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Author Topic: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)  (Read 3187 times)

hbelkins

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Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« on: August 20, 2021, 12:11:38 AM »

My biggest impressions of this trip so far? Just how crazy lodging pricing and availability are in Montana, and just how small and lacking in services many of the cities are, even county seats and other significant places.

Day 4 (ND to MT)

This day was mainly spent getting to the Glacier area, following US 2 from Williston to Shelby.

It is surreal to me just how few businesses are in many of these towns that seem important otherwise, such as sitting at major crossroads. In Kentucky, these towns would have a Dollar General, a Family Dollar, possibly a Walgreens pharmacy (formerly Rite Aid), and the larger ones would have a McDonald's or other fast food options. Not along US 2. I think there may have been just two McDonald's locations (Glasgow and Havre, if memory serves). I didn't see any chain dollar stores. Where do the residents of these towns and the surrounding rural counties go to shop?

Shelby was truly surprising. Very, very little there, considering it's the gateway from I-15 to Glacier and is listed as a control city from Great Falls (controls at the US 2 exit are Great Falls and Lethbridge.) No chain fast food places, not many gas stations, no major department stores (several places appear to have had Shopkos, which closed two years ago due to bankruptcy). We ended up getting a room at the OYO (formerly a Motel 6) which wasn't as bad as some OYO critics make the chain out to be.

We continued on through Cut Bank and Browning to St. Mary to check out Glacier. Again, to be major gateway towns to a hugely popular national park, there's very little in the way of shopping, dining, and lodging. Since we arrived after 5 p.m., we didn't need the access pass to Going-to-the-Sun Road, so there was a traffic jam entering in the park. We drove as far as Logan Pass, then turned around and headed back to Shelby. Attempted to eat at the Cut Bank McDonald's, but the dining room was closed, and the drive-thru was backed up, so we came back to Shelby and got something at Albertson's to eat in the room. Their selection was picked over, however, and prices were sky-high.

Day 5 (Glacier to Big Timber)

After days of 100-degree heat, it would be to turn rainy, cool, and foggy when we went to Glacier. Probably a good thing we'd gone as far as Logan Pass the day before, as the fog covered everything. We got some decent views on the way down. When we emerged at West Glacier, my brother had decided that he wanted to drive Beartooth Pass, so we had to crisscross east. We took US 2 back to Browning, then US 89 and I-15 south to Great Falls, then US 87 to US 191 to Big Timber.

Again, other than Great Falls, the towns were devoid of many businesses.

We started checking lodging options, but everything along our route was either booked solid, or prohibitively expensive. Even the Motel 6 locations at Billings, farther east than we wanted to go, were over $100. Crazy, crazy, crazy. But after doing some online searching, he found a KOA Campground at Greycliff, just east of Big Timber, with a camping cabin at a reasonable price. No indoor plumbing, but electricity, beds, and climate control. We took that option.

Day 6 (Big Timber to Alder by way of Beartooth and Yellowstone)


Part of this trip's mission was for my brother to find the places he had explored as a geology student in 1984 near Dillon, Mont., but he had decided he wanted to drive across Beartooth. This necessitated the eastward jog. My thought was that we should do the Magruder Road Corridor after Glacier, then Dillon, then Beartooth, and then work our way south toward Arches, but he's driving.

The route was I-90 east to Columbus, then MT 78 to Red Lodge, then pick up US 212. To get back to the west would have required either backtracking from Cooke City (not a viable option for a couple of reasons) or going through Yellowstone. We chose Yellowstone, since he already had a park pass.

Beartooth was a disaster. The fog was so thick going up the mountain that you couldn't see 20 feet in front of you. Where's the 100-degree weather when you need it?

Who maintains US 212 in Wyoming? Does Wyoming do it, or does Montana have an agreement to maintain it so they can also include the short segment between the state line and Yellowstone through Cooke City?

There's a huge construction project on 212 on the Wyoming side that has 212 shut down during overnight hours. It looks like they are totally rebuilding half the road that has slipped off the mountainside, plus a new bridge to eliminate a curve. A pilot vehicle guides drivers through an obstacle course, so instead of the road being closed overnight to allow work to be done, it's because the crew is off and no one drives the pilot car.

There's a Wyoming state highway that intersects 212. There's no sign going west, but I saw the route marker in the rear-view mirror. The only notice is an arrow pointing to Cody.

Once back into Montana, signage is MT-standard through Cooke City. Cooke City and Silver Gate are very tiny, not at all what one would expect as a gateway to Yellowstone.

This was my second visit to Yellowstone. The road between Tower Junction and Canyon Village is closed, so we had to go through Mammoth Hot Springs and then south to get to West Yellowstone. The hot springs area was extremely crowded despite the rain.

West Yellowstone, again, was underwhelming in terms of being a major gateway to a major national park. One fast food restaurant (McDonald's), not a lot of shopping options other than souvenir stands, and fewer motels than I would have expected.

We followed US 287 and then turned onto MT 287 (shades of VA-US 360) to Alder, where we had reserved another camping cabin because of the lodging situation (either terribly expensive or booked up).


Day 7 (Geology exploration


Today ended up being basically a loop around the Ruby Peaks, using mostly local roads. My brother had mapped out several places and we followed a bunch of dirt roads, without success in finding the spots he'd visited in 1984. We emerged onto MT 41, which we took into Dillon (where he had reserved a room at a reasonable price). He dropped in to the BLM office, and the chief geologist happened to be there. He got an idea of where he needed to be, so we took off again. He found some familiar places after some exploration on some of the ranch roads traversing public lands. We ended back up at Alder, so we took MT 287 to Twin Bridges, and MT 41 back to Dillon.

Dillon is a college town, but there are surprisingly few businesses here. No department stores to speak of. Two fast-food places (McD's and DQ). The only thing resembling a department store is a Family Dollar, which was picked over by college freshmen who have come to school this week and were picking up things for their dorm rooms. To be a college town on a major interstate along what was a major US route corridor (US 91), there's surprisingly little here.

Tomorrow, he has plans to try to find another place his geology class visited, drive the Pioneer Scenic Byway, then head toward Darby to start the Magruder Road. I'm not looking forward to the primitive camping that will be required. I'll probably just sleep in his truck.
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #1 on: August 20, 2021, 12:20:39 AM »

Regarding US 212 in Wyoming I believe that is actually the National Park Service is the maintaining agency.
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Rothman

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #2 on: August 20, 2021, 07:06:16 AM »

Regarding US 212 in Wyoming I believe that is actually the National Park Service is the maintaining agency.
Even the section outside of the park?
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #3 on: August 20, 2021, 07:49:45 AM »

Regarding US 212 in Wyoming I believe that is actually the National Park Service is the maintaining agency.
Even the section outside of the park?

Yes:

https://www.mdt.mt.gov/travinfo/beartooth/

Which when you think about it really isnít all that dissimilar to the Generals Highway being maintained by the NPS in Sequoia National Forest. 
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Rothman

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #4 on: August 20, 2021, 07:58:35 AM »

Regarding US 212 in Wyoming I believe that is actually the National Park Service is the maintaining agency.
Even the section outside of the park?

Yes:

https://www.mdt.mt.gov/travinfo/beartooth/

Which when you think about it really isnít all that dissimilar to the Generals Highway being maintained by the NPS in Sequoia National Forest.
I suppose it would work best for everyone, given the fun logistics it would take for WYDOT to maintain the stretch from the Park east.
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #5 on: August 20, 2021, 08:04:28 AM »

Regarding US 212 in Wyoming I believe that is actually the National Park Service is the maintaining agency.
Even the section outside of the park?

Yes:

https://www.mdt.mt.gov/travinfo/beartooth/

Which when you think about it really isnít all that dissimilar to the Generals Highway being maintained by the NPS in Sequoia National Forest.
I suppose it would work best for everyone, given the fun logistics it would take for WYDOT to maintain the stretch from the Park east.

Especially when you consider the NPS is already keeping the Northeast Entrance Road and US 212 open to Cooke City-Silver Gate during the winter months.  Both DOTs would have a hell of a time getting equipment and managing logistics to such remote locations.  Itís probably a rare instance where the NPS has far more resources than a DOT.
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oscar

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #6 on: August 20, 2021, 08:41:53 AM »

Dillon is a college town, but there are surprisingly few businesses here. No department stores to speak of. Two fast-food places (McD's and DQ).

Subway, too. Very busy when I was there earlier this year, but staff was really good at handling the crowd. I left a larger-than-usual tip.
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webny99

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #7 on: August 20, 2021, 08:56:30 AM »

My biggest impressions of this trip so far? Just how crazy lodging pricing and availability are in Montana, and just how small and lacking in services many of the cities are, even county seats and other significant places.
...

It is surreal to me just how few businesses are in many of these towns that seem important otherwise, such as sitting at major crossroads. In Kentucky, these towns would have a Dollar General, a Family Dollar, possibly a Walgreens pharmacy (formerly Rite Aid), and the larger ones would have a McDonald's or other fast food options. Not along US 2. I think there may have been just two McDonald's locations (Glasgow and Havre, if memory serves). I didn't see any chain dollar stores. Where do the residents of these towns and the surrounding rural counties go to shop?

Keep in mind that most of these places are extremely sparsely populated, especially outside of the actual towns themselves. The part of Kentucky east of I-75 probably has more people than the entire state of Montana, in a small fraction of the area. And I know this is cliche, but the "Big Sky Country" really can make towns seem a lot more empty and desolate than they actually are, especially compared to the hilly, forested parts of the country.

I've only been to Montana once, but my experience with North Dakota and other parts of the rural Midwest has been that most towns have one or more local grocery/convenience stores, instead of the chains like Dollar General we're used to seeing further east.
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #8 on: August 20, 2021, 09:19:14 AM »

Regarding Montana lodging, usually is out of control if you are within two hours of Yellowstone.  Iím about to head out there my brother next month and we are paying $249 a night for a B&B (fortunately split four ways).  Usually on most Yellowstone trips I stay at Idaho Falls and even had some success with Red Lodge given most donít want to tackle the Beartooth Highway.
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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #9 on: August 20, 2021, 10:23:22 AM »

The part of Kentucky east of I-75 probably has more people than the entire state of Montana

https://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/mapping/popest/gpw-v4/ says 1.25 million, which would make this statement true unless things really changed in the 2020 census.
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Mapmikey

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #10 on: August 20, 2021, 10:29:42 AM »

My wife was born in Cut Bank MT (though never spent a winter there) and her grandmother lived long enough that I got to go there (twice by car, once on the train).

There used to be Taco John's in more small Montana cities that are not there any longer.  Otherwise it is the occasional McD, Pizza Hut, Subway or Dairy Queen if you want a chain place.  Places like Shelby have mom and pop Tastee Freeze-type places and small cafes - the Cafe I ate at in Shelby in 2000 is still there).  A lot of these towns still have the small local downtown store to shop at.

The main industry that gave northern Montana its boom was gas/oil in the 1950s and I don't believe the revival in North Dakota reached a lot of Montana.

Lodging is pricey and I imagine it is because the tourist season is short, even if you are not close to a national park.  I always thought of writing a book about how to cross country trip and in it would be recommendations to make hotel reservations anywhere between I-5 and the Mississippi River because if you are out of luck it can be pretty far to the next place (which may also be full).  I know this is harder for the type of trip HB is on, where there is by design a lot of flexibility built in.  As in most endeavors, flexibility and convenience = higher costs.  In the internet age I spend considerable time researching towns along my route to know what kind of eating options exist (and use it as an excuse to find hidden gems) - this way I can present options for my wife ("ok this is the last town with anything for 2 hours, shall we stop now?")

I imagine the degree to which areas adjacent to national parks are built up with services is directly related to how available those services are within the park.  GSMNP has essentially nothing, so you have Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge.  Yellowstone has lodging and food options, so the surrounding gateway towns may not be very big.  Even Jackson WY, which is a year-round destination, has few chain restaurants/hotels though it does have a fair amount of food/lodging available.

The Wyoming state route is WY 296 which is supposed to be a spectacular drive.  I have not personally done US 212 or WY 296, as my wife gets car sick so on our trip to Yellowstone years ago we used US 16 and US 89 to/from the park.

It makes sense that Cooke City specifically isn't built up because the topography makes that difficult and it is only easily accessible during the summer.

Everything HB described about US 2 is even worse if anyone is thinking about driving the TCH across western Canada.  Tim Hortons is in some smaller places but most towns are really small and have a Co-op, a gas station, and end of list.
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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #11 on: August 20, 2021, 10:38:04 AM »

The Wyoming state route is WY 296 which is supposed to be a spectacular drive.  I have not personally done US 212 or WY 296, as my wife gets car sick so on our trip to Yellowstone years ago we used US 16 and US 89 to/from the park.

I drove the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (WY296) when I was driving over the Beartooth.  It is a remarkably beautiful drive.  One of my favorite road trips of all time.

Chris

Max Rockatansky

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #12 on: August 20, 2021, 10:54:36 AM »

Interestingly Iíve found Jackson Hole to have the highest lodging prices of any destination in the vicinity of Yellowstone.  Iíve always attributed that to people will simply pay more for modern amenities.  I try to avoid any trip that forces me into a situation where I have stay there based largely off price.  The crappy thing is that I would love to camp in Yellowstone or the immediate area but the competition for spots is fierce.
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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #13 on: August 20, 2021, 10:55:52 AM »

Interestingly Iíve found Jackson Hole to have the highest lodging prices of any destination in the vicinity of Yellowstone.  Iíve always attributed that to people will simply pay more for modern amenities.  I try to avoid any trip that forces me into a situation where I have stay there based largely off price.  The crappy thing is that I would love to camp in Yellowstone or the immediate area but the competition for spots is fierce.

Yeah, last time we were up in that direction I looked into staying in Jackson but it was prohibitively expensive.  We just drove a little further along and stopped in Idaho Falls for the night.

Chris

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #14 on: August 20, 2021, 10:59:41 AM »

Interestingly Iíve found Jackson Hole to have the highest lodging prices of any destination in the vicinity of Yellowstone.  Iíve always attributed that to people will simply pay more for modern amenities.  I try to avoid any trip that forces me into a situation where I have stay there based largely off price.  The crappy thing is that I would love to camp in Yellowstone or the immediate area but the competition for spots is fierce.

Yeah, last time we were up in that direction I looked into staying in Jackson but it was prohibitively expensive.  We just drove a little further along and stopped in Idaho Falls for the night.

Chris

Amusingly thatís where I suggested we stay on this upcoming trip given Idaho Falls is so much cheaper.  My brother was the one who complained about having a 90-100 minute drive from the West Yellowstone Entrance.  I guess it just seems normal to me to drive that far on a day trip to a National Park.  Yosemiteís entrance is about 90 minutes from where I live now, about 60 for Sequoia-Kings Canyon and two hours for Pinnacles.
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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #15 on: August 20, 2021, 11:03:19 AM »

Interestingly Iíve found Jackson Hole to have the highest lodging prices of any destination in the vicinity of Yellowstone.  Iíve always attributed that to people will simply pay more for modern amenities.  I try to avoid any trip that forces me into a situation where I have stay there based largely off price.  The crappy thing is that I would love to camp in Yellowstone or the immediate area but the competition for spots is fierce.

Yeah, last time we were up in that direction I looked into staying in Jackson but it was prohibitively expensive.  We just drove a little further along and stopped in Idaho Falls for the night.

Chris

Amusingly thatís where I suggested we stay on this upcoming trip given Idaho Falls is so much cheaper.  My brother was the one who complained about having a 90-100 minute drive from the West Yellowstone Entrance.  I guess it just seems normal to me to drive that far on a day trip to a National Park.  Yosemiteís entrance is about 90 minutes from where I live now, about 60 for Sequoia-Kings Canyon and two hours for Pinnacles.

We weren't going to Yellowstone on that trip (we went camping in the Sawtooths), but still Jackson would have been a nice place to stop from a time perspective and an amenity perspective.  Lots of good restaurants and whatnot there.  But the prices are high due to low supply and the need to be able to pay people to live and work there.  You think lodging is expensive in Jackson? Check out trying to buy a house.  Woof.  It makes Denver look cheap which is tough to do.

Chris

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Re: Great Western Road Trip of 2021 (Days 4-7)
« Reply #16 on: August 20, 2021, 12:15:57 PM »

Interestingly Iíve found Jackson Hole to have the highest lodging prices of any destination in the vicinity of Yellowstone.  Iíve always attributed that to people will simply pay more for modern amenities.  I try to avoid any trip that forces me into a situation where I have stay there based largely off price.  The crappy thing is that I would love to camp in Yellowstone or the immediate area but the competition for spots is fierce.

Yeah, last time we were up in that direction I looked into staying in Jackson but it was prohibitively expensive.  We just drove a little further along and stopped in Idaho Falls for the night.

Chris

Amusingly thatís where I suggested we stay on this upcoming trip given Idaho Falls is so much cheaper.  My brother was the one who complained about having a 90-100 minute drive from the West Yellowstone Entrance.  I guess it just seems normal to me to drive that far on a day trip to a National Park.  Yosemiteís entrance is about 90 minutes from where I live now, about 60 for Sequoia-Kings Canyon and two hours for Pinnacles.

We weren't going to Yellowstone on that trip (we went camping in the Sawtooths), but still Jackson would have been a nice place to stop from a time perspective and an amenity perspective.  Lots of good restaurants and whatnot there.  But the prices are high due to low supply and the need to be able to pay people to live and work there.  You think lodging is expensive in Jackson? Check out trying to buy a house.  Woof.  It makes Denver look cheap which is tough to do.

Chris

Yes, my brother briefly looked into a second home in Jackson and quickly remembered why he moved from Scottsdale to Boise.  We are actually staying out in Big Sky this go around up on US 191.  It doesnít look like there is much up there but Iím cool for packing and cooking my own food if need be.
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