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Yellowstone-Glacier route: Stop in Three Forks, MT

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THREE FORKS, Mont. — An elegant, century-old hotel, an authentically Western town center and easy access to limestone caves and historic landmarks make this southwestern Montana burg worth a stop on a drive between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

With the park-to-park trip covering 370 miles, it can be driven in a day. But Three Forks, just off Interstate 90 northwest of Bozeman, is too good to pass up, and the Sacajawea Hotel is practically irresistible, whether travelers are not long out of Yellowstone about 100 miles to the south, or have driven the 300 miles from East Glacier Park in northwestern Montana.

Built in 1910 to accommodate Milwaukee Railroad passengers, "the Sac" underwent major rehabilitation in 2009-10 after Dean and Hope Folkvord, business leaders in the town of about 1,800 residents, bought the place and set about putting it in shape for its second century.

The hotel advertises "rustic luxury," including a spa, fine dining and a full bar. The 29 guestrooms were redesigned with modern amenities but retain historic features, including some clawfoot bathtubs. Chairs on the wraparound veranda invite lounging after a stroll through town or a ride on one of the hotel's fat-tire bicycles.

In the lobby rich with dark wood and leather, there's a bronze of Sacajawea, the young Shoshone woman who was an interpreter and guide for part of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06.

Out of the hotel's front door and down the steps, it's an easy walk to Main Street attractions.

A former bank that is on the National Register of Historic Places houses the Headwaters Heritage Museum. Its holdings include a log cabin from the 1860s, a dugout canoe used in a TV documentary about the Lewis and Clark expedition and old dental equipment sure to inspire gratitude for the modern care of teeth. There's also a collection of barbed wire in its many forms.

Down the street, the scent of tanned leather drifts from a saddlery, and petunias grow in a cattle-watering trough on the sidewalk. Another store houses Outa Ware, an outdoor-clothing business run by a former ski patroller, Andy Tuller, who worked at Montana's Big Sky resort, couldn't find mittens that passed the durability test, made some for himself and ended up launching a business. In Three Forks, Tuller sews jackets and other built-to-last garb sold off the rack and through custom orders. Shop hours are irregular; people planning stop in should call ahead.

From Three Forks, it's just a four-mile drive to Missouri Headwaters State Park, the place reached by the Lewis and Clark expedition in late July of 1805 after the party traveled more than 2,500 miles, from Missouri. This delta, also a National Historic Landmark, is where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers converge to form the headwaters of the Missouri River.

In his journal, Meriwether Lewis wrote about the clarity of the water in "three noble streams." The National Park Service and others describe the place as being much like it was in the time of the expedition. The park, also accessible by way of a bike path from Three Forks, offers interpretive displays and walking trails.

Nineteen miles from Three Forks, Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park offers visitors close looks at stalactites, stalagmites and other limestone formations. Besides guided cave tours, the park has interpretive programs. Trails beckon hikers and bicyclists, and there are picnic areas.

Another destination reached easily is Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, about 14 miles southeast of town. In prehistoric times, buffalo incited to stampede tumbled off cliffs and Indians then procured the meat and hides. Besides providing information about that drama, Madison Buffalo Jump offers sweeping views of the Madison River valley in return for a hike on the rocky prominence once pounded by hooves.

After a visit to a park, or more than one of them, dinner at the Sacajawea awaits. The menu includes a variety of beef entrees, ale-braised bison, peppered duck breast, pistachio-crusted scallops and vegetarian corn crepes.

For a memorable twist on the before- or after-dinner cocktail, arrange to ride in the hotel's 1969 Checker stretch limousine to the old mining town of Pony, population about 100. The driver will deliver passengers to its bar, described by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle as Pony's living room, and get them back to hit the Sac for the night.

If You Go...

SACAJAWEA HOTEL: 5 N. Main St., Three Forks, Mont.; http://www.sacajaweahotel.com or 406-285-6515. Rooms $109 to $199, suites $219.

HEADWATERS HERITAGE MUSEUM: 202 St. Main St., Three Forks, Mont., http://www.tfhistory.org or 406-285-4778. Regular season, June 1-Sept. 30. Free admission.

STATE PARKS: http://stateparks.mt.gov or 406-994-4042. Guided tours at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park from May 1-Sept. 30, $10 for adults, $5 for children. Missouri Headwaters and Madison Buffalo Jump state parks open year-round. Daily entrance fees of $5 for visitors arriving in vehicles without Montana license plates.