Posts Tagged ‘Montana’

The journey from Helena to Glacier National Park was shorter than I thought (I miscalculated the mileage) but it still managed to transform from mountains to fertile farming valleys to the shores of Flathead Lake just outside the park. Again, I was staying outside as it was fully booked within, in a lovely B&B called Bad Rock (which most importantly, by now, had laundry facilities!). My first day in Glacier was spectacular, driving the 50-mile  ‘Going to the Sun’ road from one end to the other, starting and ending at the lakeside (different lakes!) and rising and winding to over 6600 feet between, with spectacular views up to the glaciers and down to the valleys. Every time you turned a corner you encountered a different vista and had to stop continually to take it all in and to photograph it. One of my B&B companions mentioned a helicopter over breakfast and before you could blink, there I was linked up with four Belgians, up in the air seeing it all from a completely different and spectacular new perspective. By contrast, I followed this with a cruise on Lake McDonald where the small boat broke the perfect reflections and created extraordinarily beautiful effects.

The next journey was too long for a day, so I broke it in the university town of Moscow, Idaho, but before I got there I took an impulsive detour to Wallace in the Silver Valley, so called because it once contained hundreds of mines (and Wallace hundreds of millionaires as a result).  They’ve successfully reinvented themselves as a heritage site and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit down the mine, led by a retired miner (like Big Pit in Wales) who demonstrated equipment and techniques as well as showed them. A wander through the town was richly rewarding, with period architecture, a ‘bordello museum’ as an example of the miners leisure activities (I didn’t go in!) and an excellent lunch at the Fainting Goat, where the new managers were a couple passing through between Puerto Rica and the West and decided to stay!

From Moscow (nothing to say about it really, except that there are 17 Moscow’s in the US!) the journey continued through the rolling hills of Idaho, hay newly cut or still being cut, idyllic farms littering the landscape, until all of a sudden you’re confronted with a view down a big drop to the confluence of the Snake & Clearwater rivers with Lewiston, Idaho facing Clarkston, Washington, both named in honour of Lewis & Clark, Jefferson’s post-Louisiana Purchase explorers. From here, the journey to Joseph through an awful lot of gorges was slow and winding but really beautiful. The valley in which Joseph and Enterprise sit has Hells Canyon on one side, the Wallowa mountains on two others, and the gorges through which I travelled there on the fourth. If I’d known how inaccessible Hells Canyon was I might not have gone there, which would have been a shame as it was a lovely visit. My B&B was at the homestay end of the spectrum, but comfortable and welcoming. The drive to the canyon was through dense forest and the only part you could reach was the flooded and dammed part – the rest required serious hiking or even more serious upstream boat trips; but it was worth it and the stop made even better by a trip by cable car up Mount Howard for wonderful views and 2.5 miles of trails at 8000 feet!

The first part of the journey to Portland was pretty, but it got dull on the highway (despite a stop in Pendleton, an important stop on the Oregon trail, but closed as it was Sunday!) until we got to the Columbia River Gorge, at first a series of dams but later more rugged with waterfalls-a-go-go and lovely views. My B&B in Portland was a Victorian gem and my room had a sitting area in the turret! The neighbourhood of Irvington was both historic and cool with great restaurants but less than 30 mins by bus or tram to downtown. After three glorious weeks, the weather turned cloudy with showers but I was now in the first of two cities so there were indoor distractions, but before those there were the gardens – Chinese, Japanese & Roses! The Art Museum (like all others, so called because they combine art with historical and archaeological objects from around the world – I like this) was first class and there was a fascinating mansion that told the story of the Pittock’s, immigrants from Britain and self-made multi-millionaires. Portland’s downtown was very walkable with a blend of new and old architecture and also provided me with my one-and-only theatre trip, to see the musical Dreamgirls, based on the story of the Supremes. I’d seen the film but the show never made it to London. It didn’t really add anything to the film (well, it came first) but despite it being only the second preview, it was in good shape and the performances were outstanding.

I tried to get a tour to Oregon wine country but none were available (a bit late in the season) so I took an impulsive side-trip to Salem, Oregon’s capital, for a terrific visit to their art deco Capitol and a wander around the historic town. Another impulse took me into the Wild Pear Restaurant for lunch (at the counter) and when the owner clocked the accent the now customary ‘well, where are you from?’ solicited the equally customary ‘Wales, but I now live in London’. She said her husband’s family were from South Wales, so I asked the name, which was James – Geoff & Cecelia James. She treated me to a delightful lunch and planned my return through wine country with a winery and olive press to visit. Impulse wins again.

The shortish trip to my last base, Seattle, allowed me the luxury of two stops – the first in Olympia for yet another Capitol, the biggest and grandest if not the most tasteful! and the second in Tacoma to continue the Chihuly pilgrimage (a recommendation by a fellow Chihuly fan from Denver I met at the Bad Rock B&B – thank you!). The Art Museum had more of his work than the Glass Museum, though this did have live glassblowing demonstrations and a Chihuly Bridge to link it to the main street! The curator at the Art Museum was very welcoming to a British Chihuly fan (there weren’t many punters!) with discounted admission and a free gift. There were also works in the Courthouse (former Union Station), the University library and the Swiss pub (where he gifted them a handful of works in thanks for their hospitality!). Tacoma was a great example of a town re-inventing itself in style and I loved it.

Seattle is my only re-visit of the trip; I came here 14 years ago (whilst working on an e-commerce project code-named Seattle!). I stayed in the same B&B on Capitol Hill, the Gaslight Inn, in the same room (don’t fix it if it ain’t broke). In truth, the city isn’t as great as my memories, but there’s a new Chihuly ‘museum’, glasshouse and garden and having the car enabled me to cross over by car ferry to the Olympic peninsular for a final wonderful drive, a visit to the Olympic National Park, where the views of the mountain range of the same name from Hurricane Ridge were sensational, and the lovely old town of Port Townsend. The other newie was a bit of a disappointment. One of the founders of  Microsoft got architect Frank Gehry to build a perfect home for a rock ‘experience’, a crazy colourful affair, but sadly it’s a lost opportunity inside (unless you want to use the studios or you’re a Nirvana fan). The exhibition of Hendrix in London was nostalgic but the bolted-on SciFi & Horror presentations made Cardiff’s Dr Who experience (pre-facelift) look cutting edge!

The trip ended with a fascinating visit to the Boeing factory to see 747’s, 777’s and 787 Dreamliner’s being assembled, including watching the inaugural flight of a new 777 for American Airlines, followed six hours later my own flight on a BA Boeing 777! A suitably epic trip to celebrate 40 years of travel (Corfu September 1974 with Barbara & Mary!). 4750 miles driven (my normal annual mileage!) through 7 states, 9 national parks, 4 cities and 13 towns plus journeys by bus, tram, trolly, train, boat, car ferry, cable car & helicopter making it top the 5000 mile mark. When I’ve sorted the 2500 photos, there will be web albums!

In six months time, an even longer one to Australia – you have been warned!

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This one month / 3000 mile trip started in Denver on 1st September and it’s now the half-way point and I’m in Helena, the capital of Montana, the 4th largest state by area but the 44th by population. Walking around the deserted city (pop 28k!) on a Saturday afternoon was proof enough of the state’s low density. I’ve already driven 2500 miles, so it will come in way over 3000! Anyway, here’s a resume of the first part. I’ve tried inserting photos but the iPad doesn’t seem to want to, so you’ll have to wait until my return or look at my daily tweets http://www.twitter.com/TootingGareth…..

Denver is a delightful city and exceeded my expectations. For a mid-West Colorado city, it’s sophisticated and cool with great art and food. My B&B was an old mansion located right in the Civic Centre and the owner made spectacular & original breakfast dishes and provided excellent restaurant recommendations. The Art Museum, with its new Daniel Libeskind wing, is one of the world’s greatest; in addition to an unrivalled collection of Western US art, there were four temporary exhibitions and I had to drag myself away. Over in the Botanical Garden, glass sculptor Dale Chihuly has scattered his works amongst the flora and fauna, as he did at Kew but with more water here it was more effective. He comes from Seattle so a stop at his museum is a must later in the trip.  When you’re in a State capital, a visit to its Capitol building is a must. They all seem to have the same shape, modelled on the US Capitol, but each has its own decorative spin and Colorado’s was a fine example. My second day was spent in the Rocky Mountain National Park which was a thrilling introduction to my 16 days in the mountains, though when I got to have lunch at 12,000 ft I was feeling a bit light-headed. I’d have liked another night in mile high Denver (and high in another sense now that marijuana is legal and sold in all sorts of forms on main street!).

The first part of the journey to Durango, 350 miles south-west, was a bit dull, following the highway to get some distance behind me. Then a stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Park brought the first scenic spectacle (sand dunes in The Rockies!) and the rest of the journey through the San Juan mountain range was lovely. Durango is a bit touristy, and the food a disappointment after Denver, but The General Palmer Hotel was a pleasant period piece and I had selected Durango anyway as a base for two trips, the first of which was to Mesa Verde NP. The landscape of canyon and table (mesa) isn’t the main reason for visiting it; its the remnants of 3300-year-old settlements, abandoned mysteriously 700 years ago. The first settlers occupied the mesa (table) top, but they later moved to precarious buildings built into the cliffside (security?). A fascinating trip. The second trip was a ride on the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge steam railroad, first built in the late 19th century, when silver was mined at one end and transported to the other. It isn’t much more than 50 miles, but at 13mph rising 3000 ft in the Rockies, it takes 3.5 hours! I chose to ride it both ways in the more comfortable period car with external platform and hostess service, which was a great choice as it was spectacular but also very sociable. A treat.

I started early on the 400-mile trip to Salt Lake City when I discovered both Arches and Canyonlands NPs were en route, thinking I’d make a stop at one.  Arches was like a moonscape, acres of red stone of all shapes and sizes (only some of which form arches) scattered amongst the desert landscape. I decided I had enough time to take a look at neighbouring Canyonlands , but wasn’t expecting to be quite so blown away by the vast expanse of canyons that take your breath away as soon as you set eyes on them when you walk to the edge of the tableland. I stayed so long I arrived late in Salt Lake City, having to navigate myself to my B&B in the dark and miss dinner!

SLC was as much of a break in the journey as anything else, but it was a pleasant surprise. Another nice B&B, this time in an Arts & Crafts building near the Capitol called Inn on the Hill, and a return to more sophisticated city food courtesy of the recommendations of a man from Portland also staying at the Denver B&B! The Mormon religion pervades everything in the city, the heart of which is Temple Square, containing a somewhat kitsch temple (which you can’t enter) and a host of other church buildings, the best of which was a reused ornate grand hotel (which in all fairness they had restored beautifully). ‘Sisters’ from Tuvalu, The Philippines etc do their missionary work offering to help you find your way around the square but it’s fairly innocuous. US ‘elders’ running tours of buildings are more hardcore though, pushing some – including me – over the edge with tales of Jesus’ visit to the US in biblical times. When a Dutch lady commented on a wall of pictures of former ‘prophets’ and ‘disciples’, all men, he got very defensive, making things worse by saying women have their place, just not in church leadership! On my second day I ventured to the lake which gives the city its name and was surprised they didn’t make more of it. It’s still and rather eerie.

The next journey, to Yellowstone, was much longer than its 400 miles because it was so scenic that I kept stopping to take it all in and photograph it. It took me from Utah to Montana, through a bit of Idaho and a lot of Wyoming! After another dull start on the interstate highway, I headed into Logan Canyon where autumn colours were already evident and made me excited about what might come later. The drive above and past Bear Lake provided yet more stunning views and then I entered Grand Teton NP, where the snow-capped mountains and glaciers followed me all the way to the entrance to Yellowstone. This is where things turned a bit rustic on the lodging and gastronomic front. I’d been unable to get into any of the park lodges six months ago, so ended up just outside in West Yellowstone, a somewhat downmarket tourist trap just by the entrance, in a 100-year-old hotel made of logs surrounded by ‘restaurants’ offering a choice of burgers, pizzas, Chinese, burgers, pizzas…. Its the scale and diversity of scenery that surprises you at Yellowstone. 1m acres of mountains valleys meadows & canyons, rivers waterfalls lakes cascades & streams, and all sorts of thermal activity. It’s 100 miles north to south and 80 miles east to west and in 2.5 days I hardly touched the surface, but it was indeed spectacular.

Another lovely journey, though less than 200 miles this time, through agricultural valleys between the mountains, with a breakfast stop in Ennis, an archetypal small town with an archetypal diner, took me to Helena, Montana’s capital. I’m breaking my B&B policy here as both were fully booked (!), but after rustic West Yellowstone, it’s actually rather comfortable in a chain hotel! Helena is a delightful town, with a ‘mansion district’ of 19th century homes including the original governor’ s house, a Capitol that punches way above its weight, a spectacular neo-gothic cathedral with more stained glass and gold leaf than a handful of normal churches and a main street called Last Chance Gulch! The main reason for this stop, though, was a river trip on the Missouri through a canyon. It was named Gates of the Mountains by the 1805 Lewis & Clark expedition launched by President Jefferson just after the Louisiana Purchase, the land Napoleon sold. It was (another) glorious day and yet another scenic treat.

So tomorrow it’s another 400 mile trip to Glacier NP, close to the Canadian border and as far north as I go before heading west into Oregon & Washington. Can it possibly be  as good as the first half? To be continued…..


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