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The Great Northern Route

Columbia Falls

Two intriguingly named towns line US-2 between Kalispell and Glacier National Park. A roadside collection of gas stations and industrial plants, including a massive Plum Creek lumber mill, make up the much larger town of Columbia Falls (pop. 4,688), where, despite the name, there are no falls. There are, however, a ton of entertaining roadside attractions right on US-2, from go-karts to mini-golf, and a couple of good low-frills restaurants, including the MSG-free Chinese food at Tien’s Place (329 W. 9th St., 406/892-1585) and great rotisserie chicken and ribs a block away at The Back Room (522 W. 9th St., 406/892-3131).

Hungry Horse

If you like homespun Americana and roadside kitsch, you’re in for a big treat as you head east along US-2. The town of Hungry Horse (pop. 826), a service center for the large reservoir to the southeast, proclaims itself “The Friendliest Dam Town in the Whole World,” and boasts ever bigger roadside attractions, starting with the House of Mystery (406/892-1210, daily Apr.-Oct., $12), “Montana’s Only Vortex,” on the north side of US-2. Located three miles east of Columbia Falls, along the Flathead River at the mouth of Bad Rock Canyon (which resident Native Americans thought was haunted), this is among the more credible of these places where, to quote from the brochure, “the laws of physics are bent, if not broken altogether . . . where birds won’t fly and trees grow at odd angles. Could it be a bearing point for extraterrestrial visits centuries ago? . . . Nobody knows!” It’s as fun as these places get (which is to say, very, if you get into the spirit of the place), and well worth the minimal admission fee; there’s a good gift shop, too.

The stretch of US-2 between Hungry Horse and the turnoff to Glacier National Park holds one more “attraction” after another, but even if you’re appalled by the brashness of all this hucksterism, you’ll want to stop in Hungry Horse for a piece of pie or a milk shake at The Huckleberry Patch (8868 E. US-2, 406/387-5000 or 800/527-7340), at the center of town. In summer, it also has a full-service restaurant, boasting over 25 different fresh berry and cherry concoctions.

West Glacier

Like many tourist towns on the edges of our national parks, West Glacier has its share of tackiness, but here it’s on a tolerably small scale and limited to the approach along US-2 from the west. After all the billboards advertising scenic helicopter rides, taxidermy museums, and “The World’s Greatest Maze,” the actual town of West Glacier seems serenely quiet and peaceful, with little more than a couple of restaurants and comfortable motels, including the West Glacier Motel (406/888-5662, $90 and up), right on the Flathead River (and the railroad tracks!). There’s also a large visitors center for Glacier National Park.

For many visitors, especially those who love trains, the main highlight in West Glacier is the landmark Belton Chalet (12575 E. US-2, 406/888-5000, $140 and up), built by the Great Northern in 1910 and fully, lovingly restored in 2000. Rooms are small but have balconies with nice views, and the restaurant is one of the best in the Glacier region.