Trip Through the Still-Wild Boundary of Montana

OF AMERICA’S 59 national parks, two of the most celebrated lie some 400 miles apart in western Montana—Glacier and Yellowstone. Even though I’ve lived in the region for four decades, I’d never taken the time to fully explore the in-between territory outside the parks. So one spring day, after the snow had mostly melted off, I set out from Yellowstone with my compass pointed north toward Glacier. If you don’t stop, weaving a path through the wild heart of the northern Rockies, the drive takes about seven hours, but I was in no rush and spread the trip out over three days.

The first thing you realize leaving Yellowstone—by way of Highway 89—is that the abundant wildlife doesn’t stop at its boundary. Just north of Gardiner, a park gateway town, electric warning signs flash “animals on the road” and indeed they were: 20 or so elk milled about in the middle of the highway and mule deer too numerous to mention crowded the shoulder all along a 50-mile stretch of highway. Antelope grazed, unperturbed by traffic whipping along the road, bison wandered across the green hills and bald eagles wheeled overhead, scouting fish along the purling Yellowstone River. This is Montana’s Paradise valley, which unfurls north from the park’s historic stone arch. The Yellowstone, the longest undammed river in the contiguous U.S., bisects the valley and many people come to raft it in these parts, especially on the churning rapids of Yankee Jim Canyon, the color of chocolate milk in the spring, giving way to a sea-green shade come summer. The steel-gray Absaroka Mountains tower mightily in the background.

For centuries, the Paradise Valley was a shared hunting ground for Native American tribes in the region. But much of the written history of this part of Montana features pick-wielding prospectors and their dogged search for precious metals. In the 1860s, gold miners moved into the Paradise Valley to work the lodes. Among the settlements they built is Old Chico, a mountain village a half-hour north of Yellowstone, now home to just a handful of people who live in an assortment of old cabins and newer houses with breath-stealing views of the peaks. Within walking distance sits Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, centered around a large geothermally heated swimming pool. The resort’s barnwood-lined dining room, which serves grass-fed beef and fresh fish, also happens to rank among the best restaurants in the state. After dinner, I swam in the hot pool, steam shrouding the mountain scenery.

The 19th-century miners here also needed to eat, and so cattlemen and their herds made their way to the Paradise Valley. A gold miner named Nelson Story drove 1,000 cows from Texas across the plains, up the Bozeman Trail and on to Montana where he founded a ranch tucked in the mountains near a town called Emigrant. The Story family still owns the property. Nearby is another sprawling spread called the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, a high-end rustic retreat owned by Arthur Blank, chairman of Home Depot.

I joined Interstate 90 at Livingston, a windblown railroad town with a quaint historic downtown backed by a sudden rise of mountains. I spent the night in a meticulously refurbished railcar (listed on the vacation-rental site VRBO), set in a cottonwood grove a few miles south of town.

This region was still largely cattle country when I first came west in the 1970s, but it has since become a destination for the world’s well-heeled who come for the scenery, skiing and fly fishing. “I think it’s because the landscape and people are still authentic,” said Cyndy Andrus, deputy mayor of Bozeman, the bustling college town just 30 minutes from Livingston.

After lunch in Bozeman, at a popular place called Dave’s Sushi, I stopped at the Madison Buffalo Jump, a seven-mile detour (one way) off the Interstate, some of it on a bumpy gravel road but worth the trip. The tribes who came here over the centuries got dressed like bison and whooped and yelled, luring and chasing the creatures down lanes lined with rock, and over the cliff to their death or near death on the rocks below. I hiked to the top for an expansive view of the valley. It’s the kind of place, as the saying goes, where you can watch your dog run away for three days.

Just up the road, the town of Three Forks is named for the nearby site where three rivers—named the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson by Lewis and Clark—meander and oxbow and finally get their act together to create the beginning of the mighty Missouri. I hiked around the Missouri Headwaters State Park and found the exact spot where three rivers become one.

I motored on to Helena, my hometown, founded in 1864 when four exasperated prospectors, on the verge of giving up, finally plucked gold nuggets out of a small creek that tumbled out of the mountains. The gold-filled creek became Last Chance Gulch, the main street of what quickly evolved into a prosperous city. Some say that for a time, Helena claimed more millionaires than any town its size, which is easy enough to fathom when you drive through its 19th-century mansion district. Today, new coffee shops, a microbrewery and a wine bar line the gulch. Jill Roberts, who returned home to Helena after many years as a sommelier in New York, co-owns the wine bar, Hawthorn Bottle Shop and Tasting Room. “My Dad used to sing in a barbershop quartet in front of this building,” she said. “I wanted to be part of bringing back historic Helena.”

The shortest route from here to Glacier zips through the Swan Valley, but who’s in a hurry? I headed west, driving a couple of hours to Missoula, another lively college town in the mountains. The novel “A River Runs Through It” was partly set here, and a river called the Clark Fork does indeed run through the center of town. Surfers in gleaming black wetsuits gather below the Higgins Avenue Bridge to ride its rapids.

A few miles north of town, I stopped at what may be the least likely Montana tourist attraction: the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, a legion of statues built by a Buddhist monk from Tibet on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The road from there winds past the National Bison Range, where I stopped for a peek at the herd, and through the Mission Mountains, named for a 19th-Century Jesuit mission set in, for my money, one of Montana’s prettiest valleys at the mountains’ foot.

I finished my trip in northwest Montana with a night at the century-old Kalispell Grand Hotel, and then on to West Glacier, the gateway to Glacier National Park. This is huckleberry country, where the blueberry’s wild and more flavorful sibling, stars in menus all over town—in pies, milkshakes, Martinis, beer; come July, locals will tell you where to pick your own.

When I finally drove into Glacier National Park, snow still clogged the high country there. I sat on the shore of Lake McDonald, at the edge of the park, and looked at the famed peaks at the far end of the water’s edge and their mirror image in the still surface.