5 Things to Do in Missoula with a Toddler in Tow

Last year, as many of you know, we embarked on our biggest trip to date with BattleKid. It was a two-week USA road trip taking in the stunning Yellowstone National Park, smoky Missoula in Montana and the hip and vibrant city of Portland. Missoula is a place not many people will have heard of, us included before our trip, but is definitely worth a visit. And today I’m going to share with you 5 things to do in Missoula with a toddler in tow, should you be visiting yourself with a toddler or young kids.Missoula with a toddler - blog graphic

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Now, we chose Missoula, which is in the state of Montana, as it was roughly the halfway point between Yellowstone and Portland. Stopping there would enable us to break up the driving and have some down time with BattleKid during our road trip. We also chose it because there was a town called Lolo right beside it and also Lolo National Forest. Lolo is the nickname my Dad got from his first grandson and it stuck. So naturally we needed to visit the town that shares his name.

We also intended to visit Lolo National Forest but alas it was not to be. Montana was cloaked in smoke due to widespread forest fires, some of which had reached Lolo National Forest, causing it to be closed to the public for safety. But it gives us a reason to return. With the forest no longer an option, we needed to find things to do in Missoula with kids.

Our first port of call was Google. We searched for things to do with kids in Missoula. These had to include fun activities for kids as we had BattleKid with us. We were also fortunate that our AirBnB host had left a few magazines in the apartment one of which had articles about things to do in Montana with kids. The articles proved so useful to us. They not only showed what to do with kids in Missoula and the wider Montana area, they also gave some ideas of free things to do in Missoula.

Armed with as much information as possible, we set out to discover Missoula and other nearby things that we otherwise would have missed had the forest been open. And as a result, I am able to share with you 5 things to do in Missoula with a toddler in tow. All of these are fun things to do in Missoula and the slightly wider areas around it.

5 Things to Do in Missoula with a Toddler in Tow

Have a Picnic in Caras Park Missoula

Caras Park is located in Downtown Missoula along the Clark Fort River. It is a lovely area and the Park Pavilion plays host to a variety of events throughout the year including music concerts, festivals and even a type of Oktoberfest, which was being set up the day we had our picnic in the park.

We visited one day during our time in Missoula after being in the wider Montana area, and I had packed a picnic. We found some picnic benches near the Pavilion and enjoyed our lunch in the sun. Other families soon joined us on the adjacent benches for their own picnics. And if you don’t want to sit on the benches there are plenty of lovely grassy areas for picnic blankets too. Afterwards, you can enjoy one of the following two things.

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Picnic time in Missoula

Have a Ride on the Carousel for Missoula

Located in Caras Park, the Carousel for Missoula was opened in 1995 and was the culmination of the labour of many volunteers and over 100,000 construction hours. Featuring 38 hand-carved ponies, two chariots, 14 gargoyles, mirror frames and the largest band organ in continuous use in America, it is somewhere kids, young and old, can enjoy. You need a token per ride, which costs just 75c, and if you, as a parent, want to ride and share a pony with your child (as I did), it will cost you two tokens.

There is also a chance to win free rides by collecting rings from a chute as you pass by, but you need to be on an outside pony to try your luck. BattleKid and I enjoyed two rides together and he didn’t want to get off. The Carousel for Missoula is really one of the fun things to do in Missoula with kids that shouldn’t be missed. It is open 364 days of the year between 11 and 5.30.

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One the Carousel for Missoula

Let your toddler run wild in the Dragon Hollow Playground

Also located in Caras Park, right beside the Carousel for Missoula, the Dragon Hollow playground is a brilliant place to visit with toddlers and kids. It was designed by artists and consultants after getting advice and ideas from local school children. It is a very safe playground which is enclosed by a picket fence and has chip bark flooring. Featuring a huge Dragon themed play house with tunnels, stairs and slides, BattleKid had a great time weaving his way through to the biggest slide he could find!

There are also swings, musical play features and an area for smaller children. It is suitable for kids from 18 months to 12 years of age, is open all year round and is free to use. There are seats around the playground for parents to take a breather. One thing I will point out is that once your child enters the dragon, you cannot easily see them until they emerge from a slide. So just be cautious. But it is one of the best wooden playhouses I have ever come across and BattleKid thoroughly enjoyed himself here.things to do in missoula with a toddler in tow - visit dragon hollow playground

Visit the National Bison Range

Established in 1908 as a sanctuary for the American bison, the National Bison Range is located approximately an hour north of Missoula. It was one of the places featured in the magazines that our AirBnB host had left in the apartment and somewhere we might have missed. It is home to a herd of between 350 and 500 bison but is also home to other animals such as coyote, black bear, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn deer.

There are two routes you can drive at the Bison Range. The short Prairie Drive is open all-year round while the longer Red Sleep Mountain Drive is only open from mid-May to early October. We did the Red Sleep Mountain Drive and it was challenging. It has sharp switch-backs and steep declines and I’d recommend you do this in a 4×4 car due to the roughness of the road. Note, this drive is closed during the winter months.

Although we had seen bison in Yellowstone, we were hoping to see other animals and saw elk and pronghorn deer during our visit. A day pass costs just $5 (you can get an annual oass valid from your first visit for just $15), and the gates are generally open from 7am to 7pm. The visitor’s centre, where you pay, has plenty of information about the range and also has toilets too. Although we only spent a few hours there it was worth the drive from Missoula.

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Visiting the National Bison Range, Montana

Visit Ewam Buddha Garden, the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas

This was one of the most surprising places we visited in Montana. Situated in Arlee, about 40 minutes north of Missoula, the Ewam Buddha Garden has to be one of the most peaceful and tranquil places we’ve ever visited.

In the centre of the garden lies a 24-foot tall statue of Yum Chenmo. One thousand Montana-made images of Buddha are arranged in the shape of an eight-spoked Dharma wheel, which encircle Yum Chenmo. 1000 additional stupas surmount the two exterior throne walls, creating the outer rim of the Dharma wheel. And it is a mesmorising sight to see.

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A view of the Ewam Buddha Garden from the hill of prayer flags. See how smokey it is!

The gardens also have a small lake hosting fish and surrounded by large Buddha statues. The garden is open all year round from dawn until dusk and is free to visit (with donation boxes at various points throughout the garden). It was designed for people to enjoy the space, flowers and serene surroundings. Guided tours are available and there is also a gift shop and ample parking.

Once we found out about the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas we knew we had to visit it. A dear friend of ours in Wales introduced us to Buddhism. BattleKid enjoyed our walk around the garden, stopping here and there to admire certain Buddha statues and to say hello to the fish. I’m just sorry we didn’t know there was a prayer flag mount there before we went, or we would have created our own to add. You wouldn’t think this is a place to visit with kids but BattleKid really enjoyed it, so I’m sure your kids would too. And as it is on the same route as the Bison Range you could visit both in one day.

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The central buddha in the Ewam Buddha Garden.

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I can hand-on-heart say we enjoyed each and every one of these activities in Missoula and Montana. And in hindsight the forest fires and resulting smoke were a blessing in disguise. We might not have visited any of these sights had it not been for the fact that Lolo National Forest, our original reason for visiting Missoula, was closed. Our sudden change of plans worked out for the best and we got to visit places even BattleKid enjoyed.

So, if you are wondering what to do in Missoula and Montana with toddlers and young children, I hope I’ve given you some ideas of both paid and free things to do with my 5 things to do in Missoula with a toddler in tow.

And if you are considering visiting the USA with kids and not sure what there is to do with them in certain cities, these posts might help decide for you!

20 Things to do  in Oklahoma City with kids (or without) – Parenthood and Passports

How to do a weekend trip to Sarasota, Florida with kids – Our Globetrotters

My perfect 24 hours in San Francisco with kids: itinerary – Learning Escapes

5 Things to do in New York with a Toddler in Tow – BattleMum

Cath x

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USA Road Trip Holiday Diaries – Day 10

I woke at 7.30 with BattleKid to a lot of smoke outside. It was even thicker than previous days. I was glad we had experienced smoke haze and the associated smell in Portugal as it didn’t panic me like it might have. That said, I was glad we were going to be leaving this day.

BattleDad woke at 8 and after showers, we had breakfast before tidying up the apartment and packing up the car. Even he remarked how thick the smoke haze had gotten overnight.

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Smokey sky of Montana as we left Missoula

At 9.30am we left the apartment and filled up with gas just down the road from the apartment. We stopped at Cabela’s as I wanted to swap my trapper hat for a larger size. Despite trying the first one on in the shop, we came to realise after that I could do with a bigger one. BattleDad bought himself a cap and hoodie.

I have to say that the staff at Cabela’s were one of the nicest set of people we’d come across in a shop. Extremely friendly, and very helpful, it was no wonder the Missoula store had been voted best in America, 3 years after first opening up.

I started the driving for the day, taking us 230 miles until we hit the other side of Spokane. We drove all of those miles through smoke haze, there was just no let up. In parts you had limited visibility, until it would open up again, giving us hope we might be coming through it. But to no avail. It was everywhere we went.

BattleKid got an hour sleep and woke shortly before we stopped for lunch, just outside Spokane. We pulled into services off I-90 and decided to try a Denny’s for some food. We’d seen these advertised on many of the highways and BattleDad wanted to try them. I had a chicken salad, BattleKid had chicken nuggets and BattleDad enjoyed a Phily sandwich. All the food was good and definitely filled a hole in our bellies.

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Denny’s, our lunch stop for the day

BattleDad then drove the last 120 miles to Richland, our stopping point for the night. Again, all we saw enroute was smoke haze.

We arrived at our hotel for the night, the TownePlace Suites by Marriott again, the same place we’d stayed at on our first night in the States. The same guy was on reception and he was very welcoming and accommodating. And I have to say I highly recommend this hotel, apart from the sofa beds.

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The TownePlace Suites by Marriott in Richland

I spent the first hour doing laundry as I knew there were no washing facilities at our next AirBnB, having checked with our host. Guest laundry is a room with a few washing machines and separate tumble driers. I managed to get all of our washing done and most of it dried before heading back up to the boys to sort what we were going to do for dinner.

BattleDad did a TripAdvisor search and we settled on visiting the Steppe Smokehouse Brewery for dinner. I’ll be honest and say this wasn’t the best meal we had in the States. The meat was nice and quite tasty, but the sides were just okay. BattleKid wasn’t too fussed on the meal either.

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The meat was tasty enough
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Unfortunately the sides left alot to be desired

Back at the hotel by 8pm, we got into our pj’s and got BattleKid into bed. We had a one-bedroom suite this time and it worked out great, as BattleDad and I were able to watch some Ozark before getting into bed ourselves by 10pm, ready for our last day of long driving.

Cath x

USA Road Trip Holiday Diaries – Day 9

BattleKid and I woke shortly after 7am and chilled in the living room with the help of Puss in Boots, the series, on Netflix. I managed to catch up on some writing before BattleDad appeared shortly after 8am.

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Deer in the back garden of our AirBnB

Again, we watched a deer in the garden but this time she had two babies with her. I made us all an omelette for breakfast, and then we packed a picnic and headed out on the road, bound for somewhere else we’d seen in the information magazines our host had left. We needed an ATM as we were all out of cash and found one near a Cabela’s Outdoor Store. BattleDad had played the Cabela’s PC games many moons ago and really wanted to go inside. So, we did.

Oh my word, this was another experience. Cabela’s is a huge store with the outdoors firmly in mind. It was bigger than some of the Asda shops of the UK. There were sections for fishing that my Dad would have gotten lost, a camping section and the biggest range of guns and ammo I’m ever likely to see for a very long time.

There was also a section designed for ski and winter wear. By the end of September, Montana sees snow and temperatures that can drop well below freezing. I spotted some trapper hats for BattleKid and I. I snapped them up, all in preparation for our trip to Lapland in 2018. We also got BattleKid a much better set of nocklers, with the help of a very friendly staff-member. As we were paying for the hats, the lady on the checkout asked were we getting ready for winter. Sort of we responded, haha.

Satisfied with our purchases, we set off. Our destination was the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, located near Arlee which we had passed through the day before on our way to the National Bison Range. It took us just over 40 minutes to drive there and we parked in the car park and walked to the Garden.

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Walking in the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas
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Prayer flags
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Saying hi to Buddha

And what a beautiful place to visit in the middle of Montana. The Garden of a Thousand Buddhas has exactly that, 1000 statues of Buddha in various sizes, set in 10 acres of beautiful gardens. Still under construction, this spiritual site on the Flathead Indian Reservation is intended to be a place of pilgrimage for the Western Hemisphere and expected to welcome people of all faiths in the future. 

It was one of the most peaceful, serene places we’ve ever been. One of our longest friends in Wales introduced us to Buddhism many years ago, and although we are not Buddhists, we appreciate their way of life and much prefer their teachings and morals over the religion we were brought up in.

The gardens were beautiful, there was a lovely little lake and also a set of prayer-flags on a hill. Had we known before we visited, we’d have brought one to add to the ones there. The Garden of a Thousand Buddhas is free to visit but there are donation boxes there, which we put some money in. I was glad we had stopped at the ATM at Cabela’s. We thoroughly enjoyed our quiet walk through and around the garden.

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Spotting the fish
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The largest Buddha in the Garden

Back in the car park, we started talking to a guy and his friend from the car beside us. Nate, a very nice guy from Utah, was really friendly and has since become friends with BattleDad on Facebook. He was interested in why we’d visited and our travels. Nate was also interested in recommendations for Irish films to watch once he learned we were Irish, and he gave us some great recommendations for Portland.

Before departing, he gave us a bunch of lavender as a gift, which we weren’t expecting but was a lovely gesture. Lavender is the essential oil our Buddhist friend used to use on us during our sport therapy treatments with her. It felt like something had come full circle for us. All we could offer him was some bottles of water, as we had a case of it in the car. Both Nate and his friend were very grateful as the temperatures were over 30C that day and they had run out.

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Selfie with my boy

We headed back to Missoula and located Caras Park, where two children’s attractions that had been recommended to me were located. We had a picnic first as it was lunchtime, before BattleKid and I enjoyed some rides on the Carousel for Missoula, where an adult and child can share a seat for just $1.50.

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Enjoying our picnic

A volunteer-built, hand-carved carousel in Caras Park, Carousel for Missoula was completed in 1995 but not without the efforts of many volunteers and fundraising. Cabinet maker Chuck Kaparich from Missoula visited a carousel in Spokane in 1988 and it was there the vision for a carousel in Missoula was born. However, it took a lot of fundraising, over 100,000 volunteer hours and four years before the carousel was completed. The carousel has 38 hand-carved ponies and two chariots and hosts over 200,000 rides a year.

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Riding the Carousel for Missoula

After our rides, we let BattleKid run off some energy in the Dragon Hollow Playground, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Created in just 9 days with the help of over 4000 volunteers, Dragon Hollow Park is a playground adjacent to the Carousel for Missoula. Free to use, it has castles, slides, swings and plenty of hiding places for kids to let off some steam. Thanks to those on Facebook for these recommendations.

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Play time in the Dragon Hollow Playground
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Swinging in the Dragon Hollow Playground
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No fear going down the big slides in the Dragon Hollow Playground

On our way back to our AirBnB, we stopped by Walmart on the way back to our AirBnB to get a pizza and some American croquettes called Tater Tots. BattleDad had always wanted to try them, and they were tasty. Back at the apartment I got packing us and tidying up while the boys played and chilled with Netflix. After dinner we watched Zootopia with popcorn before getting a little boy into bed. After another two episodes of Ozark, BattleDad and I were in bed, ready for another long day of driving, the penultimate leg of our road trip.

Cath x

USA Road Trip Holiday Diaries – Day 8

Unbelievably I didn’t wake until 9.30am. I must have been tired from all the driving. BattleKid didn’t wake until after 10! Shortly after a light breakfast we spotted some deer in the back garden of the building our apartment was in. The smoke haze hadn’t lifted either. In fact, I thought it was getting worse.

After getting dressed, we headed for the National Bison Range, located 55 miles from our apartment. Our host had left some information magazines in the apartment about Montana, and we had spotted the National Bison Range in one. Although we had seen lots of bison in Yellowstone, the article said there were other animals to see, so we thought we’d head there. Unfortunately, our plans of spending two days exploring Lolo National Forest went up in flames, literally. The fires we’d hit at we crossed from Idaho to Montana had hit Lolo Forest and the surrounding areas, so we had no chance of seeing any of it. I was thankful for the information magazines our host had left in the apartment.

Established by Theodore Roosevelt, the National Bison Range is a wildlife refuge set up in 1908 to provide safe sanctuary for the America Bison. Incredibly, we had learned in the Albright Visitors Centre Museum in Yellowstone that the bison population had been decimated between 1870 and 1880 by 85% from 5.5million to less than 400k. I was absolutely shocked at this statistic. One question raised during our cookout was why people hadn’t farmed them. I can understand them being slaughtered for their meat but not in those numbers over just a ten year period.

The National Bison Range is also one of the oldest refuges in America and serves as a basis for research with the United States. The bison herb is quite small numbering between 350 and 500 individuals, but the range also has other animals including prong-horned deer, elk, big-horned sheep, black bear, coyote and even mountain lion. It covers 18,800 acres and has two different trails, along with a visitors centre where you pay your entrance fee, can get information and even see examples of some of the animals to watch out for during your visit.

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Visiting the National Bison Range, Montana

We stopped at the gift shop just outside the gates to the National Bison range when we arrived, and BattleDad hired a set of binoculars from the shop for $10, with a refundable deposit of $100. He was hoping to buy some for BattleDad as the little ones we had bought him in Yellowstone were only toy ones and you couldn’t really see anything through them. But there weren’t any suitable ones in the shop. Armed with better binoculars, we went in.

We entered the Range and went to the visitors’ centre first where it cost us just $5 to gain entry to the range. We decided to do the longer drive, the Red Sleep Mountain Drive, through the range, which took us just over an hour. We saw individual bison, but no herds. The office does warn you that the bison can be anywhere in the Range and that some areas aren’t visible from the roads. You can hike part of the Range, but we weren’t planning on doing any hiking, especially with BattleKid in tow.

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Smokey view of the Jocko River from the top of the Red Sleep Mountain Drive
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National Bison Range, Montana
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National Bison Range, Montana

We did see some prong-horned deer and also some elk along the river on our return drive towards the visitors’ centre. One thing we did realise was that you really need a 4×4 type vehicle to do the full drive as it is a dirt road and very bumpy in parts. We would not have enjoyed it had we been in a normal family car. There were steep inclines and switch backs too, which aren’t advisable for trailers either, which you must leave in the car park at the visitors’ centre.

We returned the binoculars to the gift shop as we left the range, with BattleDad getting us a small wooden carved bison as a memento of our visit, and we took our time driving back to Missoula. We decided to have an early dinner in a TripAdvisor recommended Chinese Restaurant called China Garden. Hailed as THE best Chinese in Missoula, we weren’t disappointed by our meal. The portions were absolutely huge though! We could have easily shared one main between the three of us.

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The best Chinese restaurant in Missoula
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Huge food portions

Suitably stuffed we decided to make our first ever visit to a Walmart. Holy cow, what an experience. Not only was the store ginormous but what an array of people visit it. We couldn’t get over the size of the place and the fact they sell guns in what we’d class as a supermarket! You can literally buy anything in Walmart.

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Our first ever visit to a Walmart

In the end we bought an extra suitcase to bring home all our souvenirs and things we’d bought, and at the same time treated BattleKid to a new set of Cars 3 models. But my word, did it take some doing to free them of their packaging. Each car was held in by not one but two of those annoying string ties and there were 5 cars. Frustrated isn’t the word for it. And no meant feat to get it done quickly with a three year old constantly asking for his new cars either.

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BattleKid delighted with his new Disney Cars 3 models
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Chilling out with a film and popcorn

We decided to have a chilled afternoon and evening after our long drive the day before. So, I made us some popcorn and we found Paddington to watch on Netflix on the PS3 in the apartment. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and BattleKid watched most of it, in between driving his new cars.

We got BattleKid into bed not long after 8pm and BattleDad and I watched the first episode of Ozark, a new Netflix series starting Jason Bateman, who I hadn’t seen in years. We’d been meaning to start it, so thought this was as good a time as any. Us parents were in bed by 10pm though, still tired from driving.

Cath x

USA Road Trip Holiday Diaries – Day 7

We woke at 7am and after a quick shower we had breakfast. I cooked us an omelette in my bid to use up our fresh food before our day of driving. We finished packing up, tidied up our ‘cave’ and got the car ready to go. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in our AirBnB cabin in the woods and were sad to leave.

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Leaving our AirBnB in the woods

We left at 9.30am and there were mixed emotions as we turned onto US-87, ready to retrace our steps to I-90 as we headed for Missoula and Lolo, the next stop on our road trip. We passed through a town called Ennis in Montana and it turned out to be a really western type of town. I took a few snaps to send home to my sister and her hubby who got married in the Irish Ennis.

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Entering Ennis in Montana, not the town in Clare
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Ennis, Montana

We stopped at the Lewis and Clark gas station just that we’d visited on out journey towards Yellowstone to fill up, get drinks and snacks and to make sure everyone had used the toilet. We had seen these two names quite a lot throughout Montana and Googled them. It turns out these are the surnames of the two men who lead the first American Expedition during 1804 and 1806 into what is now the western portion of the United States. Leaving from St Louis, they crossed the Continental Divide (which we crossed ourselves in Yellowstone) and carried on until they reached the Pacific Ocean. It was the first expedition west and opened up the rest of America.

It was just before this pit-stop that we entered the smoke haze from the many fires in Montana. We couldn’t believe how bad it was in parts. We drove along I-90 until we hit Missoula just after 2pm, in time for another Five Guys lunch.

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Heading for Missoula

For some reason I didn’t enjoy this lunch as much as the first time. I had a double burger the first time but only a single this time around and it fell apart quite easily as I was eating it. As we were early for our check in, we decided to get groceries before going to our AirBnB apartment in Lolo. The smoke haze was quite thick around Missoula and I had a bad feeling about our planned visit to Lolo National Forest.

At 4pm, we unloaded the car into our apartment for the next three nights, and while it wasn’t as modern as I was expecting, it was clean and comfortable with modern furnishings. BattleKid certainly made himself at home as you can see below.

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Chilling out in our next AirBnB in ‘his’ chair

I cooked us a spaghetti bolognaise and we all chilled out watching some Netflix on the PlayStation in the apartment before we got BattleKid into bed. It was nice to chill out after doing over 270 miles in the car with only one stop. 

Once BattleKid was in bed, BattleDad managed to get us the last episode of Game of Thrones, which was brilliant. We had wanted to watch it before going back on social media and having it ruined for us! Once that was done, we headed to bed. Not a very exciting day, but driving all day isn’t exciting at all.

Cath x