It’s Fourth of July in Red Lodge. A crowd has overflowed into the street abutting the Snow Creek Saloon. Fireworks rain from a hill to the east. Inside, wall-to-wall Montanans linger with as many tourists – some dancing on barstools.
About 500 miles northwest, in Bigfork, the crowds are similar.
There’s a line in front of the Garden Bar as people wait to join the hundreds who have already filed inside. Local hotels are booked solid. Campgrounds are full. Flathead Lake is pocked with boats. Someone’s gossiping about a celebrity – with other sightings to follow.
These two small towns, uniquely Montanan in architecture and character, are arguably the most popular to celebrate this country’s independence in a throwback setting. While many of the state’s largest cities empty for the holiday weekend, Red Lodge’s population of about 2,500 and Bigfork’s 1,500 swell several times over. How much? It’s hard to say. But, on peak holidays, estimates for each are in the tens of thousands.
This begs the question: Which town hosts the best Fourth of July celebration?
“Bigfork’s a great place, but it’s no Red Lodge,” Richie Martisch, general manager at the Snow Creek Saloon, said predictably.
“There’s no better place to be (than Bigfork),” Garden Bar owner Mister said.
Opinions vary, but there can be only one winner. So the following is an unscientific and not entirely objective breakdown of a six-round friendly spar for Fourth of July supremacy.
Both towns boast growing Fourth of July parades and both draw thousands of people. Bigfork’s includes more than 40 impressive entrants. “And it’s getting better every year,” said Bruce Solberg, executive director at the Bigfork Chamber of Commerce.
Red Lodge, however, treats its parade like Woodstock. Floats cruise the strip three days in a row, with the most on the Fourth. “People enter a lot of spiffy stuff,” Red Lodge parade director Glory Mahan said.
Edge: RED LODGE
Both towns’s hotels fill up fast. Some are even booked a year in advance.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever been disappointed,” Solberg said of its lodging. Bigfork is also known for its fine dining options.
But Red Lodge is no slouch either, which brings us to the street vendors. Those noodles sold in the heart of Bigfork taste even better as the day turns into night.
Bigfork leaves the fireworks to those folks with enough money to live on Flathead Lake and buy thousands of dollars in arial shells nicknamed “Rampage” and “Typhoon.” It’s still an impressive display and Solberg suggests the high school football field for the best view.
Red Lodge’s display is put on by the local chamber and lasts a good 45 minutes. “All the animals in town go into hiding,” Mahan said.
Edge: RED LODGE
It’s tough to pick between a town within driving distance of Yellowstone National Park and another that’s a stone’s throw away from Glacier National Park. All the campgrounds in both areas fill up fast. Red Lodge has Rock Creek. Bigfork has Flathead.
Beyond beauty, what sets these two places apart?
Aaron Schubert, who was raised in Red Lodge but now lives in Bozeman, has spent his last five Fourth’s in Bigfork or his hometown. His insight: “It depends. Do you want to go to the rodeo, or do you want to go out on the lake?”
How about donning a cowboy hat on the lake?
After 4 p.m. on the Fourth of July, Solberg acknowledged “you’ll never find me anywhere close to Bigfork.” You will, however, find an all-around raucous crowd, comprised largely of a hoard of hip college students wandering in and out of bars.
“It’s a nuthouse,” the Garden Bar owner, known only as Mister, said.
In Red Lodge, where several bikers ride in for the week and dancing on pool tables is encouraged, Snow Creek’s Martisch said it’s a “no-holds bar scene.” “You get to be whoever you want to be in Red Lodge.”
Both downtowns are bumping, so get to your favorite watering hole early or expect a long, thirsty wait in line.
Last round. Time to dig deep.
Solberg pointed to Bigfork’s children’s carnival in Sliter Park following the parade.
Mahan mentioned the rodeo. Some famous cowboys, such as Dan Mortenson, often roll into town for the festivities. Speaking of celebrities, Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and former pro football star Howie Long have been spotted in the Flathead Valley. It’s a tough call.
“If I wasn’t in Red Lodge, I’d go to Bigfork,” Mahan said.
Schubert, who has spent ample time in both towns during the Fourth, wouldn’t pick one over the other. “No comment,” he said. “I can’t say. That’s why I go to both.”
But we’re hometown patriots.
Edge and winner: BIGFORK