When it came to deciding which road trip I should take this year based on my travel bucket lists, my choice was down to two options: a Midwest circuit around Lake Michigan and a broad circuit around the Pacific Northwest. The Midwest trip was designed to visit the last two states in which I had never stepped foot and one of the two states where I had only visited by changing planes in a major airport. It would also add two US national parks to the list I had visited. The Pacific Northwest trip would only visit the other of the two “changing planes” states on my list and upgrade an asterisk-visited state, but would add four US national parks to my visited list. The Midwest trip also appeared to be a simple short trip when I threw in a round-trip airfare to Chicago and the use of a rental car, as opposed to a long mileage trip in my own car from my home in the Denver area. I also had to consider that unlike last year when I had a friend join me on my trip, I was undertaking this trip solo. In the end, I decided to take on the greater challenge with the grand tour around the Pacific Northwest. To add to the challenge, due to other planned commitments, I had to schedule this tour around the heavily traveled Memorial Day weekend.
The first stop on my planned trip was Glacier National Park in Montana. I had experienced Montana fifteen years before during a Rocky Mountain road trip which had included exiting Yellowstone National Park out of the Montana entrance, then traveling eastward to the Little Bighorn National Battlefield; however, Glacier National Park, connected to its Canadian neighbor, Waterton Lake National Park, is basically the premiere tourist spot of Montana and one of the most popular of the US National Parks. Its position in the northwest corner of the state bonds it well with the three national parks on Washington in forming the core of this road trip. In my initial computer mapping, the route programmed me to the western entrance of the park, but the main feature of the park is the Going-to-the-Sun Road which goes over the continental divide as it travels between the eastern and western entrances. This led me to plan a longer trip to the eastern entrance in order to drive the entire route to the western entrance. Now, it was time to start the trek to get there.
Based on the computer map calculations, driving moderately in eight hour days, it would take me two days just to drive from the Denver area to the park entrance. Knowing that interstate highway speed limits were higher in the west and deciding that I could drive a longer day, I decided on Butte, Montana, which is only hours from Glacier NP, as the first overnight stopping point. I booked a motel online the night before my start, filled an ice chest with three days of pre-made lunches, then set out north early the next morning. The long drive through Wyoming was basically uneventful, and I made my way into Montana by mid-afternoon. However, a warm day and an emerging front brought heavy thunderstorms as I headed west in Montana. By the time I had reached my motel in Butte, the skies had cleared, and I was looking for a relaxing evening before setting out for my first visit. As I was checking in, I mentioned to the manager about my plans to drive through Glacier National Park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and he responded that the road is never open before July because of the time it takes to plow out the winter snow. In my room, I went online and confirmed his information on the national park service website. Because this was a standard annual issue for Glacier, it wasn’t even a top alert on the site. The Going-to-the-Sun Road was only open twenty miles in at each entrance. I adjusted my route to head for the western entrance and enjoy Glacier as far as I could go in from that point.
The next day, I reached the western park entrance just before midday. After stopping at the Visitor Center, then taking a short detour, I started driving up the Going-to-the-Sun Road as it bordered on Lake McDonald. I stopped and took photos of the mountain range on the other side of the lake, although clouds did cover some mountain peaks. At the eastern end of the lake, there was a lodge and cabins with parking, which is where the main road was closed to vehicles. However, the Going-to-the-Sun Road was still clear for a distance, so it was opened for exploring bikers and hikers. I was able to hike down the road and pop in the woods for a bit, even meeting a curious deer at one moment, in order to get a sense of the northern mountain environment. I may not have been able to experience the sharp mountain ridges and glacial valleys at the continental divide and center of the park, but I truly savored the natural section I was able to experience. After enjoying the hike and picture taking, I drove back out of the park and headed back south to the interstate, where I turned westward.
I crossed into the Idaho panhandle and stopped for dinner. Prior to this moment, I had only consciously experienced Idaho twice. When I first came out to attend UCLA, I used my first spring break to fly up to Oregon in order to see my birthplace. On the way back, I took the bus to Boise and flew back to LA from there. This was before I had a decent camera to properly record any travel. Later, during the Rocky Mountain road trip, I crossed into the southeast corner of Idaho for a half-hour on my way from Salt Lake City to Jackson, Wyoming prior to visiting Grand Tetons National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Because it was just a half-hour crossing, I felt this only gave Idaho an asterisk for my more recent travels. Now I had stopped in a town and was actually enjoying a meal in Idaho, finally allowing me to remove the asterisk off my trip bucket list accounting. However, I had more planned for Idaho later in my trip.
Finally, after dinner, I headed on into Washington where I had reserved my night stop in Spokane Valley. The only other time I had been in Washington was when I changed planes in Seattle-Tacoma Airport on my way to a land tour in Alaska sixteen years ago. Now, I was going to truly experience Washington by visiting its national parks over the Memorial Day weekend. My excitement was growing.
To be continued…