We’ve learned that Montanans don’t think twice about directing visitors to take a bumpy dirt road some 35 miles out of town. Even after looking at us, two chicks driving a Prius packed to the brim, we were still unhesitatingly encouraged by the locals to make the trek to Polebridge, a tiny town just outside of Glacier National Park, in the northwest corner of Montana.
By now everyone has heard how the recent U.S. government shutdown caused every National Park in the country to close, but unless you had been planning to visit one of them, this news may not have caused you any grief. We have been on the road for 7 weeks now, and one of the most anticipated parts of the trip, for Alleah especially, had been to visit Glacier National Park. Week after week Alleah brought up how excited she was to see first hand the monumental glaciers that are fast disappearing. You can imagine how frustrating it was for her when we heard we wouldn’t get the chance.
When we arrived in Whitefish, Montana, just southwest of Glacier National Park, Alleah immediately asked about how we could see some glaciers despite the inaccessibility of the park. We were lucky to be staying at a beautiful hotel called The Lodge at Whitefish, where our helpful bellhop suggested we take the drive to Polebridge where we would be afforded views of the glacial peaks.
The next day we headed north on a small highway without anything other than a dot on a map called Polebridge to venture towards. There we hopped on North Fork Road which would take us 35 miles into the Montana wilderness. I think calling any place in Montana wilderness is redundant – it seems like there isn’t a square inch of the state that is anything but wild.
North Fork Road turned out to be one of the most beautiful drives of our lives. We followed a snaking river between mountains and between forests, some of which were nothing but ghostly dead trees poking up out of the ground like pitchforks. After passing between two small mountains and turning a corner, suddenly we could see off in the distance the snowy white peaks of Glacier National Park, becoming clearer and clearer the closer we ventured; huge and grand icy mountains, steep and sharp, like their tips would hurt to touch.
Finally we saw some hints of civilization in the distance. A wooden sign welcomed us to Polebridge, Montana, and directed us to turn right down another dirt road. At the end was a two story, 100+ year old building painted barn red and emblazoned with “POLEBRIDGE MERCANTILE” in huge capital letters. This store, a small hostel and maybe two or three other smaller buildings scattered nearby was the entire town. We excitedly parked in front because we knew that inside the store was also a bakery that we’d been told about. We could already smell the fresh pastries just coming out of the oven as we opened our car doors. Upon entering, we were greeted by a young guy behind the counter setting down a metal pan with 8 pastries just out of the oven. An old golden retriever lay on the wood floor in front of the old wood burning stove by the counter and looked up at us briefly without lifting his head, then ignored us and went on relaxing. The pastries fresh out of the oven were huckleberry bear claws, the berries grown locally, and drizzled in a sugary frosting. Of course we immediately bought one to share and enjoy while we sat in the back of this store with so much history that you could feel the years and the people gone by who’d once been there.
We thanked the scruffy young baker, who had poked his head out from the back to see who was complimenting his creations so enthusiastically, and finished the bear claw, which turned out to be genuinely one of the best pastries we’d ever eaten in our lives, we asked for advice about where we should visit next. We were told that a fun drive back would be to continue north and then take another road west and then south that went through the mountains. Before heading out of Polebridge, though, we drove another mile past town to one of the barricaded entrances to Glacier National Park, just to get one last look at the Glaciers from as close as we could. Fortunately, Alleah said she felt like she’d had a satisfying encounter even from afar with the enormous, beautiful glaciers.
We headed back, taking the road suggested to us, and were somewhat surprised to find out that this road was much more difficult for a two wheel drive Prius than the road we’d taken in, and we spent almost two hours of intense pothole and small boulder avoidance as we trekked through serious backcountry, even driving through melting snow and ice at the highest elevation point.
All in all, it was an incredible drive with some of the most majestic views we’ve ever seen. We highly recommend to anyone visiting the northwest of Montana to make the 35 mile dirt road drive from the town of Columbia Falls to Polebridge on the North Fork Road and have a huckleberry bear claw, maybe two.