Glacier National Park & other Montana adventures (June 20 – 29, 2017)

We left West Yellowstone on June 20th and drove 195 miles to Garrison, MT where we spent two nights at Riverfront RV Park. The campground was very nice. We had a long pull-through site with plenty of room for our rig and both vehicles, as well as large grassy areas between us and our neighbors. The scenery was also very nice, with lots of green hills and snow-capped mountains surrounding the campground.

Since there was nothing to do in Garrison, we spent most of June 21st in Deer Lodge, MT which was about 10 miles away. We spent our day at the Old Prison Museums, which are actually several historical collections on both sides of Main Street. Our exploration began with a self-guided tour of the Old Montana Prison. The prison was established in Deer Lodge in 1871 to deal with the bands of outlaws and vigilantes who roamed the Montana Territory. Constructed primarily with convict labor, Old Montana Prison was an active prison until 1979 when it was moved to a site four miles west of town.

The self-guided tour consisted of 29 stops throughout the prison. We got to walk through the cell blocks and enter many of the cells, including the “hole” where prisoners were kept for up to 10 days with no light in the cell except for through the peephole. We also got to walk through the tunnel and look in through the gun ports where guards were posted to oversee the inmates during meals and in the theater.  We learned about the riots in 1908 and 1959 in which the Deputy Wardens were murdered. The two convicts involved in the 1908 murder were hung in the prison yard. Due to the deaths, the prison is widely believed to be haunted. In fact, there are Ghost Tours and Paranormal Tours available that enable visitors to spend a night in the prison. The prison looked as though it had been largely abandoned since it was shut down, which added to the spooky nature of the facility.

Jan in a cell
Phil behind bars

After the prison tour, we walked through the Montana Auto Museum. This museum had about 200 beautifully restored classic automobiles from the 1900s through the 1970s.

After taking a lunch break, we walked across the street and strolled through several of the other museums. At the Cottonwood City restoration, we spent time visiting with the blacksmith as he worked. We also toured the Powell County Museum and the Frontier Montana museum. After being on our feet for several hours, we skipped the last few museums.

On June 22nd we drove 187 miles to the Columbia Falls RV Park in Columbia Falls, MT, which is only about 14 miles from the west entrance to Glacier National Park.

On June 23th we visited Glacier National Park. Throughout the park we saw a strange plant that we discovered was bear grass. We later learned that this plant had been misnamed by the Lewis & Clark Expedition who mistakenly believed bears fed on these plants. In reality, although bears don’t eat them, deer love bear grass and will eat the entire flower in one gulp. This year’s growth of bear grass is the biggest in 20-30 years.

After visiting the visitor center, we did our first hike, the Johns Lake Trail. It was supposed to be a 2 mile loop. However, to achieve a total of 2 miles required hiking parts of three different trails.  The trails markers were rather confusing and we had not brought a trail map. We got somewhat lost a couple of times and had to backtrack. As a result, we hiked more than 2 miles. Regardless, we got to see the colorful McDonald Creek and Falls.

On June 24th we took an all-day tour of the park in vintage tour buses. These 14-passenger buses had been built for the park by the White Motor Company in 1936. The bus had a fold-up canvas roof that was open for most of the drive, allowing for great views of the scenery.

Red tour bus, built in 1936

The tour was supposed to drive from West Glacier to East Glacier via the Going-to-the-Sun Road that climbs over the mountains. Unfortunately, we learned on our first day that the Going-to-the-Sun Road was not yet open for the season. Although the snow had been cleared from the highway, avalanches had wiped out some of the guardrails and these needed to be repaired before the road would be reopened. Since they could not predict when the road would reopen (it is sometimes closed until mid-July), we decided to go ahead and take the tour which was rerouted along the southern perimeter of the park.

We ate lunch at the East Glacier Park Lodge, which was constructed in 1913. The lodge was built around a three-story lobby with 40-foot columns constructed from 500-800 year-old trees that were brought in by rail from the Pacific Northwest. 60 such trees were used, with Douglas-fir in the lobby and cedars for the exterior.

Despite our disappointment with missing the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we did see some beautiful sites that would not have been included on the original tour. After lunch, we visited Running Eagle Falls. These are also known as Trick Falls since there are actually two waterfalls. In the early summer, when the snow is melting, both waterfalls are active. However, when the water level drops later in the year, only the lower falls are active. We also spent time at Upper Two Medicine Lake before returning to West Glacier.

On June 26th we headed out early to hike to Avalanche Lake. The first and last half-mile of hike was on the Trail of the Cedars. This loop trail travels along a boardwalk through a forest of ancient western hemlocks and red cedars, some more than 500 years old. The humidity in the Lake McDonald Valley allows cedars to grow to heights of 100 feet and diameters of 4 to 7 feet.

Phil on Trail of the Cedars

The next half-mile took us along the banks of the Avalanche Creek where we could see the power of the melting snow as it rushed through the narrow gorge. The trail took us past hundreds of downed trees, the result of avalanches that thunder down the slopes of Mt. Cannon.

After hiking 2.3 miles (mostly uphill with a 600 foot elevation rise), we reached Avalanche Lake where we relaxed on the beach. The lake sits at the base of 8,694-foot Bearhat Mountain and 7,886-foot Little Matterhorn. There were several waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet to the lake. We then continued on the trail for another half-mile to the head of the lake. Our return hike covered the same path but, fortunately, was mostly downhill and much easier.

On June 27th we hiked two trails with a combined distance of three miles. The first trail was the 1.1 mile Forest and Fire Nature Trail. We reached the trailhead by taking the Outer North Fork Road. The last ten miles of this road were gravel and very rough. The Forest and Fire Nature Trail highlighted the regrowth of the forest following forest fires in 1967 and 2001. There were thousands of pine saplings of about seven feet in height and fields of yellow clover. This trail is rather isolated and, as a result, was rather overgrown. The trail passes through a thimbleberry patch so there was an increased chance of a grizzly bear encounter but, fortunately, we didn’t have one.

After the first hike we stopped for lunch at the picnic area near Fish Creek Campground, on the shore of Lake McDonald.

After lunch we hiked the 1.9 mile Rocky Point Nature Trail. The trail begins near the Fish Creek Campground and climbs steadily above the shore of Lake McDonald. There were several stops along the trail that provided outstanding views of the lake.

Jan on Rocky Point Nature Trail
Phil on Rocky Point Nature Trail
Western Tanager spotted on trail

On June 28th, our final day at Glacier National Park, we were happy to learn that the Going-to-the-Sun road was finally open for the season. The Going-to-the-Sun road is widely believed to be one of the most scenic drives in America and our experience found this to be true. We made the 50-mile drive from West Glacier to St. Mary on the east side of the park and then returned late in the afternoon. We had read that the drive was a white knuckle experience but didn’t find it nearly as scary as the drive we’d made up Pike’s Peak years ago. We stopped at numerous scenic overlooks along the way and took lots of pictures. Unfortunately the pictures couldn’t possibly fully capture the beauty of the panoramic vistas.

We stopped for lunch at Logan Pass which sits on the Continental Divide at 6,646 feet. We had hoped to hike the Hidden Lake trail there but found that it was still snow-covered. In fact, there were quite a large number of people skiing the hill.

After lunch we continued down the road and stopped at the St. Mary Falls trailhead. We hiked 3 miles on the trail that took us to both St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls. Both falls were beautiful and definitely worth the effort. We encountered a deer on the trail and had to wait several minutes for it to move out of our way.


Yellowstone (again) & the Grand Tetons (June 13 – 20, 2017)

On June 14th, we headed out at 10 am to visit Yellowstone National Park. We discovered the traffic through the West entrance was much heavier than we had experienced at the East gate the previous week. We attempted to visit those parts of the park that we had not yet seen this year. We drove along the Madison River and watched the many fly fisherman standing in the river. We first stopped at the Lower Geyser Basin to see the Fountain Paint Pots. Next we stopped at Midway Geyser Basin where we sat in a long line of cars waiting for a parking spot. We walked along the boardwalk to see numerous geysers and hot springs. We saw Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest of Yellowstone’s hot springs at 200’ across and a temperature of 140 degrees.

We next headed to Old Faithful Village. We arrived about 1 pm and circled the entire huge parking area three times without finding any parking space. Frustrated, we left and went to the nearby Black Sand Basin where we walked the boardwalk and saw some more geysers and hot springs.

Rainbow Pool at Black Sand Basin

We then returned to Old Faithful Village and managed to snag a parking spot. The next eruption of Old Faithful was estimated to be at 2:42 pm, plus or minus 10 minutes, so we had time to have lunch at the cafeteria overlooking Old Faithful. When Old Faithful finally erupted at about 2:50, we strolled the paths along the Upper Geyser Basin. We saw many geysers that, when they erupt, are more spectacular than Old Faithful but erupt less frequently and with less predictability. For example, Giant Geyser is one of the largest in the world and has eruptions that soar to 200-250 feet but last erupted in September 2015. On our return to our car, we walked through Old Faithful Lodge and spotted a wild ferret.

That evening we celebrated Phil’s birthday at the Slippery Otter Pub & Eatery in West Yellowstone. Upon returning home, we had blueberry pie for birthday dessert. Since we didn’t have a number ‘3’ candle, Jan had to improvise and use the ‘6’ and ‘2’ candles and add a single candle to make it 63.

On Thursday, June 15th, we got up early and headed to the Grand Teton National Park. To reach the Grand Tetons we had to take the same route through Yellowstone as the previous day, passing by Old Faithful. Fortunately, the traffic entering the West entrance at 8:30 am was much lighter and we made good time through Yellowstone. The weather was a little warmer than on Wednesday but still somewhat cloudy and windy.

The scenery in the Grand Tetons was spectacular. We made several stops along the way to enjoy waterfalls and mountain views.

We drove to Jenny Lake where we had intended to take a boat shuttle across the lake and hike to Inspiration Point. Unfortunately we learned that the boat doesn’t begin shuttles until later in June and the trail to Inspiration Point was currently closed. As an alternative, we hiked about 2 miles to see Moose Ponds. We heard that there had been a female moose spotted in the area but we did not see her. It started raining as we hiked back to our car but we managed to get back without getting too wet.

Jenny Lake

On the drive home we took the 5-mile drive to the Signal Mountain Summit where there were two overlooks with great views of Jackson Lake and the valley. We also stopped to take pictures at the Continental Divide. The entire day involved 230 miles of driving but the scenery made the drive worthwhile. We had originally hoped to spend several days camped closer to the Grand Tetons but our side-trip to Billings for repairs and the shortage of nearby campsites for rigs our size eliminated that plan.

After rain kept us close to home on Friday, we headed out on Saturday to explore some new territory. Instead of returning to the national parks, we decided to explore nearby Idaho. We had not realized that our campground was only about a mile from the Idaho state line. We drove about 30 miles to the start of the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway.


Our first stop was at Upper Mesa Falls. We explored the Visitor Center where we got to feel the furs of numerous wild animals. Then we took a short walk on the boardwalk down to the Upper Mesa Falls where we could stand on several overlooks to watch as the river plunged 114 feet over volcanic ash that dates back 1.3 million years.

Next we drove a short distance to the Lower Mesa Falls where the water plunges 65 feet. We found an overgrown trail and hiked about a mile each way back to Upper Mesa Falls. At times we weren’t even sure we were on a real trail but then we saw a sign that showed that the trail had only opened for the season on June 1st. Since we were mindful of the many “Be Bear Aware” signs in the area, we talked and sang loudly as we walked. Since we only have one canister of bear spray, it was important to stay close together.

After the falls, we drove the rest of the scenic byway. There were some great views of the western side of the Grand Tetons and beautiful vistas across huge potato fields. When we reached the town of Ashton, ID, we headed north and stopped at Harriman State Park. There were numerous hiking trails and we chose to hike 2.7 miles along the Henry Fork’s River. Once again, the hiking trails did not appear to have been heavily used recently, although there was clear evidence that horses had been on the trail so we had to watch where we walked.

On Father’s Day, June 18th, we made a return trip to Yellowstone to hit a few of the stops we had missed previously. Although the heavier traffic required patience to find parking spots on occasion, we managed to visit Beryl Springs, Artists Paintpots and Gibbon Falls before stopping for a picnic lunch.

After lunch, we headed to Biscuit Basin where we walked the boardwalk past the geysers to reach the trailhead for the Mystic Falls Trail. The trail to reach the falls was relatively easy and the view of the falls was beautiful. For the return, we decided to take the more challenging route which consisted of many rather steep switchbacks up the side of a mountain. Making this climb at high elevation required lots of rest stops to catch our breath. We were ultimately rewarded with a great view from the summit of the entire Upper Geyser Basin which contains 25% of all the geysers in the world. We were happy when the return to Biscuit Basin was mostly downhill and much easier than the climb to the summit. In total, the hike was 4 miles, our longest at Yellowstone.

On June 19th we made a return visit to Harriman State Park of Idaho. Harriman State Park was once known as “the Railroad Ranch.” For more than 70 years the ranch was a working cattle ranch and summer retreat for the families of several eastern industrialists, most notably that of E. H. Harriman, founder of modern-day Union Pacific Railroad; Soloman R. Guggenheim, head of American Smelting and Refining Company; and Charles S. Jones, president of Richfield Oil Corporation.

We hiked about 5 miles. First we walked past the historic ranch buildings; then we hiked the Golden Lake Trail through large meadows of wildflowers and returning through the forest.

Repairs & More Repairs (June 8 – 12, 2017)

On the morning of June 8th we had to vacate our campsite in Wapiti, WY but we really didn’t know where we should go. We had already extended our stay at Yellowstone Valley Inn & RV Park by two nights but couldn’t extend for the night of June 8th.

Earlier that week we had learned from the parts person at Pierce RV Superstore in Billings, MT, that the replacement front jack was scheduled to arrive at about noon on June 8th. However, several attempts to reach Wes, the service manager, were unsuccessful and we were told that Wes wouldn’t schedule the service work until he had confirmation that the part had arrived.

We waited until checkout time at 11 am on June 8th before pulling out and heading north to Montana. Since the only available campsite in Billings was at the KOA for $83 per night, we decided to drive 125 miles to Columbus, MT (40 miles west of the RV dealer) and then evaluate our options. We reached Columbus at about 2 pm and, after lunch at McDonalds, Phil called the parts department and was able to confirm that the replacement part had arrived. Phil then spoke with Wes and let him know the part had arrived and that we wanted to bring our rig in for service on Friday, June 9th. Wes agreed to have us bring our rig in on Friday but told Phil that he probably wouldn’t be able to complete the work until Monday, June 12th.

Due to the uncertainty of our repair schedule, we had not yet reserved a campsite for the night of June 8th. After speaking with Wes, we attempted to get a campsite at Mountain Range RV Park in Columbus. We arrived at the campground office at about 2:20 pm and found a sign that said that the campground office was closed until 3 pm. While waiting for the owner to return from lunch, Phil wandered around the campground and only found one open site with 50 amp service. Since the temperature was in the 90s, we needed 50 amp to be able to run both air conditioners. When the owner returned from lunch, Phil was told that the one open spot he had found was reserved. As we prepared to leave, the owner came out and told Phil that the site was available after all. It turned out that the couple who had reserved the open site had arrived earlier and had set up in a 30 amp site. Since they didn’t want to move again, the open site became available to us and we had a home for the night.

Since we didn’t know how long our rig would be in the shop and if we would have access to it during the nights, we packed our suitcase for three nights and prepared to stay in a hotel, if necessary. On June 9th we drove to the RV dealer in Billings and arrived at 9:30 am. Wes wasn’t around yet so we checked in with another service tech, then left to kill the day in Billings, including three hours at the Billings library. We returned to the RV dealer to check on the status of the repair work and learned from Wes that the repair was not yet completed. We were not surprised since our rig was still hitched to our truck. Initially Wes told us that the mechanic was off until Monday. Wes later learned that the mechanic would be in on Saturday and speculated that the repair would be completed then. We also learned that the dealership has a number of RV sites with full hookups in their parking lot so we were able to snag a free site for Friday night.

On Saturday morning we packed up and dropped off the rig at 9:30 am. We killed another day in Billings, including another three hours at the Billings library. Mid-morning, we did stop back at the RV dealer and saw that our rig was no longer hitched to the truck. This was an encouraging sign since it had been five weeks since we’d been able to unhitch it. When we returned at 4 pm, we learned that the repair had been completed. In addition to replacing the defective jack, the mechanic had had to fix eight leaking fittings due to defective O rings.

Repaired front jacks

Since it was late in the day, we requested to spend another night on the dealer’s lot. We were feeling pretty good as we left but that good feeling wasn’t to last very long. As we walked out to our rig, Wes asked us if we were aware that one of our axles was bent. Sure enough, we knelt down to look under the rig and could see a very noticeable bend in the front axle. Wes pointed out that the tires on that axle were already started to wear unevenly and, if not corrected, could result in a blowout. After a brief discussion, we decided to have the axle replaced even though it will mean some disruption to our summer travel plans. Wes asked if we could stick around on the lot until Monday morning so his parts man could see the parts that need to be ordered.

Bent front axle

On Monday, June 12th, Phil took the truck for an oil change while Jan prepared for us to get on the road again. The parts man crawled under our rig to get the part numbers needed to replace our axle. We had headed down the road about 10 minutes when the dealership called to say they needed to get another part number. So, Phil returned to the dealership while Jan continued on to the first rest stop. After that brief interruption we continued on for 142 miles to Bear Canyon Campground in Bozeman, MT. The weather forecast was calling for severe weather across all of Montana and we were happy to get set up before the heavy rains and strong winds hit us. We had a brief period of hail, which brought back some bad memories, but it didn’t do any damage.

On June 13, we drove 100 miles through steady light rain to the West Yellowstone/Mountainside KOA. Fortunately the rain had stopped when we arrived and, although the ground was rather muddy, we were able to stay dry while setting up.