Just minutes outside Missoula, the landscape changed dramatically. The radio went in and out and we were suddenly enveloped by the mountains, stunned by the snow-capped peaks in October.
[Note: Click on the pictures to make them bigger]
Road navigation out there couldn’t be easier. Take the main road (90) north out of Missoula, right at the fork to get on 93. We are far away from the jug handles and circles and congestion of our hometown.
This is, in fact, Big Sky Country. I pity Luke for being the driver as I can’t stop gasping at the expanse. A left onto Route 200 and a right onto 212 and we arrive at the Bison Range. As we approach there are tiny shops providing for basic needs, though we proceed through with our bags of snacks in tow (recommended: no time to waste, though I suppose that’s my East Coast self talking).
We’re surprised to see but one car in the parking lot and no one at the visitor center midday on a sunny Saturday. The lack of crowds in the off season is a gift in these parts…to experience a bit of the wild on our own, taking baby steps, starting with the Bison Range.
Consider the land prior to settlement in the 1880s: the area rich with 30-60 million bison and humans living the definition of sustainable. The development of the American West in the 1800s left nothing sacred, depleting the population of bison to a mere 100. The National Bison Range was established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. It really is a considerable feat that these animals are here for us to wonder at today.
We chat for a few minutes with the other family in the parking lot before setting out. Almost immediately we spot a massive Elk to our right. I’m simultaneously thrilled and annoyed as I spot a group using a tool to call the Elk that Google tells me is a “bugle.” I guess everyone doesn’t study the “interacting with wildlife” guidelines as religiously as I do.
During the off season the 24-mile Red Sleep Mountain Road is closed and you’re limited to the 14 mile road instead. We drive slowly, keeping our eyes peeled for any movement. A few cars pass us going the opposite direction. Each driver gives us a discouraging thumbs down or shake of the head to bear the bad news that they didn’t see much. But since this was our first time out West truly, we felt differently. There in the horizon roamed dozens of bison! Sure they were a bit hard to make out, but with a little squinting, THERE THEY WERE!
The views were equally thrilling. Could the golden grass meeting the deep blue of the distant mountains and the white of their peaks ever get old? I really don’t think so. As the clouds rolled in the colors changed, making for new variation on the experience. The road snaked along a rushing river and birds swooped as I leaned out of the car window to take as many pictures as I could muster. We departed as the rain began to fall.
Continuing north on 212 we passed through the Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge before arriving in the tiny town of Ronan–a “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” type place. We pulled off at Sonora Grill and were greeted by the sweetest family. If you’re ever out this way, it is a must-stop type place. Their hospitality felt like a big “Welcome to Montana” hug–the owner’s children running over with menus while simultaneously playing and sucking on a lollipop. We were the only ones there, giving us a little time to chat with her and get recommendations on a route north and of course food. The food was truly excellent, and you know I don’t say that often. Everything is homemade (or scratch-made as seen in Montana). If (when) we find ourselves back this way, I can’t wait to return.
Following the owner’s advice, we take the scenic route, route 35, along Flathead Lake. The road rises and dips and winds…and at last there’s the massive lake in all its splendor. Butting up against it are countless orchards and farms, signs indicating all varieties of stone fruits and berries that we’re too late for in October. And before we know it we hit Bigfork, marking our arrival at our final destination: the Flathead Valley.