The visitors' center has this:
Scenes from the narrow, one-way mountain road:
A buffalo wallow:
Pronghorn antelope were plentiful, but we reached the highest point in the park -- just under 5000 feet -- without having seen any buffalo. Well, bison, really, but even the interpretive signs in the park visitors' center call them buffalo, after carefully explaining the difference.
However, the views were worth it. The refuge is a spur of the Mission Mountain range lying in a huge flat valley, the remnants of glacial Lake Missoula. You climb through gullies and over ridges through a series of switchbacks to the highest point, just under 5000 feet above sea level, looking out in all directions over ranchlands, lakes, gullies, rivers and forests on the valley floor below and mountain ranges bordering the distance. The dry Western sun feels wonderfully hot on your shoulders, so high up, so close to the sky, with a breeze always blowing and the whole world at your feet.
We could smell smoke on the air and see a dark haze filling the mountain valleys to the west. More about that later. Driving down from the summit, we finally spotted bison: a few strays here and there, then the large herd grazing too far off to look like more than interesting dots, and finally this guy, resting in a dusty wallow fairly near the road:
I think we saw an eagle, too, flapping slowly near the ground.
We left the bison refuge and turned west on Montana 200 along the stunningly beautiful Flathead River, a flow of that same Rocky Mountain crystalline aquamarine water we saw in Glacier, bordered by high sandy hills studded with Ponderosa pines. We were headed for Thompson Falls, where we planned to cross into Idaho via Thompson Pass. But before we got there -- fire! We found ourselves on route 200 passing just under the forest fires we'd seen from the bison refuge, burning in forests on top of steep rocky bluffs and mountains.
We drove right below the fires, close to flames and embers, past a sign warning motorists not to stop because of the danger of rolling debris, under two or three helicopters buzzing back and forth to the river filling huge buckets that they lugged back up to the mountain tops and then dumped on the fires in seemingly useless streams -- so little, compared to all that smoke and flame. At least one airplane flew through the smoke, too, dumping -- as we later learned -- fire retardant. We passed a parking area of firetrucks and firefighter buses, and when we left the fires behind and reached the next town, saw signs directing firefighters to a sleeping area. It turns out the fires have been burning since August 1, following lightning strikes in a series of storms, and because of the rugged terrain, if the dry, hot weather doesn't change, may burn - contained but not extinguished by the firefighters -- for several weeks.
We left the fires behind, drove through Thompson Falls, and climbed along a narrow, twisting creek higher and higher toward Idaho. We were near the top when Montana gave us one last gift: a quick glimpse of a young bear, a pre-teenager, I'd guess, glossy and fast-moving, galumphing across the road to the shelter of the woods. Black, well-fed, strong and happy-looking. We were happy, too.
Thompson Pass is a lovely place, a narrow mountain pass that is closed in winter by snowdrifts but, in summer, is a glory of views, wildflowers, trails and happy hikers picking huckleberries.
We drove down and down and down and down from the pass into Idaho, past a river bordered for miles by RV camps filled with what seemed to be hundreds of campers and trailers, lined up along the stream with hammocks, grills, swings, tents and canopies on the shore and swimmers and fishermen and rafts and kayaks full of happy kids bobbing in the river shallows, everywhere you looked for miles. Funland!
Then we reached I90 west, made short work of a steep climb through the rest of Idaho -- with a quick stop at a Walgreens for an Idaho keychain for Ana -- and drove a couple of hours out of the mountains and across the grasslands of the Columbia Basin in Washington State, where we're spending the night in a resort town called Moses Lake. Views from the sliding glass doors of our motel room as evening gathers:
We'll be in Olympia by tomorrow evening. Time to shift our thoughts from traveling to wedding preparations and family.