Outdoor-Lovers Guide to Northwest Montana
Northwest Montana has world-class hiking and rafting—not to mention huckleberry milkshakes that'll knock your boots off.
Glacier National Park, the vast protected wilderness area in northwestern Montana, has always loomed large in my imagination—the dizzyingly steep mountain peaks, the glaciers remaining from the last ice age, and the mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and, of course, bears. The thought of coming across a bear on a hike is actually petrifying. My friend Ellie and I will be arming ourselves with plenty of bear spray.
But we have some exploring to do in the towns before we get to the park. In Whitefish, a historic railroad community, we stop for lunch at theBulldog Saloon, which is decorated with dozens of wooden plaques depicting bulldogs (the local high school's mascot). Neither of us knows what to expect from the sour-cream-and-chive fries Ellie orders along with our burgers, but after one bite, she's hooked: "You need to taste these fries. Now."
Although we're pretty full, we can't resist a free sample in the tasting room at theGreat Northern Brewing Company, especially when the beers have names like Buckin' Horse and Hellroaring. Since there isn't a tour—you just look at the tanks and pipes through a glass wall in the tasting room—we go down the street to split a beer at theGreat Northern Bar & Grill(which has no affiliation with the brewery). We contemplate spending the day there, listening to a guitarist and drinking microbrews, but the annualNorthwest Montana Rodeoawaits in Kalispell, 20 minutes to the south.
On our way out of town, we stop atCowgirl Coffee. Ellie is delighted by all the souvenirs, particularly a T-shirt that says ONE SINGLE TALL COWGIRL, PLEASE. Outside, she sets the timer on her camera to take a photo of us on a bench with COWGIRL HEAVEN painted on the backrest.
The real-life cowgirls racing their quarter horses around barrels are the highlight of the rodeo, although we're also impressed by the bull-riding and cattle-roping competitions. After a huckleberry milkshake, we leave to find our hotel.The Kalispell Grand Hotel, which was built in 1912 and recently renovated, retains an old-fashioned ambience, right down to the plate of cookies left in the lobby for guests to snack on.
Kalispell Grand Hotel
100 Main St., Kalispell, 406/755-8100, kalispellgrand.com, $99
144 Central Ave., Whitefish, 406/862-5601, fart-slobber.com, burger $5
Great Northern Bar & Grill
27 Central Ave., Whitefish, 406/862-2816, greatnorthernbar.com
6356 U.S. 93 S., Whitefish, 406/862-6991
Great Northern Brewing Co.
2 Central Ave., Whitefish, 406/863-1000, greatnorthernbrewing.com
Northwest Montana Rodeo
265 N. Meridian Rd., Kalispell, 406/758-5810, nwmtfair.com, from $13
Charles E. Conrad is just fascinating: We're taking a tour of the house he built in Kalispell in the 1890s—now known asThe Conrad Mansion Museum—and the guide is regaling us with tales about the charismatic shipping magnate. He represented Native American tribes in a land-treaty negotiation with the British in Canada! He could communicate in several Native American languages! The house is really interesting, too, with all sorts of quirky "modern" conveniences, like a speaking tube connecting the kitchen and the bedroom, and water fountains with compartments for ice blocks to keep the water running cold. Then the guide says something that floors me: Some of the light sockets contain the original bulbs, which still work today. (They'll function until the filaments inside break.)
By the time the tour is finished, Ellie and I are itching to be outdoors. We've arranged to go white-water rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River with theGlacier Raft Company. On the gentle flats of the river, I feel like I'm inA River Runs Through It. I only start to become nervous as we approach a set of rapids named the Bonecrusher, which is truly frightening in the early summer when the river swells with melting snow and ice from high in the mountains. Now, in August, the rapids aren't bone-crushingly intense, but a man in our group does go overboard. He's mortified when his 7-year-old son excitedly offers to jump in and save him from the shallow water.
At the next swimming hole, Ellie volunteers to try what the rafting guide calls the Wheel of Misfortune. She stands on the bow of the raft while the rest of us spin it in a circle until she loses her balance and falls in. The water is a beautiful green because of glacial sediments, and it looks refreshing, so I follow her lead and hit the water with a shock: It'sfreezing! I pull myself back into the raft, and another rafter starts pointing and laughing at my large goose bumps. She's apparently never seen any that big before. When we finally reach the shore, Ellie and I make a dash for our towels and dry clothes in the car.