The Great Northern and Glamping

Except for my jaunt down to the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I followed US-2, aka the Great Northern, from just west of the Mississippi Headwaters in Minnesota, all the way to Glacier National Park.  So, why is US Highway 2 dubbed “The Great Northern”?

In 1889, several pre-existing railroads were merged into one by the Great Northern Railway.  The tracks would eventually span from Duluth, MN in the east, all the way to Seattle, WA on the west coast.  Although I hate to admit it, I knew very little about the grand project in the late 1800s to connect the east and west coasts via railway until I watched the historical fiction Netflix series “Hell on Wheels.”  What an undertaking!  Now considered an iconic US road trip, The Great Northern parallels the old locomotive route and runs through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, across the border into Ontario and Montreal, Canada, then back down into the US, all the way to Acadia National Park.

The landscape along this roadway ran the spectrum from crystal clear lakes, to neatly checkered land of corn and wheat fields (and even some bordered by cattail lined marshland), to multicolored buttes and grasslands, to continental divide passes, to tranquil mountain streams.  I was truly amazed at how varied the scenery was just in these three states alone (MN, ND, MT).  

Although Molina and I had ridden into West Glacier on US-2, I took advantage of my time in the area by riding the section between Browning and Glacier National Park again, this time armed with the knowledge that US-2 is also part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.  Back in Browning, roughly 68 miles from West Glacier, resides the Museum of the Plains Indian.  The museum is a collaboration of the US Dept. of the Interior with the National Park Service and tells the story of the Northern Tribal Plains people, which include the Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux, Assiniboine, Arapaho, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Flathead, Chippewa, and Cree Tribes.

Though the outside of the Museum of the Plains Indian is unassuming, the exhibits and collections contained within its walls were a stunning array of artifacts documenting the history and culture of the Plains Indian.  Photography inside the museum is not allowed, so instead of photos, I picked up an intriguing book and a meaningful piece of art from two Blackfeet tribe artists in residence while I was there- even better!  

Just a little west of Browning, I came across a sign stating “Blackfeet Nation Bison Reserve” and saw several buffalo lounging around a small lake.  Before the arrival of European colonizers, there were an estimated 20-30 million bison in North America.  By the late 1800s, there were less than 300 free-roaming bison left in the entire U.S. and Canada.  Thanks to conservation efforts and reintroduction of herds, estimates now put the number of bison in North America at a half million.  You can read an interesting article about the Blackfeet Nation Bison Reserve published by the Sierra Club HERE. 

The Blackfeet Nation manages a herd of approximately 800 bison on the Blackfeet Reservation. – Sierra Club
Welcoming to Blackfeet Nation and East Glacier

Train tracks following the Great Northern Railway line guide US-2 through the Rocky Mountains.  As I glided along, fairly easily, along paved roads with carefully calculated grades and banking, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must’ve been like for those first explorers to try to find a route through this unforgiving land.  Relying on Native Peoples knowledge, they capitalized heavily on migration and trade routes that had already been established for centuries to “discover” the easiest ways to gain transcontinental access.

Placard at John F. Stevens Memorial Statue at Marias Pass (Continental Divide) on US-2 reads: “John F. Sevens was a civil engineer for the Great Northern Railroad.  He was charged with finding a suitable rail route across the Continental Divide.  In December of 1889, Stevens located and recorded the pass which had been used by area Native Americans for many centuries.  By 1893, the Great Northern was running trains over Marias Pass.”
Like the tracks of the Great Northern Railway, US-2 runs parallel to the Middle Fork Flathead River, snaking a beautifully twisty route through the Rocky Mountains.

With the exception of the Grand Marais RV Park and Campground, all of my camping experiences up to this point had been in non-commercial locations (ie, National and State Parks).  So, I was unprepared for the amenities available to me upon check-in at the West Glacier KOA Resort.  The landscaping was impressive, there were swimming pools, hot tubs, a cafe, bar, kids’ playground, super clean bath houses, laundry facilities, cabins, well-stocked camp store, wifi (albeit spotty and weak) and scheduled activities.  Basically, everything a camping family could need.  Of course, those amenities come with a corresponding price tag and spaces that are super close together, less wooded, and lots of noise.  But lots of people also means more people to chat up and make friends with 🙂   

Gorgeous grounds at the West Glacier KOA Resort.
The staff at the campground called the mountain you can see behind my camper “Strawberry Hill” because of the way it glows pinkish red in the evenings as the sun was setting.
Taking advantage of the beautiful scenery poolside at the West Glacier KOA Resort.
And this is what your heart rate does when you’re jolted from sleep in the early morning hours by a sound you think is a bear right outside your pop-up…but turns out to be your noisy neighbors preparing to depart for an early start at Glacier National Park!
As a solo traveler, I often get to join others for a meal.  Rick and Janet, who have been married for 57 years and had been on the road for over a month in their RV, shared a meal with me at the campground cafe one night.  Such a delight to visit with, they invited me to their RV another night for grilled bison burgers…great company and delicious food, can’t beat that!

As I was hanging out in the only area in the campground with good wifi reception to write a blog post, an older gentleman kept running by, obviously training for something.  When he stopped near me to take a break, I commented on his “Bataan Memorial Death March” shirt.  The event itself is a civilian one, but it honors the service members who defended the Philippines during World War II and endured the infamous Bataan Death March.  Though he himself had not served, he and his wife’s strong military ties instilled a deep appreciation for service members.  Upon learning that I am retired military, he reached into his small pack and handed me a Bottle Breacher–  a .50 caliber round casing that had been modified into a bottle opener that was engraved with the words “Freedom Lover” on it, and thanked me for my service.  The encounter was brief, but reminded me that we are all connected, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Unexpected gift from a fellow camper in appreciation for my military service- a Bottle Breacher.

Between sightseeing with my new Bunk-a-Biker friend Molina, Glacier National Park and the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the historical and scenic sites along US-2, and my new campground friends, I really enjoyed my week in West Glacier, MT. This was one of the longest stays of my trip so far, so it’s time to hit the road!

    

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