If you’re headed to (or in) Montana and are ready for some adventures that won’t seriously dent your bank account, try a one-tank trip through the Crown of the Continent.
This 140-mile loop through Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana crosses the Continental Divide and takes nearly three hours to complete; however, with all the tasty pit stops and potential adventures, you’ll want to spend the whole day out there.
Keep in mind that in the depths of winter, parts of the road through the park are closed, so stick to the warmer months of May through early September and you’ll be safe.
FILL ‘ER UP FIRST!
First, you’ll need make to your way to the west entrance of the park, located about 30 miles northeast of Kalispell, MT, via US-2. Starting at the west entrance to the park, fill that tank with gas and make sure your camera is charged. All private vehicles pay $25 dollars, good for a seven-day park pass.
Once through the gates, follow the signs to Logan Pass via Going-to-the-Sun road, a 52-mile scenic byway that remains the only road in America to be deemed a National Historic Landmark and a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
Winding through the valley floor alongside McDonald Creek, you’ll catch unbelievable mountain views. Even if you don’t take the time to sip a huckleberry daiquiri on the lakefront terrace at Lake McDonald Lodge, you must take a peek inside. With Swiss Chalet architecture, massive cedar columns, and a cocktail lounge, the Lodge will keep you hostage – and you will like it.
As you gain altitude along the famous road, your car may get misted as you pass under the Weeping Wall. You’ll also see geological history unfold before your eyes, including cirques and hanging valleys.
The Continental Divide peaks at Logan Pass—a saddle situated at an elevation of 6,800 feet, 32 miles from the park’s west entrance. Here, snow melt trickling toward the east ends up in the Mississippi River Delta, and rain falling west heads to the Pacific ocean. The mile-and-a-half long boardwalk leading to Hidden Lake overlook makes Logan Pass a perfect place to stop, stretch your legs and enjoy the view.
Cross the Continental Divide and keep on the scenic byway. You’ll drop into eastern part of the park, where mountains give way to the plains.
As you descend from Logan Pass, look for Sun Point Nature Trail, Rising Sun recreation area and the expansive Saint Mary’s Lake. By the time you reach the east end of the lake, think about strolling through Saint Mary’s Lodge and Resort, home to the savory buffalo roast at Snowgoose Grille.
Highway 89 South toward Kiowa
At the town of Saint Mary take Highway 89 south toward Kiowa. You’ll be skirting the Black Feet Indian Reservation for about 20 miles. The going is slow through here with hairpin curves keeping you around 35 mph.; however, the scenery is spectacular. Rolling hills, cattle and small streams balance out the staggering peaks behind you.
Highway 49 South to East Glacier
The tiny town of Kiowa (population: four) in remote Glacier County is known as a “birder’s paradise,” and some residents even claim to ride on horseback to work.
Continue your drive by taking Highway 49 south out of Kiowa toward Lower Two Medicine Lake and the East Glacier Park Village.
Despite its small size, East Glacier is packed with amenities and opportunities, including the Grizzly Gas Station, Dollar Rent-a-Car, horseback packing outfitters, and an Amtrak station.
The Sears Motel is a great option if you want to make an overnight of your trip.
With rooms starting around $60, it’s quirkier and cheaper than the ultra-swank Glacier Park Lodge just down the street, which features the Remedies Day Spa and a golf course.
Brownies Grocery and H.I. Hostel
Recognized by Hostelling International and operating seasonally from mid-May to the end of September, this log house has fresh-baked pastries every morning, a full restaurant, Internet access, and offers a range of cheap accommodations starting around $30 per night.
For budget travelers looking for a cheap room, it’s hard to beat Brownies.
The Spiral Spoon, “The Last Best Spoon for the Last Best Place”
Serving as Montana’s response to the “Spoon and Cherry” sculpture in Minneapolis, the World’s Largest Purple Spoon resides in East Glacier.
The 14-foot plum-colored spoon welcomes visitors to Wagner’s Wondrous Wands and Spiral Spoons, a funky shop filled with intricately carved wooden and Selenite crystal cutlery.
In 1999—just two years after co-owner Jo Wagner carved her first spoon—Jo and Charley opened the shop. Each year since then, “we’ve sold nearly every spoon we make,” according to Jo.
In this oddball house of cutlery, no two spoons are alike. The best-selling spoon is the “Kitchen Angel,” a Birchwood trifecta of spoon, spatula and ice cream scooper. “I never make enough of them,” Jo says. You can find a range of prices for sets and individual pieces starting around $27.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Leaving East Glacier’s tree-lined streets, hop onto Highway 2 toward West Glacier to complete the loop.
Since you witnessed the park without re-filling your tank, you’ll have some change left over for a drink at the West Glacier Bar, where you’ll find park rangers, travelers and the author all slurring romantically about the sights you just saw.
Going-to-the-Sun Road alerts and road status: https://home.nps.gov/applications/glac/roadstatus/roadstatus.cfm
The Sears Motel: www.searsmotel.com
Glacier National Park Lodges and Resorts: www.glacierparkinc.com
Hostelling International: www.hihostels.com
Wagner’s Spoons, 406-226-4558: www.thespiralspoon.com
Brownie’s Grocery and Hostel 406-226-4426
By Athena Arnot-Copenhaver for PeterGreenberg.com.
Learn more about driving trips in our Car Rental section.
Check out these other great One-Tank Trips:
- One-Tank Trip: Los Angeles to Santa Barbara County
- America the Beautiful: Nine Stops, Nine Miles
- One-Tank Trip: Raleigh, North Carolina
Previously by Athena Arnot-Copenhaver: