Saturday, September 05, 2009

Montana -The Last Best Place

Leaving the Little Big Horn area and it's golden rolling hills, we headed west into the Madison River Valley and spent time in the town of Ennis, which bills itself as the "trout fishing capital of the world". Surrounded by tall, forested mountains and with the crystal-clear Madison River running through town, it's a small town of fly-fishing shops, restaurants, and real estate companies. We enjoyed exploring the area and visiting the local restaurants, and were happy to see so many Osprey nests with juveniles still on the nests. They're so entertaining to watch as they practice flying, hovering over the nest, bumping into one another, all the time with their wide-eyed stare. They need to get their flying skills down pat since they'll soon be making the long migration to Mexico and even South America .
We weren't far from West Yellowstone and hadn't made the drive from this direction, so we made a day trip to the park entrance. On the way, we stopped at Earthquake Lake, where in August, 1959, a 7.3 tremor shook the area, resulting in an 80-million ton landslide that buried a popular camping area and dammed the Madison River. 28 people were killed in the avalanche that buried the campground, and the bodies of many of those who died were never recovered. A visitor center, perched on the mountainside across from the slide area, offers a perfect view of the collapsed mountain, the riverbed area where the campground was located, and the lake itself. Pictures of the damage throughout the area were amazing; Hebgen lake, located upstream, "tilted" at least eight feet, leaving some boat docks hundreds of feet from the water, and sections of the main highway dropped into the lake, stranding hundreds. It's an interesting place to visit, especially since the damage is still so visible. We continued on the West Yellowstone, the main tourist center for Yellowstone National Park. A collection of hotels, campgrounds, and typical tourist attractions, West Yellowstone isn't a place to spend time, and after a late lunch we took a short drive into the park (much too crowded), then headed back into the Madison Valley and Ennis.
We've always been interested in old mining towns, and decided to visit the next valley and the towns of Virginia City and it's neighbor, Nevada City. Both are towns on Alder Gulch, an area where in the 1860s over 10,000 people lived and mined the area looking for gold. Nevada City, the smaller of the two, is now largely owned by the state and many historic buildings throughout Montana have been moved here to form a truly historic village and museum. There's an old train station where you can ride an open car to Virginia City and back; outside of the station is a collection of old mining equipment - I thought this rail car presented an interesting collection of colors:
Virginia City is also an interesting place to visit; many of the stores are preserved just as they were in the 1860s, complete with dry goods, tools, fabrics, and other goods. There's an interesting museum, with many historic artifacts including the original headstones of five "road agents" who were hanged by the Montana Vigilantes. The town, which was once the territorial capital of Montana, has a year-around population of 150 and retains more of it's history then any other we've visited.
Leaving Ennis, we continued west to the Big Hole Valley, a stunning valley of rolling grasslands known as the "land of 10,000 haystacks". At an elevation of 6000', the valley is the highest and widest of any in Montana. Climbing out of the valley, Brenda spotted a cow moose along the road as we headed for Chief Joseph Pass, and a little farther on, Lost Trail Pass. Joining US 93 at the top of the pass, we headed north down seven miles of 7% grade into the Bitterroot Valley. Having spent two summers here volunteering at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, we looked forward to visiting here again. We stopped along the road to take this picture of one of our favorite views, Trapper Peak, the highest peak in the Bitterroot Mountains at over 10,000', and always snow-covered. We spent a few days in Missoula, with trips each day visiting favorite places and having dinner with old friends. Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley will always be one of our favorite places, but soon it was time to move on and we headed northwest along the Clark Fork River to the small town of Trout Creek. This is a stunningly beautiful area, with steep mountain walls, deep blue lakes and river, and miles of forest. While exploring one day, we came upon the Ross Creek Cedar Grove, which was a real surprise -it reminded us of walking through the coastal Redwood groves in Northern California. The huge cedar trees crowded out the sun and made the walking the trail a magical journey. Like the redwood forests, you would almost fall backwards as you traced the tree trunk up into the sky. We didn't know places like this existed in Montana - and are grateful to have stumbled across it! On another trip, we watched a cow moose as she worked her way up a creek bed, grazing along the way, pretty oblivious to our presence. Our RV site at the Trout Creek Motel and RV Park was exceptional - it's not often we get to park on putting-green grass, surrounded by trees and flowers. Our visit to Trout creek was special and we'd love to return again. But for now, we're heading west again, this time to Spokane and points west. Come back and see our journey!

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