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Nikki's Montana Blog
All images courtesy of Nikki
Friday 18th September - Birmingham to Amsterdam, to Minneapolis and finally to Billings, Montana
Yes, you did read that correctly, Montana, USA! This blog may look a little out of place on a website dedicated to Canada, but what you may not realise is that although we are a Canada specialist, we actually arrange trips to any worldwide destination. Since we don't have a dedicated USA website, my blog will be appearing on here and as Montana is right next door to Canada, it's not completely out of place!
My day started at Birmingham airport. I love Birmingham Airport, it's only 45 minutes away from my home in Leicestershire and with several airlines offering connections through Europe, you can pretty much fly to anywhere in the world from your doorstep. It's also really efficient. Check in is quick and easy and there is usually never more than a five minute wait at security.
As a bit of a worrier, I tend to split my luggage between two hand luggage sized bags, one to check in and the other for carry on so if my checked bag doesn't arrive at my final destination at the same time as me, I will at least have spare clothes to wear in the meantime. It also means less weight to carry in one bag! After checking the size dimensions online, my bag was slightly wider at the base than detailed but altogether was way under the total combined dimensions that I had to adhere to. Unfortunately, no-one had told the gate agent that the website clearly states combined total dimensions and my carefully packed hand luggage bag was deemed too large at the boarding gate and had to be checked - luckily free of charge.
My journey involves three flights and although it sounds like a lot, the convenience of travelling from a local airport means that my total travel time will actually be less than if I had chosen to fly from Heathrow with just one connection.
Due to traffic at Amsterdam, the flight with KLM left 35 minutes late. It doesn't sound much but it can be when you're connecting to another flight. The flight was quick - only 50 minutes - but there was a very long taxi and it was a bus transfer to the terminal. My next gate was literally right as I walked into the terminal but what I initially thought was a queue to board, was actually the queue for all Delta passengers to answer luggage security questions and get a departure gate number. By the time I got to the gate, it was an hour since we had landed and the majority of the passengers had already boarded. I was lucky, some passengers missed their connections completely even though it was a short delay and it's something to bear in mind when booking flights.
My flight to Minneapolis was with Delta and overall I was pretty impressed. Friendly crew and the food was decent. We had a full meal service and two hot snacks. They also had my vegetarian meals which is quite often missed so extra brownie points for that :)
Saturday 19th September - Billings
After a few hours much needed sleep, it was an early start with breakfast at 7am. This was the first opportunity to meet the rest of the group who are from all over Europe and the USA. Breakfast was great, with lots of fruit as well as eggs, fried potatoes and for the meat eaters sausage and bacon. The Northern Hotel is one of Billings oldest, originally built in 1902. After an extensive refurbishment in 2009, it was restored to its former glory and is now one of the top hotels in the city.
After breakfast it was time to board the bus to the Little Bighorn Battlefield about an hour away from Billings. There is a visitor centre that gives you background and information about the site but we had one of the professional Historian tour guides join our coach and took a driving tour of the site itself.
The site is famous as it's one of the very few battles involving the army and native tribes that ended in a loss for the U.S. Army. Commonly referred to as Custers Last Stand, George Custer led his 7th Cavalry Regiment into battle with the Native tribes despite being outnumbered by roughly two to one. Having won his previous battles when also outnumbered, he entered into the conflict with confidence but this time things went wrong, his regiment suffered several losses and the battle ended in a heavy and humiliating defeat. Jerry our guide was incredibly knowledgable and you could really picture the scenes as we travelled round.
After this it was lunchtime at Custer Battlefield Trading Post where we tried their house speciality if Indian Taco's. They were like a giant doughnut filled with chilli, cheese, lettuce and tomato and absolutely delicious! People come here especially to try the taco's and I can definitely see why! As well as the restaurant, it also had a fantastic gift shop.
Before the trip, everyone was given a list of activities to choose from and this afternoon was the first of these. A trip to Pictograph Caves or horse riding were on offer but I chose a zip wire experience. There were six of us and after being harnessed up and given a brief training session, we were off on the wires. There were six zips of varying heights and lengths and we had a great afternoon flying down them.
There was time for a very quick change and then it was dinner at Commons 1882. The excellent vegetarian dish was gnocchi with squash, yams and leeks. Yum!
From here we headed to the Yellowstone Museum for dessert. This small museum is next to the airport and overlooks the city. Although the museum was informative, I will remember it not for its exhibits but for the advertisement of its raffle - Enter a raffle and win a firearm. Yes, really! The rifle - and what I can only assume were guns for the runners up as they were slightly smaller - were proudly displayed in a glass case. Welcome to America!
Sunday 20th September - Billings to Red Lodge
We had the luxury of a lie in this morning! An 8.30 departure with breakfast on the bus gave us time to leisurely pack up our things and check out.
Our first stop of the day was Pompeys Pillar National Monument. In 1804 Captain Lewis and Second Lieutenant Clarke were commissioned by the President to explore and map the unchartered territory from St Louis to the Pacific Coast, looking for a water source that would lead all the way to the coast itself. Our guide told us all about the mission, the route taken and the struggles they faced. Lewis and Clarke split up to follow different rivers and as the headed back towards the reunion point, Clarke stopped at what is now known as Pompeys Pillar, on the edge of the Yellowstone River and carved his name into the rock. This is the only physical evidence of the whole expedition and for this reason, it's a designated National Historic Site. The carved name is halfway up the Rock and is protected by a glass front to stop erosion. Continuing up, the top of the Pillar has an amazing 360 degree view, it was so clear we could see the Bear Tooth Mountains 90 miles away!
After a quick look around the visitor centre we were back on the road, this time heading to Red Lodge, a small town located at the base of the Beartooth Mountains.
We had lunch at a really fun restaurant called Bogarts. The atmosphere was great but the food was a little disappointing. I picked tacos but they were cold and didn't taste that good. Everything else coming out looked really good though so I think I was probably just unlucky.
From here we drove to Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary on the edge of town. The sanctuary is a rescue centre for native wildlife that for various reasons can't be put back into a wild environment. The Education Manager Tim who gave us the tour was incredibly knowledgable and clearly very passionate about wildlife and the centre. They have a range of species including bears, elk, bison, coyotes, Mountain lion and many more. The animals are well cared for but sadly funding is an issue. They rely mainly on admission fees and donations and as such its difficult for them to improve the current enclosures and bring the centre up to the standards required to allow them to take more animals.
After the sanctuary we checked into The Pollard Hotel and we then had a couple of hours to relax and explore Red Lodge. It's a small town and is easily covered on foot in an hour. There are a number of small unique shops including a sweet emporium! The Pollard is on the Main Street and is a historic hotel. It was refurbished in the 1990's and the rooms vary in size and layout. They have everything you need though - except for normal teabags. Green tea, earl grey and camomile were all on offer but no normal black tea!
Dinner was in The Pollard dining room. Unbeknown to me, everyone had preselected their meal choice from three meat and fish options. As a veggie I didn't get a choice which I do get frustrated by and the dish was aubergine based, a vegetable I don't actually like. Surprisingly though it was ok and we had an excellent crumble for dessert! There was time to head to the bar and listen to the local live music group and then it was off to bed, a good nights sleep was in order to prepare for the trip to Yellowstone!
Monday 21st September - Yellowstone Day!
When I first found out I might be coming to Montana, I was so excited as it meant I would get to visit Yellowstone National Park, one of the many destinations on my bucket list. Today was finally the day!
We left The Pollard at 7am and drove to Rock Creek Resort for breakfast. It's in a really pretty spot, just 5 miles out of town. After breakfast it was time to start our journey along the Beartooth Highway. This is quite possibly the most beautiful road to drive in the USA. The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words so rather than trying to describe it and not do it justice, today's installment is going to be mainly photo based!
The road climbs through the mountains and eventually travels along the top of them before descending into the valley on the other side. Temperatures vary throughout the climb and on the top you can actually stand in snow so be sure to pack layers! We eventually arrived in Cooke City - population 100 - the gateway to Yellowstone. It is truly spectacular with lakes, waterfalls, geysers and thermal pools. Again, more photos than a written description!
Sadly no bears but we did see lots of bison, elk and pronghorn antelope. We exited the park at West Yellowstone where we visited The Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Centre. Similar to Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary, the centre provides a home to bears and wolves that for various reasons, can't be returned to the wild. They had a fantastic set up. The enclosures were designed to be as natural as possible and with an open feel rather than appearing like a cage. We also watched as the staff provided both the bears and wolves with behavioural enrichment, an essential technique used to stop captive animals from getting bored. They also have a bird of prey section with a variety of eagles and owls that have been rescued. There is an informative visitor centre and overall I really enjoyed the short time we spent there and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone visiting West Yellowstone.
We had time for a quick look around the town and then it was off to our accommodation for the next two nights, 320 Ranch. It was completely dark when we arrived so haven't seen anything other than my cabin so far but just based on that, I think it's going to be a pretty good stay. A two bedroom cabin with a living room and a kitchen and it's all just for me!
Tuesday 22nd September - Big Sky
320 Ranch is beautiful. My cabin overlooks the river and the mountains. It's a stunning setting. There are 48 cabins altogether but they're spread out all over the Ranch so it doesn't feel crowded.
Breakfast was buffet style and included American pancakes! There was a coach group also in but the staff made sure that the food was kept fully topped up. We were spending the day in Big Sky today and we had activitily options again, another zipline experience, a high ropes course or a Lone Peak Expedition which I decided on.
Having never skied this was a whole new experience for me, starting with the ski lift. I would say it was around 1/4 mile long and gave an amazing view as it climbed. From here it was a 4 x 4 drive to the cable car which took us to the top of the peak. The view was amazing, the day was so clear we could see the Grand Teton Mountains 110 miles away. Snow covered the ground and walking without sinking to your knees was a challenge but fun! After around half an hour it was time to come down but my first time in the top of a mountain is one I will always remember.
Big Sky prides itself on being The Biggest Skiing in America as it offers the largest skiing area in the USA.
Lunch was at Lone Mountain Ranch and as everything here seems to be, in a gorgeous setting. It's going to sound crazy but the sky really does seem bluer here in Big Sky Country! Lots of activities are available at Lone Mountain and it's both a summer and winter resort.
This afternoon we had a choice of a horse ride or a hike. Being very much a non rider I chose the hike which was to a place called Ouzel Falls. It was just under a mile through a forest to reach the pretty waterfall at the end and it was nice to get some exercise after lots of sitting on a bus. We finished much earlier than the riders which gave us chance to relax at Lone Mountain. We watched the rest of the group trot in on the horses, all looking like cowboys and cowgirls in the making, I was almost tempted to try it myself!
There was time for a quick change before we headed out for dinner at Bucks T4, at 50 years old, it's one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in the area. Famous for its steak, the veggie option was pretty good too and the dessert was excellent! It's also a hotel and after properties in West Yellowstone, is the closest lodging to Old Faithful in Yellowstone so is an alternative option for anyone not wanting to stay in the town. After a quick drive back to the lodge, it was once again time for bed!
Wednesday 23rd September - Big Sky to Butte
Another early start this morning as we checked out of 320 Ranch and headed for breakfast at Rainbow Ranch about 15 minutes away. It's a small property of just 21 rooms that specialises in events such as weddings. They were in the process of setting up for a wedding and most rooms were full but they were able to show us a one bedroom suite and a two bedroom. The rooms were warm and welcoming with a beautiful view over the river or lake and a balcony to sit out and enjoy it. The property also had a hot tub overlooking the water. There was an extensive breakfast menu and after seeing huckleberry products everywhere in Montana, I took the opportunity to try them for myself in the form of huckleberry pancakes! It was a really lovely and peaceful place and somewhere I would definitely consider stopping off at if I was to come back this way.
Our next stop was Caverns State Park. This beautiful drive took us alongside the Gallatin River that meanders through the valley before the landscape changed to rolling hills and then to the open plains and farmland.
The Caverns were located pretty high in the mountains and entry required you to make a 3/4 mile hike further up. It was hot and steep and I was already feeling a bit unwell so it was a tough climb for me. Once we entered though it was much cooler and mainly downhill! We had a fantastic guide called Jim who took us through the different caverns explaining all about the cave system and its history and geology. It was a really interesting two hour tour which ended with a walk along a cave corridor. I felt like I was discovering a secret passageway at Hogwarts!
We had a picnic lunch and then drove on to the historical mining town of Butte. Butte was built on the mining industry and is nicknamed the richest hill on earth due to the vast deposits of gold, silver and copper in the area. It was copper that really made the town take off though and the copper that came from Butte gave electricity to the whole of the USA and much of the world. Butte is classed as a historic district and walking and trolley tours can be arranged. It's also possible to take a trip down into one of the mines.
Our afternoon focused on one of the other major businesses of the town though - alcohol production! Butte is home to both a distillery and a brewery and we got a tour of both and an insight into the making process. For anyone into whisky or beer, it's a great way to spend an afternoon. Today's itinerary finished at the Labour Centre with a talk from the local historian who gave us further insight into the town.
Our hotel for the evening was the Hotel Finlen, a historic property that had been designed to incorporate the importance of copper to the town with beautiful copper features in the reception area. My room must have been a family room as I moved into what I thought was the bathroom and it was actually another bedroom! Once again, the USA hotels let me down with their tea making facilities but it was an excuse to go over the road to a cafe and end the day with tea and a delicious slice of cheesecake!
Thursday 24th September - Deer Lodge, Philipsburg and Fairmont Hot Springs
We had breakfast on the go this morning as we drove to Grant-Kohrs Historic Ranch in Deer Lodge. Conrad Kohrs moved to the USA from Germany at the age of 15 with nothing to his name and through sheer determination and hard work built up a 10 million acre cattle empire. We had a tour of the ranch house and the wealth was clearly evident with inside bathrooms and even electricity. We also got chance to view the blacksmith shed and the cowboy bunkhouse. Everything on view had been donated by the Kohrs family and was in immaculate condition, it really allowed you to get a feel what life on a working ranch would have been like back in the 1800's.
After Kohrs Ranch we moved onto the town of Philipsburg. Lunch was at a diner called Doe Brothers that served fabulous milkshakes and a choice of vegetarian dishes! The bean burger and my strawberry milkshake were delicious.
Philipsburg is another mining town but very different to Butte as it mines sapphires. We were all really excited to be there as we were getting the chance to 'mine' our own at a sapphire specialist in town. We were partnered up into teams of two and each team picked a bag of gravel. The sapphire expert then tipped the gravel onto a device which was basically a square sieve and washed the gravel for us, shaking it around as he went. The process is meant to bring the sapphires to the bottom of the sieve so when he tips it onto a table they are towards the top. We each had a pair of tweezers which we then used to search through the gravel and pick out the sapphires. When we had finished, an expert sorted out the sapphires from the non sapphires and weighed them for us. You then had the option of getting them heat treated and faceted. It was a lot of fun and I found 3.27 carats.
Philipsburg is very small but has a really nice atmosphere and an amazing sweet shop! We had time to wander around before meeting at the brewery - yes another one - for a drink. From here we drove to our hotel for the evening, The Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, situated about six miles outside of the town of Anaconda. The hot springs are located near to the hotel and they pump this water to the resort to use in their pool facilities. They have both indoor and outdoor swimming pools as well as an additional hot tub pool outside. They also have a really fun waterslide! We had a couple of hours free before dinner so we took full advantage of the swimming facilities including the slide!
The room I had was very large with two double beds and a good sized bathroom. There was also a fridge, a microwave and tea and coffee making facilities! The excitement I had when spotting these soon turned to disappointment when I discovered once again that there wasn't any black tea. Next time I come to the States, I'm bringing my own teabags!
Dinner was in the hotel dining room and surprisingly for the second time today there was a choice of veggie options. A couple of weeks ago, my American colleague Taylor was telling me all about spaghetti squash. I'd never heard of it before - it seems we don't get it in the UK - so when I saw it on the menu, I had to give it a try. The squash is cooked and then scraped into stands like spaghetti, it was served with a whole range of vegetables, sun dried tomatoes and cheese. It was amazing, definitely the best meal I'd had so far.
There were intentions to head back to the pool after dinner but after such a good meal, I was feeling too full and sleepy so it was off to bed instead!
Our final day began with a leisurely breakfast at the Fairmont Hotel followed by a drive to the city of Bozeman, the home of the Museum of the Rockies which is part of Montana State University. The university has one of the worlds leading palaeontology departments and the museum curator Jack Horner was the technical advisor on the Jurassic Park films and the inspiration for the original lead character Alan Grant. We were given a really interesting guided tour of the dinosaur exhibit which includes a viewing area into a laboratory as employees carried out work on unearthed fossils. Some incredible discoveries have been made in the region and the search for more continues. There is also a planetarium sector and a temporary exhibit section which currently houses an exhibit honouring the Warner Brothers cartoon history.
Lunch was followed by a visit to a brand new hotel called Element. It had only been open for four days but based on what I saw, I imagine it will become one of Bozeman's leading hotels in no time. Part of the Westin group, Element hotels are a new concept of environmentally friendly accommodations. The hotel already has already been given the highest possible green credentials and the rooms and facilities were fantastic. They even have free bikes for guests to take to explore the city!
We had a couple of hours to explore the city ourselves after the hotel visit. Bozeman has shunned the usual chain operators that adorn most high streets and instead has independent, unique and quirky stores that make the city a little bit different. Today was the start of Montana State University Homecoming weekend and as a result our final hotel was the Holiday Inn Express outside of the city in nearby Belgrade. We had the warmest welcome from the staff who had laid out drinks and snacks for our arrival. When I got to my room, there was a welcome letter and a huge bag of locally made sweets. It was a lovely touch that completely summed up how friendly and welcoming everyone in the state had been.
Our final meal was at nearby Gallatin River Lodge. The food was delicious and we all had a great last evening together. This week has just completely flown by and has given me some fantastic memories. Montana was a state that was on my bucket list mainly because of Yellowstone. Since I've been here, I've discovered that there is so much more on offer and this beautiful state with its wonderful people is one I will definitely be making a return to.