Great Falls, Montana – September 2017 – Unusual Sights in Montana

A road trip to Montana has provided some unique photo ops, starting with the Great Falls Airport’s Model Airplane collection. It turns out a Great Falls resident was an avid collector of die cast model airplanes, accumulating what is thought of as the largest collection in the world. When he passed away the family provided them to the airport for display.

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One of two display cases stuffed with the model planes.

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Just outside the terminal are a number of retired Air Force jets displayed on stands.

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Easily the highlight, and worth a trip to Great Falls is the Sip n Dip Lounge, a 1960s style Tiki Lounge with Mermaids and Piano Pat, an 85 year old piano player.

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North of town we came across the Espresso Teepee, on the Blackfeet Reservation.

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Wyoming – National Parks Road Trip – Day 7 – Bighorn Canyon, Legend Rock Petroglyphs and Thermopolis

Day 7 began in the early morning, leaving Billings to go south to Wyoming. After passing through a few small town we reached Lovell, Wyoming, home of (among other things) Pryor Mountain Mustang Ranch. Just at the edge of town is a small visitor center with information and photos of the ponies.  The range is a refuge for a significant herd of free-roaming Mustangs, called “wild horses”, located in the Pryor Mountains of Montana and Wyoming. The horses run freely through an open range of nearly 40,000 acres which is the first protected refuge dedicated exclusively for Mustangs; it lies within the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. The visitor center host, Linda, has named each wild horse and would identify them as she showed us their photos. After providing us some excellent guidance, she sent us on our way.

After a short drive, we arrived at the entrance to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, where Pryor Mountain is located . While we did not see wild mustangs running through the cliffs and valleys, we did see beautiful colorful mountains on the winding road along the way. Our first hike on a trail up a cliff lead to a great viewing spot, but we were unable to spot the wild horses. The 40,000 acres gives the horses a lot of land to roam without being seen.

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Further into the park we went back into Montana, noted by a small wood sign. Our picturesque drive rose more than 9400 feet in elevation as we made our way into the mountain range. Just ahead we reached a parking lot for the Devil Canyon Overlook. Little did we know when we got out of the car we were coming up on a 1000′ drop to the lake at the bottom of the canyon. Other than the Grand Canyon this view is the most impressive canyon we have ever seen. We stood breathlessly at the overlook trying to capture a photo of its exquisiteness.

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When we told Linda that we were headed for Thermopolis she asked how much time we had, as there was a scenic route and a fast route. We opted for the scenic route, and are very happy that we did. As we left Bighorn Canyon we were greeting with very colorful mountains, lakes and rivers, and excellent curving roads.

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US 14A ascends the Big Horn mountains, peaking out in a pass at over 9400′ elevation, continually providing overlooks. Once we reached to alpine valley at the top we reached the turnoff to go back down the mountain. After descending a four mile stretch to a rest area with walkways at Shell Falls, a spectacular waterfall in the Bighorn National Forest on Shell Creek. The falls drop 120′ over the granite rock.

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The town at the bottom of the mountain is Greybull, Wyoming. As it is the only town for miles they had a good selection of restaurants for such a small town; we opted for lunch at Historic Hotel Greybull, built in 1916, with a small dining room. The small dining room was very busy, and we enjoyed a casual lunch before continuing south.

First stop after our arrival in Thermopolis, Wyoming was the visitor center. I had two venues I wanted to see while there; Legend Rocks Petroglyphs and the Thermopolis Hot Springs. Once again the visitor center attendant, Kay, was very helpful and recommended we go to Legend Rocks first as it closed early.

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We drove the 20 miles or so out of town, down some dirt roads before arriving at a small gravel parking lot with a cabin and a huge RV. The cabin/office was open but unattended – we picked up a pamphlet and headed out. Heading down the hill we found 15 separate sets of petroglyphs and pictographs made by Native Americans. We carried the pamphlet outlining where to find the rock art because some of them were faded and hard to see. Marker 3 had etchings that were 11,000 years old while others were 6,000 to 8,000 B. C. Elk, bison, people, turtles, rabbits, hawks and dark figures with short arms were carved in stone. Some art was painted. After completing our tour we returned to the car and headed back to town, passing through an oilfield called Hamilton Dome, complete with vacant buildings.

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Arriving back in Thermopolis we found that the hotel I had made reservations at, a Best Western, was in a restored building in the Wyoming State Park that contained the springs. After checking in we walked over to the hot springs, where it constantly measures a temperature of 135 F degrees as it spouts out of the earth and is has a rotten egg smell due to the high sulfur, magnesium, and carbon dioxide content of the water. People flock to Thermopolis believing that the hot spring water has healing power. The hot spring supply here is not from magma but trickles down from the surface into deep fissures in the rock where it is heated and then resurfaces through the spring. The walk to the spring to see the bubbling water surface then slowly flow over flat surface rocks to a public bath and pool was scenic, but smelly.

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We ate dinner at the Safari Club of Days Inn. The dining room was decorated with hundreds of stuffed animal heads mounted to the walls. These animals were from hunting exploits of the owner, Mr. Mills, who personally bagged 85% of all the animals displayed. How do I know this, well it is bragged about on the inside of the menu. It felt creepy sitting underneath taxidermy heaven. It was a Noah’s Ark of the animal kingdom on display for all to see. Elk, tiger skins, leopard skins, fish, bobcats, swordfish, deer, bear, and more were mounted. Perhaps it was the decor here that was famous because it sure wasn’t for the taste in food.

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Our Best Western hotel had a hot tub with water from the hot spring. We spent about 15 minutes soaking in the hot tub of green-tinted water, then about 30 minutes taking a shower to get rid of the smell.

It was a great day, difficult to choose which was the best moment, Bighorn Canyon or the Legend Rocks Petroglyphs.

Eastern Montana – National Parks Road Trip – Day 6 – Makoshika State Park, Pompey’s Pillar and Billing

Another early start – so early the hotel wasn’t offering breakfast yet, so we continued our westward trip on Interstate 94, stopping at a truck stop with a Subway for breakfast egg burritos and orange juice. Breakfast was tasty but a little spicy.

Crossing into Montana, we exited at the town of Glendive to see fossils of dinosaurs at Makoshika State Park. We hiked the Diane Gabriel Trail that led us to the site of a Hadosaur fossil. The fossilized bones were not easy to spot until we looked at the small bones available for us at the viewing platform and compared them to the natural area of the exposed fossil. At that point, we could identify the fossil. Hey, we touched dinosaur bones! That is not something you get to do every day.

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Sadly the days of no speed limits in Montana is over so I had to settle for setting the cruise control on 85 for the trip across sparsely populated Eastern Montana. We saw miles of wide open ranges of wheat-colored fields dotted with black cows. The range spans to a backdrop of mesas and rocky mounds that extend from the Badlands of North Dakota.

Another of our breaks from the drive was in Miles City, Montana, where we checked out the Range Riders Museum. The museum had local heritage and history displays. We touched large dinosaur bones, saw saddles, tools, guns, wagons, arrowheads, native beadwork and photos of native tribes and even early settler’s homes.

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Just east of Billings is Pompey’s Pillar, a National Park. The park boasts a signature of William Clark from the Lewis and Clark expedition. A nice museum came first exhibiting items from the expedition when Lewis and Clark explored this area and the Yellowstone River. Exiting the museum you can follow the trail and climbed a steep flight of 215 stairs to the observation deck to see where Custer’s troops protected the railroad surveyors 60 years after the Lewis and Clark expedition.

One of the noteworthy sights at Pompey’s Pillar are the signatures that the early visitors carved into the side of the stone, most noteworthy being the name of William Clark, protected behind Plexiglas. We walked the path near the pillar to find a stone slab replica of the Clark signature and also petroglyphs and pictographs for handicapped persons to see who are unable to climb the steps. The large stone pillar is named after Sacagawea’s son that Clark nicknamed “Pomp” or Pompey. Sacagawea was the Shoshone woman who helped Lewis and Clark. She and her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian, travelled with the expedition from Fort Mandan.

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After completing the tour of Pompey’s Pillar we continued on into the city of Billings, Montana, and continued to the bluff overlooking town called Rimrocks. The Billings airport is set on the rim so that airplanes slowed above us to land on the runway across the street. The Rim Rock is an area that was part of a great inland sea 80 million years ago that once covered an area from the present-day Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic north. Some areas of the sandstone cliffs are nearly 1400 feet high. A river much larger than the current Yellowstone river carved a canyon to create the rim rocks.