Join Bill and Lisa Hughes, publishers of Northwest Quarterly, as they recount the incredible sights of their recent drive through the great American West.
What’s the best thing about living in our special region of the Old Northwest Territory? Well, there’s no “one best thing,” of course, but being centrally located in the U.S. certainly rates high. That’s especially true in this COVID-19 year of the “road trip.”
Traveling from our region in northern Illinois, there are plenty of excellent destinations to find, whether you’re heading north, south, east or west. In the pages that follow you can take in the experience of our road trip west to stunningly beautiful Glacier National Park in far northwest Montana.
So far, my better half, Lisa, and I have made it to every state in the union except Idaho and Alaska. Our Glacier trip was one I had dreamed of making for years and years. Lisa kindly acquiesced to my wishes and off we went. Now, I hope you’ll enjoy this re-stepping of our journey. If it motivates you to take on this adventure, you’ll be glad you did.
The Road Trip
Half of the adventure is traveling from northern Illinois to northwest Montana. We began with I-90 to Hwy. 20 West (and then back to I-90 at Sioux City, Iowa) to experience the Driftless Area hills of northwest Illinois, leading to the wide-open prairies and farmlands of Iowa and South Dakota. Entering the Great American West, we experienced so many memorable sights and monuments.
Dignity Sculpture, Chamberlain, S.D.
Standing 50 feet tall, Dignity commemorates South Dakota’s 125th anniversary as a state. Installed in 2016, the sculpture depicts a proud American-Indian woman and stands on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River.
Lewis and Clark Center, Sioux City, Iowa
In 1804, Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean, via the Missouri River. This interpretive center marks a campsite of the expedition and also offers a stunning view of Dignity.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Most interesting to us here were the many bighorn sheep resting on precarious outcroppings.
Gutzon Borglum’s masterpiece of a lifetime, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota, completed in 1941, is awe-inspiring to every patriotic American. Although Lisa and I had been here years before with our young family, this was still a highlight.
Devil’s Tower, Black Hills & Gillette, Wyoming
The next segment of our trip set up our long ride through the State of Montana. Dipping south from Mount Rushmore, we traveled through the rugged Black Hills National Forest before heading north to Devil’s Tower National Monument, which doesn’t appear especially large from a distance. When we arrived, however, two mountain climbers were rapelling down from the top and looked very tiny, indeed. Gillette, Wyo., in the middle of the region’s “energy patch,” is both prosperous and good for overnighting.
Little Bighorn Battlefield and the High Plains
We left Gillette before sunrise and drove northwest through the High Plains as dawn unfolded. I was struck by how desolate the High Plains feel. When we came to the Montana border, our first sight was a sign stating “Welcome to the Crow Nation.” This seemed fitting, as our destination was the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Memorial. Parts of America’s history are complicated, to say the least. A visit to this battlefield is one no thoughtful American will forget.
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park
The trip from Little Bighorn to Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park was long. I had always wanted to cross Montana. I didn’t realize that most of it is semi-arid plains that yield to mountains and forest only after crossing two-thirds of the state.
Our itinerary sent us zipping by Glacier National Park to begin our stay in Waterton Lakes National Park. In 1931, Rotary Clubs of Alberta and Montana proposed uniting the parks into Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first such park in the world.
Waterton Lakes National Park
The Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton, Alberta, occupies a dramatic setting. If you can stay here, do so; it’s open mid-May to mid-September. You’ll never get enough of the views over Waterton Lake, its mountainsides and Waterton Village.
We enjoyed a boat ride and a round of golf there. But be warned. When we booked our tee time weeks in advance, the golf pro told us a mamma grizzly and her two cubs were crossing the 1st tee as we spoke. (Hint: Don’t chase your ball into the woods.)
The Waterton Shoreline Cruise Company took us on a boat ride past spectacular mountain scenery we’ll never forget. After an elegant dinner at the hotel, it was off to Glacier the next morning.
Glacier National Park
You could spend a summer in Glacier National Park, so do your research first. Make as many reservations in advance as you can. Here are some highlights from our adventure, which I hope you’ll find useful.
Glacier Park Lodge
This is the first hotel built in 1913 by the Great Northern Railway to encourage rail travel. It’s a classic western log lodge from which to begin your adventure.
Horse Trail Ride at Many Glacier
Here’s a great way to get into the backcountry. Riding along mountainsides and pristine lakes, we saw a black bear that was busy eating huckleberries. I did a fair share of horseback riding in my youth, Lisa not so much. No worries. All of these horses are gentle and know the trail well. Lisa was good to go within the first few minutes on her steed.
Cruising St. Mary Lake
Seems like “spectacular” awaits you around every turn in Glacier National Park. The cruise on St. Mary Lake rivaled the beauty of our cruise on Waterton Lake. It’s the much-photographed home of Goose Island, incredible vistas and waterfall hikes. This boat ride is a must.
Running along St. Mary Lake is the beginning stretch of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, when traveling east to west. Even though we had already experienced so much, this was the pinnacle of our trip.
This road was carved into granite mountainsides from 1921 to 1932 as a fast and beautiful way to cross the park. It’s the first road recognized as a National Historic Place, National Historic Landmark and Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Mile after mile for 50 miles, the views are jaw-dropping. There’s much to see and do along the way.
Logan Pass is the summit along the Continental Divide. Its Visitors Center is a great spot to snag mementos. Many hikes begin from the Logan Pass parking lot. We hiked to a glacier and nearby lake.
Wildlife sightings are abundant when you hike trails that begin at Logan Pass. We saw mountain goats, grizzly bears and bighorn sheep aplenty.
Hiking a small portion of the Highland Trail was a highlight for me. I wish time had allowed for a longer hike as the Alpine views are unbeatable.
Glacier Park Red Bus Tours
A Red Bus Tour Guide knows so many interesting stories about Glacier National Park and its history. The tour is well worth the money. Those nervous about driving narrow mountain roads with thousand-foot drop-offs at every turn will appreciate being able to relax and enjoy the scenery.
When we were all done with our fantastic Glacier National Park visit, one road trip remained: the long road home. We brought home memories to last a lifetime. If you go, you will, too.