Montana’s Big Sky motto is obvious everywhere we look. Big Sky is stunning. The longer we stay in Montana, the more we love it. All that may change during tomorrow’s cold snap. We love the size and everything about Montana. This is our second year (in a row) visiting Montana. Last year we crossed Montana, westbound from North Dakota to West Yellowstone. This year we came from the northwest and are staying in the mountains from Glacier National Park all the way to eastern Idaho. Big Sky is stunning.
Last Year from North Dakota
The last time we crossed into Montana it was westbound from North Dakota. We were following the Yellowstone River all the way to Yellowstone National Park. This is a massive prairie turned into massive farms. As we followed the Yellowstone River west of Billings we were met with gentle mountains rounded by glaciers. Then as we went south towards West Yellowstone, we followed the Gallatin River. We are stunned by how Montana beauty. Montana rivers look so impossibly perfect.
Here is a link about crossing Montana westbound following the Yellowstone River. Yellowstone River Valley
Here is a link to our stay last year in West Yellowstone, Montana and visits to Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone
This year, from northern Idaho
This time as we crossed eastward into Montana from Idaho. Here we still encountered the gentle mountains but this time the biggest impression was of Montana’s huge valleys. Montana has huge valleys and huge lakes in the valleys. The further north you go, Big Sky is even more stunning. I should also mention under the category of gentle mountains, mountains in Montana are not nearly as high in elevation as is Colorado or Wyoming and therefore is much easier on the lungs. I often feel like I should be winded when I am hiking, but instead, I’m doing fine.
Stunning Big Sky Valleys
We were camped on the doorstep of Glacier National Park and are moving south. Our first stop moving south was the doorstep of Flathead Lake. Flathead Lake is the center point of a huge valley that goes further north than Whitefish almost all the way south to Missoula. Looks like a little more than one hundred miles long on the map. Depending on how you describe the valley, you might say that the Flathead Valley is about 120 miles long in the United States and another fifty miles long in Canada. The Mission Mountain Range is between Flathead Valley and the Swan Valley. Swan River Valley is nearly eighty miles long. It is sufficient to describe these as huge valleys. The huge valleys in Big Sky are very stunning.
The Mission Mountian Range is dotted with about a hundred smaller lakes all waiting to be explored — next year?
Here is a link to our post on Glacier National Park. Glacier National Park is Majestic
Heading south in the Flathead valley we stopped at Wayfarers/Flathead State Park in Big Fork. This is where the Swan River enters Flathead Lake and the north end of the Swan River Valley.
Wayfarers/Flathead State Park
Wayfarers/Flathead State Park is a wonderful campground with the exception that the road leading around the campground to the campsite was way too tight for our RV. We ended up going on the one-way in the wrong direction. This isn’t actually all that unusual for us, but after you enter a campsite backward, you better have a plan to get out. So we turned around inside our campsite, using two other campsites for maneuvering room. Thankfully they were both empty. This made our exit much easier.
We really liked Wayfarers and since we liked it so much, but since it was so hard to get in; we wanted to stay much longer than three days. Our route is going to put us in danger of snow if we don’t get a few more miles and several more stops before the end of September so we moved on. It is hard to say that we won’t be going back to Wayfarers again, only because it was so difficult to get into our parking spot.
Wayfarers by the way, has the nicest camp hosts we have encountered in our full time journeys.
From Wayfarers State Park, we explored the north end of Flathead Lake (too windy and choppy for a kayak paddle) and the Swan River inlet into Flathead Lake including a very nice river walk.
Here is our campsite review of Wayfarers/Flathead State Park.
Here is a link to our post about discounts at Montana State Parks. Snippet: Montana State Parks Pass
Our next stop was a full fifty-five miles south. No reason to rush and pile on the big miles it is only the first of September, not the first of October. My goal for this move was to get back off-grid. I prefer camping without hookups in a more remote location rather than practically in town at Big Fork.
As we proceeded down the Swan Valley we passed Swan Lake which looked very inviting. Another twenty miles beyond Swan Lake was our turn to the campground.
This time we were going to be camping off-grid again. You might say that we mix it up in terms of picking campsites. Our favorite campgrounds would be away from town, not in an RV park of any kind, surrounded by wilderness, on a nearly untraveled road, hopefully, paved, where we can walk to the lake. Our wilderness campground had all of the above except the paved road.
When we were at West Glacier we picked a site that had easy access to the Glacier National Park. At Tally Lake, our goal was wilderness. In Big Fork, it was to be a nice place in a small town, now we are back to off-grid next to a lake and in the wilderness.
Holland Lake Campground
Holland Lake Campground is on the north shore of Holland Lake and surrounded by National Forest. Our kayaks are down at the lake, but our campsite is up the hill. Since we were only here for two nights this was a kayaking stop. We are leaving tomorrow. It isn’t nearly as dusty as was Tally Lake, but dust is still the number one problem.
Here is our campsite review of Holland Lake Campground.
Holland Lake is well south of Swan Lake in the Swan Lake Valley. It is south of the tiny town of Condon and it is north of Seeley Lake. In two days, we have paddled Holland Lake two evenings, not including the trips I made to launch the kayaks.
The easiest launch site is about half a mile south (straight line) of the campground. So we launched the kayaks and I paddled one kayak towing the other to the campground. Tami drove around and met me at the campsite with the car. It worked quite well. I have to say it was a surprise when the wind shifted and the towed kayak passed me. It was riding the new wind direction.
The picture at the top of the post is is my stunning Big Sky sunset at Holland Lake, taken from the kayaks, on one of our evening paddles. Just before sunset, with nearly a mile between us and the campground, Tami turned around to head back. Just after she left, I saw some movement in the brush. So I put my paddle down and started paddling with my hands. I was floating slowly up to about a hundred yards from the brush. I was right when I figured that it was a bear.
Lucky Fox, Happy Bear
The bear was so focused on the berries on the bushes that he never saw me. I had the wind in the right direction so that he wouldn’t smell me. I was able to shoot about a hundred pictures while he was eating. This is the longest duration that I have ever watched a bear in the wild before he spooked and all I had was a memory of seeing him sprint away.
I turned around just after sunset to catch some very beautiful pictures of the afterglow (including the one at the top of this post) and then went as fast as possible to catch Tami, hopefully before she got off the water. Typically I don’t paddle this fast but this evening I needed to catch up. Tami wasn’t happy because I took so long. I caught up to her right before she got off the water.
I didn’t tell her about the bear until I downloaded the pictures onto my computer and showed her some of the better shots. My bear pictures with poor light convinced me to get a better camera. It was hard to get him in focus, and he was mostly hidden for most of the pictures – waist-deep in the bushes. The one picture I shot when he was standing up (facing away from me) was blurry.
Placid Lake State Park
We now have what might be the best campsite we have ever enjoyed. The road was great, all up to the last two and a half miles where it turned to gravel. But right at the entrance to the state park, they paved the road. This makes such a big difference in our enjoyment. Our campsite is twenty yards from the lake and has a good view of the boat launch. This afternoon it was packed. The lake was choppy and there was a line to get on the water – and this included lots of empty boat trailers for people that wanted to get off the water.
This is a huge campsite, about fifteen yards behind the RV we have a covered picnic table. There are paved sidewalks which lead to a bridge across a small creek (dry in September) and back towards the entrance.
Here is our campsite review of Placid Lake State Park.
Every evening we were treated to a new spectacular sunset at Placid Lake. The sky turned to fire for a short period that made picture making so easy. It is not always this pretty and it did make picture picking a little difficult.
While at Placid Lake we were excited to make day trips to multiple lakes in the area and decided that our kayaks needed wheels. Two lakes we visited would have been so nice to paddle but the portage down to the launch was too rough so we choose a different lake. If we had wheels for the kayaks, and if I had a fishing license these lakes would have been so nice to spend lots of time on.
Rainy lake was one of these spectacular secluded lakes that would have been so nice to spend time paddling. It is a little small but still would have been very nice — if our kayaks had wheels. It was perfectly calm and had a very beautiful shoreline with nice mountains in the background.
Lake Alva was our sweet spot for kayaking that day. It had a boat launch, right next to a gravel beach. Lake Alva was also much bigger than Rainy Lake and right next to Highway 83 to the north of Seeley Lake. This end of the Swan Valley has about six lakes. I would like to paddle them all. Summer ended too soon.
On Labor Day morning, everything at Placid Lake State Park changed. Summer was over, at least for a short time and winter arrived in the west. The first cold front of winter emptied the park with the last campers departing early on Labor Day morning. (September 7) Overnight the temperature dropped below freezing for the next two nights and the mountains, the same mountains that I took sunset pictures of over Placid Lake got their first dusting of snow for the year. I didn’t expect this, in this area for about another month.