Share This on Social Media

(Originally published on April 27, 2021. Updated August 7, 2021)


“Hot, windy weather like this creates a high fire risk” the septuagenarian ranger who had lived his entire life in the area told the group of visitors to Glacier National Park who had joined him for an interpretive walk near Lake McDonald.

(Dick Jordan Photo)

“You mean a fire like that one” my wife said, pointing to a wisp of grayish-white smoke off in the distance over the ranger’s shoulder.

“S…” the ranger exclaimed as he rushed back to his pickup truck to radio in a report of the fire.

And that was a harbinger of what would ultimately force us to hastily devise a “Plan B” to modify our planned two-week trip to western Montana.

A Warm Start

Climate records indicated that one could expect sunny skies with highs in the low to mid-70s when visiting in and near Glacier National Park during late July in a normal year. So, my wife and I packed blue jeans, short and long-sleeved shirts, a sweater and maybe a pair of shorts each, along with hiking boots and “sneakers” for our summer 2003 trip to the area.

But as it turned out, that hot, windy weather that we experienced during our first afternoon in the park when we went on the ranger-led walk would persist for the duration of our trip, spawn fires in the park and in other parts of Montana and force us to spend a few days far to the east of Glacier.

(Dick Jordan Photo)

During the first half-dozen days of our visit to Western Montana the weather wasn’t too hot although poor ventilation in our room at the Lake McDonald Lodge made for fitful sleeping.

(Dick Jordan Photo)

We spent three days at Lake McDonald on the west side of the park before driving the scenic, twisting “Going-To-The-Sun Road” over the mountains to St. Mary Lake on the east edge of Glacier.

(Michael Kirsh Flickr Photo)

While fires may have burning to the west, the skies were clear although it was getting quite warm, so we visited a sporting goods store in the town near our lodgings and bought a pair of hiking shorts each.

Into Canada

Our next stop was the Prince of Wales Hotel perched on a bluff overlooking Waterton Lake at Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, which butts up against the northern edge of Glacier National Park in the U.S.

There was a bit of smoke in the air during one day hike, but clear the day we took a tour boat south on the lake and disembarked to hike into Glacier where we had to show our passports at the ranger station in order to cross the U.S.-Canada border.

On the boat trip back to the Town of Waterton and our hotel we heard some talk of fires within Glacier.

(Photo by Sharissa Johnson on Unsplash)

Burned Out

The following day we drove south back into the U.S. but were unable to reach out next intended overnight stop, “Many Glacier,” one of the most scenic spots in the park. A U.S. National Park ranger who had parked her vehicle to block the road into that area told us that visitors were being evacuated from the park.

(Christopher Michel Flickr Photo)

We continued back to St. Mary Lake to see if the park lodging where we had stayed before heading to Waterton had a room available. It didn’t, and when I asked my wife if she wanted to stay in a windowless, basement room in a hotel in town she looked at me as though I had totally lost my mind.

The Blackfeet tribe’s reservation occupies much of the land area just east of Glacier National Park and there was almost no lodging to be found within many miles of St. Mary Lake area.


I called a hotel in Great Falls, 155 miles to the south, and booked a room for the three nights that we had planned to stay at Many Glacier. It turned out that there was a silver lining in the clouds of smoke that had forced us to come up with an impromptu “Plan B” for that part of our two-week trip.

A Great Time In a Great Town

We arrived in Great Falls at the end of the afternoon, passing almost no other vehicles, even on Interstate 15 (which runs from the U.S.-Canada border south to the U.S.-Mexico border), until we neared that city. The hotel was very nice, the city had some very good restaurants, and there were five pleasant surprises that came out of that long detour from the national park.

First, we were able to watch the annual “Pet and Doll Parade” our first night in town.

Pet and Doll Parade 1 IMG06
Pet and Doll Parade 3 IMG02
Pet and Doll Parade 2 IMG04

Second, we were able to attend the Montana State Fair which happened to be going on while were in Great Falls.

(Tracy Flickr Photo)

Third, a local outdoor store was having a big sale and we bought some more hiking shorts at a great price.

Fourth, we were able to visit the outstanding Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center operated by the U.S. Forest Service that recounts the Corps of Discovery travel up the Great Falls section of the Missouri River.

Fifth, on the way to the center we had a great luck to find Snyder Drug & Gifts which serves up burgers and creamy milkshakes in its old-fashioned soda fountain.

(Sndyer Drug Facebook Photo)

So even though we would probably not have included Great Falls in our original trip itinerary, we had a great time there and we were lucky to have been compelled to travel there by the fires within Glacier.

Back To Glacier

The next planned stop on our trip after Many Glacier had been East Glacier and its historic log hotel at the southeastern edge of Glacier National Park.

We headed there after leaving Great Falls. Thankfully, smoke from fires elsewhere in the park had not drifted into that area.

We were able to make a daytrip from East Glacier up to Many Glacier which had been re-opened to visitors even though the skies above the lake and mountains were still an ugly ash gray.

(Dick Jordan Photo)

But stumbling upon the Park Café in St. Mary that served up delicious fruit pies made that day for us.

The final stop on our trip was Big Fork on Flathead Lake, west of Glacier National Park and just south of Kalispell where we had begun our trip after flying in from San Francisco via Seattle.

(Eugene Beckes Flickr Photo)

We had hoped to spend a day touring areas near the lake, but the hot weather and smoke-filled air forced us to opt for a drive into Kalispell to visit the nifty Western Outdoor store chock-a-block with cowboy boots and hats, and the adjacent Norm’s Soda Fountain, before taking in the movie “Seabiscuit” (which would win three Oscars, including “Best Picture” at the 2004 Academy Awards) at an air-conditioned theater.

Smoke Got In Our Eyes

Because there were some real upsides to the downside of having to change our Glacier National Park trip plans due to forest fires, I wish I could say that never again were our vacation trips affected due to forest fires in the Western U.S.

In June of 2008 we spent two weeks traveling to and through Southeast Alaska. Our flight back to San Francisco from Seattle was delayed departing due to reduced visibility at Bay Area airports caused by fires burning far to the north. When we landed at San Francisco International the sun had turned a Devil-red color and the smell of smoke hung heavy in the air.

On a September trip to the Steens Mountains in southeastern Oregon smoke from fires near Lake Tahoe had spun northeastward for hundreds of miles.

(Brian Flickr Photo)

And in August of 2018 forest fires burning in Southern Oregon and Northern California created unhealthy air conditions in the City of Ashland prompting us and many others to cancel plans to attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Travel in The Western U.S. During the COVID Era

During the coronavirus pandemic travel within the Western U.S., as well as the rest of the country and the world, diminished markedly. As time passed and as more people were vaccinated against the virus, a pent-up demand to recover from “lockdowns” and “coronavirus cabin fever” began to be unleashed. And because many believe that being out-of-doors is safer than being indoors, one should expect that visitation to national and state parks, and areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will increase.

At the same time the risk of mammoth forest fires engulfing huge swaths of the American West seems likely. Once there was a limited-in-time “fire season” outside of which fires rarely occurred. Now it appears that “megafires” can happen during most months of the year, especially after prolonged drought.

So, if a trip the Western U.S. during this summer and early fall is high up on your travel “Bucket List” have a “Plan B” prepared in case you need to revise your itinerary, especially if you are in the middle of a trip. You may not be as lucky as we were when fires in Glacier National Park landed us miles away in a city which we would probably have never have otherwise visited but which proved to be an interesting and fun destination.

(Update, August 7, 2021. Yesterday the New York Times published a story entitled “Reconsidering Outdoor Travel in the West, as Wildfires Burn” which discusses the impact of wildland fires on tourist in the Western U.S.)

Share This on Social Media
Comments are closed.