GETTING OUT: Montana’s Gates of the Mountains ‘not to be missed’

On July 19, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered a

We left our friends in Flathead Lake, Montana and headed south
where we would continue our mooch-fest as guests of another
unsuspecting kindly couple.
We left our friends in Flathead Lake, Montana and headed south where we would continue our mooch-fest as guests of another unsuspecting kindly couple. Our hosts-to-be in Bozeman, Mont., recommended that we stop on our way and tour the Gates of the Mountains. It is a beautiful and historic spot, they said, not to be missed.

On July 19, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered a unique and beautiful stretch of the Missouri River. Lewis wrote in his journal that day:

“This evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. These clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1,200 feet … the river appears to have forced its way through this immence body of solid rock … from the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”

While the Gates of the Mountains is just 20 miles north of Helena, Mont., Renee and I did not want to stay in a city, so we took a flyer on a guidebook recommendation, and it made all the difference. The Bungalow Bed and Breakfast, just north of Wolf Creek in southwestern Montana, was designed by Robert Reamer, the architect who designed Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn. Much in the tradition of a stately old lodge, this amazing home was built of western red cedar logs in 1913. Back then, it was described as the finest country home in Montana. The brochure accurately describes the Bungalow as having a “lived in look.” So if you want hoochy-coochy, stay away. But if you relish great hospitality and a taste of old Montana, make a reservation — (406) 235-4276, or [email protected] — and stay a while.

Even with detailed directions, we barely saw the inconspicuous sign on lonely Highway 287, marking the turnoff. After one last mile on a dirt road, we arrived at the large log house tucked beneath the bluffs. In this remote setting I felt as if I had stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting — the best of rural Montana just as you would imagine it.

The next morning we set out for Gates of the Mountains. From the dock, it only took a few minutes for our tour boat, the Sacajawea, to reach the Gates. Nearby dams have raised the water level somewhat, but little else has change since Lewis and Clark passed by. Around each bend, magnificent pine-studded limestone cliffs plunge into the Missouri River and pinch the river’s course into a quiet and stunning gorge. Our guide pointed out osprey and eagle nests as well as newly fledged eagles perched in the shore-side pines.

The passage of Lewis and Clark is not the only history remembered in this corridor. Around noon on Aug. 15, 1949, a small lightning-caused fire was spotted in Mann Gulch, a drainage that empties into the Missouri River in the gates here. A group of smokejumpers was dispatched from Missoula and dropped into the gulch to fight the fire. The fire blew up, and by 6 p.m. that evening, 13 smokejumpers were dead, unable to outrun the fire to safety at the top of the ridge.

Norman Maclean’s book, “Young Men and Fire,” tells the story of that day in vivid detail. Where Mann Gulch touches the river’s edge, a sign commemorates what happened above. Further up the gulch beyond our view are 13 crosses marking where each young man fell.

Gates of the Mountains is a scenic place to brush up against a great chapter in our history. But it’s the Bungalow, so magnificent, remote and unexpected, that lingers sweetly in my memory.

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