Hebgen Lake is just ten miles outside of West Yellowstone in the Gallatin National Forest and covers 12,350 acres. It’s full of heron, cranes, ducks and fishermen on lightweight inflatable pontoons. Highway 20 heads west and just before you hit the KOA campground you need to watch out for the local Fire Dept. on the right and turn up that dirt road. There is no sign or street number but it will lead you to two campgrounds about another ten miles in. The first campground costs and has a host, oh, and water. The second campground is slightly further in to the forest and is free, primitive, and on a first come basis. I was the second there. It’s beautiful. I can breathe again after the claustrophobic Yellowstone National Park.
The campground offers six sites, all with table, fire pit and a level place to call home. The vault toilets are at the turn around and really clean. It was perfect there, the water right outside the van just beyond the tree line. The wildlife floated by. The critters ran free and safe. That first night was cold and wet though, we stayed inside the van and once again I was incredibly happy that I bought Vera for this trip. She’s made life easy on us all.
Back into town, a wondrously tourist focused town outside the park, with everything (almost) named after either moose or grizzlies. Yep, that kind of town. The people in the stores and bakery were super friendly and I spent some time chatting to Mary in the market about the lake and working in town. Short, stocky, and with an open soft face, she grew up there and loved meeting all the visitors. Good for her, it helps when traveling to feel welcome, that’s for sure. Ernie’s bakery up the road had freshly made croissants, and Ernie originally came from France, so yes, the croissant were the best they could be, so that’s where I went in the mornings. Free Internet to send out the articles, reply to email and post a video slideshow. Pretty good starts to my days on the lake.
We had a social night at Cherry Creek campground. One night was just myself and the mystery tenter who didn’t appear till after I’d gone to bed. The next night the place was packed. All sites taken and more people driving in and back out again. Next to me were two young women from New Hampshire. Elizabeth was a thirty-year-old red head with high energy who invited herself to sit at my campfire.
“I’ve talked to no one by Victoria for a week!” and she stood there sipping a can of PBR, restless and moving constantly, she found more wood for the fire.
Victoria joined us, a wholesome blond, clean and conservative who described herself as high maintenance. Her first camping trip apparently and she’d come along because they’d both quit working for an oil company and needed an adventure. She talked of God, of Heaven, and the “super conservative Christian school”, and then offered me a hit of weed.
A.J, the tenter, was about 5’8, thick of body, an outdoorsman with thick red beard and in his early thirties. “Maybe it’s because I’m a dude” was his phrase often used. A couple in a 1980s motorhome and Butter, their corgi, also joined us. (Stevie was hidden in the van during social hour.) More couples chatted briefly, coming and going. Easy company for the most part and I realized I’d been alone for much of the last two weeks but hadn’t noticed!
On Hwy 287 North towards Helena, MT, and along the Madison River the weather dropped back to cold, damp, and with snow in the mountains just above us. The trees dripped and the windshield wipers worked luckily, I’d not tested them beforehand. Over the pass and alongside Quake Lake into a wide lush green valley, and we stop at the riverside for a snack and walk. The rain though sends us all back into the van shortly.
Past Helena, I find the turn off for NF 695, looking for the next free campground in the Beaverhead Deerlodge Forest. Construction stops us, and Janet, the flagger explains that they’ve widened, repacked, and are grading the road for the next six miles into the forest. Finally I’m allowed to go and following the lead truck, I drive slowly uphill. The truck pulls over and waves me on. I’ve not been paying attention to distances but when the road steepens incredibly and winds up into a wet narrow gorge, I figure I’ve missed the campground. I find a turn out and slowly do a three point turn and then pull off to the side and stop. Doors open, critters out, time for a snack and cuppa tea. There are no views; it’s too narrow and thick with pine and ponderosas. After half an hour of relaxing, stretching out the kinks, and watching the pets explore, we head back down to construction zone and sure enough the campground is in the middle of it. Nope, we’re not staying there. So what’s next? Looking at the map, it’s only another 100 miles to Seeley Lake, one of the places recommended to me. Okay, so back to Highways 141 through the Avon Valley, a quick trip along Hwy 200, and finally north on 83 at Clearwater Junction and the Blackfoot River.
No signs from the Lolo National Forest show me the way, but I’d watched the odometer and noticed when we were at about the right distance from Seeley lake town. The dirt road to the left took us down along the lakeside and I pulled over, not sure what to expect. I left Stevie inside and took the dogs further down the road for a scout out. We found a perfect dispersed campsite just half a mile down so we claimed it with the van as soon as I could. Good timing as another van trundled past just as we set up camp!
The rain lingered but it was still beautiful. The table made a good kitchen with a view and the short path to the lake brought us out on a smaller lake with snow-capped mountains towering above us. The clouds descended and the rain came back. The van called and I took my mug of wine inside, following the dogs and Stevie to the bed.
Am I in Wales? The wind whips around me, and I zip up the rain jacket, standing next to this incredibly huge grey lake, the waves slapping against the beach and scaring poor sensitive Harold. Rosie takes it in stride and wants to swim as usual. We walk along the waters edge here in Bigfork and take it all in. Stevie is leashed in the van so he can’t jump out when we get back. He’s so comfortable traveling now that whenever he sees me grab the dog leashes, he jumps down from his shelf, wanting to come with us. There is a brewery looking over the lake and since it’s noon, I figure why not! Yep, dogs in van, smartphone in hand, I have a couple of lagers and watch the storm outside.
HUNGRY HORSE RESERVOIR
The road in is well marked, leading us to the dam and the lake’s 50 plus mile length. The road is NF 895, and well maintained, so much so that motorhomes and trailers head in the same direction. I know that beyond the first four campgrounds that are in the first ten miles, I’ll find a primitive campground perfect some 24 miles in. Only four sites, no water, and limited access. Perfect. The weather is still stormy but after a couple of beers, I’m okay with that. The trees drip moss, and the undergrowth is thick and healthy.
Then we turn south and suddenly the lake opens up before me. Stunning. Deep, wide, a dark grey, and high barren alpine mountains covered in snow, yep, that’s where we spending the night.
Our campsite faces the Flathead Range and the Great Bear Wilderness area with Elk Mtn at 7389 ft., Mt Cameahwait at 7879, and Felix Peak at 7996, all snow packed.
I pull out the union suit and put on the Sorrel boots for warmth as we all explore. It feels safe so I let Stevie walk with us. He’s pretty focused on us these days and follows along with the dogs, going where they go, trying to keep up. Then if he loses sight of me, he meows until I whistle and then he pops back into range. Good fella. I sit by the lake with a mug of wine and suck it all in. Beautiful. There is so much out there that I feel pressed to keep moving, I’m having a hard time sitting still in any one place. This then is a trial run, a testing ground, and yes, I’ll have to come back with more time and no deadlines.
I had a rough night, couldn’t sleep, restless legs, twitching, and then the hail and snow started. All four of us on the bed cuddled for warmth. I had a moments panic at the thought of driving out of here on snowy roads but then let it go, there was nothing to be done. The snow didn’t stick anyway. It is June, and here I am in long johns and layers…I like it.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Now this is my kind of park, laid back, little used, not the crowded claustrophobia of Yellowstone. The entrance to the North Fork area is a small welcoming log home down a two-lane dirt road. The ranger is friendly and even gives the pups a treat each. Nothing for Stevie, she wasn’t expecting that. We chat for a moment about the roads in to this side of the park and she tells me that they’re both fine, either the 6 miles to Bowman Lake or the 15 miles to Kintla Lake. She recommends Bowman though. “The ranger there likes dogs, the other one is more protective of his station. I’d take them to Bowman, it’ll be easier on you all.”
Past Pinebridge, a small town of thirty people with an incredible bakery, the road narrows to one lane, winding back and forth up into dense forests, in and out of trees with hints of the Glacier Mountains ahead. The road is better than mine at home which is funny as all the write ups about this lake and area had bitched about the horrible rough road, to the point where I’d almost not come thinking I needed the 4Runner or something. Nope, any old car can do it, just drive slowly around the potholes and up the switchbacks. No biggy.
A high glacier fed lake, almost ten miles long and yet narrow, is so clear and pristine, it took away my need to do, to move, to photograph or to write. I just sat on the water’s edge with two dogs on leashes and stared. For a long time, we just sat there. The lakes, the campgrounds, the hiking trails all were in a hushed awe of this lake. Phenomenal.
I took photos, I can’t describe it, the peaceful beauty, and knowing that one day it will dry up and be gone. I’m lucky to see this. To share this. Of 150 glaciers noted in 1916 when the park system came about, there are now only twenty-five glaciers left, and those are shrinking. The mountains to the north of us were all ranged from Square Peak at 8777 ft. to Rainbow Peak at 9891 and had snowcaps but not nearly as much as I’d expected.
Young elk wander through the campgrounds and stop at my table as I read some ten feet away. We look each other, the soft fur on the antlers impresses me, they aren’t and move along to the next visitors. Dogs and cat luckily are inside the van with doors shut. You see, I’m made the mistake of letting the dogs off leash while I opened up the van to put them back inside and Rosie ran. Into the road, caught a squirrel, killed it with one quick bite, and left the proof of hunting nature in the middle of that damn road! I threw the dogs inside, grabbed the shovel and picked up the body and hid it in the trees… It’s not a good place for my critters, all on leashes, especially Stevie as the signs warn of mountain lions lurking in the area, being “active”.
“You might lose a pet if unattended or leashed out of your sight.”
Oh shit, that’s about as real a threat as I can deal with. All three pets are on lock down. I won’t stay here long, just enough to stare at the lake and absorb as much of this peace and beauty as possible.
We head back down to Pinebridge the next day and buy a pastry, a Brie and turkey fresh from the oven pastry. Delicious. Driving down the North Fork road towards Columbia Falls takes us an hour and a half, what with slow going rough roads, elk and deer sightings, checking out the Flathead River, more stops to pee and stretch, and to unleash the hounds. So many places to camp in the Flathead Forest, if (when) I come back to Glacier National Park, we’ll set up camp out here and drive it to sight see. The road widens and speeds up as we get closer to town and then hitting the main highway west, we aim for Libby, Montana, our last night in the state.
I miss the turn off; I’d been looking at the sign for a local brewery, tempted but not enough to detour. It’s been a long day and I want to stop and settle for the night. Driving up a narrow canyon on an empty highway towards Canada, I pull over at the Ranger’s station. Yep, wrong way. I’m on Hwy 37 and not 567. Tough, I’m not going back. We pull off at the first national forest road, drop down another dirt road and end up on the riverside in an obviously used dispersed campsite. That’s good enough for me. I step out and take a breath, look around, yep, feels safe. Unleash the hounds.
The Kootenai River flows shallow and clear. The railway tracks are surprisingly busy with freight trains heading to Canada. I wave to the drivers and one blows the horn back. I salute with my mug of tea. The critters play and explore. I make dinner as the clouds build and rain drizzles once again. Montana has been damp and beautiful.
Leaving in the morning is a relaxed affair, but for Stevie running into the trees when a train came by and he wasn’t near the van. I lost sight of him for a while but when I walked into the trees calling him, he called back. We found each other, little bugger.
I drove out of the campsite, relaxed and ready for another good day. I drove and drove, finding us up high on a dirt gravel single lane road heading east. The wrong way in other words. I kept going and we came out on Hwy 2 about thirty miles east of Libby, and it had taken us an hour to get there. My day was not starting out so smoothly after all. It went downhill from there. Three campgrounds later, some found, some not, we settled in at Garfield Bay in Idaho. Tired now. But we’re in Idaho! Time to put the kettle on. Oh, and find Stevie again…