Welcome to the Montana section of our San Francisco to Edmonton route notes.
The journey starts in Idaho, on the stretch of road that leads up to the Oregon border and the town of Lakeview:
Wallace to Henderson (75km)
Shops: Mullan (small gas station shop)
Accommodation: Mullan (motels), Henderson (Cabin City Forest Service Campground), plus plenty of free camping available
Eat lots of porridge in preparation for your climb up to Lookout Pass and then you can largely glide downhill in the afternoon. From Wallace, follow the last of the Coeur d’Alenes bike trail to Mullan, a town that’s seen better days. The only place to get food is in the Esso Gas Station at the far end of the main street.
From the gas station, carry on down the main street and follow signs to the Shoshone Park and then the Northern Pacific Trail. Soon you’re on a small hard-packed dirt road, that follows the old train line up and over Lookout Pass. It’s a scenic ride through the woods and although the I-90 would be more direct, the path is far more enjoyable cycling.
Once at the top, go straight ahead, past the ski lift and parking lot, to continue on the trail down the other side of the hill. You’ll fly through a short tunnel and then weave your way down past Taft, where there’s a rest stop with water, and towards Saltese. All of this is on hard-packed dirt that’s quite easy riding.
At one point before Saltese signs point right to the Route of the Hiawatha, a very popular bike trail but you can keep going straight on snowmobile tracks that parallel the highway. In Saltese, you have to choose between the interstate or more off-road paths. The I-90 has a wide shoulder and it’s the best choice if you want to make time, while the paths are almost traffic free (you have to share them with ATVs) and offer plenty of great free camping opportunities but the surface becomes much rougher so don’t expect to go too quickly.
If you choose the path option, go under the railway trestle bridge and take an immediate right to get up onto the bridge. This path runs all the way to St .Regis but if you get sick of it, there are various points where you can get off and rejoin the interstate. From the interstate, take the exit for Henderson and go left. This small paved road leads past a Forest Service Campground (Cabin City, $7) and all the way to St. Regis.
Henderson to Elmo (150km)
Shops: St. Regis (small supermarket), Plains (small supermarket), Hot Springs (general store)
Accommodation: St. Regis (hotels, RV parks), Cascade Creek (Forest Service Campground, $7), Quinns Hot Springs (luxury lodges, 20 miles out of St. Regis), Plains (RV park, Hotels), Hot Springs (hotels), Elmo (camping in Big Arm State Park, $15)
From the Cabin City camping area, the road climbs for about 6km and then glides downhill all the way into St. Regis, a small town that survives on its status as the first real town coming over the border from Idaho. Aside from the tourist tat, you’ll find a friendly visitor centre here as you turn left towards Paradise, with free internet access and all the required maps and brochures.
With your panniers full of leaflets, continue on the rolling road to Paradise, 24 miles away. On a nice day, this scenic byway along the river is a beautiful ride. There’s a free but very basic camping area a few kilometers along (pit toilets, no water), followed by the better maintained Cascade Creek campground about 17 miles from St. Regis.
Don’t worry about the lack of showers, you can go down the road to Quinns Hot Springs, just 4 miles away, where $7 buys you access to the locker rooms, with hot showers, and most importantly the mineral-fed hot spring pools. It’s heaven for aching joints and muscles.
Carry on through Paradise and towards the bigger town of Plains, where you fork right onto Route 28 for Hot Springs and Flathead Lake. Once again the road climbs through a rural landscape before diving down just before Hot Springs – the only place with any services on Route 28. Another downhill follows into Elmo and the Route 93 junction. Go right for 6km to Big Arm State Park, where you can camp and roast marshmallows on Flathead Lake with stunning mountain views.
Elmo to Big Fork (70km)
Shops: Lakeside (supermarket), Somers (small shop), Big Fork (supermarket)
Accommodation: West Shore State Park (just before Lakeside), Lakeside (hotels, RV park), Big Fork (Wayfarers State Park, $15)
From Elmo, the road along Flathead Lake dips up and down. It’s a busy road, especially in high tourist season, so start early. Thankfully there’s a decent shoulder for the most part but it’s nice to dip off the road where possible.
You can pick up the Old Highway 93 for a short stretch just before Dayton and then watch for Angel Road as you approach Lakeside. Lakeside Boulevard does the same thing leaving town, as does North Juniper Bay Road towards Somers.
As you come into Somers, go right onto Somers Road and stay left, following it all the way out to Highway 82, where you go right again on Highway 35 for Big Fork. Traffic is heavy and the shoulders are thin coming into Big Fork – one of the tourist centres of the area – so watch out. Follow Highway 35 just out of town for Wayfarers State Park, a pleasant place to camp with water views.
Big Fork to Columbia Falls, West Glacier and Maria’s Pass (160km)
Shops: Big Fork (supermarket), Columbia Falls (supermarket), West Glacier (small shop), Essex (corner store)
Accommodation: Big Fork (Wayfarers State Park, $15), Columbia Falls (plenty of hotels, nice RV park for $18), Lake Five Road (RV parks), West Glacier (RV Parks), Pinacle (RV Parks), Essex (hotels), Marias Pass (Forest Service Campgrounds, $10)
The main road into Columbia Falls (Route 206) is busy and annoying but you can use back roads most of the way into town. Leave Big Arm on the main road but keep an eye out on your left for Riverside Road, after the junction with Highway 82. Once on Riverside Road, take Creston Road and then when you get to a T-junction go left onto Mennonite Church Road (unmarked). There’s a short unpaved stretch….
You come out on the Number 2 Highway and go left for the centre of Columbia Falls. Just across from the tourist bureau is a nice little RV park and the next road on your right, Nucleus Avenue, leads to the central business district. There you’ll find a good supermarket and a library with free internet.
Continue up the main street and follow signs for Highway 486 or North Fork Road out of Columbia Falls. Like the earlier diversion, this avoids a nasty stretch on Highway 2 that’s dangerous for cyclists. Continue up Highway 486 until you reach a right turn onto Blankenship Road. Bear left after you cross the river and then go left at a T-junction onto Lake Five Road (unmarked). Going right once more brings you back onto Highway 2 just outside of West Glacier and at the junction you’ll find several RV parks.
West Glacier is a small town clearly oriented to the tourist trade. There’s an Alberta Visitor Centre here if you’re going north as well as a few tat shops and the obligatory supermarket. After this, services are very limited so get your lunch supplies here.
The road weaves its way along the gorgeous river and although the scenery isn’t as stunning as the Going To The Sun road, it certainly has its fair share of charm. Keep an eye out for wildlife, especially the goats licking minerals off the rocks just after Essex, soak in the beautiful vistas.
There are several RV parks along the way but the best budget buy is found in the Forest Service campgrounds, just before and after Marias Pass. There aren’t many spots though so be prepared to arrive relatively early to grab your place or risk not finding one at all. You could easily wild camp if necessary.
The pass is about 8 miles up from Devil’s Creek campground. Take the obligatory picture to mark your crossing of the continental divide and then take a few minutes to read the historical panels.
Maria’s Pass to Canadian border at Port Chief Mountain (130km)
Shops: East Glacier (small supermarket), St. Mary’s (small supermarket), Babb (general store)
Accommodation: Marias Pass (Forest Service Campgrounds, $10), East Glacier (backpackers $12, hotels $50-150), St. Mary’s (KOA campground, hotels, cabins), Belly River Campground (just over the Canadian border, in Waterton National Park)
It’s mostly downhill from Maria’s Pass to East Glacier, a laidback town with a plethora of restaurants, hotels and a good, small shop where you can pick up the basics and fresh produce, not to mention some great fudge!
From East Glacier, go under the railway tracks, past the historic East Glacier Lodge and up Route 49. You get stunning views and not much traffic, since the twisty road keeps all the big trucks and RVs away.
The tranquility lasts just 8 miles and then you rejoin the main road north, to St. Mary’s and Babb. Traffic can be heavy in peak season and there isn’t always a shoulder but all in all it’s not too bad. Youll probably struggle more with the hills, which roll up and down, culminating in a 4 mile downhill into St. Mary’s.
Reward yourself with a cold beer or a slice of homemade huckleberry pie and then carry on to the village of Babb and the left turn to Port of Chief Mountain. This last 14-mile stretch is predominantly uphill but just before the border the road turns downward and you can cruise through customs and down to Belly River Campground, just beyond the customs post.
Unfortunately, Belly River Campground didn’t quite live up to expectations when we arrived. At $16 a night for a site, plus a park pass and a fee to have a fire, we expected they would at least have the facilities advertised on the brochure. Instead, we found a water pump that wasn’t working and none of the promised bear boxes. The flush toilets were locked and the sole pit toilet was miles away from our site.