Montana's Wheelchair Accessible Majesty
Wheelchair accessible majesty, indeed! You won't be surprised to learn that the state's name comes from the Spanish word for "mountains." Two of the most visually spectacular national parks are here in The Treasure State, which could have easily inspired the lyric "For purple mountain majesties" in the song, America the Beautiful. Montana is the fourth largest US state, so it might be helpful to bring or rent a wheelchair accessible van to see as much as possible when you visit. All the attractions below are accessible!
Glacier National Park, Glacier
Often called "the crown jewel of the continent", the unequalled beauty of Glacier National Park has the potential to make your camera scream for mercy. Going-To-The-Sun Road, which spans the width of the park and crosses the Continental Divide, takes you by glacial lakes, cedar forests, alpine tundra, and views that will be etched in your memory forever. Plan to go during late spring and summer months--as you might imagine, enormous amounts of snow will close the road as early as October, reopening sometime in early June of the following year. There are handicap accessible campgrounds and lodging inside the park--you just might want to surround yourself with splendor for more than a day.
Western Heritage Center, Billings
Vast plains, snow-capped mountains, fertile valleys, crystal clear rivers and lakes--everything under the Big Sky in Montana was in the care of Native Americans before the western expansion of the United States. Their reverence for the land, sky, water, and all living things is legendary. The Western Heritage Center gathers, preserves, and shares stories of the Yellowstone River Valley and the northern High Plains--and the people, both Native Americans and the pioneers who settled there.
From paintings on rock walls to artifacts, letters, photographs, diaries, books, and oral histories told by elders, parents, grandparents, and others, the exhibits are the result of a collaboration between the Western Heritage Center and the Crow Nation, the Northern Cheyenne and the Chippewa Cree. Among the artifacts are fine art, textiles, photographs, recipes, and other memorabilia. There are interactive exhibits and games for the kids. This slice of American history is accessible and eye-opening!
The Pictograph Caves hold glimpses of Montana's early history. Pictograph Cave, Middle Cave, and Ghost Cave were home to generations of prehistoric hunters who left artifacts and more than 100 still-visible pictographs, also known as rock paintings, with the oldest rock art in the cave estimated at more than 2,000 years. The caves are wheelchair accessible, though some of the paths to get to the caves can be somewhat steep, so they recommend that you come with family or friends.
Along with interpretations of the rock paintings, archaeology, photography, wildlife viewing, camping, and picnicking are just a few of the activities waiting for you at this state park, situated near a fertile valley. Experts believe the valley's potential drew prehistoric humans to the area, beginning its development over time. When you visit, the scenery will help you understand why they settled there.
Beneath the Streets, Havre
After a 1904 fire destroyed most of the city of Havre (said to be named after the city of Le Havre in France,) business owners decided the best place to rebuild was under the ashes. Though the high point of Havre's history as a rollicking, lawless Western town is over, you can still catch sight of speakeasies, laundries, opium dens, brothels, a bank, a funeral home, and other businesses that moved into their basements post-fire and created this underground city. A series of tunnels connected one business to another. The stories of the area and the businesses are sometimes disturbing, but always fascinating to hear by knowledgeable tour guides. This accessible attraction is your chance to "get down" in Montana! They invite you to "Havre great time!"
C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls
You won't find another artist who captured the energy and feel of the Old West better than C.M. Russell. Charles Marion Russell dreamed of being a cowboy, and he arrived in Montana a few days after his 16th birthday. As a wrangler for a round-up, he observed cowboys at work during the day, and at night, he would sketch and document the activities and excitement of a cowboy camp. As an admirer of the American Indian, the young man spent time with the Native Americans of the Northern Plains and other regions. Eventually, Russell emerged as one of the most famous painters and sculptors of his generation, vividly capturing the essence of his surroundings in infinite detail.
Because he filled the log studio next to his home with cowboy gear, "horse jewelry", Indian clothing, utilitarian objects, weapons, and other artifacts, C.M. Russell had the ability to precisely depict specific times and events in western history. He was the first "western" artist who lived most of his life in the West, and his work is on display at this wheelchair accessible museum. The astonishing detail and use of color in his artwork will transport you back in time!
Cathedral of St. Helena, Helena
Taking the name of the city, which was named for St. Helena and later shortened to Helena, this imposing gothic-style cathedral opened its doors for worship in 1914. In 1935, earthquakes struck Montana, and part of the cathedral was destroyed, but the spectacular stained-glass windows were undamaged. A Bavarian manufacturer of stained glass designed and created the windows, which were said to have surpassed any windows made by that company in its first 50 years of existence. The 50 glass windows depict biblical history from the fall of Adam and Eve to the Church in the beginning of the 20th century.
Today, the sprawling church is the Mother church for the Diocese of Helena and Parish for 1,700 households. The sisters of St. Helena minister to hospitals, schools and other institutions in Montana. You can tour the wheelchair accessible cathedral after Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman
Long before those caves were painted by the first Montanans, dinosaurs ruled the region, and the rocks in Montana have yielded a superabundance of fossils during archeological digs over the decades. The Museum of the Rockies (MOR) displays some of the most famous dinosaur specimens in the world, like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. In fact, MOR is a federal repository for fossils, and its collection is considered part of the United States' national treasures. But that's not all you'll discover here.
Follow the evolution of the area from the age of the dinosaurs through the arrival of Native Americans all the way to today. The wheelchair accessible Museum is also home to a living history farm featuring the gorgeous Heirloom Gardens, a Children's Discovery Center, and a planetarium features a look at the night sky in Bozeman as it is on the very day you visit.
Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone
So much more than an accessible attraction for humans, the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is a home for grizzly bears and wolves that had to be removed from the wild because they've become "dangerously comfortable" around humans. While they may be comfortable around us, they might still be dangerous, but this wonderful wildlife park has been created to give us the opportunity to observe, understand, and appreciate grizzlies and gray wolves. Part of the Center's mission focuses on teaching humans the proper steps to make sure bears stay "forever wild."
You can take an OnCell mobile audio tour of the habitat--as you explore, signs provide information, and you can dial into the tour to listen to gripping audio stories about the animals.
Yellowstone National Park, West Yellowstone
If you've known about world-famous Yellowstone Park since childhood but have never set foot in this splendiferous part of the planet, here's your chance. After all, you're in the neighborhood on your Montana vacation! Called "The Best Idea America Has Ever Had", Yellowstone is the world's first national park, and it's full of natural wonders. Scenic doesn't even begin to describe it--besides the mountains and forests, you'll marvel at geysers, mud pots, hot springs, and steam vents (more than 10,000), glimpse wildlife that includes bison, bears, wolves, bighorn sheep, bobcats, elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and watch a variety of birds, including the bald eagle, soar through that big Montana sky.
Be sure to stop, or even stay, at the Old Faithful Inn. Named after the noteworthy geyser, the inn is a huge, rustic-style lodge with a log and wood-shingle exterior and an enormous lobby highlighted by a massive stone fireplace. You won't find television, radio, air-conditioning or Internet service in this national historic landmark, and you won't miss any of it, because none of that compares to what's right outside your window.
By the end of your Montana vacation, you'll have a deeper understanding of Big Sky Country, why they call it that, and you'll be counting the days until you can return to the incomparably exquisite state aptly called a "treasure."