by Gayle Cue
The early fur trappers referred to Montana as the “Land of the Shining Mountains” which alludes to the 50 mountain ranges in the largest landlocked state of the US. In 1962 Montana officially adopted the nickname “The Big Sky Country” when it acquired the rights of a book title and put the slogan on the state license plates. In recent years, travelers have named Montana “The Last Best Place.” All of this hints at what awaits a visitor for the first time.
Montana is the fourth largest state in terms of landmass. And yet it is the third least populated (only Alaska and Wyoming have fewer people per square mile). You can see why it still feels a bit like the Wild West of yesteryear.
If you have an interest in Native Americans, Montana is as good of place as any to see how they live today which, sadly, is still on the reservations the US assigned them, in the early 1800’s. But you will also be able to look back in time to their traditional ways of life.
One of the most active tribes in terms of preserving their heritage and living in the 21st century is the Blackfeet Nation. They are one of very few tribes anywhere, and most likely the only tribe in Montana, to retain part of their sacred land when reservation life was forced on them. The current Blackfeet Nation is 1.5 million acres, housing the largest tribe in Montana. Other tribes were all relocated to some barren patch of land that they had no relationship with and this added to their demise. The Blackfeet Nation is located in northwest Montana, just below the Canadian border. The US government, through what is now admitted to be shady negotiations, took most of the Blackfeet land and turned it into Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park is not actually named after the glaciers that still exist there today (although they are anticipated to disappear, due to global warming, by 2020). The park was named Glacier because the magnificent mountains and wide sweeping canyons, were formed by glaciers, eons ago.
The Going to The Sun Road is one of the scariest and most breathtaking roads you will ever drive. In fact, consider not driving it but taking a tour where you can sit back and enjoy the scenery. Do yourself a favour if you get up to this neck of the woods, take Sun Tours, the only Native American tour in Glacier.
The annual Indian Days are held each July (the weekend after the 4th of July) in the Blackfeet Nation where they run wild horses through the little town of Browning. Fortunately, they do not run the horses where the market is set up! There’s some fabulous native American art to be had during Indian Days, not to mention tasty traditional food.
Some of the best white water rafting in Montana is to be found in this same area. I recommend the middle fork of the Flathead River. A local company has a motion sensor camera set up on one of the thrilling bends in the river so you can even take home a picture of yourself, laughing (or crying), but you are guaranteed to have a look of astonishment on your face.
Recalling the size of this great state, you will appreciate that there are too many fabulous scenic locations to cover them all in one article so lets take a not-so-quck trip from Glacier, in the northwest corner of Montana down to the Yellowstone, in the southeast corner of Montana. Take note that it will be a long day’s drive from the northwest to the southeast. Factor in at least 9 hours and that is if you don’t stop to see any of the sites along the way.
For those who would like a gentler introduction to white water rafting, there are a number of places along the wide and winding Yellowstone River that may be more to your liking. Because the Yellowstone River is down in the valley, you aren’t being thrust along steep terrain in your tiny air filled raft. The Yellowstone River provides for a more leisurely float allowing you to take in the scenery with just the occasional small white water riffs to give you a thrill. It’s best to have an experienced oarsman along with you.
If you are down around the Yellowstone Valley, you’ll have plenty to see and do. For those of you interested in the Native American story, this is where you can visit Custer’s Last Stand (now politically correctly referred to as the Little Bighorn Battlefield). I personally wouldn’t take in the re-enactment. However, the Crow Reservation adjoins the battlefield. Chief Joseph Medicine Crow, the last chief of the Crow Indians, is a fascinating story. When he went on his vision quest as a young brave, he saw his whole life laid out before him. Imagine being part of a nomadic tribe that hunted and ate buffalo as a way of life and having a vision that involved flying in airplanes to Washington DC to meet the president of the United States!
The Crow tribe hold an annual event called the Crow Fair which was started in 1904. It is the largest Native American gathering in existence. If you’d like to see 1500 teepees all set up, this is the place to be the third week of August. The Crow Fair brings tribes from all over the US together, to dance and hold pow wows. This is a great way to see the differences in native costumes from the Arapaho of Wyoming to the Zuni of New Mexico.
As long as you are down in the southeast corner of the state you might like to take in the sights of the world famous Yellowstone National Park. There are several entrances to this park, from either Montana or Wyoming. My favourite is to go through Red Lodge Montana and up the Beartooth Highway. This is a route you will never forget. Again, not for the faint hearted but not as scary as the Going to The Sun Highway.
As you are probably aware, the only time to visit Montana is during the northern summer – May at the earliest and October at the latest. Otherwise, you are likely to find yourself stuck in a snow drift somewhere at the very real risk of freezing to death. And, be aware, you will likely encounter snow even in May and October but at least your life won’t be in jeopardy if you aren’t dressed properly.
There are only two seasons in Montana: Winter and Construction. This is an old joke but one with a lot of truth in it. Montana is spectacularly beautiful but the climate is harsh.
The winter months take their toll on everything, even or maybe especially, the man-made structures. Therefore, during the short window of opportunity that summer months afford, everything is being revamped. The asphalt has to contract for winter temperatures and expand for summer ones and it is usually wears out every couple of years. If you are on a road trip, allow for delays. Construction is everywhere. There is no way around it. You just have to wait for the flagman to let you through.
Because of the elevation, in most parts of this breathtaking state, you will find the temperatures vary by 30 or 40 degrees, all in one day, even in the middle of summer. You need to pack a good warm jumper (or sweatshirt as they call them in the US) and a couple of pairs of warm wooly socks to go along with your summer shorts and t-shirts. If you visit a mountainous area, you may wake up in the morning, to find it is 48F (8C) but by 9am it will be 68F, 11am 78F and by 2pm it is 88F (31C).
Of course, if you are down in the valleys it won’t get that cold at night but you could wake up to 68F(20C) and find by midday it is 98F(36C). Dress in layers when in Montana. You’ll put them on, take them off, and put them on again before the day is over.
Gayle Cue was born and raised in Montana. Although she has lived in Australia for the past 28 years she still returns to The Land of the Shining Mountains every couple of years to bask in the scenery and re-connect with friends and family in her native land.