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Trip Report Western States Road Trip to Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Montana

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Western States Roadtrip: 3400 miles through California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon then back to the natural air-conditioning of the San Francisco Bay Area again.

First of all, I’d like to thank all the Fodorites who offered suggestions and answers to a myriad of questions about our trip and also my goddaughter and her partner for suggesting the upscale Blue Sky Cabins, sixteen miles into ranch country and up a dirt road outside of Red Lodge, Montana. Out of all the lodgings we stayed (carefully chosen by me, the certified hotel freak) it was our favorite (Glacier Guides Lodge in West Glacier was the second). We had never heard of the Big Sky Country, never heard of Red Lodge, and never would have experienced the special mix of simplicity and luxury that Tammy and Kevin Luoma have created. Word of mouth wins again. I also want to note how helpful TripAdvisor’s 10 best restaurants in “x” city were for the days we were on the road. Last but not least, we would like to thank the states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana for the immaculate bathrooms they had EVERYWHERE — from hotels to hole-in-the-wall cafe’s to gas stations to national parks, including backcountry outhouses (where there was actually toilet paper and hand sanitizer that was filled.) It really made a difference.

In terms of the actual on the road part of our road trip, we enjoyed it much more than we expected. We had originally planned to fly in and out of Missoula, Montana, then rent a car. However, a new car with lumbar supports in both front seats convinced us to try driving all the way. We are really glad we did. Highlights included driving through Nevada on route 50 and 722 (even more remote). Its austere beauty, wide horizons and the almost empty roads in Nevada were unforgettable for us, accustomed to Northern California traffic and beauty (which is spectacular but does not include wide open spaces).The day after Nevada. driving through the green farm country of Idaho where the fields were covered by bright yellow mustard flowers was almost equally moving and shared the same wide skies.

Sunday, we arrived at Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park where we would spend the next four nights. All the time I had spent trying for cancellations in a cottage with a lake view were completely worth it (however, on the other hand, we would not have been happy to pay $300 a night for rooms that looked out on other rooms, of which there were many). Our room was lovely, with a view over willow flats and Jackson Lake to the amazing peaks of the Grand Tetons; there was a balcony outside our room where we spent a great deal of time sipping wine and gazing. Both DH and I were recovering from serious viruses—that and the fact that many trails were closed because of bear activity made it so we have little to report about the hiking in the Grand Tetons except that the walk around Jackson Lake is lovely, with nice views, peaceful forest and lupin, forget-me-nots and tall white bear grass, which we would also see in Montana. We did take a rafting trip down the Snake River which we would not recommend. The guide was great, but the river was too slow to be exciting and too fast to enjoy the calm and take photos. We also saw no wildlife—for us, three plus hours and $150 dollars wasted.

We left the Grand Tetons and had a long but beautiful driving day through Yellowstone National Park (where we saw 14 geese swimming in a row on Yellowstone Lake) up to Silver Gate where where we had lunch in the Log Cabin Cafe, which was one of our best eating experiences in the whole vacation. I had fresh trout and a strawberry-rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream for dessert; my husband equally enjoyed his meal.

The next four nights we spent at Blue Sky Cabins in the Big Sky Country outside of Red Lodge Montana. I’ve described our experience above—cannot recommend the magical beauty and peace of this place highly enough.

Then, another long but nice day of driving through Montana, again with the pleasure of open roads, big skies, nice people and clean bathrooms. We had an excellent lunch in Great Falls Montana at MacKenzie Pizza Company. It’s right by a river and park, so also a good place to stretch your legs on a long driving day (DH however hated the extreme air conditioning and complained with the manager, it looks silly and feel unpleasant eating wrapped in a pile jacket when the outside temperature is in the 100s). We drove through a Native American reservation, sadly very clearly far from prosperous, and after a 40 minute wait because the park was full and they were not opening it to incoming guests, we arrived at Many Glacier Lodge, an old railroad hotel sitting on a lake with magnificent views. The hotel was not equally magnificently managed—bad meals, internet said to be available in lounge nonexistent—a problem because I was not able to be reached when I had promised troubled patients I would be . The food in the expensive dining room was sometimes actively bad and the enthusiastic interesting servers from other countries had clearly not been trained to handle restaurant life at full capacity. However, these complaints fade in the face of the beauty of the views from the hotel.

The hiking in Glacier National Park was truly glorious. These are the “purple mountains majesty”—steep cliffs, green meadows, and a profusion of wildflowers—bear grass, heather daisies, orange lilies, indian paintbrush—that I have never seen anywhere else. I have never been on a hike as beautiful as the Highline trail—highly recommend getting on the trail by 7:30 or 8:00 to have at least part of the morning in relative solitude. Mostly level hiking with huge drop offs, the marvelous Going-to-the-Sun road far below us. We are Yosemite people, have traveled to Bhutan, but this deservedly popular hike was like nothing I’ve seen anywhere. Go when the wildflowers are blooming.

We spent the second half of our stay on the west side of the Park in Glacier Guides Lodge, which was like being in a tree house (room 6), with all the comforts the more expensive Many Glacier Lodge lacked (air conditioning, wifi, attentive, knowledgable and courteous staff, an excellent complementary breakfast, sack lunches for hiking of very good quality). Small, with only twelve rooms, it, too, was surrounded by flower pots on the balconies and wildflowers in the back. If we ever return we will be staying there.

Our journey back to California was more difficult with road construction, serious traffic starting in Oregon and a good-bye to the wide open skies which corny though it sounds, also opened one’s heart.We had an excellent stay in the historic Pendleton bed and breakfast in northeast Oregon —old Victorian with our charming host who was also a first rate chef (country omelette with ranch fresh eggs and homemade pastry for breakfast). Mount Hood was magnificent and DH enjoyed drive by the Colombia River (I was sleeping) .The Oregon coast, which has longer and more walkable beaches than the cliffs of our beautiful Northern California coast, was lovely.

Trip ended happily with nice lunch with wine and a much needed car wash before heading home. We would do it again in a minute. The one thing I don’t know how to fix is that our drive home was three one night stands, with three days of eight hours of driving (the last day was shorter). For me, six hours-seven hours a day of driving is plenty even with switching off drivers. What would have helped was spending two nights somewhere, but I needed to be back at work and also by the time we left Glacier National Park, we had a case of Stendhal syndrome (but with an excess of beauty instead of art) and we were ready to be home in our own bed with kitties. Suggestions about how we might have better handled the trip home welcome.

Our final itinerary:
Day 1 San Francisco to Fernley, Nevada (Best Western)
Day 2 Fernley, Nevada to Twin Falls, Idaho (Best Western)
Day 3 Drive to Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Tetons National Park. Spend 4 nights there
Day 7 Drive through Yellowstone National Park to Blue Sky Lodge, Montana for 4 nights
Day 11 Drive to Many Glacier Lodge in Glacier National Park. Stay of 4 nights
Day 15 Drive beautiful Sun road to Glacier Guides Lodge, west Glacier. Stay of 3 nights
Day 18 Drive to Pendleton Oregon. Historic Pendleton Inn. 1 night
Day 19 Drive to Bandon Oregon, southern Oregon coast. 1 night at motel less said the better
Day 20 Drive to Ukiah, California 1 night Best Western
Day 21 home: lunch at Corte Madera Nordstrom “Blue Stove” followed by touch-less carwash

And a last note: Even though we used WAZE, we found the Rand McNally 2018 medium-sized road atlas to be both fun and invaluable throughout our trip—thanks to very good. memoir,The Long Haul: A tracker’s Tale of Life on the Road .

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