The state of Montana stretches across 147,000 square miles, encompassing Glacier National Park and numerous national forests. Its wide-open spaces offer panoramic views of the big sky, giving it the nickname “Big Sky Country” and making it a welcome sight after a summer in expansive Alaska.
We had spent time in the 41st state on tour with the Commemorative Air Force, but we hadn’t visited with our fifth wheel. Wanting to put Montana on our RV map, we made a point to stop there for a week in Missoula, in the western part of the state. The scenic drive down from Canada took us around the enormous Flathead Lake and past wild bison, deer, and turkeys.
Missoula features Fort Missoula, which dates back to 1877; Hiawatha Trail, a 15-mile downhill bike trail through nine train tunnels and across seven trestles (closed when we were there); breweries; museums; and a whole lot more. It’s famous for trout fishing, as well as a few other things you might not be aware of:
Missoula has a long history with firefighting and smokejumping, dating back to 1919, when the city started engaging in patrolling fires from the air over national forests in the western states. Since that time, the practice has progressed to include dropping teams of “smokejumpers” into areas near fires to fight them.
We went to the Smokejumper Visitor Center for a tour to learn more about this fascinating aspect of Montana history and were not disappointed. Displays provided information and visuals about the equipment needed to parachute into a fire area to put it out.
Jumpers, who sometimes land in trees instead of open spaces, have to carry more than 100 pounds of supplies with them for the first 24 hours. Modern parachutes provide more firefighter control than early models did, giving jumpers better chances of landing in open areas. Additional supplies, including firefighting tools and rations for 48 hours, are dropped in after firefighters reach their targets.
The tour included walking through the working smokejumper facility and seeing where parachutes are packed, where firefighters sew their own gear, where parachutes are tested, and more. Part of the U.S. National Forest Service, the Smokejumper Visitor Center tour is free and well worth it if you find yourself in Missoula and have an hour to kill.
2. Mountain Flying
Although Idaho holds the title for the first smoke jump, Montana is the birthplace of mountain flying. Missoula’s Museum of Mountain Flying pays homage to that heritage. Featuring aircraft, vehicles, displays, photos, and artifacts, the hangar honors and preserves the history of the Johnson Flying Service from the 1920s to the 1970s for a reasonable price: $4 for adults and $10 for a family.
The centerpiece of the museum is a 75-year-old restored and airworthy C-47 dubbed “Miss Montana.” Although the airplane never saw combat during WWII, it holds a special place in the hearts of many Montanas for its rich history in smokejumping — including the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949 — and transporting cargo and civilians. The plane also took part in the 75th anniversary of Normandy. You can even watch a film about the restoration process to make that happen.
3. Bison Roaming
Another interesting thing to see in the Missoula area is the Bison Range. Montana’s wide-open spaces allow plenty of room for bison to roam. We made an hourlong trek outside the city to the range to check it out.
A $20 per-vehicle fee gives visitors the option to drive the two-hour combined Mountain Drive and Prairie Drive or the out-and-back Prairie Drive alone. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to tour the higher Mountain Drive, where we can only guess more animals wandered closer to the road than they did on the Prairie Drive.
Although we saw some bison and deer, the experience paled in comparison to how close we were able to get to wildlife on the Alaska Highway.
Having grown up hearing about buffalo, we couldn’t help but wonder about the difference between bison and buffalo. You may be wondering too. Suffice it to say that any animal you come across in the U.S. that you think is a buffalo is actually a bison. Buffalo are native to Asia and Africa. Bison, characterized by a big hump on their backs, graze in North America and Europe. They’re also larger than buffalo. (Think water buffalo for comparison.)
4. Carousel Designing
Carousels are common attractions around the world. What makes A Carousel for Missoula special is the story behind it — and its speed. It’s by far the fastest carousel I’ve ever ridden on. There’s a good reason they make you buckle in on your animal of choice.
Initiated by a Missoula cabinet maker, A Carousel for Missoula is a testament to volunteerism at its finest. Over a four-year period, the cabinet maker and several wood carvers, mechanics, painters, and artists donated more than 100,000 hours to create a masterpiece. The community got involved too. Schoolchildren collected more than 1 million pennies to pay for four ponies.
Housed in a building downtown near Clark Fork River to protect it from the elements, the carousel delights children of all ages. Rides are $1 for children and $2 for ages 12 and up.
You might also like Investigating Idaho, the Country’s 43rd State.
This is the travel blog of full-time RVers Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong.