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.
Motorcycle & Gear
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.