Today was a transition day, as we drive north towards Glacier National Park. Yesterday, we left Yellowstone, and spent the night in Butte, MT. We spent today driving through western Montana, visiting Philipsburg, Missoula, Polson, Lakeside, and finally, Columbia Falls. We ended the day on the shores of Lake McDonald, just inside the western border of Glacier National Park.
Philipsburg // Breakfast
After going nearly non-stop in Yellowstone and the Tetons for the past five days, I purposely built this day into our itinerary for some rest. We slept in significantly (at least compared to our recent sub-05:00 starts), and didn’t leave our hotel in Butte until after 09:30. Last night, we’d planned to visit a coffee shop in downtown Butte on our way out of town, but we quickly realized that Butte has a massive Independence Day parade. Thankfully, we just skirted onto the interstate before they shut the streets down.
Leaving Butte, we took I-90N via I-15, exiting onto MT-1 at Anaconda. The Anaconda Smelter Stack, the tallest surviving masonry structure in the world (555′) is visible from the highway.
Montana State Highway 1, also known as the Pintler Scenic Loop, bypasses a section of I-90, passing Georgetown Lake and then descending into the Philipsburg Valley. We arrived in the small town of Philipsburg mid-morning, just in time for their Independence Day parade. It definitely wasn’t the jumbo spectacle that Butte’s was, but it was a sight we’ll not easily forget.
The entire parade passed in less than two minutes. It consisted of both the town’s fire trucks, a handful of antique cars, one float on the back of a truck, and a veteran marching with an American flag. Once they’d passed, they went to the dead end of their downtown street, turned around, and marched right back through.
After the truly overwhelming parade, we navigated the nonexistent traffic and parked in front of Sherry’s Homestyle Bakery, our breakfast destination. While Faith was disappointed their espresso machine was out of order, the pastries we ordered were excellent. We split two Bavarian cream-filled donuts, a chocolate muffin, and a slice of lemon berry cake. The berry cake was incredible, the donuts were the runners-up, and the muffin was solid. Their drip coffee, however, was terrible.
Missoula // Carousel
Next stop: Missoula. We’d planned to eat lunch at The Notorious P.I.G., a barbecue place downtown, but it, along with nearly every other restaurant in downtown, was closed for the 4th. Annoyingly, most of them hadn’t updated their hours online. We tried another couple restaurants, including my second choice, Five on Black, but all were closed.
In lieu of lunch, we chose to eat a few snacks and grab an early dinner later. In the meantime, Mom wanted to visit A Carousel for Missoula in Caras Park. The volunteer-built carousel is one of the world’s fastest. Mom and Dad hopped on for a ride, while Faith and I further explored food options.
Flathead Lake Cheese
We drove north towards Flathead Lake, stopping in Polson to tour Flathead Lake Cheese. It’s a small cheese-making operation that mainly produces various types of gouda. After receiving a tour from the owner/operators and trying some curds and a few types of cheese, we continued along the west side of the lake towards lunch. It was a neat little business, but not the best cheese selection I’ve seen.
Flathead Lake // Dinner
Outside of the Great Lakes, Flathead Lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the US. It’s 192 square miles, and 370 feet deep, and is one of the cleanest lakes in the world. The lake’s waters are a deep, clear blue, and there are many recreation-focused small towns situated on its shores.
After a long drive along the shore, we arrived at the small town of Lakeside, where we stopped for dinner at the Tamarack Brewing Company. By this point, we were all famished, since all we’d eaten were a couple granola bars and some cheese samples, so this was a pretty hefty meal. We got some garlic bleu fries and Caesar salads to start. Mom ordered fish tacos (beer battered Atlantic haddock, chipotle sour cream, shredded cabbage, cheese, and tomato); Dad got an entree Caesar salad and smoked bacon mac n’ cheese (local peppered bacon, MT-made pasta, amber ale white cheddar sauce, shaved parmesan, green onion); Faith got the huckleberry salmon (Alaska sockeye salmon, wakeboard wit huckleberry coulis, local organic goat cheese, mashers, seasonal vegetables), and I ordered bison tacos (bison carnitas, salsa verde, pickled red onion, cabbage, white cheddar).
All the food was excellent, down to the homemade fries and tortillas chips. We left very satisfied.
Kalispell // Lodging
After lunch, we drove about half an hour north to Kalispell, the last major city in northern Montana before you get into the Glacier area. We stopped at a Walmart and an Albertson’s to replenish some supplies, got some gas, scrubbed the bugs off the windshield, and continued on the road. Forty minutes later, we arrived at our VRBO cabin just off the north fork of the Flathead River.
The cabin had a bare-bones inside, mediocre beds, and the neighbor’s chickens (apparently they were very free-range) roaming the yard, but it was a good location and available, a rarity for the area.
Lake McDonald + Lodge
After briefly settling into the cabin, we decided we’d explore the park a bit before daylight expired. Glacier National Park’s west entrance wasn’t far away, so we drove through the village of West Glacier and entered the park for the first time. Lake McDonald and the Lake McDonald Lodge are the first major attractions one comes to on the west side of the Going to the Sun Road, so we started exploring that area.
Lake McDonald Lodge, which sits on the southeast shore, was built in 1913 in the Swiss Chalet style. The lobby is intricately decorated, with various natural and artistic treasures lining the walls, floor, and ceiling.
It was a magical experience during our first evening there. The lake and surrounding mountains were beautiful, and we stayed for golden hour and blue hour, watching the sunset change the colors of the surrounding landscape.
Yes, I’m dedicating an entire section to rocks. No, this is not a geology lesson, as much as some of my Yellowstone posts may have leaned that way. The rocks in Lake McDonald are a wide spectrum of colors: red, greens, blues, yellows, and more. Amazingly, they’re fairly pale until the water covers them, and then they appear vibrant.
The Best Things We Saw Today
The best thing I saw today was… “Lake McDonald”.
The best thing I ate today was… “bison carnitas, and the lemon berry cake gets honorable mention”.
The best thing I saw today was… “Lake McDonald, honorable mention to Flathead Lake”.
The best thing I ate today was… “huckleberry salmon”.
The best thing I saw today was… “the 4th of July parade in Philipsburg with 2 fire trucks, 3 antique cars, 1 army Jeep, and 1 marching soldier”.
The best thing I ate today was… “the Caesar salad at the brewery, with honorable mention to the lemon berry cake at the bakery this morning”.
The best thing I saw today was… “Lake McDonald and Lake McDonald Lodge”.
The best thing I ate today was… “the lemon berry cake in Philipsburg”.