Tour of the Week: Northwestern Montana

Text: Ken Freund • Photography: Ken Freund

Western Montana has some of the finest scenery and least-traveled roads in the lower 48 states, or anywhere else for that matter. Formed by the jagged Rocky Mountains and separated north to south by the massive Continental Divide, Montana is ruggedly beautiful. For eons, the relentless forces of nature have torn, uplifted and eroded the land. Volcanoes have spewed molten lava, glaciers have carved the verdant valleys, and wind and water have sculpted the terrain to create the breathtaking landscape we see today.

Many folks on tight vacation schedules favor flying in, renting a motorcycle, riding a tour loop and returning home from the same point. Our Western Montana adventure lends itself to just such a plan. We flew in to Missoula's airport and stayed the first night at the Holiday Inn Downtown. The Inn provides customers with a courtesy airport shuttle, and later we were met by Mike Berger from Adventure Motorcycle, who provided the rental bike for our trip, a Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, which is a large, roomy machine that belies its moderate displacement. The low-mileage bike, in mint condition, was ready to go with a full tank of gas. It even had an aftermarket Sargent seat, making the ride cushier than stock and more accommodating for shorter riders.

Dinner at the Holiday Inn's Riverbend Restaurant allowed us to relax and unwind right beside the lovely Clark Fork River, which runs right through town to the delight of kayakers and those using the walking and biking trails beside it. All of the streams and rivers in Western Montana flow down the west side of the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean. On the way to the sea, these waterways provide wonderful fishing, boating and swimming opportunities, so bring your rod, reel and bathing suit. Some marinas also have boats for rent, if that's your preference.

Garnet and Flathead Lake

After a hearty breakfast we set out for the Seeley-Swan Valley, aiming for Polson by nightfall. Travel west briefly on I-90, then take the exit for Bronner and travel east on Route 200. Turn left on Route 83 and head north, but be sure to pull off and take in some of the stunning views on the way.

We made a side trip to Garnet, a ghost town south of Greenough and accessed by about seven miles of gravel road winding through forest land. If you and your bike are up to the challenge of riding on loose gravel, this quaint, well-preserved ghost town is definitely worth the time. In the Garnet Mountain Range, Montana's most-intact ghost town was settled at the end of the nineteenth century, with more than 1,000 inhabitants at its peak. But by 1905 the gold was running out and only 150 people remained. A fire in 1912 and the call-up for World War I sent most of the remaining miners packing. Garnet gradually slipped into obscurity, despite a brief renewal of mining in the 1930s, but today you can still walk down its streets and explore its buildings.

Our lunch hour was spent at the Double Arrow Resort Golf Course at Seeley Lake. This lovely spot combines an excellent meal with scenic views and friendly folks. Continuing north on Route 83 through the Seeley-Swan Valley, we savor the fresh air, light traffic and smooth roads.

We also paused for refreshment at Holland Lake Lodge near Condon, which is accessed by about a mile of gravel road, but you'll be glad you made the detour. The cozy bar and restaurant has a fabulous view of the lake, waterfalls and surrounding wilderness areas.

After a long pleasant ride through the Swan River National Wildlife Reserve, we refuel at Bigfork, at the northeast end of Flathead Lake. Designated as one of the "50 Great Towns in the West," it certainly has a western feel to it. After pulling off the main highway and spending some time exploring the shops in Bigfork Village, keep your eyes peeled for the cherry stands. Flathead Valley has incredibly sweet cherries.

From Bigfork the run continues down Highway 35 south along the eastern edge of Flathead Lake. Created by Ice Age glaciers, almost thirty miles long and fifteen miles across at its widest point, Flathead Lake is the largest natural lake in the western U.S. With a 160-mile shoreline and water covering nearly 200 square miles, its azure waters attract many for boating, fishing and other watersports.

The Best Western Kwa Taq Nuk Casino and Resort in Polson is right on the southern end of Flathead Lake. We checked in and then enjoyed a delicious dinner at Ricciardi's Italian Seafood House. With the sun still up at 10:30 p.m., it's difficult to settle down for the night, so we wander over to the Glacier Brewing Company, where the locals go for great microbrews and killer pizza.

The "Smithsonian West"

After a tasty breakfast at Jocko's Restaurant in the hotel, we rode over to Miracle of America Museum, one of the highlights of the trip. Owner Gil Mangels was there to greet us and took us on a personal tour of his sprawling place. Known locally as the "Smithsonian West," there's something of interest for everyone, with countless displays about farming and pioneer life, military memorabilia, vintage cars and trucks, railroad artifacts, aircraft - and what we're all interested in here - motorcycles. There's so much stuff crammed in there it's bursting at the seams. I could spend days looking around, but if you're normal, an hour or two should do.

Out of Polson, take Route 93 north along the western shore of Flathead Lake to Kalispell and Whitefish and then Eureka. On your ride from Polson to Eureka, be sure to take in the "hub" of the valley, Kalispell. Stretch your legs in the revitalized downtown and if you're interested in art, swing by the Hockaday Museum to check out great local creations and learn about the history of the valley. Drop by Moose's Saloon, located on the main road, and summon your best saunter through its swinging doors. There's sawdust on the floors, and they let patrons carve their initials or names in the bar or booths if so inclined.

In Whitefish, we enjoyed lunch at the Great Northern Brewery. Be sure to stroll over to the refurbished Great Northern Railroad Depot. Built in 1927, the Depot is now the Stumptown Museum, featuring railroad artifacts and memorabilia and photos of the community's early days.

At this point you can either take Route 93 directly to Eureka, or ride a more circuitous (and scenic) route, such as Highway 2 to Libby, and then Highway 37 north along Lake Koocanusa toward Eureka. We chose the longer way, with a Forest Service road suggested by my guide Mike Berger thrown in for good measure.

Libby Dam & Eureka

Seventeen miles upstream from the town of Libby, the 422-foot-tall and 3,055-foot-long Libby Dam holds back 90 miles of water in Lake Koocanusa. The dam captures the waters of the Kootenai River, the third largest tributary to the Columbia. Forty-eight miles of the reservoir lie within U.S. borders, the rest is in Canada. Visitors enjoy boating, fishing, camping, water skiing, picnics, hiking, wildlife viewing and more. Libby Dam Visitor Center has a newly remodeled exhibit area, book/gift store and auditorium featuring the story of Libby Dam.

Both sides of the reservoir provide excellent riding. The east side has the Route 37 Scenic Byway, which tends to have slightly more traffic. We followed serpentine Highway 228 instead. It hugs the west side, and we crossed over using the Koocanusa Bridge on our way to the night's respite at Eureka. Either way, though, you will be treated to amazing views of the lake, lush scenery and excellent roads. But, on lightly traveled Highway 228, watch out for tree branches and fallen rocks, especially in blind corners. That said, this section offered some of the best motorcycle riding of the trip.

Café Jack's, for dinner, is a popular local eatery serving up an eclectic mixture of simple fare and more exotic dishes with friendly charm. After a long, pleasant supper we headed to Grave Creek Cabins, about nine miles south of town on Highway 93. Purchase any supplies or drinks and treats in town, as there's not much to be found other than solitude once you leave Eureka.

Kootenai Haunts

In the morning, we rode back into town for a hearty breakfast at Café Jack's. If you have a little time, check out the Eureka Historical Village on the south side of town before saddling up for the day's ride to Heron.

We headed up toward Rexford and Yaak on Highway 508, following the Yaak River through verdant pine forests. Yaak is the farthest northwest of the communities in Montana, and besides great motorcycling, the area offers an abundance of outdoor adventures including fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, kayaking and more. The Yaak River, named by the Kootenai tribe, flows through the mountainous northwest Montana community and meets the Kootenai River.

The Dirty Shame Saloon cooks up a mean buffalo burger, and you can even stay in a cabin there for the night. Nearby, stop by Kootenai River Falls and the swinging bridge just below it (north of Libby).

From Troy, head south on Highway 56 for the Ross Creek Cedar Trail. A must-see, it has red cedars that are more than 400 years old. It also provides a nice cool walk through Montana's only rainforest. The road in is paved but very narrow, with one lane and passing zones. Schedule at least an hour or two for your visit.

Continuing south on route 56, turn right on Highway 200 and watch for signs to the Amber Bear Inn. It's several miles off the main highway and the last mile or so is on gravel. Our dinners and breakfasts there were excellent, as were the accommodations.

To Missoula

Our last day's route takes us south on Highway 200 through rolling hills around the Noxon Reservoir and Clark Fork River, and along the border of the National Bison Range. If you have time, take a brief detour and visit the National Bison Visitor's Center. Chockfull of wildlife, the range celebrated its centennial this year. Motorcycles are not allowed on the open-range trails with the animals, but I drove through later in a rented car, and I was amazed by the number of bison, elk and antelope I saw grazing on the hills. The drive covers about 20 miles of gravel road, and one should plan to spend two hours for a proper visit. At Arlee, take Highway 93 south to return to Missoula.

I consider myself fortunate to have seen some of this beautiful region, which still retains the robust, hard-scrabble aura of the Old West. And the few days spent here merely made me wish for more time to explore this intriguing part of the country. You can be sure we'll be back again - and very soon, too!

Glacier National Park

A Western Montana tour isn't complete without seeing it, but the timing has to be right. The season for park visitations is short, especially on motorcycles, as snow may be falling almost any time of the year. July and August are the only months in which that's not likely.

Pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, and spectacular lakes beckon. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of America's most scenic drives, with more than 50 miles of magnificent views of glaciers, waterfalls, lakes and wildlife. Laced with over 700 miles of trails, Glacier Park is a hiker's paradise for anyone seeking wilderness and solitude. Lake McDonald is the largest lake in the park, with a length of 10 miles and a depth of 472 feet. The glacier that carved the Lake McDonald Valley is estimated to have been around 2,200 feet thick. Plan at least a day or two for cruising through the park, which stretches into Canada.

Holiday Inn at the Park, Missoula
200 S Pattee St
Missoula, MT 59802
(406) 721-8550

This is the largest hotel we stayed in and it offers all the expected amenities Holiday Inn is known for, including an indoor pool and spa, plus computers with free Internet access. Motorcycle parking is right at the door, and the rooms are clean, spacious, quiet and comfortable.

Best Western Kwa Taq Nuk Casino and Resort at Flathead Lake
49708 US Highway 93 East
Polson, Montana 59860
(406) 883-3636

This sprawling complex hosts business conferences, offers gambling, and houses vacationers as well, so it's always hustling and busy. It's motorcycle friendly too, with reserved spaces right by the entrance, and they even gave each of us a small chamois for wiping down our bikes. Many rooms offer lake views and, of course, low- and high-rollers like the casino which offers plenty of games.

Grave Creek Cabins, Eureka
18 Drop Tine Road
Eureka, MT 59917

Situated about nine miles south of Eureka on Highway 93 at Drop Tine Road, the Grave Creek Cabins are clean, comfortable and cozy, with nice furnishings, refrigerators and microwaves, reasonable prices and a motorcycle-friendly owner. Ask about local roads and trails if you have time for some local exploration. After dinner in town, we sat out on the porch, watched deer and chatted with a fellow motorcyclist who was traveling alone.

Amber Bear Inn B&B
25 Amber Bear Lane
Heron, MT 59844
(406) 847-8627

This large and quite new Bed and Breakfast lodge has a homey feel and lovely views out every large window. We watched a bear foraging while we ate our own supper in the spacious dining room. The food and service were excellent, prices reasonable and the room spectacular. The suite included a large bedroom with fireplace and plush king-size bed, a large bathroom with separate toilet and shower, and a built-in hot tub with a view. And yes, the owner is a motorcyclist. Best stay of the trip!