Friday, January 31, 2014

Wild West Wander Women Road Trip Adventure

Wild Wander Women

I am the Queen of Procrastination.  This adventure happened way back in September and, with no good excuses, I'm only now getting around to writing about it.  It's a long one.  I hope it's worth the wait!


At the end of September, my friend, Kat, from Pittsburgh came out for a visit, and we turned it into one helluva crazy road trip adventure.  The original plan called for nearly a week of camping all over western Montana and northeastern Wyoming.  While winter decided to come along early, shortening our trip by a few days, we still managed to cram in just about everything we'd planned on.   

I picked Kat up in Great Falls early Saturday afternoon and after a brief stop for a food and supplies, we set off for St. Mary, MT, the eastern and most spectacular entrance into Glacier National Park.  Due to an abundance of bear sitings in the area, all of the east side campgrounds in the park were closed to camping, but the KOA was happy to let us take our chances inside my monster-sized nylon tent.  We were given a nice, secluded little site tucked into an abundance of small aspen trees and various shrubs where we quickly set up camp while enjoying our first beers of the trip:  Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter from Red Hook.  My uncle had recommended it, and it was pretty darned tasty.  I good porter with subtle, but noticeable, pumpkin flavor.  Not pumpkin spice, but actual pumpkin.  In a porter.  Mmm... happiness.

Kat, bear spray, and an Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter
As soon as we were set up and the beers were history, we were off to see what we could of the area before dark.  Heading north on US Hwy 89, we almost ended up in Canada before turning around to find the turnoff to Many Glacier, a favorite park destination for many living this side of the park.  As we headed west toward the campground area and historic inn, a storm clouds were brewing over the Front.  Happily, we had time to get out and take some gorgeous photos before the winds got nuts and the sprinkles started. 

Near Many Glacier
The view near the KOA
On the way back to the campsite, we ended up stopping for dinner at a little roadside place painted purple called the Two Sisters Cafe.  Something told me it would hit the spot, and that it did.  Especially since they served one of my very favorite Montana IPAs, appropriately named for this Wild West Wander Women Adventure, Going to the Sun IPA from Great Northern Brewing in Whitefish.

Going to the Sun IPA
Kat inside the Two Sisters Cafe, Babb, MT

After we were filled up on good eats (shoe-string fries!), we headed back to our tent for a good night's sleep.  Or so we thought.  Sometime in the wee hours awoke to the cries of banshees and demons, or maybe it was just the dumb jagoffs in the site across from us.  Music blasting, drums beating, hooting, hollering and general obnoxiousnousI contemplated getting out the bear spray, but deciding that would likely just exacerbate the situation, I put in my earplugs and turned on some tunes and somehow managed to fall back to sleep.

Sunday morning found us on the road to the sun. Going to the Sun road is only open during the summer months when the pass is clear.  This year it was closing extra early to allow for some needed road work.  Lucky us - and thankfully I'd made sure to check ahead of time - Sunday was going to be the last day the road would be open all the through the park.  I cannot even begin to express the magnitude and magnificence of those glacier carved mountains.  The weather cooperated with us on the east side of the park and we were able to take a nice shortish hike at Logan Pass before heading down into the rain on the west side of the park.  Again, we got lucky and had a nice reprieve from the weather to take in Lake McDonald and a tasty lunch of PB and honey sandwiches.  

Kat and me above Logan Pass
Lake McDonald

Driving back into the rain, we headed toward our next major destination:  Flathead Lake Brewing Co. near Bigfork, MT.  We noticed as we were passing through Bigfork that the construction of a big fancy new FLB building was nearing completion.  The existing brewery is a wonderful little cozy place and we liked it immediately.  The bartender was a cool guy who turned us on to some yummy treats beyond the beer.  The beer was quite good, though nothing really stood out for me as excellent, but the clam chowder I had was just the thing.  After that he suggested we try their homemade lemon-ginger ice cream with caramel sauce.  A bit too much ginger for me, but if ginger's your thing, you would have thought you'd died and gone to heaven.  Kat's not a big ice cream eater, but she is a big fan of ginger so she was very pleased.  

For more info on FLB - there's a taproom in Missoula also, just so's ya know - click here:

Mmmm... tasters!
Another purple place!

We satisfied our stomachs and beer-loving taste buds, then set off again down the east side of Flathead Lake to Polson, MT, where we'd decided to stay for the night.  The original plan was to pitch the tent at a nearby campground on the lake, but Mother Nature was still pouring down the wet stuff so we opted for a hotel room.  Luck was with us once again and we ended up in a relatively inexpensive room right on the lake.  Then we set out in search of beer and dinner.  Polson is home to Glacier Brewing Co., but sadly, they are closed on Sundays which we soon discovered.  Driving back through town we passed by a super kitschy looking bar, called the Wolf Den.  We had to check it out.  Filled with mangy taxidermist-stuffed wolves, a sparkly curtained and disco-balled jukebox, and too many other almost-cool-but-not-quite tacky things to mention, we plopped ourselves down on two torn vinyl barstools and checked out our options.  Cold Smoke!  The tastiest of Scotch ales from KettleHouse in Missoula, a beer we couldn't, at that time, get in Lewistown - I had to have one.  Kat decided to see if there were any other options in the cooler.  She asked the bartender what they had for micros. "Angry Orchard, Mike's Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice..." was the reply.  Sheesh!  Taking a peek for herself, however, Kat spotted a Fat Tire and went with that.  

The Wolf Den - Polson, MT
From there it was most definitely dinner time, or so said our stomachs - road tripping is hard work!  We found ourselves at a Mexican restaurant attached to a sports bar.  The Steelers were playing and, finding out we could order food from the restaurant while sitting in the sports bar, we were set.  And even though Glacier Brewing was closed, we were able to try their Golden Grizzly Ale, a German Kölsch, which the bar had on tap.  It was drinkable, but I can't say I liked it much.  Actually, except when having the Wild Horse Island Pale Ale on draft at the brewery the previous time I was in Polson, I can't say that I've liked any of their brews all that much.  Oh, well.  

For more info on Glacier Brewing, click here:

Flathead Lake
The Mission Mountains, south of Polson
Monday was a marvelous, brew-filled day.  We started at the iconic Big Sky Brewing in Missoula, a must-stop for any beer-loving out-of-stater, if for the name alone.  There we ran into a couple guys who were also on a beerapalooza wild west road trip.  They were from Arkansas and Texas and had met up in Salt Lake to begin their journey all over the Great Northwest.  It was fun chatting, but we were interrupted when a man asked Kat and me, ignoring the guys, if we'd like to take a tour of the brewery.  Sorry guys!  See ya!  It turned out our tour guide was one of the brewery founders, Bjorn Nabozney.  He took us through their entire brewing, bottling, canning and packaging process and let us in on a bunch of little known facts.  Did you know that all of their artwork is done by Bjorn's mom?  And that she hides a little something special in each picture?  We got to wander around in their brewing lab, and found out that they like to play around with new ideas and recipes.  Even Moose Drool's formula might change from batch to batch.  I found that really interesting.  Gosh, that was fun!

For more info on Big Sky Brewing, click here:

A Montana Icon
Björn - if I remember correctly, his t-shirt said "radish"
It wasn't easy trumping that wonderful surprise, but we did our best at KettleHouse and Draught Works.  I've been to both of these breweries in the past, but since this was Kat's adventure, too, I was happy to visit them yet again (duh).  At KettleHouse (north) we both enjoyed the Eddy Out Pale Ale, my personal KH favorite. We were the only folks in the place so early on a Monday, and our server was happy to let us try a few tasters of their other brews.  Most interesting, though not really to my liking, was a Thai IPA.  It was mild on the hops flavor allowing all the other strange Thai flavors to come through.  Lemongrass and ginger?  After that I opted for a pint of their fresh brewed root beer, always a treat!  Draught Works is where I found my favorite beer of the trip:  a Fumunda Southern Hemisphere IPA made with New Zealand hops. Not knowing what the heck Fumunda is, I just looked it up.  EW!  I'm not going to explain it, but if you need a full gross-out moment:  Fumunda defined.  I checked more than one source, just so's ya know.  Contrary to all that, it was absolutely marvelous!  Lots of clean, crisp hops flavor. 

For more info on KettleHouse, click here: 
For more info on Draught Works, click here:

KettleHouse - Missoula, MT
Inside Draught Works - Missoula, MT
As seen on the brewery wall...
After three breweries it was most definitely time for FOOD, and what better place to than a good taphouse?  The Iron Horse Bar & Grill had long been recommended to me, but I'd just never gotten around to trying it out.  I was a bit disappointed in the beer selection.  Though not bad, and much better than many places I've been to in Montana, I figured it's choices would at least be as good as that great dive bar across town, The Rhino.  Alas, this was not the case.  I opted for a Lewis & Clark Brewing Tumbleweed IPA, always a good choice, and Kat and I both had a yummy open-faced meatloaf sandwich.  

On the wall at the Iron Horse
Next, across the street to Worden's Market, a funky little market and deli with a diverse beer selection - a must-stop for me on any trip to or through Missoula.  I was hoping to stock up on some interesting brews, but left only with a six pack of Going to the Sun IPA.  Why I ended up talking myself out of getting more goodies, I wish I knew!  

A special favorite of mine.  But as it's what I enjoy at my favorite watering hole, I didn't buy any for home.
We had to stop at my favorite store in Missoula, Rockin' Rudy's, but then it was time to head south to Stevensville, MT, and the next brewery on the day's list, Wildwood.  The Wildwood building has a very different feel to it, and after doing a bit of research, I found it was built largely from recycled materials and hay bales.  The smell wasn't different, though; it was filled with the big, beautiful aroma of the brewing process.  A large portion of the interior space is taken up with brewing kettles and tanks, somewhat open to the taproom to allow for those lovely scents.  There are high tables and stools lined along a wall in that area with a few more in the small taproom as well.  In the corner is a small bar and there we found most of the brewery visitors crowded around a gal doing a great job of keeping everybody happy.  They had only a few flavors to choose from, but all were available in cans in addition to draft; I'm always very happy to see canned beers.  Lagers are not usually my beer of choice, but this time the Ambitious Lager seemed just the thing, and it was.

For more info on Wildwood Brewing, click here:

The simple, unadorned Wildwood Brewery
A selection of Wildwood brews, all organic

Just down the road a bit, we stopped in at Blacksmith Brewing, in the heart of Stevensville.  There we found a lively crowd of Denver Broncos fans watching Monday Night Football on the big screen.  Except for that lovely bit of technology on the wall, the rest of the place was decorated in brick, wood and metalworks, giving it that rustic, antiqued feel.  Here I went back to my hoppy tendencies with their very nice seasonal Hop Harvest IPA.

For more info on Blacksmith Brewing Co, click here:

Blacksmith Brewing - Stevensville, MT
One of the many anvils at Blacksmith, a good beer and a fun coaster
We probably should have stopped at that point, but we opted for one more brewery before finding a place to bed down for the night, Bitter Root Brewing in Hamilton, MT.  Unlike the happy aromas we encountered upon entering Wildwood, we were assaulted by the not-so-wonderful scent of grease, grease and more grease.  Like an old diner, everything smelled like onion rings.  And like an old diner, the countertops were covered in an unpleasant yellow formica.  Needless to say, this was not our happy place, but they had a large selection of brews so we forged ahead.  Things didn't get much better with a beer in hand.  Something about our bartender rubbed us the wrong way, and neither of us were overly impressed with our beer choices, mine being their session pale ale.  Maybe we were tired.  Maybe we'd done too much for one day, but this was not the place for us.  It was time to hit the sleeping bag.

For more info on Bitter Root Brewing, click here:

Bitter Root Brewing - Hamilton, MT
Kat and the yellow formica

We'd made a list of possible campgrounds along our chose route, and the closest to Hamilton was the Angler's Roost.  It was getting dark when we arrived, and the office was closed, but there was a sign on the door directing campers to find a spot and pay in the morning.  As we couldn't see much, and wanting to be near the facilities, we pulled into a spot amongst the RVs.  We had the tent up and the air mattresses ready in no time, then headed to the restrooms to get ready for bed.  Locked!  Now what?  Just then, a gal leading a little boy came our direction.  "You guys don't have a key?"  We explained that we'd arrived after the office had closed and had just finished setting up our tent.  Without hesitation, she offered to leave her key hidden in the flower pot for us to use for the night.  Thank you, kind stranger!!!  We did what we needed to do and hit the tent for a good nights sleep.  And awoke to a steady rain.  Ugh.  We packed up most of our things, took quick showers, packed all the wet things into trash bags we'd purchased for such an occasion, and headed to the office to pay our camp fee.  Kat went in ahead of me and I walked in just in time to hear him say that, because of who knows what, he wasn't going to charge us for the camp site, only for the showers.  We left paying only about $10!  How wonderful!  And our Wild West Wander Women's

The Angler's Roost bait shop and RV park
The man at the Roost recommended The Coffee Cup cafe for breakfast, and after getting caffeinated and baconed, we set off in the rain through the Big Hole and on to Bannack State Park.  Bannack is a wonderfully intact ghost town that came originally came into being after gold was discovered in the adjacent Grasshopper Creek.  You can walk through many of the old buildings, which are well maintained by the state to preserve their character.  There had been some major flooding through the park over the summer, but much had been done to remove any trace, and the park had just re-opened earlier in the month.  This is one of the coolest ghost towns I've ever visited.  And Mother Nature was very kind to us, stopping the rains just as we arrived.

Hotel Mead - Bannack, MT
Kat on the hotel's grand staircase
Too bad the beers here are ghostly, too!
The school yard
Old clunker
 We stopped for gas and goodies in Dillon, MT, then hit I-15 south toward Idaho Falls.  Our next destination: Jackson Hole, WY.  Woo hoo!  Jackson is one of my favorite towns and high on Kat's list of places to visit.  But first, dinner was in order, and what better place to eat than a brewery and pizzeria?  Wildlife Brewing in Victor, MT, the last brewery of our trip, absolutely hit the spot.  Surrounded by nice, beautiful, bearded men in flannels, I felt like I'd found home.  When can I move here?  Added bonus: the pizza was yum, as were the brews.  I started with a Mighty Bison Brown.  I find good browns, or any browns at all, difficult to find any more, which is very unfortunate.  A really good brown, particularly a nut brown, beats most beers for me.  The Mighty Bison was a really good brown. I followed that with taster of their Rugged Trail Extra Pale.  It was very light but had a harsh finish - not my favorite.  I finished with the Point It! Pale Ale.  Now that was tasty. 

For more info on Wildlife Brewing, click here:

Wildlife Brewing - a very happy place
Pizza & beer, does it get any better?
Happy with our little respite from driving and facing near darkness, we headed into the Hole.  On the way, Kat was on her smartphone hunting up lodging for the night.  Our basic choice came down to a Super 8 a couple miles from downtown Jackson ringing up at about $110 for the night, or Snow King Resort within easy walking of downtown at $120 for the night.  No brainerBut when we arrived at Snow King, the guy at the desk said that he could honor the Price Line price, but we'd have to book it online and it would take two hours or more for it to get into his system.  If we wanted the room immediately the going rate was over $200!  That was nuts and Kat told him so.  Couldn't he give us a better deal?  So he asked if we were affiliated with anything that might lend itself toward a special rate.  I think we could have said we raised dancing chickens and that would have worked, but we came up with something legit enough and were given a room for $130.  Deal.  Up to the rooms to pretty up and we were off for some fun - where else? - at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.

This place is a Jackson landmark.  It's been around in one form or another for a long, long time, but got the name, Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, in the 40s.  It is a museum of sorts to its wild west heritage.  Knobby pine pillars, saddle bar stools, cowboy paintings, historical items on the walls... the place is a wonder.  Kat and I saddled up to the bar and ordered a couple canned local brews from Snake River Brewing, Pako's IPA and their Pale Ale, while waiting for Outlaw Jim & the Whiskey Benders to gear up.  We had fun gabbing with the folks around us, and soon found ourselves out on the dance floor.  Kat was asked to dance by a big, tall rancher man.  She came back from two-stepping around the dance floor flushed and excited from her first real cowboy dance.

Million Dollar Cowboy Bar
Saddle up!
Kat, saddled up to the bar with a good local brew
Lots of cowboy kitsch
The next day, in gloomy weather, we drove into town to find a good breakfast and do a little souvenir shopping before heading north to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone.  We ended up at little place called Dolce where I had possibly the best sandwich ever, the Southwestern.  It was made with chorizo, pepper jack cheese, avocado, cilantro and egg on toasted sour dough. My mouth is watering thinking about it.  Then we wandered downtown for a bit, taking in the atmosphere in daylight (and rain).  We stopped in a number of wonderful shops full of wonderful things we couldn't afford but wanted before making a few purchases we could manage in a typical tourist shop.
Jackson's main drag
The obligatory Jackson tourist pic
Hangin' with my man, Einstein
Driving into Grand Teton NP, under low cloud cover, for once our luck didn't hold and to our disappointment we weren't able to see the utterly Teton when we spotted some critters far off from the road.  Unfortunately, though, we couldn't even verify what they were until we zoomed into the photos we'd taken.  Elk.  Then, in between Grand Teton and Yellowstone, we spotted a male moose, antlers and all.  Score!  We were so excited neither of us could find our cameras and the only photo we managed to get was of its rear end.  
I swear, that's a moose butt!
Driving into Yellowstone, the rain turned to snow and the world was suddenly pretty again.  We didn't get to see as many critters in the park as you usually would, but we did see more elk and some buffalo.  We stopped at Grant Village and got the weather report; the eastern side of the park was pretty much closed to regular travel, but we were able to continue on to Old Faithful.  You can't go to Yellowstone without seeing the famous geyser make its hourly eruption.  All this national park fun I’d had the privilege of enjoying several times in the past, but it was wonderful, even in the rain and snow, to share it with someone who had never seen any of it before.  We continued on along the western route to Mammoth, an area I had only been to when I was very small so I had no memory of it.  Crazy rock formations and sweeping vistas, I vow never to miss this part of the park again.  Mammoth, as always, was filled with elk and a few put on quite a show fighting tree limbs and walking around in the middle of the road.

On the Continental Divide going into the Yellowstone caldera
Old Faitful about to do its thing
Inside the Old Faithful Inn
Big bull elk fighting off a tree limb
Yellowstone north entrance, Roosevelt Arch:  For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People
After traveling over 2,000 miles, eight breweries, three national parks, one ghost town and a whole lotta fun, it was time for some relaxation.  We spent the remainder of Kat's visit lounging around and exploring the area back in Lewistown.  What a great trip!  I can't wait for another Wild West Wander Women Adventure.