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Montana: Secrets of the Locals - Episode 2

When visiting Glacier National Park don't let fires or crowds keep you from enjoying the area. There are plenty of itinerary options. Be prepared, and when uncertain just ask the locals. In this 1 day itinerary we drive from Kalispell to Polebridge to visit the Mercantile, head on to Bowman Lake in Glacier National Park, and then escape the crowds and stand on top of the world at Hornet Lookout. If you prefer to watch the video you can do so here.

When We Went

Late June

Pros - Great temps, not as busy as July and August

Cons - If you're camping, the nights still get pretty cold

How We Got There

We drove from Kalispell. If you fly into the area you will land in Kalispell at Glacier Park International Airport (FCA). Pick up your rental car and start exploring. You could also take the Amtrak into Whitefish and drive from there.

Map showing our drive time from Kalispell to Polebridge, Bowman Lake, and Hornet Lookout

What We Did

Extended family came to visit us so we had ages ranging from 1-45 participating in all activities on this itinerary. And, since our hike wasn't in Glacier National Park we brought our dog Fletcher along as well.

The entire drive time of our trip from Kalispell to Polebridge to Bowman Lake and onto Hornet Lookout was 3-1/2 hours, but then we had a 2-1/2 hour drive back to Kalispell at the end of our day. So, be sure to get an early start. 

The Jeep parked at Hornet Lookout, river along the North Fork Road on the drive to Polebridge, sign on the way to Hornet Lookout (almost to Canada), me enjoying the views

When traveling in Montana allow a little extra time to pull off at random spots along the drive. Here we stopped along the North Fork Road to stretch our legs and enjoy the beauty around us.

The Polebridge Mercantile

The Polebridge Mercantile has been serving the community in remote Northwest Montana for over a century. It may be small but the Merc serves as a bakery, general store, base camp, and vacation getaway not only for the locals but for thousands of tourists every year. We always stop for some huckleberry bear claws to take with us on our hike. This time we lucked out because they were fresh out of the oven.

We always stop for some huckleberry bear claws to take with us on our hike.

The grounds at the Polebridge Mercantile

Before heading out take a little time to explore the grounds. If you need to use the bathroom, the Mercantile does have an outhouse. However, if you are going to Bowman Lake, there is a nicer pit toilet at the Glacier National Park entrance just down the road.

Bowman Lake

Bowman Lake is breathtaking, but it can get very busy and the road to it is mostly single lane dirt with plenty of pothole adventures. This never stops us, but today the ranger told us parking was full, and we realized we forgot our Glacier National Park pass and didn't feel like paying $30 for a quick visit. Our trip was in late June, which technically precedes the busy season. We arrived just after noon, so an earlier start is suggested if including Bowman Lake in your itinerary. These photos are of previous trips in Summer and Fall. The colors are rich in Autumn.

We arrived just after noon, so an earlier start is suggested if including Bowman Lake in your itinerary.

Bowman Lake in the fall with colorful Larch trees, scenery along the drive to Bowman Lake, Bowman Lake in the Summer (you can kayak on the lake if you bring your own), Autumn colors along the North Fork Road

You can camp at Bowman Lake if you plan ahead. The front country campsite is at the lake head and the backcountry sites are at it's base. There is also a picnic area for day use.

Hornet Lookout

If you are afraid of heights, skip this road and hike the trail along Bowman Lake instead. It is fairly flat, so this is also a great option for those with young children (if you aren't able to carry them up) or those with lower physical activity levels.

On a day when the Bowman Lake parking lot was full, Hornet Lookout had four vehicles: two of which belonged to us. Aaaah!

On a day when the Bowman Lake parking lot was full, Hornet Lookout had four vehicles: two of which belonged to us. Aaaah!

We took our $5 bear claw to the million dollar view and enjoyed them both immensely! Just remember to pack out your trash. Leave no trace.

Views from inside Hornet Lookout, enjoying a huckleberry bear claw before beginning our hike, amenities inside Hornet Lookout, bear grass, snow angels, and views along our hike up to Hornet Lookout

Hornet Lookout was constructed in 1922 as a fire lookout for the North Fork area. Ironically, in 2003 a wildfire burned the surrounding area. You can still see the effects of the fire, but benefits can also be found in the growth of bear grass and huckleberry bushes. The huckleberries provide a tasty snack while hiking.

Remember to bring enough water for your hike. You should also bring bug spray, sunscreen, and bear spray.

Remember to bring enough water for your hike. We passed a couple with a St. Bernard that wouldn't go any further. We gave them a bottled water for her on our way up, and they left us this cute note. You should also bring bug spray, sunscreen, and bear spray. (You can't fly with bear spray in your checked or carry on baggage)

If you want to stay overnight at the lookout you can do so from mid June to late October for $20 a night. Reservations can be made 6 months to 4 days in advance.

This is my favorite outhouse of all time. Strange to say, I know. But, look at these views. Who needs a magazine when you have this? I challenge you to find an outhouse with a better view. If you do, I will make the journey!

I challenge you to find an outhouse with a better view. If you do, I will make the journey!

More views from Hornet Lookout, and my favorite outhouse of all time

What We Loved

Everything. Seriously, this is one of our favorite itineraries. It can be a long day, but it's so hard to cut one of them out when they are all so amazing and fairly close to each other. The Polebridge Mercantile is on the way to both, so if you want to shorten your day, you could visit the Merc and then choose either Bowman Lake or Hornet Lookout.

If you want to shorten your day, you could visit the Merc and then choose either Bowman Lake or Hornet Lookout.

Know Before You Go

The great thing about Hornet Lookout is that you have it almost exclusively to yourself. The downside is that you have it almost exclusively to yourself. So....if you have car trouble, or get hurt, or need assistance of any kind, it could be awhile before someone shows up. Last year, we actually came back from our hike and our Jeep wouldn't start. Fortunately, we went with friends that day, and they gave us a jump start so we could get back to town. This is highly unlikely, but another reason an earlier start is better. We always see people, just not that many.


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