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Take 35! The Scenic Route to Bigfork and Glacier

Many Montana visitors drive across the state via Interstate 90, following the route taken by Lewis and Clark when they explored the area more than 200 years ago.  But Lewis and Clark missed the best part.  So to find out what they missed, get off the main road, toss out the GPS and follow the northwest route along Highway 35 to Bigfork and Glacier National Park.

The route begins just west of Missoula where Highway 93 crosses the interstate, traveling north to Canada and south through the mountain west.  At Ravalli, just a few miles north of the junction, start looking for a bison or two—-or 500.  The National Bison Range is one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the United States spanning more than 18,000 acres. In addition to the powerful bison, elk, antelope, mountain goats, black bear and coyotes call the refuge home. While we’d love to have you head straight for Bigfork, we do recommend a side or day trip into the Range. Take your time. Plan your trip so that you can enjoy several stops along the way. After all, you’re on vacation!

The spectacular Mission Mountains to the east tower over the Mission Valley and the Flathead Indian Reservation. Mark the map for stops in St. Ignatius and the historic Mission and the People’s Center in Pablo. www.peoplescenter.net If you’re a birder, the Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges should be a “must stop”, especially during the fall migrations when up to 80,000 waterfowl fly through.

You’ll know you’ve left the Mission Valley when you top a rise and Flathead Lake appears, its crystal waters stretching to the horizon. With this first view, you will understand why explorer and geographer David Thompson dubbed Flathead Lake “A fine sheet of water”. Before roads were built around the lake, Port Polson was the transportation hub for lake steamers moving goods and people up and down the lake. Today, Polson continues to welcome visitors as they journey to and from the Flathead Valley.

Highway 35 travels along the eastern shore while highway 93 continues through Polson and along the western shore. As we said in our headline, take 35!

This is not a fast route.  But then, no mountain road that borders a lake should be taken for speed. And while the speed limit is lower, there is no limit to the beauty that surrounds you mile after mile.

Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.  It’s 28 miles long and up to 15 miles wide.  That translates to 188 square miles of sheer pleasure. Six units of Flathead Lake State Park provide sites for family picnics, swimming, boating or camping.  Three units can be found along the eastern shore: Finley Point, Yellow Bay and Wayfarer’s State Parks. Wild Horse Island, the lake’s largest island, is a wildlife refuge for more than 75 species of birds along with deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, bear, and yes, a few wild horses. Swimming below the surface are trophy-size trout, yellow perch and whitefish and the lake is open for fishing year-round.

Orchards also hug the shoreline. Most produce the famous Flathead cherries, with a guarantee of beautiful blossoms in May and deep red ripe cherries in late July or early August.  During the season, roadside stands offer fresh cherries along with other fruits including apricots, raspberries, apples and pears. Or you can pick your own cherries at several lakeside orchards.   www.montanacherries.com

Along the way, you will see historical markers and small brown and beige signs marking hiking trailheads. One of the most popular hikes is Beardance Trail.  It’s only a mile, but does have elevation gain on the return. You’ll find the trailhead just south of Woods Bay which is only two miles from the end of the lake. Woods Bay offers some great restaurants, lodging and the area’s newest micro brewery.

And then, there’s Bigfork – the perfect stop on the perfect drive.  As we said, Highway 35 is the shortest route Glacier Park, but there’s plenty to do and see along the way.  Take your time. Enjoy the drive!

To learn more about Bigfork and all it has to offer, visit www.bigfork.org.  Media queries may be directed to Carol Beck-Edgar at edgecomm@montanasky.us. 406-837-2061.


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