The Ultimate Montana Vacation Planner

Jerry Schuster

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s time to plan your summer vacation in beautiful Montana. For the benefit of all the locals and friendly visitors trying to find some fresh air, here are some considerations when pondering where to visit in Montana. Since it is such a large state, I will limit my comments mainly to northeastern and southwestern Montana. If you want to visit other areas of the State you can Google:

I love the prairie and the sunrises and sunsets of northeastern Montana. If you don’t bring kids or grandkids, just park your car on a quiet country road and watch the sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the days…you could almost write a song about this phenomenon. However, since we usually vacation with the kids and grandkids, you don’t want to do this for more than 2.5 minutes or they will get very perturbed and bored.

We will begin our vacation adventure at Fort Peck Lake. You can’t miss it since it takes up about half this corner of the state. Just keep driving until you hit a lake.
Now, if I tell you about fishing on Fort Peck Lake, you must first promise not to mention a word of this to anyone in southwest Montana if you plan to vacation there also. No, I will just wait here until you promise. To make it easier, the information prohibited will be in brackets. Okay, okay, you promised. [At Fort Peck Lake, people use live bait on hooks, weighted down and sent deep to the lake bottom. You can then troll your deluxe fishing boat which comes equipped with six motors, one of which is just right for conditions. When you feel a tug on the line, start your high speed winch motor to reel in the 680 yards of line, and voilà! At the end is a nice 8.38 pound walleye. When you head to shore and quickly fillét your catch for what is undoubtedly the finest fish dinner on planet earth. You don’t need to carry around one of those little bamboo creels that hold the 14 tiny trout you need for a good meal, assuming you kept some. A few walleye will feed a village.] Remember, you can’t talk about the part in [ ].

Moving on…while in northeastern Montana you will want to do the dinosaur thing. This is prime territory where those big creatures roamed in years past. They probably enjoyed the sunrises and sunsets. Besides, they didn’t want to cross the mountains to the west since it was already too crowded in southwest Montana. At that time, there were also no parking places in Bozeman for the tourists who wanted to experience them firsthand.

A word of caution on prairie dinosaurs. The kids and grandkids will get tired of this very quickly. You see, these dinosaur models, bones and casts do not move. You view the specimens and say “Wow!”; then move on to some tiny bone pieces and say “Wow!”After three minutes, the kids are done. They announce that it is time to get in line for the showing of “Jurassic Park XXIII.” Don’t fight them on this, it is not worth it. Popcorn is cheap compared to a trip to the hospital Emergency Room for stress-related hives.

Try to time your visit to attend a traditional Pow-Wow on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. These colorful events are held throughout the summer and feature dancing and honoring ceremonies. I must insist that you have some freshly made fry bread, either as an Indian Taco or covered with local honey. An experience not to be missed.

One final note for your eastern Montana vacation plans. Bring lots of mosquito repellent. I could tell you a true story about a night of vehicle camping at the Fred Robinson Bridge on the Missouri south of Malta. However, this happened 15 years ago and I am still tending to the mosquito bites and do not want to revive this memory.

Now, on to beautiful southwest Montana. You will want to start your ultimate Montana vacation with the crown jewel—Yellowstone Park. I recently read that Yellowstone Park had over 4 million visitors last year. What you probably don’t realize is that on the exact day you choose to tour the park, approximately 3.6 million of the yearly average will show up. The .4 million who don’t show up on that day are probably the survivalist type A personalities who like to go in winter.

Here are some planner tips for your vacation to Yellowstone Park. You will thank me forever, and they are absolutely free of charge.

• Reserve your motel accommodations early in Bozeman, Livingston, or someplace outside the Park. Someone once asked about getting a room in or near the park during prime time season, which means the time you go there. I am told that the reverberations of laughter from the desk clerks are still bouncing off the walls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Do not attempt this chimera.

• You will want to reserve your allotted time and space in the park restrooms. Yes, schedule at least 10.3 seconds for each traveler in your group at the proper intervals throughout the day. Otherwise, plan to spend six hours of the day waiting in line. However, do not despair. You can learn some Chinese while waiting in line. Just bring your “Chinese for Dummies” book, and by the end of the day you will be quite fluent.

• Be sure to reserve your vehicle’s space on the park roads for the day. Say you want to visit Yellowstone Lake around noon. Just get on the website and reserve your space in the traffic line stretching from Gardiner to Old Faithful on that day. You will be assigned a space number, e.g. number 683,045. Be very alert that day and there will be a gap in the line after 683,044 vehicles pass by. That is your space, so get right in there! Now you can sit back and enjoy the 40 mile trip through the park which takes 18 hours since you have to stop every 3.7 seconds. The problem is that vehicles stop frequently without pulling off the road, since they do not want to lose their reserved space.

When someone spots a rodent nibbling on some grass, all cars must stop. Then, folks have to set up their camera tripods and take GPS readings to get the perfect photo. Next comes the excited utterances… “Look Papa, it’s a squirrel!” The entire line then has to move down the road another 12 feet to observe the next wildlife phenomenon, which is a gopher (rodent nuisantatis). If you are not interested in the gopher, you can always look back at the previously spotted squirrel, using you telephoto lens to get the perfect photo.

To avoid all of this hassle, my wife Theresa and I decided to tour the park on a beautiful late September day last year. We entered the apparently quiet Park and headed to Mammoth. Coming to the viewing area, my hopes for quiet were shaken. True, there were just a few cars in the parking area, but about 568 huge tour buses were coming and going.

One bus unloaded just as we were parking, and I joined a long line to use the restroom. This provided an opportunity to show our guests some American hospitality, so we offered to take group photos for the families and those tired of “selfies.” One group of seven, each had three high-end cameras, and wanted fourteen poses, so this took quite awhile. By the time the photo-ops were done, I was glad to be next in line for the restroom. Then the park attendant stepped in front of me and posted a “closed for cleaning” sign on the sidewalk.

Of course, we had the mandatory stop at Old Faithful. As the crowd from the buses eagerly waited for the grand event, I made a quick dash to use the restroom (see above). As I returned, the crowd was disbursing with cries of “spectacular, awesome, best ever…”
There are lots of other great places to vacation and hike in southwest Montana. As a bonus, cell phones do not work in some of these remote areas. You can have lunch (called dinner here) at a quirky small town café that does not have a flashing sign or drive up window. The food is actually prepared and cooked after you order, so you can teach the grandkids about how things were in the old days. This is a real opportunity to bond, as their devises will not be working.

Before leaving Montana, be sure to have some scratch huckleberry pie made fresh at a small town café. You will have a taste of heaven on earth, and the memory will last long after your return to California.   

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