Plein Air Painting Trip Through Montana - Sept. 2008

We flew into Great Falls, Montana from Salt Lake City. The sky was full of scudding clouds that allowed glimpses of harvest yellow swaths of earth below – one cann't call them fields or pastures as they are vast and cover miles of undulating landscape.

In the distance to the West, we could see violet and cobalt blue Rocky Mountains. I was excited to think we would be traveling into the heart of the mountains in a day or so. We planned to travel through them all the way South through Montana into Wyoming.

We stayed overnight in Great Falls. We visited the Lewis & Clark Center on the banks of the Missouri River. A wonderful museum dedicated to the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1803 thru 1806. An Expedition to discover the uncharted West commissioned by President Jefferson and funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress of $2500. If you visit Great Falls this is a must see! As well as the World's Shortest River (according to the Guinness Book of Records) which is nearby at a trout hatchery.

My sister Katherine and her husband Barrie flew in from England and we picked them up at the airport in Great Falls the next morning. We immediately left for Glacier National Park. We drove about 140 miles to Glacier Park which is in the Northwestern corner of Montana and straddles the U.S./Canadian border in the Rocky Mountain Range. En route we stopped at The Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The collection of original native American clothing, art, war bonnets (all beaded, quilled and painted) is truly stunning.

We arrived at East Glacier just at nightfall and stayed at the Pine Mountain Motel there for two nights. It was very convenient, quiet and affordable, with nearby restaurants to walk or drive to for breakfast or other meals.

East Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana

The first morning at East Glacier arrived with icy cold air seeping through the thin walls of our rustic cottage style room. Outside, the green lawn was tinged with white ice crystals that sparkled in the early light.

I had had a bad night dealing with altitude induced headache and nausea. I decided I needed to get moving and then would feel better eventually. I dressed in all the layers I could find in my suitcase and went out to the Swedish style bakery across the road to get coffee and toast.

When we arrived the evening before, I had spotted a suitable site for my first Montana painting. It was two blocks from our Motel on the edge of a small golf course. Sweeping vistas of the Glacier Park peaks, aspen covered lower slopes, inter-sperced with dark conifers, were all laid out in a stunning 180 degree panorama. An inviting small dirt road lead into the wilderness area.

We walked down the trail in the evening light enjoying the views and the aspen trees which had just started to turn to Fall gold. We hadn't gone more than 100 yards before we noticed a large grizzly bear footprint right next to a large pile of bear poop. And it was very fresh! Huckleberry bushes were in abundance and loaded with favorite bear treats of ripe berries. Prominent signs were posted to “Beware of Bears”. We decided to heed the warnings and turned around at that point. We had read that Glacier Park has the largest concentration of Grizzly Bears of any place in the country.

So this was the site I chose for this first painting. I positioned my vehicle so I could paint sitting in the front passenger seat looking at the view. It was very cold outside and I was worried about those bears creeping up on me as I painted.

This first painting was achieved despite altitude headache, frost and the threat of Grizzly bears. The clouds of mountain fog covered the mid level peaks. As the sun appeared the shadows on the distant peaks kept changing and evolving. I became mesmerized with the beauty of it all. My headache disappeared. No bears appeared and I felt amazed and grateful to be in this wonderful place.

St. Mary and Logan Pass, Going-to-the-Sun Highway, Glacier Nat'l Park, Montana

From East Glacier we drove to St. Mary's and along Going-to-the-Sun Highway to Logan Pass on the Continental Divide.

This is a truly spectacular drive with amazing mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers on all sides. In the small town of St. Mary, we stopped to visit huge brightly painted tepees in a group. We discovered it was a tepee hotel where you can stay in a luxury tepee – each one outfitted with wood floor, kingsize bed covered with buffalo motif bedspread and a stone fire pit in the middle of the floor for heat. Each tepee room had it's own small bathroom nearby in a hut-like building. It would be a unique and fun experience to stay there in the Summer or Fall for a few nights.

Photo of the tepee hotel is above as well as one of some cute ground squirrels we saw at Logan's Pass. They posed so nicely I couldn't resist the Disney moment!

St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana

On the return from Logan Pass, we stopped for our picnic lunch and a hike at Sun Point next to St. Mary Lake.

I got to paint an almost “unpaintable” scene of serrated mountains and vast wide landscape. I took a small piece of the enormous 360 degree view and did my best to keep it simple – just paint the big shapes, values and relationships.

I noticed the cooler quality of this far Northern light – quite lacking in the reds and oranges which are so noticeable much further South in California. Painting this scene felt almost unreal and such a privilege. It was so wild and of such magnitude.

Due to the warming atmosphere, the glaciers of Glacier Nat'l Park are dwindling at an alarming rate – now there are about 22 glaciers – down from over 120 a few years ago. So go while you can to see what remains.

We got back to East Glacier in late afternoon. We stopped at the Glacier Lodge there. The Lodge was built in the 1950s by the railroad company so that passengers could stay there. It's right across the tracks from the railway station at East Glacier. The Lodge building is magnificent, like an aging movie star, with giant tree trunks used to keep the whole structure upright. It has seen better days however and is now quite scruffy and in need of repair. It is also very expensive.

We were glad to be at the sweet Pine Mountain Motel just down the road instead.

West Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana

West Glacier/Helicopter Tour

From East Glacier we drove to West Glacier, crossing the Continental Divide on the way – we dropped 2500 feet on a long down grade that was quite amazing – surrounded by huge mountains and vistas of coniferous forests as far as one could see.

Our lodging in West Glacier was the Great Northern Whitewater Rafting headquarters near the Flathead River. We had a Swiss Chalet style log cabin complete with balcony, 2 bedrooms and a big living/kitchen area. All decorated with a moose motif – including the plates and bowls in the kitchen. Fabulous views in all directions taking the eye miles and miles up forested slopes, to the end of the tree line and from there, to the peaks.

While waiting for our cabin to be cleaned, we noticed a Helicopter Tour company right next door and ventured there to see what it would cost to take an heli-tour of Glacier. A 30 minute tour cost $110 per person for a 4 person group. And they could take us right away. It was totally worthwhile – We flew through those amazing peaks and saw the hanging valleys and little lakes created by glaciation – long ago geology lessons came to mind. We got a really good up-close look at the major glaciers. The weather was so perfect that the helicopter ride was almost unreal in its smoothness. Lake McDonald's crystal clear waters reflected the surrounding peaks as our 30 minutes ended and we landed.

After the helicopter ride, I set up my painting gear on the upstairs balcony of our Chalet and did the painting pictured above of the view from there. No need to go anywhere else.

After painting I went out for an hour of walking on a side trail from our Chalet. I encountered a large pile of rather fresh bear poop – Bears are everywhere and very close in to houses too. You have to have your eyes out on stalks all the time when out hiking. Katherine and Barrie returned unscathed from their walk but also felt unnerved by the obvious numerous signs of recent bear activities along the way. Bear bells attached to back packs are supposed to help – at least they can hear you coming – which is a mixed blessing I would think!

Red Lodge, Montana

We drove from Bozeman to Red Lodge in driving rain and the morning of this painting we could see the first snow of the season dusting the high peaks of the Beartooth Mountains.

We stayed the night in Red Lodge at the Comfort Inn which lived up to its' name with cheery staff and little comforts such as breakfast, laundry room, cardio equipment room. Exercise is very much needed when you have been seated on your rear end for the entire length of the State of Montana driving for 2 days straight.

Red Lodge at 5500 ft. altitude is a ski town in winter and has various festivals during the summer to attract visitors. It is also the beginning (or end) of the Bear Tooth Highway, 64 miles of the most scenic and high altitude mountain driving in North America. The North-Eastern corner of Yellowstone National Park is accessed via the Bear Tooth Highway and is a spectacular way to approach the park.

The morning got off to a slow start as the Bear Tooth Highway pass at 11,800 ft. was closed due to the overnight snow. We were assured it would, most likely, be open by 11am.

So we had a leisurely morning and I was able to paint in the parking lot of the Comfort Inn – a woman who came by to view my work wondered aloud why I was painting in the parking lot! I told her that some of the best scenery is to be found when standing in parking lots – it just depends on how you look at things.

Prior to leaving Red Lodge for our drive over the Bear Tooth Highway, we decided to take food and drink along, just in case. We stopped at a market and got fruit and fresh bread rolls to go with the leftover steaks from the previous night's dinner.

I drove the first leg up the mountain. It was steep and switch-backed with lots of places where rocks could come down and clobber one from the steep talus slopes above. We encountered snow very quickly but not in the road, which was clear. The mountain gods were with us as the road over the high pass had just opened before we got there.

Incredible views at every turn – we stopped on the downhill side to have our steak sandwich lunch. I absolutely recommend driving the Bear Tooth Highway if you ever get the chance.

West Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, Montana

The town of West Yellowstone is located at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park and is right on the border of Montana and Wyoming. This is the last painting I did in Montana before exploring Yellowstone Park in Wyoming and then on down into the Grand Tetons National Park further south.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone – very comfortable and spacious with all the amenities and only a few blocks from the entrance to the park.

Lots of restaurants and shops are within easy walking distance – the streets are all laid out in a grid and very wide – this is because of the huge amounts of snowfall that happen here in the winter. Snowmobiles take over then and 4 wheel drive trucks.

I got up very early this beautiful but freezing Fall morning and drove down a side road from our hotel to find a good morning painting site that was still technically in Montana.

The road took me out near the little airport and had good view of the surrounding peaks of the Yellowstone Caldera – I could clearly imagine the scene of the super volcano blowing its' mighty stack 640,000 years ago – as I parked the vehicle and set up my easel I thought about the magma chamber of molten lava bubbling and swirling 5 miles under my feet - that explosion of the super volcano displaced 8,000 times the ash and lava of the Mt. St. Helens explosion.

I did my painting in the cold sunny morning light alert to sounds that might signal the approach of a bear. All I heard was bird song and the rustle of leaves in the slight breeze.

The beautiful butterscotch colored meadow grass was illuminated in the morning light and set off the violet shadows of the trees on the edge of the meadow. My fingers became numb from the cold and I lost myself to the magic world of painting - It was worth it!

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