The Mountain Towns Tour: Yellowstone to Glacier
- Red Lodge
- Kintla Lake
Distance: 1,000 miles
Experience: Ranchers, hot springs, and the last real mountain towns in the Northern Rockies
Say you want to be greedy with the mountains. Piggish, in fact. There's no better way to satisfy that craving than to drive the whole western side of Montana, bottom to top, from Red Lodge, on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park, to Polebridge, on the western flank of Glacier National Park. You'll pass by or through nearly every major range in the state and experience a sample platter of the world's best mountain towns.
Red Lodge is one of the West's last real ski towns, where actual ranchers in actual cowboy boots still mingle freely with ski bums in snow bibs. Heading west toward Cooke City, Highway 212 becomes pure twists and switchbacks through the alpine tundra of the Absaroka Range, which reaches more than 11,000 feet at the summit of Beartooth Pass. Any turnoff point will leave you dumbstruck. In Gardiner, right outside the northwestern entrance of Yellowstone, stop for a soak in the Boiling River. Just south of the park's entrance at Roosevelt Arch, there's a nondescript parking lot and a half-mile trail to where a natural hot spring bubbles up and joins the Gardner River, where hot and cold mingle in a no-name swimming hole. As you're soaking, you might spot eagles, buffalo, elk — and even the occasional wolf.
North of Gardiner are plenty of towns worth exploring, including everybody's dream mountain town, Bozeman. But I usually head straight to Butte. While passing by its scarred hillsides on Interstate 90, there's no mistaking Butte for anything other than a mining town. It's still gritty, a place that respects an honest fistfight. It was once one of the wealthiest places in the West, and there's something poignant about wandering its crumbling remains.
Heading north out of Butte, I-90 winds between the Sapphire and Garnet ranges to Missoula. I usually make sure to show up hungry, ready for the beef brisket and pulled pork sandwiches at Notorious P.I.G. BBQ. The owner, Burke Holmes, a native of Missouri, gave up a career as a fishing guide to bring St. Louis–influenced barbecue to Montana. In the evening, it's live music at the Union Club Bar, where college kids, cowboys, loggers, firefighters, and hippies somehow manage to get along. From Missoula, Highway 93 eventually snakes alongside the Swan River, and Montana starts to feel like the Pacific Northwest: brooding forests, big firs. In Columbia Falls, it's farewell to pavement. Take North Fork Road 35 miles north to Polebridge, a truly mythic, edge-of-civilization outpost. Not much here obscures the natural beauty. The heartbeat of the place is the Polebridge Mercantile, a general store–bakery famous for its huckleberry bear claws. The town feels like both a literal and a metaphoric end of the road. But in fact there's still a bit farther to go. Take the single-lane road that continues for another 15 miles to your ultimate destination, a campground at Kintla Lake. This is a dead end worth dreaming about.