There’s no question that the best way to see Montana is by automobile. Traveling by public transport is certainly possible, as buses, trains, and planes traverse the state. But the population centers that serve as public transportation hubs are few in number, and who really goes to Montana to see the cities anyway?
The regional Big Sky Airlines is no longer in operation. There are rumors that Great Lakes Airlines (800/554-5111, www.greatlakesav.com) will pick up Big Sky’s former routes. Check the website for confirmation. Another local carrier, Delta-associated SkyWest (800/453-9417), links Billings, Bozeman, Butte, and Helena, with seasonal summer flights to West Yellowstone.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder (800/872-7245) crosses Montana’s northern extreme along the old Great Northern rail line. By doing so, it offers service to none of Montana’s major population centers. Unless you simply want to traverse Montana, or have friends or rental cars lined up to ferry you southward (bus links at Whitefish aren’t designed to meet the train), Amtrak isn’t a very meaningful way to visit the state: You can’t get there from here. The good news is that the Empire Builder skirts the southern edge of Glacier National Park and is reckoned to be one of the most scenic Amtrak routes. The independent traveler bent on kicking loose in Montana is best advised to hop off the train at either Spokane, Washington, or Williston, North Dakota, and rent a car.
Greyhound buses (800/231-2222) hurtle along I-94 and I-90 and up and down I-15, traveling between Montana’s major cities. However, Greyhound offers little service to smaller or remote communities after its pullback in service in 2004. Service along some of these routes, and to some smaller cities off the interstate grid, are served by Rimrock Trailways (800/255-7655, www.rimrocktrailways.com); tickets can be booked through Greyhound.
A few considerations apply when you are planning a road trip to Montana. It’s not that there are any real tricks involved in driving Montana, but those who are used to city and freeway driving may need some reassurance and a pointer or two.
If you are planning to rent a car, be sure to reserve one well in advance. Just about any regular car will serve you fine most of the time, but some remote dirt roads get pretty dodgy without a high-clearance vehicle. Likewise, a two-wheel drive will handle most situations, but it’s not a bad idea to throw a tow rope in the trunk, and except in the dead of summer, it makes sense to carry tire chains.
Distances are great in Montana: Fill your tank frequently, especially in eastern Montana. Along Highway 200, hundreds of miles separate gas stations. Plan ahead. Don’t assume that every little dot on the map will have gas; many are merely pioneer post offices that mapmakers haven’t bothered to delete from base maps. Ask gas station attendants how far the next gas station is, if you are in doubt. Make sure your vehicle is in reasonable shape. Check tires, oil, and radiator water. Carry extra oil and water.
A less apparent consideration involves foreign cars. By and large, Montana is Ford and Chevy country. If, by Montana standards, you are driving a moderately obscure foreign vehicle, don’t anticipate that parts will be readily available should a breakdown occur. If you know that the alternator is failing on your Citroën, don’t head into rural Montana assuming that repairs will be easy.
If cattle are in the road, just drive slowly toward them, and more often than not they’ll grudgingly move out of the way. Sheep will rarely give way in any logical fashion.
Logging trucks rule the roads in the western forests. It’s wise not to be stubborn about keeping your piece of the roadbed when one bears down on you.
The speed limit in Montana is 75 mph on freeways, 65 mph on two-lane roads.
The white crosses that you occasionally see standing beside state highways do indeed mark the sites of fatal automobile accidents.
The state highway information number is 800/226-7623, TTD 406/444-7696, or check the website at www.mdt.mt.gov/travinfo. During the winter, call this number to find out which passes are closed and what the driving conditions are like. Recordings are updated 2–3 times daily.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition