Friday, December 20, 2019

CLASSIC TRIP - Montana and Yellowstone 2002, Part 1

A Montana Collage - Gallatin National Forest

Be careful what you wish for, right?  My wife wanted to really get away (we were having our kitchen remodeled and we were stressed) so I found what, so far, has been the most out-of-the-way and as-far-away-from-civilization accessible lodging in the country - 14 miles from the nearest town and 7 miles from the nearest paved road...the last mile was the driveway into the lodge.  She also had never been to Yellowstone so we put together this trip.  So let's go back to 2002, shall we?

Right up front, let's just say that you need a little extra determination to get here and then get around...especially if you use a wheelchair for mobility.

The state's major airports at Bozeman, Billings, and Helena just don't show up on major airlines radar screens so direct flights from most of the country is not an option. What flights you do find are not going to be cheap. Once you arrive, accessible public transportation will be a challenge to find as will accessible van rentals.

We decided to drive. From L.A., this is not a quick and easy road trip especially if you have trouble sitting in the car for long spells. After 3 nights on the road, we were finally at our destination....Big Timber, Montana, about 50 miles east of Bozeman. We needed some time to just not drive any more.

Researching for a place to stay yielded the Burnt Out Lodge, a bed and breakfast run by Ruth Drange on her family's cattle and sheep ranch. The lodge is accessible with three ramps leading into the building. The area around it is not, so you will need your own private van or car to get there.

The reason you need your own ride is because it is remote. In fact, for a wheeler, I cannot think of a more remote accessible accommodation that I have ever come across. The lodge is located at the farthest reach of the three thousand acre ranch abutting the Gallatin National Forest.

Only 7 Miles to go to the Burnt Out Lodge

To get there, you first drive seven miles beyond Big Timber. Then, it is up six miles of dirt road to the first gate. Someone must get out of the car to open the gate (an attendant here is really necessary for all but the most hardy wheelers), drive through, return to close the gate lest any cows escape the ranch. One more mile of bumpy road is necessary to navigate before you reach the lodge building where one more gate must be opened and closed.

It takes a pretty major effort just to get here.

Once here, it is pretty easy to go up a ramp into the building and into your room. The lodge has a vast open public area with a two story fireplace to warm up at. Five rooms are all on the first floor and each will allow access for a wheelchair easily. One room in particular has been built with bars for the toilet and bathtub for access. There is no roll-in shower, however. Plastic chairs are available for use as bathing chairs.
The View from the Room
We stayed in the accessible room, although as the only guests at the inn Ruth offered us our choice of any room. The room is huge and very open and airy. A twenty foot ceiling reinforces that feeling. It is furnished sparsely with just a bed, two night stands, a small table and two chairs. It was sparkling clean and comfortable, but it does take a bit of getting used to.

Our first day had started in West Yellowstone, Montana after we had stopped there for the night. Along the way to Big Timber, we stopped at Nevada City, a recreated Ghost Town where authentic buildings had been moved to from other areas. It was a quiet and not unpleasant stop but not exactly enthralling either.

In Big Timber, we had dinner at Prospector Pizza in a pretty little downtown area before bedding down for the night at the Burnt Out Lodge. We saw dozens of deer along that 7 mile access road up to the lodge.

After sleeping pleasantly in our large room with all the windows and the front door open (great things to do when you're several miles from the nearest road), we had our breakfast and decided to do a little sight seeing.

This morning, that would entail heading up the Boulder River valley from Big Timber. We stopped when we got to Natural Bridge.

A short hike lead us to a bridge and several viewing platforms built into the rock. The paths are accessible but be careful of the hundred foot drop off of the sides when heading to the platforms. The bridge path is not as scary.

From the bridge and the platforms, you can see the natural bridge when the water level is low, as it was when we visited in July. In a spectacular display, the river drops down a hole and travels about one hundred yard before emerging from a shear cliff face.

When the water level is higher, the hole is underwater and the river flows over the natural bridge but you can still see the other waterfall emerging from the hole in the cliff.

After our tour up the valley, we headed back to Big Timber. It was over one hundred degrees when we hit town so we decided to spend the afternoon in the community pool. A buck fifty was all it took to get all three of us in where we lounged around for an hour and a half...until the lifeguard's shrill whistle told everyone to immediate evacuate the pool. A thunderstorm was approaching fast.

We took quick shelter in the small pool house where I took the opportunity to give Tim a shower in the only roll-in shower we would see in Montana. Now that's what I call thinking on my feet!

We changed back into our street clothes and headed out of town. The rain had let up enough so that we could visit Prairie Dog Town State Park. This is a small area set aside for these large, barking rodents where you can see them in a wild setting to your heart's content. Outside the park's perimeter, the critters are fair game for the farmers and ranchers who shoot these animals as pests when they see them.

A shower and a nap back at the lodge refreshed us and we headed back into town for dinner at the City Club, a combination steakhouse, bowling alley (six lanes!), bar, and casino. We had some delicious Montana steaks...better than the steaks we payed three times as much for on the way home in Las Vegas.

The town turns in pretty early and try as we might, we couldn't find too much to do after 7:30pm. We missed the only showing (7:00) at the local theater but we'd already seen Lilo 'n Stitch back home. A trip back to the lodge where we could reach out and pat a cow's behind as we drove by was in order.

Another night with the fresh Montana air wafting through the room and we were ready to tackle another day. After breakfast, we drove fifty miles to Bozeman to visit the Gallatin County Fair's opening day.

This is a very small fair where everybody was giving out freebies or samples. Everybody had candy bowls out for quick little nibbles. A local political group opposed to an upcoming ballot measure gave us a huge sports cup (with their logo on it, natch) filled with ice cold water with a local chiropractor matching that with a big bottle of spring water out of an ice bucket...perfect for the 105 degree day.

A few local sportmen's groups filled our bag with free fishing tackle...lures and bobbers. A candy maker threw in some free samples of fudge. A local mine even gave us some raw rocks that they grind into talc...along with ruler, pens, pencils. Another local politician running for office gave out free American flags.

We were in hog heaven with all the goodies and we got to see all kinds of livestock and eat that great, greasy fair food while watching some country and western concerts. It was a great day and we met a lot of friendly local folks.

After the fair we ate dinner at McKenzie River Pizza in the beautifully restored downtown area of Bozeman, where some workers recognized us from the fair earlier. It was good pizza and even better beer.

Tonight would be our last night at the lodge. We had one more open-air night before our last breakfast with Ruth.

A deer walked by one foot outside the dining room window while we at our morning meal and a marmot rooted around outside. Before it got too cute, Ruth whispered to us that the marmot was a pest and she would have to shoot it if it returned. Ah, the ways of the Montana cattle ranch life.

Stay tuned for part 2...Yellowstone!

Copyright 2002 - Darryl Musick

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