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Destination Flathead

Sometimes not everything goes according to plan

Story by Steven Yan August 23rd, 2016

When the past plans the future

Midway through our trip to Banff and Jasper NP last year, Cec and I were already inspired for our next road trip.

I still remember driving down Hwy 93 into Polson, getting my first glimpse of Flathead Lake. "How did I miss this?" On a map, Flathead Lake is a sizeable -- yet just another -- sky blue colored lake (why do maps choose that color if no lakes are ever that color?). In person, it looks like an ocean. It's the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

As the minutes turned into an hour of driving along Flathead Lake last summer, we knew we needed to return. If anything, just to bask in its huge-ness.

Our route took us across Nevada and Idaho to Jackson Hole, and north to Bigfork and Flathead Lake.

Getting there

To avoid retracing old steps, we decided to traverse Nevada, spend a night in Idaho, and visit Grand Teton National Park before heading to Bigfork and our cabin along the eastern shore of Flathead Lake. In previous road trips, I had always avoided I-80 E through Nevada. It just didn't seem like there was a lot to see.

I can now confirm that there's absolutely nothing of note along this highway. Cec and I also ate more McDonald's on this day than we had consumed in the past year.

Innumerable podcasts later, we were relieved to finally turn north on Hwy 93 towards Idaho, where some color started to return to the landscape.

Imagine this. Now imagine staring at it for 10 hours.
Some kind of doppler radar Shoshone Tribe partnership? I couldn't figure this one out.
Lots of desert behind us. Lots of desert ahead.
Where do these farmers get their groceries? I can't imagine they can farm everything they need on this land.
All of these truck stops will probably disappear once autonomous trucking becomes a reality.
Finally, some color. Hwy 93 north to Idaho.

Around midnight, we rolled into our campsite behind Sunset Cone for the night at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Total travel time for the day: 15 hours. Since the main campsite was closed for renovation, we were the only campers in the park that night.

We cleaned our windshield at every gas station. It didn't take long for it to look like this again.
It got pitch black once we passed Arco, ID.
Our site at Craters of the Moon.
Milky Way in motion at Craters of the Moon.
Star trails at Craters of the Moon under a full moon.


The next morning, I woke up randomly at 6:15. I decided to peek out of the tent and couldn't believe the color I saw in the sky. Something special was on the verge of unfolding. I proceeded to stumble out of the tent with my gear, no socks, no jacket, and scramble up a 150' slope to capture probably the best sunrise I've ever seen. The blackened volcanic landscape of Craters of the Moon provided beautiful contrast against the morning sky.


walking on the moon

You don't normally equate "volcano" with "Idaho". However, it turns out that Idaho is home to the Great Rift volcanic zone, and the Craters of the Moon Lava Field is just one of many lava fields that erupted from this rift in the last 15,000 years.

Fun fact: Apollo astronauts, who were all pilots by trade, trained at Craters of the Moon to learn how to identify geological features for their moon missions.

If all the colors in the world had been inverted, I imagine it would look something like Craters of the Moon. The black volcanic rock yields some surreal landscapes.

A few plants manage to grow on this rocky volcanic soil.
Dwarf buckwheat
Cinder cones
Moon rock
These lava flows were razor sharp.
These chipmunks manage to survive on the sharp rocks in the lava flow.
Family pic on Inferno Cone. Seven years of marriage and counting!
The view from the top of Inferno Cone.

yellowstone burning

We ventured on through Idaho Falls towards Teton Pass, where we started to spot forest fires in the distance and encountered haze from the resulting smoke. This was our first time heading into forested regions so late in the summer, and we hadn't considered how these fires might impact our trip.

Instead of the towering peaks of the Grand Tetons greeting us upon our arrival in Jackson, we were confronted by a wall of smoke and a long line of cars exiting the park. Earlier in the day, park rangers at Yellowstone shut down Hwy 191 through West Yellowstone due to fire.

We resigned to having to return to the Tetons some other time. Perhaps that's the inspiration for our next road trip.

Love the stickers.
We hit some pretty bad hazy patches.
The entrance to Jackson Hole along Teton Pass.
There were four of these antler arches in downtown Jackson Hole.
Not a good sign if you're coming to see the mountains.
There were supposed to be mountains around here somewhere...

After driving three hours from Craters of the Moon to Jackson, we had to call an audible and backtrack into Idaho. We decided to head to Montana early and stayed the night in Bannack, an old ghost town turned state park. In other words, we visited three states that day. One of those states we visited twice.

A frosty morning in Bannack, MT
Frosty stove
Constructing a breakfast sandwich
A white-tailed doe...
...and her fawn.

flathead, finally

We visited Flathead Lake towards the end of the season. Between haze blowing in from distant forest fires and the temperamental mountain weather, we saw a wide range of what summer is like on Flathead.


Our house had a private dock with lots of outdoor space. It was the perfect place to recharge and get some Vitamin D. We were impressed by how much the life of Bigfork residents revolve around the lake. Every house had a dock, an assortment of watercraft, and special lifts for keeping boats and jetskis out of the water on stormy nights. We also watched boats depart in the afternoon and return in the evening, likely to grab dinner at a town across the lake. We could get used to this lifestyle.


water time

In the mornings and afternoons, we took our paddle boards out to explore the vast shores of the lake. Neska never quite got comfortable on the board, and preferred to constantly walk from nose to tail and throw me off balance.

Neska loved chasing her duck toy off of the dock and into the water.

The one time that Neska briefly figured out the best place to sit.
A clear morning on Flathead.
An hour paddle from Bigfork, I found this nice eddy to park.
That clear Flathead water.
A short portage off the lake took me to this pristine backwater.
Balancing on the tail of your SUP: difficult
The upside down view
Bird dog.


We were treated to a beautiful sunset on our last night along Flathead Lake.

Bigfork, MT