Five Days in Glacier NP

We spent five glorious days at North American RV Park & Yurt Village in Coram, MT about 5 miles outside the West Glacier entrance of Glacier National Park. The RV park itself is nothing fancy. Site F8 was a pull-thru with full hookups and a decent-sized patch of grass to make Max happy. If we had had any other site in our row (F1-F8), we would’ve had some nice shade trees, which would have come in handy during the hot, high temps of mid-July. The restrooms and showers were very nice and clean, but we didn’t check out the laundry or lounge. The best part about this park was the location. The immediate area had a handful of restaurants/bars, a distillery, a highline course, rafting companies, and a number of lodging options. A grocery store and post office can be found down the highway in Hungry Horse. Within a short drive is the entrance to the National Park in the cute little community of West Glacier.

Address: 10649 Highway 2 East, Coram, MT 59913

Phone: (406) 387-5800

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Guest Lounge
  • Ice and Firewood
  • Picnic Table
  • Cabins
  • Yurts
  • Tent Sites
  • Playground
Site F8 (Notice the peek view of an Airstream next door!)

We would have loved to stay within Glacier, but there are very few sites that can accommodate a 28′ trailer and truck, there are even fewer sites that can be reserved that will accommodate us, and there are no sites with hookups, which isn’t an option when you have a dog that you need to be able to run the A/C for. Also, after driving through the park, out the east St. Mary entrance, and around the south end of the park back to Coram, we decided we would never attempt to stay on the east side of the park with our Airstream in the future as it is quite a rough journey. In addition, there’s not much available outside the east side of the park for services, so you’d be pretty dependent on whatever services are available in Many Glacier and Two Medicine.

We definitely plan to return to Glacier National Park in the future, so we scoped out a few other options in the area. We found that the West Glacier KOA is the most beautiful, well-appointed RV park we had ever seen. It’s at the ‘KOA Resort’ level, which means it has extra special amenities, and apparently it’s the 2017 KOA Campground of the Year. I know, I know — a KOA? Sometimes we stay in places for $10 with nothing more than an electric hookup and sometimes we stay in what is essentially a resort for $75. When choosing a place to stay, we always need to consider our length of stay, comfort, safety, what hookups are available, cell coverage, and what services we require nearby. We plan to stay considerably longer on our next trip to Glacier, so full hookups with nice amenities would turn it into more of a vacation as opposed to just our normal everyday life.

These are a few of the places in the area we enjoyed during our stay:

  • Glacier Distilling: Distillery and tasting room in Coram that specializes in small-batch whiskeys, but also offers brandy, vodka, gin and rum. Travis enjoyed the Wheatfish Whiskey and bought a bottle for home.

  • Wandering Gringo Cafe: If you’re looking for a good burrito the size of your head, you’ve found the right place. Also in Coram, this stay-in-place food truck offers shareable-sized portions with an onsite picnic area.

  • Belton Grill Dining Room at Belton Chalet: This 1910 railroad chalet is located in West Glacier. They offer delicious farm-to-table options with as many grown/raised-in-Montana ingredients as possible. While a little pricy, it’s not the kind of meal you’d expect from a restaurant that’s on the proverbial front steps of a national park.
Pan Seared Wild King Salmon with Morel Mushrooms, Peas, Fiddlehead Ferns and Béarnase

Now, for the Park itself…

Our first introduction to Glacier National Park was a stop at Lake McDonald in Apgar Village. Apgar is home to a visitor center, campground, picnic area, watercraft rentals, a hotel or two, a store and some places to eat. We returned to Lake McDonald a couple of days later to kayak, but it was so windy that there were whitecaps on the lake, which would not have made for an enjoyable experience.

On our second day visiting the park, we drove the infamous Going-to-the-Sun Road to the St. Mary Falls Trailhead. From www.visitmt.com:

The Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in 1932 and is a spectacular 50 mile, paved two-lane highway that bisects the park east and west. It spans the width of Glacier National Park, crossing the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass. It passes through almost every type of terrain in the park, from large glacial lakes and cedar forests in the lower valleys to windswept alpine tundra atop the pass. Scenic viewpoints and pullouts line the road, so motorists can stop for extended views and photo opportunities. The road is well worth traveling in either direction, as the view from one side of the road is much different than from the other. In 1983 Going-To-The-Sun Road was included in the National Register of Historic Places and in 1985 was made a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

There is a 24-mile stretch of the upper portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road that has vehicle restrictions (which is why you have to drive around the outside of the park to get to the east side with a travel trailer) — nothing longer than 21 feet bumper to bumper, wider than 8 feet including mirrors, and taller than 10 feet ground to highest point of vehicle. FYI, this is the ONLY road within the park that connects the east and west sides.

The St. Mary Falls Trailhead was about an hour and fifteen minute drive from our RV park in Coram. As it’s a popular trail, we left the Airstream at 7am to get to the trailhead before the crowds. When we reached the small parking area at 8:15, it was less than half full. However, when we returned to the parking area after the hike at about 9:45, it was full and people were jockeying for a spot. Glacier offers a free hop on, hop off shuttle system that provides two-way service along Going-to-the-Sun Road between Apgar Visitor Center and St. Mary Visitor Center. There’s a shuttle stop at the St. Mary Trailhead, as well as pretty much anywhere else you’d want to go along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Another extremely busy spot is Logan Pass. There’s a visitor center and trailheads for popular hikes. When we passed it a little before 8am, the parking lot was already pretty full. When we passed it on our way back, it was pure chaos. The rule of thumb in Glacier seems to be to: Get. There. Early.

From the trailhead, the St. Mary Falls Trail is 1.1 miles one way, but it you continue on to Virginia Falls like we did, it’s 1.8. The trail is easy and can be traversed by any able-bodied person. The most difficult part of the trail is actually at the end where you have to walk up a steep incline to get back to the parking lot. Signs warn to take precautions against bear: Hike in groups, carry bear spray, make noise, and be aware of your surroundings. When we set out on the trail, we encountered only four other parties before we reached Virginia Falls. While it’s nice to have the trail to ourselves with peace and quiet, the multiple groups of people on the trail on the return trip was a little comforting.

The trail is very well marked at the trailhead, as well as along the entire route.
The first part of the trail is an area that was heavily impacted by the Reynolds Fire in 2015.

There are a couple smaller, unnamed falls along the trail, like this one.
You’ll know you’ve reached St. Mary falls when you see this bridge. The color of the water was so beautiful — and is completely unedited!
St. Mary Falls
And when you reach this bridge, you’ll know you’ve arrived at Virginia Falls!
Virginia Falls is 50′ high.
Just an FYI — It’s super wet and windy right by the falls!

A few more pics from stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road:

Jackson Glacier as seen from the Jackson Glacier Overlook

McDonald Creek

The weather in Glacier can vary greatly from day to day. One day we were at Lake McDonald, the wind was calm and the water was like glass. A couple days later, it was windy with white caps. The first time we drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road, it was clear sky, sunny, and about 65 degrees (though the temp varies depending on what elevation you’re at). The next time we drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road (when the wind at Lake McDonald thwarted our plan to kayak), it was cold and incredibly foggy, especially at the highest point, Logan Pass, where it was in the mid 40s. Be prepared and dress in layers. The following are a few pics from our second drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road, demonstrating how different the weather was:

At times, visibility was pretty nonexistent, as the fog (clouds?) cloaked the road.

The fog made for a moody vibe at Wild Goose Island Overlook
Wild Goose Island Overlook

We loved our time in the Glacier National Park area and look forward to returning in the future. Besides the park, there is so much to explore in this area that we didn’t get a chance to get to: Kalispell, Whitefish, Flathead Lake.

Square Dance Center & Campground – Lolo, MT

We only spent one night in the Missoula area as we drove from Bozeman to Coram. We stayed at the Square Dance Center & Campground in Lolo, which is about a 25-minute drive into Missoula. The Square Dance Center is exactly what it sounds like – a place for square dancers, but they welcome non-square dancers at the onsite RV park as well. We didn’t use any of the amenities during our brief stay, so I can’t comment on those. The RV park is spread out through tall pines and sits far enough off the highway that you don’t hear traffic. The park claims to be dog friendly, and I suppose it is as dogs are allowed; however, when walking Max, the gentleman that checked us in was riding past on his bike and told us not to allow Max to pee on any trees or other sites – we were supposed to take him to the pet relief areas marked on the map. There were two problems with this: 1) Male dogs pee on everything and 2) All of the pet relief areas had sprinklers running. Essentially, we weren’t able to take Max on a proper walk. It’s for this reason that as long as we have Max, we would never stay here again. I also would not recommend staying here to anyone who has a dog.

Address: 9955 Lolo Creek Road, Lolo, MT 59847

Amenities:

  • Water and Electric Hookups
  • Dump Station and Pump Service
  • Pull Thru Sites
  • Restrooms with Shower
  • Cable TV

We went into downtown Missoula for dinner at the Red Bird Restaurant in the historic Florence Hotel, which is now a mixed-use building. The food was decent, but it was the Art Deco décor that we really enjoyed.

Bozeman Hot Springs Campground & RV Park

We stayed at Bozeman Hot Springs Campground & RV Park in Bozeman, Montana for three nights. The RV park is a 15-minute drive from Bozeman’s super cute and clean downtown. The park is right next door to Bozeman Hot Springs Spa and Fitness, and staying at the park gives you free access to the hot springs. (Access to the fitness center is $5 per day for those staying at the RV park.) The sites here are a mixed bag of pull throughs and back ins, some concrete, some gravel, some with nice grass adjacent, some with a patch of weeds adjacent. Our site, J6, was a pull-through gravel site with patchy, weedy grass. Besides being a pull through, the one thing the pull-through sites have going for them is that there is shrubbery between sites, which gives some privacy and separation from the neighboring sites. At $75 a night (the most we’ve ever spent), we weren’t overly impressed by the property, but the facilities (restrooms, laundry, office) seemed fairly new and were very clean. The draw here is the hot springs, but we ultimately chose this place because there aren’t a lot of options in the Bozeman area.

Address: 81123 Gallatin Road, Bozeman, MT 59718

Phone: (888) 651-5802

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Cable TV
  • Picnic Table & Fire Pit
  • Free Breakfast
  • Free Access to the Hot Springs
Our site was fairly long and private, but the grass needs some love.
This fat little robin hung out by us for a bit.

The Bozeman Hot Springs are the best hot springs we’ve experienced! There are 12 pools that range in temperature from 57 to 106 degrees. The entire facility is clean and inviting. They get very busy in the evenings and especially on hot, summer weekends. Live music takes place on a stage at the outdoor pools a couple of days a weeks and a food truck is available at certain times. There’s also a sauna and a steam room, as well as a well-appointed fitness center. If staying at the RV park, access to the pools is free and the fitness center is $5. Otherwise, one-time access is $8.50 for the pools and $15 to use the entire facility.

This indoor pool ranges in temp from 100 – 106 degrees.
There are four outdoor pools with different temps that range from 80 to 104 degrees.
The naturally heated mineral water felt great after a workout or hike.

Downtown Bozeman is full of great shops, restaurants, and breweries. The area is very well maintained, making it look as though it’s brand new! We ate dinner one night at Montana Ale Works — great vibe, fantastic food, huge selection of regional craft beer, and a full bar with delicious signature cocktails. The bison-stuffed morel mushrooms were delish and Travis really enjoyed his Laughing Dog Brewing Huckleberry Cream Ale.

While in Bozeman, we also hiked the ‘M Trail’. The M Trail is so named because of the M landmark created by Montana State University students in 1915 on a hillside (mountainside?) in the Gallatin National Forest, just outside Bozeman. We conquered the 850 feet of elevation gain on the half-mile “most difficult” trail up and took the mile and a half “easiest” way down. It definitely gets the heart pumping! The difficult route up is mostly loose rock, so I would recommend wearing a good pair of hiking boots. The easiest trail is mostly dirt and tennis shoes would do just fine. There’s a parking lot and a pit toilet at the trailhead.

The ‘M’ from a distance
This sign lets you know you’re in the right place!
The elevation gain on the “most difficult way” ain’t no joke!

We really enjoyed Bozeman and look forward to visiting again to explore the area more. While the hot springs were nice, we would definitely explore other options for places to stay. We’d also probably visit a different time of year as it was pretty hot during the second week of July.

Route Planning and the Billings KOA

The most difficult part of route planning for us is when Travis has to fly somewhere for work. The business trips aren’t usually last-minute trips, so that helps, but sometimes we find ourselves in places that we wouldn’t otherwise be in. However, Billings is not one of those places (a place we wouldn’t otherwise be in, that is). When we started planning our route back west from our extended stay in Wisconsin in May, we knew we wanted to spend some time in Montana. We also knew that Travis would need to fly to Minneapolis during this time and that the trip would be during the week of the Fourth of July holiday. Before settling on Billings, we first made a list of all the commercial airports in the approximate area we’d be in — Wyoming and Montana. We then searched to see which ones have direct flights to Minneapolis, because who wants a layover when you’re not flying very far? Then, we had to find a safe place to stay with availability for the holiday week, not too far from the airport. I say a safe place because Travis never wants to leave me (and Max) in a questionable location, obviously. Taking all of that into consideration, we landed on the Billings KOA.

This has been our method of operation since we hit the road full time back in January. Travis has had to make a business trip once a month, so these trips have somewhat determined our route. With each booked business trip, we’ll have a specific date and location we need to be. We also throw some personal date/location combos in there too to make it even more interesting — Crater Lake Rim Run in August, our friends’ October wedding in San Diego, and the Joshua Tree half marathon in November. It forces us to plan ahead, which suits our personalities just fine. We just aren’t go-with-the-flow type of people when it comes to trip planning. Twice we’ve had gaps of a night or two in our route where we were just going to wing it and see where we end up and both times we caved and booked something last minute.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, we don’t like long travel days and not knowing your destination may make your day longer. Two hours is great, three hours is fine, but when we get into four to five hours, we get crabby. We can’t comprehend how some people travel eight to ten hours a day — that just sounds miserable to us and like a waste of a day. If you don’t NEED to be somewhere fast, what’s the hurry? Secondly, this has been a hot, hot summer. After boondocking Memorial Day weekend, we learned that we want and need an electric hookup. We have a 13.5-year-old dog that we want to keep comfortable and we’ve had to work some very long days, so having electricity is essential. Yes, we have a generator, but many places have limitations on generator use and when it’s really hot, we burn through gas like crazy. Also, we would never leave our generator running unattended, so we’d become prisoners to the Airstream — and that’s not fun!

Before we hit the road, we had these romantic ideas, like so many tend to, that we’d boondock nonstop and wake up next to the ocean one day, and in the mountains the next, and so on, without another human in sight. And while there are plenty of Airstreamers and RVers that do just that, we’ve determined we’re not those people. We like electricity and showering every day and doing laundry once a week (or at least every two weeks) and strong cell signals and eating great food at restaurants and exploring cities along with our country’s natural wonders. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that we’ve learned what type of full timers we are over these last six months. On the full-timer spectrum with off-the-grid boondockers on one end and snowbirds that only move twice a year on the other, I think we fall right in the middle.

Back to Billings.

We settled on Billings and I’m glad we did. We stayed from a Saturday to a Saturday (I’m actually writing this the day before we leave). KOAs are notoriously expensive and this one is no different. I don’t know if they jacked their prices because of the holiday, but our water and electric site (no sewer hookup) was $75 a night, $67.50 with our KOA membership. Thus far, the most expensive place we’ve stayed. That being said, this is such a nice KOA. It’s the first in the country and the current owners have owned it since the 70s. There’s a huge staff that meticulously maintains it and the amenities are great. There’s a decent-sized, albeit cold, swimming pool. There’s a nice little mini golf course that Travis destroyed me on. The bathrooms and showers are so, so nice — probably the nicest we’ve ever seen. We’ve used the showers a few times because we don’t have a sewer hookup and don’t want to be so concerned with the grey tank level. The onsite store is well equipped. Breakfast and dinner are offered every morning and evening (for a price). Our site is super long, allowing us to park our truck at either end of the trailer. We have a nice patio with a picnic table, porch swing, and fire pit. Now, amenities like this are definitely NOT a requirement for us, but if we’re going to pay this much, they’re nice to have.

Site 37

There’s more to this KOA than just the amenities, however. The location is fantastic! It’s not far off I-90 making it extremely accessible for those that are just passing through. Downtown Billings is literally 5 minutes away. We have had some great meals here; we’d recommend Walkers and The Fieldhouse specifically. And one of the best parts — the airport is 13 minutes away! We usually have to drive 45 minutes to get to an airport, so the short drive is really a nice change.

All in all, our stay in Billings has been great. It was a little loud the night of the Fourth (I hate you, fireworks), but other than that, no issues. With the next business trip tentatively scheduled for October, we’re looking forward to moving on to Bozeman, Missoula and Coram to explore more of Montana.

7th Ranch RV Camp – Garryowen, MT

We stayed at 7th Ranch RV Camp for two nights. There’s not much in the area, but it was a good location in regards to how far we needed to travel on a certain day but still be able to get a half day of work in. The property is very nice, with all the sites being pull throughs, some having water and electric only and some having full hookups. Check in and check out are both at noon, and we got there a little early as our drive didn’t take as long as we thought it would. They gave us a little bit of a hard time, which we’ve never experienced before, but still allowed us to check in as the person who had been in site A16 before us had left. The bathrooms and laundry are clean, and if we ever found ourselves in the area again, we would stay here again.

Address: 662 Reno Creek Road, Garryowen, MT 59031

Phone: (406) 638-2438

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Playground
  • Bathrooms with Showers
  • Laundry

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located less than 15 minutes from 7th Ranch. I would highly recommend a visit to this historic site, even if you’re just passing through the area. From their brochure: “Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument memorializes one of the last armed efforts of the Northern Plains Indians to preserve their ancestral way of life. Here in the valley of the Little Bighorn River on two hot June days in 1876, more than 260 soldiers and attached personnel of the U.S. Army met defeat and death at the hands of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Among the dead were Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and every member of his immediate command. Although the Indians won the battle, they subsequently lost the war against the military’s efforts to end their independent, nomadic way of life.”

There’s a 20-minute orientation film that plays at regular intervals in the visitor center that is definitely worth watching to learn the history that led up to the battle, what happened during battle, and what was the result of the battle. I recommend getting to the monument right as it opens, if possible, at 8am, so that you beat the crowds and are able to explore and take in the site, which is somewhat haunting, without distractions from others.

Atop Last Stand Hill is a memorial dedicated to the 7th Cavalry. From this vantage point, you can see where ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ took place as there is a headstone marking the spot where he perished.

Adjacent to Last Stand Hill is the fantastic Indian Memorial.

After visiting Last Stand Hill and the Indian Memorial, walk along the quarter-mile Deep Ravine Trail to really get a sense of what took place on this site. Throughout the battlefield, there are white headstones marking where U.S. Army personnel died and there are red headstones marking where Indian warriors died.

After the trail, visit Custer National Cemetery, which is an onsite veterans cemetery.

If you still have time or interest at this point, drive the 4.5-mile road to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield, which was the first stage of the Battle of Bighorn. There are cell phone audio stops along the way that provide information as to what occurred at each location.