How to Experience Western Montana and Glacier National Park

How to Experience Western Montana and Glacier National Park

Montana’s two most famous national parks, Yellowstone in the south of the state and Glacier in the northwest, comprise 5,054 square miles. When I told Lucy Beighle I was planning on hitting both in a single four-day trip, her assessment was stark: “That’s crazy.” Beighle, who works for Glacier Country tourism, might have been showing her hometown bias in advocating for me refocusing on western Montana, but her advice proved gold. “You’ll need at least two days in Glacier; really you could spend a week just in the park,” she said, and she wasn’t wrong.

Hardcore hikers and avid outdoorsmen would have zero problem melting into the million acres of other otherworldly lakes, primeval woods, and waterfall-striped mountains, but two full days provides a strong summary of West Glacier (East Glacier, home to the Blackfeet Reservation, is currently closed to visitors because of COVID-19) while leaving plenty of time to explore the vanguard breweries, ghost towns, and ATV trails of points south. Here’s the best way to organize your trip for this upcoming spring. As always when traveling during the pandemic, consult local guidelines (Whitefish Covid Cares, the National Park Service) for the latest on COVID-19 protocols and restrictions.


Day 1: Whitefish

Whitefish, the well-heeled resort town 30 minutes from West Glacier’s gateway, is the most comfortable basecamp for visiting the park and easily accessible with flights from Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, and 10 other cities. It will be tempting to sprint right to Glacier from the airport, but you’ll already be well behind the eight-ball in terms of crowds at the park, so use this day as a buffer of leisurely exploring before going hard.

Will Smith on Unsplash

Cruise through the town’s main street, with its western-style storefronts and up the winding road to Whitefish Mountain Resort. A chairlift at the base of this low-key ski resort whisks you 15 minutes up the summit. The wide-open views of the evergreen mountains sliding into Whitefish Lake provide a visual marker of where you are, Big Sky Country, and are best witnessed with a local KettleHouse Cold Smoke Scotch ale on the vertiginous deck of the Summit House Restaurant & Bar.

After drinking in the beer and the vistas, head back down the lift and into town for lunch at The Wich Haus, where chefs-owners Orion and Ellie Heyman turned an historic cottage into a creative, ingredient-focused sandwich studio last year. Get whatever seasonally accessorized pork sandwich the couple is dealing; the version I destroyed, with bright salsa verde and dripping, last-gasp-of-summer peaches, was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.

Five minutes up the road, the Lodge at Whitefish Lake offers the cushiest digs in town. Its grand timbered facade, glowing fireplaces, Western art, and impressive taxidermy—Huck L. Berry, an 8-foot-9 Alaskan brown bear wearing a turquoise facemask, greets you in the lobby—make you feel like you’ve checked into Twin Peaks Great Northern, though the only nefarious entities haunting this hotel are the Brads and Chads down at the lakefront tiki bar.

Just beyond is the lodge’s expansive marina, where the resident 1990 Windsor Craft will zip you around the Whitefish Lake with a cooler of Champagne and no one to advise you against stripping down to your underwear and plunging headfirst into the bone-numbing blue water. Thawed and dried, head to dinner at Bonsai Brewing Project, a chill beer garden with terrific burgers and a talent for barrel-aged fruit sours. Stop at a store for bear spray and portable snacks on your way back to the Lodge, pack your backpack, set your alarm, and put your ass in bed. Sunrise comes early.


Day 2: The Going-to-the-Sun Road

The ride from Whitefish to the West Glacier gateway is about 40 minutes, and in the pre-dawn darkness, it slips by in moody, navy shadows. Grab coffee at one of the many drive-through chalets that dot the roads—they open early for park-goers—and plunge into Glacier’s primordial forest via the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This famous 49-mile drive follows the shores of Lake McDonald (pictured below), a dark lunar crater at this hour, before ascending skyward in soft lazy loops and vertiginous cutbacks.

Lake McDonald
Hari Nandakumar on Unsplash

There are pull-offs along the way for hikes and photo ops, but you’re going right to the top, or at least as far as you can go before the rangers will turn you back at the approach to the Blackfeet Reservation, where West Glacier becomes East Glacier. This overlook is called Rising Sun, and if you time it right, as the waking sun shreds the lingering gloom, the name becomes evident.

At this time the GTTSR will just beginning to back up, which is why this mixed hiking-and-driving itinerary is Rising Sun early, Rising Sun first. Now you can make your way back down, going in the opposite direction of the majority. Fifteen minutes down from Rising Sun brings you to the St. Mary’s Falls Trail, a mellow 3.5-miler. This out-and-back winds down through the eerie charred-trunk graveyard of the 2015 Creek Reynolds Fire, then up into primordial forest marked by three waterfalls: St. Mary’s; an unnamed four-tiered cascade; and the piece de resistance, Virginia Falls, which reveals itself out of nowhere, thundering down a sheer cliff. The scenic cascades make this one of the park’s most popular trails, which is why it’s so key to bang it out early.

scenic road Valley View, Glacier National Park

After, drive down the GTTSR, crossing the Continental Divide at Logan’s Pass 6,646 feet above sea level, and take in the majestic views you missed on the way up in the darkness. Russell’s Fireside Dining Room, the fine-dining restaurant the Lake McDonald Lodge, is running a casual takeout operation, Russell’s on the Run, during the pandemic. Their bison burger smeared with huckleberry aioli is the move, eaten outside with a view of the crystal lake, lilac mayo dripping down your fingers.

Backtrack 10 minutes to the Trail of the Cedars, a flat one-mile boardwalk zigzagging through towering, century-old red cedars. It connects onto the Avalanche Lake Trail, an out-and-back that feels more strenuous than its four-mile roundtrip due to its steady climb. Early on the hike you’ll encounter gorgeous Avalanche Gorge, whose current-smoothed walls frame water as minty blue as Listerine.

Continuing uphill, the trail feels like it’s going nowhere till you emerge from the woods into scrubby brush where the smell of cedar is so persistent, you’ll think you’re in a Swedish sauna. The path narrows here then abruptly drops out onto a stony beach facing a massive lake of liquid jade. Little Matterhorn and Bearhat Mountains surround the water like an amphitheater, distant glacier-fed waterfalls rushing down their craggy, crying faces.

If you’re an experienced hiker, there are dozens of other trails, both well-trod and remote, splitting off from the GTTSR, and you’ll probably want to press on. Average outdoorsmen, you can give into your body’s protests and cut out. Reward yourself with a cocktail at Glacier Distilling in Coram, then pick up takeout from Abruzzo Italian Kitchen in downtown Whitefish. You deserve their outstanding Bolognese.


Day 3: The North Fork Road and Missoula

No need to wake up at an unholy hour today. In fact, take a little extra time for caffeine and carbs at the Wild Coffee Company on your way out of town toward the North Fork Road, the alternate entrance into West Glacier. Since this hour-long route is partially paved and perpetually dust-choked, its traffic is an infinitesimal compared to the Going-to-the-Sun. That solitude is the reward, especially in the off-season. The most people you’ll see is at the tiny, solar-powered town of Polebridge, a few miles from the Canadian border. Collect snacks (huckleberry bear claw) and souvenirs (a vintage Glacier map, an unknown Montana novelist’s paperback) from Polebridge Mercantile, then drive the final rickety six miles to the campground above Bowman Lake. It’s a short walk through the woods to the lake, a glassy expanse that reflects the surrounding forest and mountains like a mirror.

Missoula, Clark Fork River
Emma Smith on Unsplash

Compared to Avalanche and McDonald, Bowman is way less on-the-radar, so chances are you won’t have to share the sublime setting with too many people. A low-impact trail follows the west shore of the finger-shaped lake, or you can just relax or swim if the season is right; the water here is some of the warmest in Glacier (which means still pretty frigid).

Middle Fork Flathead River in Glacier National Park

You’ll get plenty wet at the next stop, Glacier Guides and Montana Raft, just outside the park. The whitewater on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River is good May through September, with the Class III rapids (names include Bonecrusher and Pinball) at their most violent and thrilling in June. The afternoon adventure will wrap around 3, plenty of time to dry off and make the two-hour trip directly south to Missoula in time for celebratory beers at Imagine Nation, a five-year-old IPA specialist (though don’t sleep on their sours).

Check into the new Residence Inn Missoula Downtown, the nicest Residence Inn you’re likely to ever overnight in. The hotel anchors the historic reborn Missoula Mercantile, which also houses wicked curries at Zoo Thailand quite possibly the coolest hotel gift shop, the Montana Scene. Stock up on the softest sweatshirts, knit beanies, state-themed camp mugs, and candles inspired by Glacier’s ecosystem.


Day 4: Paws Up

No doubt visiting Glacier is a workout, so consider Day Four your cool-down. Switch out your rental car at the Missoula airport for a complimentary Lexus NX crossover from The Resort at Paws Up, the luxury ranch surrounded by 37,000 acres of wilderness. Located in Greenough, about 45 minutes due east, Paws Up specializes in a bespoke mix of boot-scootin’ frontier adventure and straight-up pampering. Couples, go for the glamping tents with hammered copper tubs and four-poster beds. Families, the huge Wilderness Homes are unbeatable, with every carefully considered piece of furniture, fabric, and art reflecting the Montana aesthetic. The wood porches have rocking chairs and hot tubs, and the beds are like sleeping on marshmallows.


Jacob Stone on Unsplash

You could just hole up in these digs and order all-inclusive room service from the resort’s smartphone app, but the activities menu at Paws Up is just bananas. Join an ATV convoy through the sagebrush, waving to the resident bison herd as you tear past. Rip across icy, pine-lined Salmon Lake on wave runners at Paws Up’s private Island Lodge. Skeet shooting. Horseback riding. Fly fishing. Just to name a few, and that doesn’t even count the things you cando off-property, like driving up through the dense Lubrecht Forest, where you’ll encounter caved-in mines; the abandoned Sand Park Cemetery, eternal home for six souls (that we know of); and Garnet Ghost Town, a surprisingly big, remarkably well preserved village from the mining boom days that gave Montana its Treasure State nickname. It’s all historically fascinating/damn spooky.

Garnet is Montana ghost town
Garnet is Montana’s most intact ghost town. It was a thriving mining camp during the late 1800s. Shutterstock

Back at Paws Up, the culinary programming is as diverse as the activities. Dinners are events in their own right, with different concepts going down each night. The best is the Chuck Wagon, a rollicking barbecue by the tented camps with live music, lawn games, fire pits, massive tomahawk steaks sizzling over coals, and fruit cobblers scooped from hubcap-sized casseroles. Aside from the fires and the spotlight on the guitarist plucking away at a Beatles compilation, there is no artificial light. The sun goes down, and the endless black sky swallows up the campsite, leaving just you and the constellations glittering hard in the absence of light pollution, a memory that’ll stick with you on the long way home.


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