Crossing the border into Montana

26 Sep

Despite all our reservations regarding border crossing we sailed through with no issues and a friendly border officer wishing us a happy voyage!

Our internet investigations had led us to believe that some of our stock groceries, particularly rice, may not be allowed. As it turned out the only food stuff they were interested in were citrus fruits and corn. There appears to be no hard and fast rule as to what is permissible or otherwise and we feel this may be due to issues in the particular State being entered or the time of year when passing through the border. Whatever, we were happy to be across with no issues and on our way.

Our very first impressions of Montana were favourable, we were travelling into green hills and distant mountains, the type of scenery which we have found suits us, the sun was shining and we were in the States once more. We arrived in Whitefish, a small town just forty miles from the border around lunchtime and took a short walk to the local Chamber of Commerce to collect a wealth of local information then drove a short distance out of town to the local KOA.

We have decided to take out a KOA membership, we have used the groups’ campgrounds a few times and find there facilities to be reliable so it seems a good idea to get the discount offered by becoming a member. We pulled onto the campground and found our name on a board against site 70, drove around to find it and discovered another vehicle parked in the spot! Not what we expected.

The campground was not very full and after a conversation with the occupants who had had confusion themselves on arrival the previous night, we chose ourselves another spot with a nice outside space and waited to speak with the managers when they arrived. The manager was happy with our choice of spot, friendly and helpful especially as the campground was supposed to be closed, KOA were still booking it and casual travellers were also being accommodated, they did however close after the last departures on Monday.

After browsing our local information and conversation with others on the campground, we were looking forward to a trip to the top of the local “Big Mountain” resort on Sunday. The general idea was to take the chairlift to the top then walk back down, the views from the top were supposed to be spectacular so sounded worth while. Unfortunately the morning dawned with clouds and the first of the days heavy showers soon fell on our roof! We don’t do rain any more…. We took a drive towards the turnoff for the mountain and it rained even more heavily, we looked for a place to park up by the water to have lunch an reassess…there were no car parks suitable, the sky was brighter in the opposite direction so we decided to drive that way…seemed a good idea… we ended up at a retail park and took part in some retail therapy, Robert hoping to buy new shoes, me just having a good browse, then ate lunch while parked on the car park. Still the heavy clouds and intermittent heavy showers, the top of the mountain was on and off covered in cloud, there certainly would be no view today. We gave up and drove back to the campground and had a lazy Sunday afternoon!

Somehow I feel we were not meant to do the mountain trip, Monday morning was bright Sunshine and blue sky again! It had been very cold overnight but the day was far more promising than the previous one, the chairlift however was only open weekends.

Highway 83 took us away from Whitefish with a memo to return one day and conquer the mountain. The map showed a number of lakes along our route and we had information for a campground which looked like we might get a site alongside one of them overlooking the water, a favourite position of ours.

Our first photo stop just before lunch was Swan Lake, serene and peaceful as its name would suggest, we later had a stroll beside Alya lake and arrived at Tamarack campground beside Seeley Lake early afternoon. Whilst checking in we were informed that a kayak was available free of charge if we fancied a paddle, life jackets available. Robert did not need much prompting and once we were set up he left me to enjoy the view and enjoyed a happy hour messing about in a boat.

Seeley Lake proved to be very photogenic, it was blue and serene with the bright sunshine, but the evening brought a fantastic sunset and we enjoyed strolling beside the lake taking various shots as the sun went down. After another cold night we awoke to find the lake looking mysterious with light mist floating across the water and rising from it as the sun came up.

We may have stayed longer but haRVey needs an oil change, again, we celebrated the arrival of 10,000 miles on the milometer en route to Seeley Lake and Robert booked us in to a Ford dealership in Butte for Wednesday morning. Again KOA would be our overnight stop. We took the scenic route to Butte, the route the pioneers would have taken and at various points along the way indications of there presence was obvious in the form of old ranch buildings and historical markers. Some of the small towns we travelled through looked like they hadn’t changed much in the years in between and were suffering from the present economical climate also.

As we progressed the scenery changed, we moved from open plains into the mountains and climbed high over a pass which led us into the next broad valley, you can’t help but wonder and admire the families who set out to find new lives in the west, travelling as we do in quite luxurious conditions compared to the wagons and tents which gave them shelter from either the hot summer sun or freezing winter weather.

haRVey was ready for action again around 12.30 and hoping to make the most of our day we took the Interstate 90 towards Bozeman then taking a side road, following the Jefferson river valley, to the Lewis and Clark Caverns. Conveniently for us there was a campground where we could stay after our visit. What we hadn’t realised was the Interstate took us right over the top of the Continental Divide at a point over 6,000 ft above sea level, the climb was not arduous and as we took note of the warning signs for truck at the top and kept to their speed limit we had a slow meander down the other side and plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular view of the huge boulders scattered alongside the road and the plain stretching out before us far below.

After our unexpected ‘high’ we turned off onto the river valley road, narrow in places and twisting with huge rocky cliffs to the left and the stony river to the right before the land rose again to rocky hills and mountains on the opposite bank. We spotted, high up on our left a large opening in the rocks and thought this was probably something to do with the caves, the turn off to which was about half a mile along the road, however a three mile uphill twisty road to the Visitor Centre for the Caverns led nowhere near and left us wondering. We later discovered it was old mine workings.

We were able to join the 2.30pm visit if we were able to hurry the lady told us, ¾ mile in 15 minutes, ‘yes, we can do that no problem!’ what we didn’t realise was it was uphill, in full afternoon sun all the way…. We did it in 14 minutes, hot and out of breath, but we did it! We now had 673 steps and a 2hr tour of the caverns, at least it would be cooler in there.

I have to say I never once thought about being weary, the caverns were fantastic, I had never been inside anything like that before and I suppose the first time is always awe inspiring. The different limestone formations, popcorn, bacon, fountain, ribbon etc within each chamber of the caverns were lit carefully to show their size and structure, the walkways, sometimes overhung so low we were bent over and in one memorable spot we had to sit down and slide on our bottom a few feet into the next section, the stone was so smooth and polished it was like being on a playground slide. Of course I found the speed bump in the middle we had been warned about, I also was privileged to be kissed by the cave, a drip landed on me, contrary to what you might think the caves were very dry and in many areas it can take an hour for a drip to fall from a stalactite on the roof, the growth of calcite taking 30years to form 1 inch, only in the last wetter chamber does it grow at the rate of an inch in ten years. (Please look at the web album pictures to understand why it is difficult to fully explain)

Thankfully over a seven year period in the mid 1900’s a band of Civilian Conservation Corps improved the access to the caverns, making an exit lower down the mountain so we did not have to climb back up the 673 steps but could take a leisurely stroll back to the car park taking in the magnificent view from high up in the mountains.

Another lovely evening and we sat out until dusk to enjoy the cool air, the weather is still fantastic, much better than we expected and we hope it will last for our visit to Yellowstone at the weekend but before that we wanted to visit Bozeman’s museum of palaeontology and planetarium, there seems such a lot we could do in this area but our time is limited by the fact that Yellowstone closes down soon for the winter.

The museum was well worth a visit to see the huge bones excavated by the University expeditions over a number of years, the surrounding area being rich with items waiting to be discovered. We learned a little about the dinosaurs themselves, however we felt it was quite an academic museum, more suited to those with a little bit more background understanding than ourselves, nevertheless as usual we felt we had gleaned a little knowledge and enjoyed our time there.

Another KOA campground for the night, and a little topping up of the stores readied us for the weekend in Yellowstone, a eighty mile drive through the lovely Gallantin valley, again following the river between the rock outcrops which in places towered above the road. There was plenty of evidence of winter slides where rock had cascaded from high above and the river, although fast was obviously quite tame to how it would be with the melt waters teaming along it. The valley opened out, the high mountains receding to left and right of us and eventually we arrived at West Yellowstone, the gate to the park and another episode of our adventures.

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