Take a road trip around Montana
By Kay Bjork
Montana Living — It has been months since the holiday season and summer seems nearly as distant.
Longer days and a more potent sun tickle the grip of winter's hand. An occasional balmy day rouses the flush of spring fever. Spring break chatter fills the air mixing with swirling snowflakes, conjuring wistful images of beaches scattered with gleaming golden bodies, dazzling sunshine interrupted only by a fluttering palm tree, and glitzy nights out on the town. Sounds intriguing - but it might not be an option.
Maybe there isn't enough time, energy, or money for the infamous spring break, which can demand a large chunk of change, a flight itinerary, and packing with the accuracy of an accountant. A spring break makeover might go something like this: Take a break from the expensive, over-planned and over-played vacation and stay closer to home. In other words: road trip. There's something wonderfully old-fashioned about a road trip. Schedule your own departure, your own route, stop when and where you want, and make things up as you go along.
There are no weight limits on luggage, no security checks - and you can yell at your kids in the privacy of your own car. Road trips mark a simpler, freer, more innocent time. The soothing drone of the engine, the murmuring of parents in the front seat while kids doze the miles away, the coffee aroma that permeate the air, the games played to pass the time and miles, the potty stops with candy rewards, the backseat cat fights that seem funny when retold, the stern, "Don't make me stop this car" - and the lovely option of actually doing just that. A road trip does not require a lot of time or planning.
Our last road trip went something like this: we left at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning and were home by 7:30 the next night. Total time away from home: 35 1/2 hours. Highlights of our trip included: * Driving through a herd of elk on the Swan Highway; * Crosscountry skied on the Continental Divide near Mount Haggin; * Soaking in Fairmont Hot Springs (three times); * Taking a car tour through funky and historic Butte; * Visiting the state Capitol in Helena, and taking a stroll through Helena's historic Last Chance Gulch, and walking to a scenic overlook near Mount Helena.
So get out those road maps, fill the Thermos, throw in your favorite pillow and hit the road. Visit a Montana landmark, historic place or go on an outdoor adventure. You won't have to go far. After all - you are already in "The Last Best Place." Here are a few choices for a Spring Break Road Trip in Montana.
Fairmont Hot Springs
If you can't shake that image of warm water under a blue sky, think outside of the box. Fairmont Hot Springs sits like an oasis in the desert 10 miles from the old mining town of Anaconda.
As you approach the resort on a cool day you will notice the steam rising from the pool, creating an atmosphere of enchantment and a sense that you are passing into an ethereal place. On my most recent trip there, I watched a couple with towels clutched to their shoulders step gingerly along the frosty pool deck to reach the pool. They slid quickly into the steaming water and the leftover sting of the cold air was hit by an initial sting of hot water. They quickly crossed over from a place of pain to a place of bliss. Meanwhile a child shot out of the waterslide tube bubbling with laughter - a place where fear crosses over to a place of bliss.
Families bobbed around happily, like the colorful beach ball that they toss back and forth. Their flushed faces danced with the reflection of flickering pool lights. White-haired couples reclined, eyes closed, buoyant bodies gently touching. Some people come here for the mineral magic while others are just here for a warm-water getaway. Set against the backdrop of Mount Haggin, Fairmont Resort boasts the state's largest natural hot springs pools.
You have your choice of indoor or outdoor soaking and swimming in Olympic-sized pools and soaking pools ranging from 88 to 104 degrees. A 350-foot enclosed waterslide provides adrenaline candy for the kids, situated away from the soaking pools as not to jostle drifters and floaters. Located in a more remote and sleepy countryside, Fairmont serves up a peaceful setting while offering a full choice of activities - if you can pull yourself out of the pool.
Weather will offer a variety of conditions in the spring - you might be teeing off on the golf course under a brilliant sun or gliding along a ski course under twirling snowflakes. Right at the resort there is an 18-hole golf course, two tennis courts, mountain bike rentals, an arcade, formal and informal dining, adult gaming machines, a playground and a children's feeding zoo with llama, goats and ducks.
For reservations or more information call the resort at 800-332-3272.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Ten minutes from the resort is Anaconda - an historic mining town. Visit the Copper Village Arts Museum in the restored Old City Hall that now houses shops, a museum, and galleries.
The Washoe Theater is one of the last great "Picture Palaces" a classic movie theater that seats nearly 1,000 and has been ranked the "fifth most beautiful theater in the U.S." by the Smithsonian Institute. Built in 1896, the grand theater is nearly in its original state.
Nearby, the Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works Golf Course incorporates mining relics into the 18-hole course. Two trails with interpretive signs, one suitable for vehicles, were also developed near the course.
If you vacation in March or early April you can downhill ski at Discovery Basin through a special Slide and Ski package, or cross country ski at Mount Haggin Nordic ski area 20 minutes from the resort. The trail system offers over 20 miles of groomed trails and backcountry opportunity for adventure skiers. Snowmobiling is also popular in the Mount Haggin area and rentals are available in Anaconda.
Discovery Basin is normally open into April and at Mount Haggin, the snow is frequently skiable into May. Down the road around 15 miles from Fairmont is the historic copper mining town of Butte. Ragged around the edges but as charming as Grandma's old doilies, the town is filled with grand old homes and buildings that were built during Montana's heyday. Butte has one of the largest National Historic Landmark districts in the country, with some 4,500 buildings on the register. A tour through the Copper King Mansion offers a glimpse of the elegant life of the wealthy members of Montana's early elite society.
Mining buffs can view a 12-acre display at the 1899 Mining Camp and World Museum of Mining or take a drive to the Granite Mine Memorial that overlooks the mine and town of Butte.
If your spring break travels take you to Montana's Capitol, there are several sights to occupy your days. Helena is a sedate and dignified city, in spite of a more rambunctious beginning with the gold rush of the 1860s. Its position in the state's history and as the state's capitol makes it a must-see for Montanans. The centerpiece of Helena is Saint Helena Cathedral, a magnificent church with twin spires that pierce the horizon, visible throughout the city.
The spires reach to 230 feet, dramatic in a city without skyscrapers. The cathedral's Victorian Gothic architecture is patterned after the Votive Church of the Sacred Heart in Vienna, Austria. The stained glass windows, white marble altars, gold leaf décor and intricate hand-carved oak all contribute to the magnificence of this building.
Located at 530 North Ewing near downtown, the church is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. year-round. Mass is at 8 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and at 5 p.m. on Thursday. Visitors are invited to take an unescorted tour. The Capitol is located on the east side of Helena. Visitors can take a self-guided tour (guided tours are offered during the summer). An ambitious renovation that began in 1999 is returning the Capitol building to its original state. The building is marked by rich hues of burgundy and dark green, complementing the rich honeyed woodgrain, cream scagliola columns, gleaming gold décor, and dome frescoes.
The architecture style is Greek neoclassic and the decoration is French Renaissance. Sculpture and paintings throughout the Capitol help tell the story of our state. A mural by C.M. Russell hangs above the House rostrum. Art critics consider this painting - "Lewis and Clark Meeting the Indians at Ross' Hole" - to be Russell's masterpiece.
The original governor's mansion also reflects the elegance and opulence of this era and reopens for tours in April.
Call the Montana Historical Society for details on the Capitol and the Mansion at 406-444-4789. The Montana Historical Museum is located conveniently across from the Capitol.
The large museum features over 50,000 artifacts including archaeological, Native American, costumes, decorative arts, transportation, documents and photographs. Exhibits chronicle the history of fur trappers, Native American, miners and Montana homesteaders. Also featured is one of the most extensive collections of artwork by art by Russell. Helena's downtown area remains healthy and attractive. Last Chance Gulch, Helena's Main Street, provides a pleasant setting for many of the town's activities such as the Jazz Festival. You can catch the Annual Spring Artwalk held downtown.
Helena's historic downtown buildings house a variety of intriguing shops such as The Parrot, an old-fashioned soda fountain where you can indulge your sweet tooth with ice cream treats and try one of their homemade candies, which include chocolates and caramels.
The Stonehouse Restaurant, which is located in the historic Reeder's Alley, recreates the rustic atmosphere of 1890s Helena. At the edge of Helena is a 628-acre park overlooking Helena with trails to the peak, circling the mountain, and to the ghost town of Park City.
Museum of the Rockies A visit to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman offers a journey into Montana's geological and cultural past while tracing paths like that of the dinosaurs, the glaciers and Lewis and Clark. The "One Day 80 Million Years Ago" exhibit reflects the results of 12 years of research by the museum's curator of paleontology, John R. "Jack" Horner, and his crew at an area near Choteau, Montana.
"Egg Mountain" was the site of a nesting colony of three species of dinosaurs including "good mother lizard" or Maiasaura peeblesorum, discovered and named by Horner based on evidence of the dinosaur's maternal nurturing. The exhibit includes dinosaur fossils and skulls and full-size replicas. Featured in the Planetarium (the only Digistart planetarium in the Northern Rockies) this spring are "Ring World," a program about the Cassini spacecraft and its rendezvous with Saturn, and "Laser Zeppelin," a lively laser show featuring the classic rock music of Led Zeppelin.
The show pulses with vibrant laser imagery and Digistar II 3D effects. The Martin Discovery Room on the third level is a learning-through-play experience for preschoolers through eight years old. Children enter the playroom through a glow-in-the dark space entry. Inside they can play dress-up in a pioneer wagon, tipi or become a dinosaur and find their favorite nest.
A gigantic stuffed bear provides a cozy companion for children as they browse through books in the Reading Forest. The learning center also offers a variety of toys, puzzles, blocks, art projects and a playland. Ray Troll's Shark-A-Bet show and exhibit is at the Museum of the Rockies March 13-Nov. 17. Troll's vibrant and colorful shark illustrations allow art, theater and science to merge in a playful and informative presentation. Gift items by the artist will be available in the museum store. A two-day $9.50 pass includes entry into the museum and the planetarium. Cost is 6.50 for children. Information: 406-994-2251, information line: (406) 994-DINO.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
While in Bozeman, visit the Gallatin Pioneer Museum on Main Street, located in the old jail, where you can tour the original cells, gallows and an 1870s log cabin. The museum also features a variety of antiques like antique automobiles and early farm and ranch tools. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday until May 15, when hours are extended for the summer. There is no admission charge.
Big Sky Resort
If you haven't gotten skiing out of your blood by the end of winter, consider a late-winter ski trip. Big Sky Resort is cradled at the base of Lone Mountain, which like its name indicates, stands alone, silently commanding like a noble, white-haired granddaddy.
This stunning peak rises to 11,166 feet with a tram to 15 feet shy of the actual top, rewarding intermediate and expert skiers with stunning views and 4,350 drop, once the most in the nation. With over 150 runs, nicely varied terrain for all levels of skiers, short to non-existent lift lines, and a good looking neighbor (Yellowstone National Park) this resort has a lot to brag about.
The resort is family friendly with free skiing for kids 10 and under and extensive activities geared for children and their parents. The kids ski program for beginners is one-on-one for children 3 to 4 and day camp for ages 4 to 17 combine skiing and activities.
A daycare facility allows parents to test the expert runs or to have a quiet lunch or massage at the luxury resort. Afterwards the family can get back together for some fun - treasure hunt on skis, sleigh rides, dog sled adventures, a trip to Yellowstone, marshmallow roasts, movie night at the Amphitheater, and fireworks every Saturday night until the end of the ski season.
If you don't make it to the resort during the ski season, which closes April 11, there are plenty of other recreational opportunities - fly-fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding, golf and kayaking to name a few. You can walk to 16 different dining options and find another 20 if you have wheels. Many of the establishments offer live music and entertainment.
Daily shuttles to Yellowstone National Park for wildlife viewing and other activities are available. Lone Mountain Ranch is a world-class Nordic resort located six miles away.
For more resort and activities information call: 800-548-4486
Got an itch for wild things?
You'll find Montana's only zoo (yes, the only zoo) southwest of Billings, just off U.S. 90. ZooMontana is a wildlife habitat and botanical garden that features cold climate plants and animals.
Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, sika deer, grey wolves and a great horned owl are a few of the species that the zoo featurs. There are also two Siberian tigers. Observing the elusive wolverine may be one of the biggest treats dished out at this young and growing zoo. This small but mighty animal is seldom spotted in the wild.
You might be surprised to know that while vegetation dies back and becomes dormant in the winter, cold climate animals become more active, making off-season months a great time to visit the zoo. Snow provides a great playground for the otter, which is a champion sledder on slippery waterslides; the tigers, which have fondness to bat snowballs and the wolverine's spunky personality surfaces in his vigorous snow tunneling.
The Education Center at ZooMontana can be found at the zoo entrance where you can begin your adventure in the Discovery Room. This features several of our smaller animal friends such as a North American mink and a brown-footed ferret.
The Living Wall encases aquariums and an exhibit displaying small animals such as Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, Tiger Salamander, Pink Toed Tarantula, and Ball python. This wall will feature Montana's reptiles and amphibians in the near future. Pick up a map before beginning a walking tour that loops over a mile around the zoo on the 70-acre site.
A Sensory Garden is designed to appeal to other senses with the waterfall's rhythmic trickle and plant's spicy and musty aroma. A few of the plant species that are well established are bur oaks, pyracantha, and bamboo. Annuals are planted in the spring by volunteers and vary year to year.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Side trips from the zoo could include the Yellowstone Art Museum or the Moss Mansion.
The Yellowstone Art Museum features contemporary and historic art of the Rocky Mountain West and is located on the edge of the historic district of Billings. The museum also has a gift shop with a nice array including sculpture, pottery, textile, and basketry. The museum is closed on Sundays.
The Moss Mansion is a striking turn-of-the-century home built of Lake Superior red sandstone. Interior decorating includes original decor and a mixture of styles with a Moorish entry, Louis XVI parlor, and Empire dining room. To reach the mansion, take exit 450 from U.S. 90 to 3rd Avenue North.
Call the Mansion for tour times and admission information: 406-256-5100