About me, Montana

Montana road trip, part I: waterfalls, birds, & the Lewis and Clark expedition

For someone who spent 18 years of her life in Montana, I’ve seen a remarkably small amount of the state. In my defense, it’s a huge state. I’ve done a reasonably thorough job exploring the area around my hometown. But most of my trips to other parts of the state were for gymnastics or track & field meets… so even though I’ve been all these places, I haven’t really seen them.

(I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I competed in pole vault for 8 years. Here’s a throwback photo.)

And here’s a photo of what happens when your hand slips off the pole midway through the jump…

Anyway.

When I flew home to Montana in summer 2021 (after my mom and I were both fully vaccinated), it was to spend a week exploring my home state and learning some of the history that I never learned in school. We plotted out a 6-day roadtrip that would take us to a few well-known attractions and a handful of lesser-known ones in the western half of the state.

Views from the road

Our first stop was the town of White Sulphur Springs to visit the Castle Museum and Carriage House. It’s $7/person and the museum has a surprisingly large assortment of items… everything from old pianos to medical tools, typewriters to military uniforms, buggies to antique safes and other banking artifacts. It’s quite a collection for such a random tiny museum.

After looking through the museum, we received a guided tour of the castle. The original architect and occupant was a man named Byron R. Sherman, who built the house for his family. Sherman was very prominent in the community, a businessman with investments in cattle, mining, banking, and many other industries… and therefore quite a lot of money to build such an ornate house. It even had electricity and two indoor bathrooms with running hot and cold water… extremely unusual for the late 1800s.

No photos are allowed inside, but I do have this external photo.

From here we continued north, traveling along Kings Hill Scenic Byway. This is a drive we’d done before so we didn’t make any stops this time. At the north end of the byway is Sluice Boxes State Park. We’d stopped here before too, briefly; this time we decided to actually explore it.

Sluice Boxes State Park
Lunch spot!

It’s a primitive park that’s really only equipped for hiking and fishing. There’s a trail that runs about 7 miles (11 km) along Belt Creek from one end of the park to the other. Our plan was to hike the first 2-3 miles (3-5 km) of it.

We didn’t quite make it that far.

Just shy of 1 mile (1.6 km) in, the trail crossed the creek. Sans a bridge. It’s a sizable creek and the water was knee deep in places, but we were able to safely navigate it (definitely wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet).

Crossing Belt Creek
There weren’t any signs explaining these old structures, but there used to be mining in the area so I’m assuming they’re leftover from those days

A short distance later was creek crossing #2. This one wasn’t passable. It was too deep and flowing too fast for us to safely make it across, so we were forced to turn around. But even though our hike was cut short, we enjoyed our scenic jaunt along the water.

Belt Creek crossing #2… AKA our turnaround point since we couldn’t make it across

We ended our day in Great Falls at Dick’s RV Park. It was a pretty location along the Sun River, not far from its confluence with the Missouri River. The campground itself, however, was not great. The tent area was clearly an afterthought, a field way at the back with a bunch of randomly placed picnic tables, no privacy between sites, and a very long walk to the bathrooms. Also, the owners were obsessed with enforcing the speed limit… to the point that they scolded us when we were in fact not exceeding the limit. I wouldn’t stay there again.

Confluence of the Sun River (flowing in from the left) and Missouri River (right)

We spent part of the next day in the Great Falls area, visiting some local attractions. First up was Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), about 25 mins north of the city. We arrived to find the visitor center closed, no lake, and no wildlife. We were beginning to think it had been a wasted trip when the lake finally came into view… and it was absolutely teeming with bird life. This place must be a birdwatcher’s paradise!

Benton Lake is one of many prairie potholes that span central North America. These potholes were formed by glaciers during the last ice age and are now filled with water and provide important habitats for many plants, insects, and birds. There are over 200 bird species at Benton Lake, some of which nest there and some of which pass through on their annual migration.

Neither of us are bird experts but we were able to identify a few of them, including some species we’d never seen before: black-necked stilts, American coots, black-capped night herons, curlews, and an avocet. We also saw dozens of gulls, ducks, grebes, and yellow-headed blackbirds. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any good bird photos with my iPhone.

Benton Lake NWR
If you squint you might be able to spot the herons and ducks in this photo…
Avocet (very small, right in the center)

Just east of Great Falls is the Lewis & Clark Portage Site. In June 1805, the Lewis & Clark expedition — otherwise known as the Corps of Discovery — reached present-day Great Falls… which is named for the series of five waterfalls on the Missouri River. Collectively, they drop 360 feet (110 m). The expedition therefore had to portage their boats and all their supplies 18 miles (29 km) around the falls. Obviously that’s a tall order, especially when one of the boats was a 55 foot (17 m) wooden canoe loaded with supplies. Also, the terrain wasn’t exactly a walk in the park… there were hills and rocks and cacti, among other challenges. It took the men 5 trips over 2 weeks to get all their supplies around the waterfalls.

A reconstruction of the portage at the interpretive center
Missouri River overlook from the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center

Just downriver is Giant Springs State Park, which preserves a natural freshwater spring that emerges from the rocks adjacent to the Missouri River. The water seeps through the ground from a nearby mountain range, a journey that takes 50 years, before bubbling up here. 150 million gallons (568 million liters) per day emerge from the rocks, forming the 201 foot (61 m) long Roe River – one of the shortest rivers in the world – before joining the Missouri.

Giant Springs & the Roe River

Up the road from the spring are overlooks of some of the waterfalls mentioned above. There are now three dams on the river, so the flow rate has changed drastically and one of the waterfalls is fully submerged. But the other four are still somewhat similar to what Lewis & Clark encountered more than 200 years ago, and we could certainly see how substantial an obstacle they were to the expedition.

Rainbow Falls
Black Eagle Falls
Missouri River

And that’s where I’ll leave off for now. More of our Montana adventures to come in the next few posts. Stay tuned!

39 thoughts on “Montana road trip, part I: waterfalls, birds, & the Lewis and Clark expedition”

  1. I love your photos of scenic Sluice Boxes State Park and your Montana road trip in general, but I must admit I went back to look at your pole vaulting photos. How cool that you did this! It looks fun and scary. I’d probably impale myself!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pole vaulting was a lot of fun! And admittedly, scary when things don’t quite go right. I never impaled myself but I did have some frightening crashes over the years.

      Like

  2. Lovely state! I’ve seen a few chunks of it and have loved them all. These areas look great as well. Those guys next to the pole vault bar and pit look pretty nonplussed at the sight of you falling to the ground. Must be a lot of (yawwwwwn) “been there-seen that” for them! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha I think the photo was snapped at the exact moment when my hand slipped but before people reacted. To be honest though, that photo is about 10 years old and I don’t remember what the reaction was when I landed. I was not injured though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think it’s not unusual that we develop an appreciation for our home states only after we move away. But it’s never too late to set out on one’s own journey of discovery, as you are proving with your posts about Montana.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glacier is my absolute favorite part of the state, it’s definitely worth a visit. Hopefully you are able to go one day. The whole rest of the state has quite a lot to see as well.

      Like

  4. Wow it really is big sky country, what an amazing road trip! I also appreciate your pole vault photos which made me laugh……I travelled around England going to T&F meets for years as a high jumper and have dozens of photos of me elegantly clattering the bar from various angles 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I honestly know of Montana for Glacier National Park (a place I’m dying to go to someday). I actually didn’t know (or had forgotten) you’d grown up in Montana, as I associate you so much with Colorado and its attractions. Recently, I’ve been following some hikers on IG who’ve more-or-less moved to Montana from California, and the highlights they’re showing on their social media really capture just how gorgeous and pristine this state is. Looks like your road-trip was a lot of fun!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve only even been to Montana once and that was to visit Glacier National Park, but it sounds like there are other lovely areas and trails to explore. Campgrounds that offer no privacy are the worst. That RV Park sounds like the pits. P.S That’s pretty impressive that you competed in pole vaulting. It looks incredibly hard. Take care. Linda

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glacier is absolutely the highlight of Montana in my opinion, but it’s a huge state with so much to see!

      Pole vaulting is definitely a challenge… but as a gymnast, flinging myself through the air with a pole seemed like the next logical step 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Looking at your photos, I can see that there’s a reason why Montana is referred to as Big Sky Country – this is a seriously beautiful place with some of the most beautiful and towering peaks. I’ve never been to Montana but would love to visit Glacier National Park to see its unspoiled terrain. I am glad to hear you had a great time exploring your backyard and thanks for sharing it with us! Take care. Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Big skies indeed. It’s one of the things I missed the most when I moved away. Glacier National Park is well worth a visit… it’s actually my very favorite park. We didn’t stop there on this road trip but planning to go there next summer!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pole vault always looks like a very difficult sporting activity to me … well done to practice this as a sport!
    Love the look of that scenic trail you’ hiked, as well as the freshwater spring. Your photos are telling a great story and I will be happy to read more about this road trip … don’t you just love a good old road trip!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. We did a two-week road trip through Montana in the late summer of 2019 and it is a wonderful and beautiful state with incredible history as your post demonstrates. I will look forward to your continuing posts and hope you got to stop at some of Montana’s historic bars and great breweries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a pretty great state to explore, lots of beauty! And also, Bozeman has one of the neatest airports… it has a quaint mountain lodge feel.

      Like

      1. There’s a hike at the top of the Going-To-The-Sun-Road that led to a backcountry lodge. I really enjoyed that hike. There were bears everywhere but with so many people on the trail I wasn’t too concerned about safety. I also recall a cave system futher south where we took a guided tour. I think it was called Louis and Clark Cave but I’m not certain about the name.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. Do you know if there is still a backcountry lodge that can be hiked from the top, at the interpretive centre, as a day hike in and out? It might be called Logan’s Pass, but I’m not certain. I know that the lodge was close for a number of years. They used to sell apple pie with ice-cream to day hikers. Overnight likely arrived by horseback on a different trail.

            Like

          2. I would guess you’re thinking of Granite Park Chalet, although I don’t think they serve food anymore. Sperry Chalet does serve food, but you don’t get there from Logan Pass, you start down at Lake McDonald. I would guess you’re thinking of one of those. I’ve never been but hear they’re great hikes!

            Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.