tunnel with a tiny speck of light at the end. After making my way through by the light of my phone, I opened door number two, and in front of me was a massive valley. Unfortunately, the rain and mist had severely limited the view. Some other hikers huddled in the tunnel waiting for the rain to slow, but it only got stronger. After a while, I headed back to the car and was soaked solid when I arrived. I couldn’t complain though.
While the two national parks of the trip were now behind me, I still had one last adventure ahead: the back highways of Montana on the final drive to Billings for the flight home. Wide-open expanses of golden, hay-cylinder-covered fields made for a relaxing drive. As I pulled into Bynum, a dinosaur greeted me, perched in front of a dinosaur museum. Purkett’s Grocery — long closed and boarded up — looked like a ghost town relic. Shortly out of Bynum a true piece of Americana lay rusted on the side of the road that prompted a photo stop — a 1932 Ford Model B! But the next piece of road art — found on the edge of the sleepy town of Raynesford — inspired the longest road stop. The abandoned 1904 Montana Elevator Building rises a few stories high and has the block shape of a human sitting on the side of a hill.
I pulled into Billings to catch my plane home that night with over a thousand photos of the past week. As I waited for the plane to board, I began scrolling. As expected, Yellowstone and Glacier had their share of photo glory. But the photos in between were fascinating also… and reminded me of the rewards of random discovery…