August 23, 2017


Filed under: travel — Frederick Noble @ 3:21 pm Share RSS

We flew into Bozeman, Montana, with family members who’d been there  before. “One of the great things about the airport is the amazing views,” my step-father said. We stepped out into the concourse and looked out of the panoramic windows at a wall of gray, some hills barely visible in the distance.

“That’s the clearest it has been in weeks,” noted a clerk. Wildfires all over the northwest, including many in western Montana, had the area blanketed in smoke so dense we could smell it outside.

Our cabin in Ennis, a small town in eastern Montana, normally has sweeping views of multiple ridges fading off into the distance. On the best day in the week we were there, we could see three our four layers at most. Some days, we could barely see the closest hills.

Ennis porch view

The haze did result in some amazing sunrises, sunsets and orange moons.

Montana skies

Montana sunset

Ennis is a cute little town with an inordinate amount of shops catering to the area’s big draw, fishing. The wide, shallow Madison River provides some of the best fly fishing on earth and people (let’s face it, almost entirely men) flock to the area to stand knee deep, or kneel in boats designed to handle the rocky stream, casting for trout.

Ennis sculptureIf fishing ain’t your thing, there are some interesting metal sculptures on main street, a park along the river, a handful of restaurants, three bars, and a local distillery.

Ennis sculptures

The deer and the antelope do, indeed, play on the range. So many dear they stop becoming interesting after a while, like pigeons in the city. We spotted a mom and faun striding down Main Street. At the cabin, a neighbor said they didn’t used to be a problem until someone insisted the town enact a leash law for dogs and now the deer eat everything outside the reach of a dog’s runner or fence.

I'm your huckleberry.Another constant – huckleberries. There are products of all sorts in almost every shop and restaurant featuring the moderately famous local fruit, despite a poor crop this year. If you follow me on Facebook, I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about them but we ran into so many huckleberry concoctions that it became a running joke. Pictured to the right: huckleberry pie from a local restaurant with huckleberry ice cream from a neighboring town, covered in huckleberry liqueur from the local distillery.

Montana is one of those places that attracts characters. A prominent sign in one of the saloons in Ennis reads, “There has to be reason other than the cold.” When we asked the barkeep what it meant, he said, “I don’t know. I’ve never noticed that there.” He’d come from England to live there. When we asked him why, he replied, “Every time I try to leave… I just end up back here.” Nothing about love or money or being down on his luck. We got the feeling there was something more to the story but he wasn’t going to tell strangers. “Come back on Friday and I’ll be on that side of the bar,” he said. Maybe we could’ve gotten the scoop then, but we didn’t get there in time on Friday night. Maybe it was the huckleberries.

Head up the ridge toward Virginia City and you get a great view.

Ennis to Virginia City

Virginia CityVirginia City is a former gold mining town turned tourist stopover. They’ve preserved a ton of historic buildings so you can wander into a saloon and sit by a pot-bellied stove and admire the intricate woodwork over the bar. Some of the locals look as if they were preserved about the same time as the town was founded. It’s as close to the Old West as you can get without performers in cowboy gear reenacting a shoot out.

Virginia City

Virginia City saloon

Speaking of performers, the tiny town has an opera house with various productions (Sweeney Todd was just wrapping up, Robin Hood was due to arrive the week after), as well as two different troupes in an old brewery on the edge of town doing musical, comedic “follies.” The brewery theater sits a couple dozen at most and is little more than a dusty room with bare wood walls, but puts on a kid friendly show in the afternoons that supposedly tells you a bit of the town’s history. We opted for the comparatively bawdy night time show in which they took various popular songs and re-purposed them for laughs, sort of a Weird Al variety show. The town is so small the jokes included references to locals by name. Alas, they don’t allow photography during the performance but this gives you a vague idea of the setting.

Brewery Follies

We hit the Bale of Hay saloon after the show, grabbing a “pasty” – a savory pie of Cornish origins brought when miners came to Montana. For local flare, they top it with chili and cheese. Good food to have once you’ve had a bit too much beer and/or whiskey.

I intended to return to Virginia City to check out the museum, boot hill, and the Friday night gold fish races at the Bale of Hay, but we never got back over there. Next time!

Between Ennis and Yellowstone is Quake Lake, a portion of the Madison River that was dammed up by an earthquake in 1959.

Quake Lake

Unfortunately, it was a popular camping spot and 28 people lost their lives in the incident. As the lake rose, geologists warned that the dam might not be stable so a spillway was constructed so that it didn’t burst and flood towns downstream. The skeletons of trees still jut from the lake, but the most impressive feature is probably the huge scar on the mountainside above. It’s worth a stop just to take in the view and read about the event.

Quake Lake

bald eagleAfter we returned to Ennis from Yellowstone (which you’ll read about next episode), we wanted a hike so we checked in at the local ranger station and asked for recommendations. A helpful guy there pointed us to Indian Creek Trail where, “you can see flowers, mountains, a waterfall – that kind of stuff. But take bear spray. We have grizz in the area.”

After equipping ourselves properly, we headed out of town, spying antelope and a bald eagle en route. (I’m giving you a lot of detail on this hike just because it’s pretty and representative of the area.)

Where the deer and the antelope play

Indian Creek Trail starts on private property where signs that state you must have written permission from the land owner to cross, next to signs from the National Forest Service that say, essentially, “No you don’t.” Still other signs say there is a lawsuit pending over the issue. We trekked through, passing a couple of cabins before getting into the National Forest proper to find that the ranger somewhat undersold the trip. The views were spectacular, starting with dramatic rock formations towering over a clear stream lined with flowers.

Indian Creek Trail

Of course, the image of Quake Lake came to mind as we walked past heaps of loose rock brought down from the mountains in past landslides. After a few miles, the trail reaches broader pastures affording views of the surrounding mountains where layers of geological time were laid bare.

Indian Creek Trail

Indian Creek Trail

We passed a couple of groups on horseback. A lady in one group said, “It’s better on a horse,” a man in the second group joked about how much less tiring it would be if we were riding. Sure, but then we’d have to deal with horses. I’ll stick with the rented Lincoln and my own feet, thanks.

Indian Creek Trail

The trail leads to an 80′ waterfall that is absolutely lovely. Unfortunately, the gorge is not feet-friendly and we hadn’t gone prepared to scramble over slippery, sharp rocks to play in the bowl below. Later, we’d put our feet in the water to cool off and decided we couldn’t have made the trek up the stream without dry suits anyhow. There was still snow high on the mountains and the stream felt like glacial runoff.

Indian Creek Trail falls

On our way back out of the state, we spent the night in Bozeman, a good airport destination for those trying to reach Yellowstone. It’s possible that you’ll end up there overnight due to flight schedules, but don’t despair. It’s a quaint little city with a lovely Main Street lined with two and three story brick buildings, including a few Art Deco gems.

Bozeman, MT

Bozeman deco detailThere countless gift shops, a few cute antique stores, and at least one movie theater hosting a run of classic Westerns (unfortunately on Wednesday nights, but we were there on Saturday.) Pubs serve the local brews, as well as the whiskey

The Must-See in Bozeman is The Museum of the Rockies, a nice sized facility that houses both permanent and temporary collections, including some Old West artifacts and displays.

Native American bead work

But really it’s the dinosaur stuff you need to see.

Museum of the Rockies

Museum of the Rockies

The series of T-Rex skulls, above, each come from dinosaurs at different ages of their lives, from childhood to old adult. They have a similar display for Triceratops.

Museum of the Rockies

Museum of the RockiesTheir temporary exhibit featured crocodiles, both alive and otherwise (including a replica of my favorite, Gomek, former resident of St. Augustine Alligator Farm), and the Old West stuff was nifty, but the dinosaur section wowed everyone.

Museum of the Rockies
Museum of the Rockies
Next episode, Yellowstone National Park – bison, geysers, and deadly puddles. Stay tuned.

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