Points of Interest and Highlights along the Drive
You can begin any place along the loop, but let's get started in my hometown of Whitefish, Montana. I recommend a delayed start so you can enjoy this railroad-and-ski town with a vibrant downtown, great nightlife, and the deep, clean waters of Whitefish Lake. When you do get started, head north along Highway 93, generally following the retreat of the last continental glaciers up the Rocky Mountain Trench more than 10,000 years ago.
You'll pass through the Flathead and Kootenai National Forests and Stillwater State Forest, then pass by two beautiful lakes: Dickey and Murphy.
Eight miles shy of Canada is the community of Eureka in the Tobacco River Valley with its beautiful grassland foothills below Ten Lakes Scenic Area to the east. I like to walk the river trail (to the left just before you enter town) and eat at Cafe Jax.
You'll probably need a passport or the equivalent to continue into Canada, or rather if you want to return to the United States. This new requirement by the American government is a sad artifact of 9/11, but there it is.
Highway 93 continues in British Columbia, past the Ktunaxa Nation Tobacco Plains Reserve and over the deep Elk River canyon. At the Hwy. 93/3 junction, I have trouble resisting the juicy burgers and hard ice cream before taking a right on Highway 3 toward Fernie.
About 16 kilometres before Fernie, look for Morrissey Road and head south across a bridge over the Elk River. Immediately across this bridge on the left you'll find a low-key trailhead for the Ancient Cottonwood Trail. This is a short, pleasant nature hike into an old-growth forest of black cottonwoods and western red cedar on lands protected by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
Fernie is a multi-faceted community that's part mining town, part ski resort. Fernie is in the middle of some of North America's most productive grizzly bear habitat, or at least the most beautiful. Views of the Lizard Range are jaw-dropping. Once you cross the Elk River bridge, take a right to discover the historical, architectural and commercial charms of a vibrant downtown. The city parks and trails along the river are wonderful.
Continue west on Highway 3 and take a look at one of the world's largest largest tandem axle dump trucks in Sparwood. You can't see it from the highway, but you'll drive by an enormous open-pit coal mine to the north. It's one of five operating coal mines in the Elk Valley. If you stop at the truck display, inquire inside the visitor center about free guided mine tours. Tours of Elk Valley Coal’s Fording River and Elkview coal mines take place throughout the summer from the Visitor Centres in Elkford and Sparwood. Sparwood also offers a larger-than-life mural tour depicting mining life as it used to be. You’ll see displays of artifacts from the underground mining days.
The region's mining heritage continues as you drive east across Crowsnest Pass, the lowest pass across the Rocky Mountains between New Mexico and Jasper National Park. Stretch your legs at Summit Lake on the British Columbia side of the pass or Crowsnest Lake on the Alberta side.
Pacific and Arctic air masses clash over the Continental Divide at Crowsnest Lake, funneling furious but warm winter winds through mountain gaps and causing abrupt transitions in species of trees, wildflowers, and birdlife. Water from Crowsnest Lake flows east to Hudson Bay. Adjacent Summit Lake empties westward towards the Pacific Ocean.
Although coal miners no longer operate on the east side of the mountains in Alberta, mining heritage sites dot the various communities - Blairmore, Frank, Bellevue, Coleman and Burmis - now consolidated in the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass.
Pause at Frank Slide Visitor Centre to digest the awesome force of nature, a massive rock slide, that buried the old mining town of Frank in 1903, killing 90 people. The Bellevue Underground Mine Tour provides a cool trip back into the past, especially in the heat of summer, which is best accompanied by a visit to the nearby Old Dairy Ice Cream Shoppe.
Continuing east on Highway 3, the town of Pincher Creek is the center of ranching country in a beautiful setting. The Kootenay Brown Village tells the history of the region through a collection of restored 19th century buildings.
From Pincher Creek, you have routes to choose from. Continue east toward Fort Macleod to visit Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and the Fort Museum of the North West Mounted Police and Indian Battle Park. Together, these first-rate destinations provide a comprehensive understanding of humans in this landscape, going back thousands of years and up to the present.
From Fort Macleod, head south along Alberta Highway 2. You will pass through Canada's largest First Nation Reserve, the Blood Reserve of the Kainai Nation. Visit a Blackfoot pow wow in mid-July during Kainai Indian Days. In Cardston, don't miss the Remington Carriage Museum and see working wheelwrights heat and shringk steel bands around wooden wheels for the museum display of 25 horse-drawn carriages.
The alternate route to Cardston and the Montana border crossing at Carway-Piegan would turn south from Pincher Creek on Highway 6. This will take you along the scenic prairie-mountain foothills zone and into Waterton Lakes National Park. Waterton Townsite and the heart of the park is a short spur off interface off the loop. This spectacular park includes an abundance of alpine hiking, lakes, and prairie wildflowers. Drive slow: Your chance of seeing a bear between May and October is good.
From Waterton, head east on Highway 5 toward Cardston and the border crossing. Or in the summer months, take the scenic shortcut to the Chief Mountain border crossing, which is open only from late May through September. The fall colors are phenomenal if you catch the aspen turning in the fall.
Once you cross into Montana through either of the border crossings, you have entered the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana encompassing 1.5 million acres of panoramic beauty. The two routes converge again just north of the small town of Babb, the gateway to Many Glacier Valley. This short jag west into Glacier National Park will take you to the massive, historic Many Glacier Hotel and campground near the end of the road. Many world-class hiking trails converge near the end of this road.
Continuing south to St. Mary, you again have a season choice of routes. But first, plan your trip around your choice of fine, park-appropriate dining opportunities in the St. Mary/Babb area. You won't go wrong by choosing between the Park Cafe, Johnson's Family Style Restaurant, Two Sisters Cafe, or the Cattle Baron Supper Club in Babb.
From St. Mary, after the snowplows have carved a path across the Continental Divide in June, don't miss the Going-to-the-Sun Road through Glacier National Park. A good option is to park the car at the St. Mary Visitor Center and catch a free park shuttle on the Sun Road. That way you can enjoy the scenery while another driver navigates the narrow, windy drive along an alpine cliff.
If you drive across the Going-to-the-Sun Road, you may want to stop at Logan Pass to hike to the Hidden Lake Overlook or, if you're more ambitious, along the Highline Trail to Granite Park. From Logan Pass, the road continues to West Glacier. Change is glacial in this gateway village, where you can enjoy the same general store, saloon and restaurant that have served park visitors since 1938.
If you're visiting during the season of snow, you can still enjoy the Sun Road from the West side. The road is plowed 10 miles to Lake McDonald Lodge, a peaceful resting place next to Glacier's largest lake. In winter, you can ski up the road. My favorite time, however, is spring. While the plows continue their herculean efforts atop the Continental Divide, the lower road is open only to non-motorized travelers. Cycle or walk along McDonald Creek, and watch for harlequin ducks ride the riffles and grizzly bears emerge amid the greening avalanche chutes.
The longer route to West Glacier - and the only one route outside the summer season - continues south from St. Mary on Montana Highway 89. About halfway to Browning at Kiowa Junction, you have another seasonal option of skirting close to the park boundary by taking the right fork on Looking Glass Road. This winding, narrow, steep road starts at the aspen prairie edge near East Glacier, MT and climbs though timber to the sub-alpine and back down - all within 10 miles. The spur route into Glacier's Two Medicine Valley will reward you, in the summer and fall months, with tremendous views, hiking trails, and a boat ride on the historic wooden Sinopah, which has plied the waters of Two Medicine Lake since 1927.
If you take the left fork at Kiowa junction, continue on Highway 89 to the bustling prairie town of Browning, the economic and political hub of the Blackfeet Nation. Compare early and modern Indain art at the Museum of the Plains Indian, the Blackfeet Heritage Center, and Lodgepole Gallery.
From Browning, turn west on Highway 2 to East Glacier, where Looking Glass Road ends. East Glacier is open year-round, but pretty quiet during the winter. Year-round, however, you'll enjoy warm hospitality at the Two Medicine Grille. Try the pie.
Make sure you have enough gas in East Glacier to make the 60-mile connection along Highway 2 to West Glacier. You'll parallel the route of Amtrak's daily Empire Builder passenger train, and you'll share the same awesome views that first attracted rail visitors to Glacier 100 years ago. About 10 miles west of Marias Pass, pull into the picnic area at the Goat Lick Overlook. Here you can watch mountain goats clamber up mineral cliffs along the Middle Fork Flathead River. A pioneering highway underpass allows salt-seeking goats to safely cross Highway 2. A few miles further, railroad buffs will appreciate the historic Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, where Amtrak will stop to pick up and deposit guests. Izaak Walton also provides an extensive cross-country ski trail system. The snow is usually excellent for skiing here.
Continue through West Glacier on Highway 2 and traffic will begin to pick up through the Middle Fork canyon and the small communities of Coram and Hungry Horse. In Columbia Falls, enjoy a hot mug of organic, fair-trade, shade-grown brew at Montana Coffee Traders.
From Columbia Falls, you're only seven miles from where we started in Whitefish.