by Susie Wall
U.S. Highway 2 stretches 666 miles across the entire northern half of Montana from Idaho to North Dakota. This seemingly endless line of pavement takes travelers from the deep pine forests in the west to the arid flat prairies in the east. Whether you decide to bite off chunks on several different trips or take on the challenge of driving eleven hours from one end to the other, U.S. Highway 2 is the best way to explore the wealth of small towns, natural wonders and historical sites that Montana has to offer.
Troy to Kalispell
Start at the western border in the heart of the remote Cabinet and Purcell Mountains, driving through tiny hamlets like Troy and Happy Inn. Be sure to make a stop just outside of Libby at the Kootenai Falls suspension bridge to experience the spray of the rushing river below. Leave the highway at Marion for a short detour to head north 20 miles to Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge. This expanse of wetlands, meadows and dense ponderosa pine forests offers a chance to stretch your legs and hear the howl of wolves. Then pull into Kalispell, the largest town on the highway with a whopping 24,000 residents. Despite its size, you’ll find a variety of things to see and do. Shop along historic Main Street, sip local beer at Kalispell Brewing Company and view Montana masterpieces at Hockaday Museum of Art.
Kalispell to East Glacier Park
Glacier National Park fever kicks in just past Kalispell. From Columbia Falls to West Glacier, the highway is lined with a dizzying array of fun stops from souvenir shops, rafting companies, a huckleberry superstore and a zipline. All that commerce comes to a screeching halt just after the turnoff at West Glacier and the park’s entrance. From here continue to trace the border of the park where at times forests of aspen, western larch and lodgepole pine close in. Then the forests open up to reveal the towering peaks within the park. Take the many opportunities to pull over and dip your toes into the cool waters of the Flathead River and scan the hillsides for wildlife. Begin the slow climb to Marias Pass and the Continental Divide ending up in East Glacier Park where you can raise a toast to the Rocky Mountains at Glacier Park Lodge.
East Glacier Park to Shelby
Mountain peaks begin to shrink in your rearview mirror and the high plains stretch out before you as you leave East Glacier Park. You’re not quite on the flat land to come, but it’s easy to see how Montana earned the nickname “Big Sky Country.” Stop in Browning, home of the Blackfeet Indian Nation, for a visit to the Museum of the Plains Indian and the Blackfeet Heritage Center and Art Gallery to learn about the culture and history of Montana’s indigenous people. Shelby welcomes visitors with several fascinating attractions. Give the kids a ride on the hand-carved carrousel and miniature train, explore the delightful Marias Museum of History and Art and walk around Champion Park to learn the tale of Shelby’s disastrous attempt to host a prize fight in 1923 between champ Jack Dempsey and newcomer Tommy Gibbons.
Shelby to Havre
After Shelby, Highway 2 is dotted with minuscule towns, some sharing their main street with the highway, others just off the road. It’s easy to rush past but that would be a mistake. A visit to places like Chester and Inverness gives you a chance to get to know the people and history of this vast prairie. Rudyard is a perfect example. Stop at the Depot Museum to learn about early settlers and the Dinosaur Museum to see casts of a gyrposaurus and other ancient inhabitants. Havre is a perfect place to stop for the night and take in the many sights. Explore the Wahkpa Chu’gn buffalo jump along the Milk River. Go underground for a tour of Havre Beneath the Streets, a fully functioning subterranian community created after a fire set by a disgruntled townsman destroyed much of town in 1904. Indulge in a nightcap of local libations at Triple Dog Brewing Company and Crawford Distillery.
Havre to Glasgow
Few temptations exist to leave Highway 2. Bear Paw Battlefield outside of Havre is one of them. A 15-mile drive takes you to the site of the final battle of the Nez Perce in 1877. A short trail leads you through the battlefield past significant sites as the breeze lulls you into quiet reflection of our nation’s sometimes painful past. Farther down the highway Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge is a birder’s paradise. A 15-mile auto tour offers a chance to see a dizzying array of birds from piping plover to sandhill cranes to greater sage grouse. Pronghorn antelope feed in the fields and red fox stalk rodents in the grass. Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs in Saco offers travelers a place to soak their weary bones as 108-degree water bubbles up from the depths of an artesian well. Originally created as a way to lessen the pains of polio, the springs still make claims to a range of health benefits for all who soak in these waters.
Glasgow to Bainville
The last stretch of Highway 2 before hitting the North Dakota border consists of endless fields of hay and more white-tail deer than people. This is why cruise control was invented, but those who take the time to take in this landscape will discover many wonderous sights. Tractors kick up clouds of dust as they till massive fields, red-tailed hawks hunker down on fence posts, their feathers rustling in the ever-present wind, sun-bleached barns rise from encroaching bunchgrass and tiny family cemeteries sit as sentinels to the highway’s past. As you pull into Bainville, the last town on the map, take time to reflect on your journey and make a plan to return to your favorite section of Montana’s U.S. Highway 2 to experience it all over again.
Plan Your Trip
Learn more at visitmt.com.