For me, the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park leads to so much more than breathtaking vistas and exhilarating hikes–it leads to pie. More specifically, it leads to strawberry-rhubarb pie with a big scoop of vanilla ice-cream at the Park Café in St. Mary, Montana.
I have been visiting Glacier with my family for as long as I can remember, and though we usually spend most of our time in the park’s less crowded Canadian sister Waterton Lakes National Park, we always make it a point to head down to Montana for a few hikes and a piece of pie…or two.
One of three restaurants in the tiny town of St. Mary, the Park Café has been motivating hungry hikers to hustle those last few miles since opening its doors in the 1960s. The doors where different back then–the café used operate out of a school bus–but these days, the café is a quaint house with a wrap-around porch and a gift shop next door.
Sitting outside in the fresh air is always nice (mainly the sitting part, depending on how much you’ve hiked), but dining inside really gives you a feel for this hopping little outpost. The hustle and bustle is accompanied by tantalizing smells wafting from the tiny kitchen. Bison burgers, vegetarian “gypsy burritos,” potato bakers (baked spuds stuffed to the brim with tasty fillings), fresh fish and creative salads are all on the menu. The most important menu items, however, can be found on the big chalkboard behind the counter. This, my friends, is the pie menu.
Kathryn Hiestand takes the café’s motto, “pie for strength,” seriously. She begins her mission to keep travelers’ energy levels up at 5:30 every morning, baking approximately 40 pies per day during peak season (July and August).
Among the most popular are razzleberry and strawberry rhubarb, but if those run out (and they sometimes do, trust me), there are plenty more to choose from. With 19 standard flavors, ranging from blueberry-apple to lemon meringue, along with the occasional pie du jour, there really is something for everyone; even David Letterman, who stops in once in a while.
The café is very much a seasonal establishment. Most of the employees are college students who move to Montana for the summer to hike, work at the café, live in communal housing, and wear “pie for strength” t-shirts (see Park Cafe Logo, right). Once winter comes, the entire region slows down.
So, what do the managers/owners do in the off-season?
“Try to catch up on sleep,” says Manager Rob Hiestand.
I unfortunately missed out on my mountains and pie fix this year. So, if any of you are heading towards the “crown of the continent,” aka Glacier National Park, stop by St. Mary for a great meal at any time of day. Breakfast is also fantastic and yes, it is perfectly acceptable to order pie then too–to go, or not. Oh, and don’t forget to get a piece for me as well. My favorite is strawberry rhubarb. Just overnight it to me (might want to skip the ice cream).
Photo: My mom, Terry Dunlap builds up an appetite by hiking Piegan Pass in Glacier National Park a few miles down the road from the Park Café. (Photo by Loften Dunlap)