Mind-blowing Montana

Mountains, museums, wildlife and American Indian history intertwine in this majestic state.

Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park

Towering mountains overlook dense forests and broad plains that are home to a wealth of wildlife. This safari-like setting is reason enough to visit the northwestern corner of Montana.

Add a choice of enticing towns, Indian reservations and vestiges of authentic cowboy culture and it’s no wonder the area attracts a steady stream of visitors.

This is a region that clings proudly and stubbornly to touches of its frontier past. Rustic roadside signs advertise equally rustic establishments like the Bison Inn Cafe and Hungry Horse Saloon.

Communities and geographic places are named after former Native American chiefs (Charlo, Arlee), legendary fur traders and explorers (Jocko Valley, Finley Point), wildlife (Hungry Horse and Whitefish) and natural elements (West Glacier, Columbia Falls). Many residents of the region, as well as curious visitors, drown their thirst by quaffing a locally brewed beer named Moose Drool.

The area’s overall ambience may be encountered and appreciated at hangouts like the Old Timer Cafe, a nondescript eatery in St. Ignatius (population 900). Its breakfast menu features chicken-fried steak accompanied by ample portions of eggs, biscuits and gravy. Another favorite among locals is the unfortunately named “cow patty,” which involves a bed of artery-clogging hash brown potatoes, topped with ham, eggs, melted cheese and a pool of thick beef gravy.

Diners themselves provide an intimate introduction to the region’s lifestyle. During my visit, two Native Americans wearing ornately beaded shirts shared a table with a cowboy, resplendent in 10-gallon hat, leather vest and chaps. An older gentleman, obviously a regular, whispered and chortled with a waitress. Two bearded young men wore red jackets that sported the logo of their employer, “Robert Cattle Services: Bull Semen Collection.”

Northwestern Montana is home to both cowboy culture and American Indian celebrations, including the Missoula Stampede Rodeo set for Aug. 8–10 this year.

The down-home western flavor is evident everywhere. I spotted a poster listing ways people know they’re in Montana, which I concluded was only partly whimsical. It included the claim that the most popular bumper stickers around are about guns, horses or chewing tobacco, and that the local social event of the year is the rodeo.

Ubiquitous boots, cowboy hats and country dancing are among touches that hint at a Marlboro Man machismo. But this western setting melds comfortably with a strong Indian culture, too.

The Flathead Indian Reservation runs about 60 miles north to south, from Flathead Lake to just above Missoula. The Salish and Kootenai who live there are among 11 tribes that have or share reservations in Montana, together making up about 9 percent of the state’s population. This strong influence adds to the feeling of having been transported back into America’s past.

The 121st-annual Arlee Powwow Esyapqeyni is scheduled for July 3–7.

Museums large and small recreate and retell the history of American Indians who roamed the region and still make it their home. The People’s Center in Pablo exhibits clothing, beadwork, cooking implements and other artifacts from the daily lives of the Salish, Pend d’Orielle and Kootenai tribes. At times, there are presentations of drumming, dance and other native traditions.

Other small but interesting collections are tucked away in restaurants, in the backs of stores and in the hidden recesses of hotels.

Touches of Native American life and lore — pre-Columbian arrowheads, an eagle-handled dance stick, a bird-feather fan — are among displays at the aptly named Miracle of America Museum in Polson. They share space with a jumble of more than 10,000 items that greet visitors to what’s been called the Smithsonian of the West.

Among the eclectic collection of Americana are an old service station, school house and 19th-century sod-roof log cabin. World War II tanks, Jeeps and an antiaircraft gun vie for space with antique motorcycles, presidential election memorabilia and early dishwashing machines.

Mountain goats play at Hidden Lake below the 8,600-foot summit of Bearhat Mountain in Montana’s Glacier National Park, which is also famous for its healthy populations of wildlife, including elk and grizzly bear.

As much as any such collection, the majestic mountain setting of western Montana itself is a kind of outdoor museum. The town of Bigfork, near Flathead Lake, is a community of resorts and galleries. In windows of art studios that line the quiet streets, traditional Western cowboy art mingles comfortably with more contemporary creations.

Kalispell in the Flathead Valley got its name from the Salish words for “grassy land above the lake.” It’s home to close to three dozen artists.

Life of a different kind makes Glacier National Park a must-see part of any visit, and provides proof for the claim that Montana has more wildlife and fewer people than anywhere else in the continental 48 states. The 1.1 million-acre refuge is home to an array of what a ranger referred to as “watchable wildlife.” On our trip, it didn’t take long to understand why.

I spotted a bear cub cavorting in a meadow, digging, scraping and rolling about. A snow-white mountain goat appeared, preening as if posing for pictures. Several prong-horned antelope played a spirited game of tag, and a small herd of elk grazed in the distance. Our tour guide pointed to signs that one of several wolf packs that roam the park had recently passed by.

Man-made attractions also vie for attention. For example, St. Ignatius is the site of a mission of the same name, which was founded by Jesuits in 1854 for the Flathead Indians. Visitors may view the mission church, which was built in 1891, and two small cabins that were the original homes of resident Jesuits and Providence nuns.

Fifty-eight murals on the church walls and ceilings depict saints and scenes from the Old and New Testaments. They were painted early in the 20th century by Brother Joseph Carignano, an Italian Jesuit who served as both cook and handyman at the mission.

A small tepee perched on a side altar, hymns sung by a tribal chorus and other unique touches are reminders that this is Indian country. It’s a place where visitors have opportunities to immerse themselves in both history and present-day life, not to mention some of Mother Nature’s most magnificent handiwork.

Plan your trip! Call 800-847-4868 or see visitmt.com.

Victor Block is a veteran travel writer and has contributed to numerous publications nationwide.