Vast areas of mountainous terrain are perfect for pack-mule trips, rafting, trout fishing and hiking


May 26, 1991|By Karl Zimmermann

In the vast flatness of eastern Montana, an empty country of dusty, one-story towns, the occasional silver water tower on spindly legs is all that pokes up at the big sky. But the western part of the state is very different; there it's a riot of mountains that thrusts skyward.

Just into these mountains, across a broad lawn from the impressive log depot at East Glacier, where Amtrak's Empire Builder drops travelers, stands Glacier Park Lodge. This classic of sprawling, brown-shingled rustic architecture nestles at the foot of Squaw Peak Mountain. In the imposing lobby of this 150-room hostelry, great timbers of Douglas fir soar 40 feet to support the ceiling.

Glacier National Park -- and adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park, in Canada -- is an incredible alpine preserve with 200 lakes and 50 glaciers. Fifty-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road -- which can be bumper-to-bumper in peak season -- shows spectacular scenery to the traveler who chooses not to stray far from his automobile.

But Glacier is the country's pre-eminent hiker's park, with about 700 miles of trails, and those who go on foot will best experience its wildlife and extraordinary wilderness beauty.

There is even a pair of walk-in "chalets" -- Granite Park and Sperry -- offering food and lodging and accessible only on foot or horseback.

These rugged structures, made of native rock quarried on the spot, were built in the mid-teens, when Glacier Park was created. So were Glacier Park Lodge, Lake McDonald Lodge and Many Glacier Hotel, spectacularly sited amid towering mountains on Swiftcurrent Lake, at the foot of Grinnel Glacier. All these lodgings have charm and historical presence.

More than two decades newer but with history and style nonetheless is the Izaak Walton Inn, located in Essex, right on the border of the park. Built by the Great Northern in 1939, it was a railroad hotel, intended primarily to accommodate train crews.

The Izaak Walton has a comfortable, no-nonsense feel. Six recently added private baths have brought the inn's total to 10, but for the majority of the 30 guest rooms facilities remain down the hall.

Knotty pine-paneled walls are hung with railroadiana: maps, photographs, old Great Northern calendars. In the cozy lobby, skis and snowshoes are crossed over the mantelpiece. The bar in the basement is particularly crammed with memorabilia.

The dining room has picture windows overlooking the railroad. "The rail fans keep us going," owner Larry Vielleux says, and Essex indeed is a great place to watch trains. It's the base for helper locomotives that, coupled to heavy freights for extra power, pound up Marias Pass.

The Izaak Walton also is an ideal base for hikers and, in winter, cross country skiers. There's rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead, which flows through Essex, and the North Fork.

Glacier Raft Company runs trips out of West Glacier rich in both scenery and whitewater. The company also offers half-day floats on the Lower Flathead, leaving from Polson, at the southern end of Flathead Lake.

While drought conditions can make rafting on the Middle and North Forks marginal, the Lower Flathead -- fed by Kerr Dam -- is remarkably constant in water level season to season, year to year. I had a grand float there, traversing dramatic rapids including Buffalo and Pin-ball, then easing peacefully through quiet stretches.

We saw great horned owls, a cormorant, a great blue heron, ospreys, a red-tailed hawk, mergansers and a bald eagle -- "a regular aviary," said Matt Bishop, the personable and competent guide. Matt ran us right through the heart of the rapids, so we all got drenched. Those wearing bathing suits were happiest.

From there I drove south, through Missoula and the lush, lovely Bitterroot Valley, then headed east into the Big Hole.

Montana is one of the pre-eminent states for trout fishing. For anyone who has even thought about casting a fly, rivers such as the Madison, the Bitterroot, the Beaverhead, the Gallatin, Rock Creek and the Missouri have names that resonate.

The Big Hole River is one of Montana's Blue Ribbon streams; on a cool but bright morning, just below the little town of Wise River, I found some fish. Before noon I'd caught and released a dozen rainbow trout, four grayling (an unusual fish with sail-like dorsal fin), and far more whitefish than I wanted, casting flies -- including the hairwing caddis, Adams and Yellow Sally -- across broad, productive riffles and a deep pool below.

While in the Big Hole I stayed at Sundance Lodge, a homey sort of place long on friendliness and short on pretensions. Its nondescript, inadvertent-looking cluster of buildings includes a weathered cabin that stands near the shore of a small lake. There are two newer cabins across the way, and near them the main lodge. All told, Sundance offers just 10 rooms.

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