The 1,000-mile car journey enchants parents and a youngster with awe-inspiring scenery and wild animal sightings.
As my daughter, Ursula, bounded along the mountain trails of Glacier National Park, I felt a smile spread across my face. We’d flown from pancake-flat Houston to Montana to see old friends and visit old haunts, and now my one and only was surging uphill like a mountain goat, imbibing the fresh air along Avalanche Lake Trail. With my wife, Christina, by my side, I marveled at the sturdy, steady pace set by our 11-year-old as she climbed over steep rocky steps rising through a majestic woodland of hemlock and pine. We’d left the traffic of the park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road behind and were headed for a high-altitude picnic.
It seemed inconceivable to me that Ursula was a mere preschooler when I last set foot in Glacier, a million-acre jewel of parkland in Montana. I fell for the park back when I was in my 20s: During a brief spell working as a line cook in nearby Whitefish, I would backpack during days off. Later, I relocated to Missoula and landed my first full-time newspaper job, with many holiday weekends spent with friends canoeing the park’s out-of-the-way lakes near the Canadian border. In the late 1990s, I moved to Texas with Christina, who’d received her undergraduate degree from the University of Montana. While I’d made it a point to visit since then, she hadn’t been back to the Treasure State in 20 years.
We were both sporting a touch of gray and mildly creaky knees last summer when we decided to take a family road trip with our daughter to get reacquainted with the landscape and natural wonders that had helped first kindle our romance. We wanted to make the most of Missoula, while Ursula had clearly articulated her desire to explore not only Glacier but also Yellowstone National Park, which one of her young neighborhood friends had raved about. The best avenue to check all these boxes was a 1,000-mile family road trip across Big Sky Country—with brief side trips to fly-fish a few trout streams. We wouldn’t do any backpacking, but Montana’s scenic highways offer plenty of chances to gawk at rushing rivers and jagged alpine vistas, not to mention scope wildlife. Our checklist included sandhill cranes, ospreys, and eagles; bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and bison; and grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves.
So a couple of days after flying into Missoula, where we caught up with old friends and rafted on the Clark Fork River, we filled our rented Dodge Journey SUV with gear, cranked up the radio, and hit the road. Christina rode shotgun and Ursula ensconced herself among stuffed animals and snack crackers in the back. Eventually, we tired of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars and started an audio version of Rick Riordan’s recent best-selling series, Trials of Apollo.
Over the years, I’ve learned that even a trouble-free drive of four hours can seem like a lifetime to a child. Fortunately, as we angled north to Glacier, we found plenty of roadside action to enjoy. We passed under one of the several wildlife crossings along US Highway 93 maintained by the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes, and bought fresh cherries from an orchard on the shores of Flathead Lake, the Lower 48’s largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. For lunch, we stopped at Flathead Lake Brewing and dined overlooking the water.