Memorable side trips, when on the road, are a special treat. So we are always on the lookout for that unique opportunity to jump off the main roads. Truly in the middle of nowhere, a vacation in Glacier National Park is usually a day long road trip through some of the most beautiful land in the country. Here are 5 side trips that are worth veering off the highway to find a little extra helping of adventure in Montana.
1. Jerry Johnson Hot Springs
If you have never experienced hot springs in their natural setting Jerry Johnson Hot Springs is a must stop! There is nothing quite like nestling into a hot spring between warm rocks and sand to relax your muscles and revive your spirit.
Actually in Idaho, just over the state line, Jerry Johnson is located about an hour west of Lolo, MT on Highway 12 in the Clearwater National Forest. It’s an easy 15 minute hike from the Warm Springs trailhead.
On weekends it can get crowded, but when we stopped mid-week there were only a dozen visitors spread out over a large area. We settled in at the second set of pools and pretty much had the space to ourselves for most of our stay.
These springs run along the crystal clear Warm Springs Creek which provides a great tool to control the temperature of your chosen soaking hole. Visitors can easily adjust the rocks around the pool to change the amount of creek water mix cooling the hot spring water.
Although I had been warned, I really wasn’t prepared for the clothing-optional rule. Sure enough as we headed back out we were greeted by a group embracing nature.
2. National Bison Range
Imagine the thrill of your car slowly rolling right through a herd of humongous bison. You can almost reach out your window and touch mothers with their new babies (but please don’t). This is the experience of cruising Red Sleep Mountain Drive in the National Bison Range near Dixon, MT.
Over a century ago, the National Bison Range was established by Theodore Roosevelt. Today this 2 hour cruise takes you right through the home of 350 freely roaming bison. Traffic was very light on the 19 mile one way trip when we visited. We were able to stop and watch wildlife for as long as we wanted. The few vehicles traveling along with us were gracious about pulling off to the side if they wanted a little more time for that perfect photo. We loved that this was so much calmer than Yellowstone, where the sight of a bison backs up cars for miles. Here, we were able to observe at our leisure.
Other wildlife share the refuge. We spent about 15 minutes watching a black bear casually work his way down a gully towards our car. As we neared the end of the drive, approaching Mission Creek, we saw a small herd of elk wading in the creek and a little further deer on the hillside.
Before you stop by, take a quick peek at their website. The primary viewing road, Red Sleep Mountain Drive, is a gravel road, gaining 2,000 feet in elevation with a 10% grade so there are vehicle limitations. Open hours vary with season and daylight, generally shutting down access 2 hours before closing to allow time for the trip.
This is a great side trip that almost guarantees up close wildlife viewing and well worth the small hop off the highway. More info at: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/National_Bison_Range/
3. Garnet Ghost Town
Over a century ago, the mining town Garnet was home to over one thousand people. Abandoned as the mines were worked out, it is now one of the most intact ghost towns in Montana. According to the Garnet Preservation Association, families walked out leaving behind furniture and belongings as if they planned to come back.
In Garnet Ghost Town you are invited fully explore dozens of buildings including the general store, a hotel, and miner’s cabins. What makes this a special stop is that most buildings are wide open, not hidden behind ropes that limit access. And with only a couple hundred visitors a day, you can enjoy the story of the deserted town at your leisure.
As bonus to this side trip, the road to Garnet can be an adventure of its own. There are two roads in, and if you choose the path from I-90 you will love the experience. Most of it is dirt, occasionally one lane and with switchbacks that keep RVs at bay. The scenery is amazing and wildlife is abundant. More info at: http://www.garnetghosttown.net/
4. Holland Lake Lodge
Following Rt. 83 North to Glacier National Park is a beautiful scenic drive through the Flathead National Forest. It is well worth the little bit of extra time it adds to your trip. Nestled into the forest are an assortment of cozy lodges. Holland Lake Lodge, near Condon, MT, is my husband’s favorite lunch stop.
The road to the lodge, through the pines and firs of the forest, is a calm respite from the long drive. Just around a curve is the main lodge, built in 1947. It would be worth just stopping for a drink to enjoy their cozy lobby. But lunch in the gorgeous dining room with windows overlooking Holland Lake is the reason to stop. Their on staff chef is amazing with a menu to rival any 5 star big city restaurant. Note they have limited serving hours so call ahead if you plan to arrive hungry.
After lunch, take a short break on their lawn overlooking Holland Lake with the Mission Mountains in the background. It’s a view to remember! You will feel recharged and ready to get back on the road to your next adventure. More info at: http://www.hollandlakelodge.com/
5. Hungry Horse Reservoir
Just 15 miles from the entrance of Glacier National Park is a beautiful, heavily forested lake area in the Flathead National Forest. This gorgeous 34 mile long lake is held back by the 10th tallest dam in the US, Hungry Horse Dam. First stop is the dam itself for a walk across the dam and to wander through the visitor center.
Then continue your drive down West Side Road that follows the contours of the lake. There are many pull-offs, day use areas, and campgrounds where the casual visitor can stop to enjoy this water feature. The lake is a very active, used for swimming, boating, and fishing. If you have your kayaks along, pop them in for a couple hours and wander along the beautiful shoreline.
We had a great night camping near the shore and enjoyed an amazing sunset over the lake. Our camping neighbors raved about the nearby hikes into the National Forest.
And then the next day we were off to enjoy Glacier National Park.
About the Author: Ladona Stork and her husband, Brad, help adventure lover plan their US National Park vacations. You can find her sharing stories and travel planning tips at https://walkingtheparks.com/