Montana Road Trip: The Backbone of the Rockies

The centerpiece of this approximately 265-mile road trip is Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first park of its kind in the world. Created in 1932, the park spans the United States-Canada border and includes Montana’s Glacier National Park and Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park. In Glacier, travel the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road over the Continental Divide. Take a ranger-led tour to learn how climate change is impacting the park’s namesake glaciers, and see the rapidly retreating masses of snow and ice before they disappear. Outside the park, dine in mom-and-pop cafes in Kalispell and Whitefish, and raft or fish the area’s wild waters. Close each day with an authentic Montana experience such as chowing down on a chuck wagon supper or sleeping in a restored railroad car.

Kalispell > U.S. 93 > Whitefish > MT-40 > U.S. 2E > Glacier Route 1/Going-to-the-Sun Road > St. Mary > U.S. 89 toward Babb > Many Glacier Road to Many Glacier > backtrack on Many Glacier Road to U.S. 89 and back to St. Mary > MT-49 > 2 Medicine Road to Two Medicine Lake > backtrack to MT-49 > East Glacier > U.S. 2W > MT-206 > MT-35 > Kalispell.

Note: Portions of roads may be closed due to snow or ice; always check road conditions before taking this road trip.

Glacier Park International Airport

Inside Tip: Though there is a transportation system available from July 1 to September 7 in Glacier National Park, rent a car to be able to cover this entire road trip.

Glacier National Park is called the Crown of the Continent, and it certainly lives up to the regal billing. The park, which requires an entrance fee of $25 per car in summer, covers 1,583 square miles, straddling the Continental Divide. The most scenic part of this road trip is Going-to-the-Sun Road, a winding route through the heart of the park, including 6,646-foot Logan Pass. Start the drive by stopping at the Apgar Visitor Center at the west entrance. Ask about what to do, road conditions, and special ranger-led programs. Inside Tip: Consider a trip to Glacier National Park in the early fall, when the gaggle of tourists are mostly gone and the larches are turning gold and dropping their needles. Note: Going-to-the-Sun Road is scheduled to partially close for the winter on September 21, 2015, cutting off the eastern side of this road trip route.

Start in Kalispell, a city of about 20,000 people with a small-town feel. Spend time visiting local cultural attractions, including the Hockaday Museum of Art and the Conrad Mansion, which gives tours every hour (closed Mondays).

For photographers, the best way to ensure you'll capture images of Montana's wildlife is a visit to Triple "D" Game Farm. Here you can see and photograph wolves, grizzly bears, red foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions, among other animals.

Check out Lone Pine State Park for dramatic overlooks of Kalispell, the Flathead River and Flathead Lake, and the Swan Mountain range.

Featuring some 700 miles of trails ranging from easy to very challenging, Glacier National Park is heaven for hikers. Choose a route that matches your fitness ability and interests. For alpine views and possible wildlife sightings, follow the Highline Trail. The Iceberg Lake Trail is an intermediate route named for its payoff view: a teal-blue lake that holds small icebergs throughout most of the summer. Another visitor favorite is the Avalanche Lake Trail, a fairly easy hike that winds through old-growth cedar-hemlock trees that make up what's considered Glacier's rain forest. Inside Tip: Although the water in the park is very clear, the park service does not recommend that you drink water straight out of the source. Bring a water filter. Also, take along bear spray just to be safe.

To get the most out of a trip to Glacier, consider hiring a guide to the park's outdoor wonders. Glacier Guides and Montana Raft Company in West Glacier has a 12-room lodge and offers hiking, biking, backpacking, rafting, and fishing day trips. Glacier Raft Company in West Glacier is the only company in Montana that has a permit to raft and fish in the Great Bear Wilderness. The Glacier Institute offers the “story behind the scenery” through on-demand Personalized Educational Outings with a private guide and transportation to park destinations like Logan Pass, Avalanche Lake, Grinnell Glacier, Firebrand Pass, and Huckleberry Fire Lookout.

In Whitefish, State of Mind Fishing Charters and Stumptown Anglers guide trips to catch fish like lake trout (mackinaw) and native westslope cutthroat trout. Inside Tip: Try to visit during the “golden three weeks” in spring (usually June) when the snowmelt runoff makes the water muddy; the fish are hungry but don’t get spooked because they can’t see the anglers above.

Two must-sees on this road trip, both on the eastern side of the park, are Many Glacier, where you can view how ancient glaciers shaped the landscape, and Two Medicine, which has become an off-the-beaten-path option for most visitors. Each area offers hiking, boat tours and rentals, road tours with concessionaires, and campgrounds.

The Whitefish area offers lodgings both grand and simple. On the grand side is the Lodge at Whitefish Lake, with its massive façade facing the lake and docks. The much smaller Good Medicine Lodge is a cedar-log building with a Western motif inspired by Native American beliefs and practices. For “Montana-sized” breakfasts (try the huckleberry buttermilk pancakes or chorizo quiche) and wooded views, stay at Hidden Moose Lodge. Designed to celebrate the state’s rugged Big Sky spirit, the rustic, yet luxurious, log lodge features a number of Montana-made elements including a 20-foot-high river rock fireplace in the vaulted Great Room.

‪The Kalispell Grand Hotel‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ is more like a big bed-and-breakfast than a grand city hotel. The continental breakfast menu includes home-baked chocolate-raspberry or chocolate-apricot friendship bread, sour cream coffee cake, and potato, egg, and cheese quiche.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

West Glacier is the gateway to the park. Before exploring it, spend a night at the Belton Chalet, the first chalet built for Glacier National Park (in 1910, the same year the park was created). Inside Tip: If you're traveling as a family, reserve the Adobe House, the newest addition to the property, which features authentic Mexican bricks, a wraparound porch, a fire pit, and more.

Two companies dominate lodgings in and near the park. Glacier National Park Lodges/Xanterra Parks and Resorts operates such properties as the Village Inn at Apgar, where all the rooms have lake views; hundred-year-old 
Lake McDonald Lodge; and Many Glacier Hotel, which celebrates its centennial in 2015 but which will be partially closed for renovation in 2016 before fully reopening in 2017. Glacier Park, Inc. is the other major player in the park, featuring lodgings such as Apgar Village Lodge, West Glacier Motel, Motel Lake McDonald, Glacier Park Lodge, and St. Mary Lodge.

Once you travel Going-to-the-Sun Road, you find yourself on the eastern side of Glacier National Park with several lodging options available. If you continue on Hwy 2 around the southern edge of the park, you'll find the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. The decor celebrates the inn's railroad heritage, with nine real locomotives and train cars retrofitted to sleep visitors.

The most entertaining dining experience in Kalispell is the Western Barbecue Dinner Ride at Artemis Acres Paint Horse Guest Ranch. Guests ride in a chuck wagon or go on horseback to an alpine meadow in the wilderness, where they dine on flat iron steak, chicken, salmon, and strong cowboy coffee cooked in a big pot from a chuck wagon. Meals are cooked on a 19-foot-long homemade grill, including a part welded from 180 horseshoes. Inside Tip: BYOB for dinner.

Another Kalispell favorite is Norm's News Soda Fountain and Candy Shop, an old-fashioned soda fountain serving burgers and ice-cream treats such as handmade malts and sodas. It also has over 800 different varieties of candy treats and over a thousand magazine titles.

Chow down in Whitefish at the mom-and-pop Amazing Crêpes and Catering; the Tupelo Grille, which specializes in Cajun and southern cuisine, fresh seafood, steaks, and pasta; Loula’s, located in a historic Masonic Temple that turns a hundred years old in 2015; Latitude 48, a bistro serving seasonal Mediterranean fare; and the ornate Whitefish Lake Restaurant, located at the Whitefish Lake Golf Club.

On the western end of the park, try the Base Camp Café in Columbia Falls, serving hearty, fill-up-for-a-hike breakfasts and lunches, or Belton Chalet in West Glacier for some Belton Signature Popcorn (featuring Rouge Creamery gorgonzola, candied bacon, and beer-glazed nuts) in the taproom or Montana Meatloaf (bison meatloaf wrapped in hickory-smoked bacon) in the dining room.

St. Mary is a village at the east end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. After the drive, stop at Johnson’s of St. Mary, which serves family-style breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in a rustic atmosphere; the Park Café, which specializes in great pies (visitors are invited to come experience the “power of pie”); and the Snowgoose Grill, featuring an appetizer of grilled Montana-raised elk sausage, which is served with Tillamook sharp cheddar and a mixed-berry preserve.

East Glacier is the nexus of activity on the eastern side of the park. Luna’s is in a log cabin built in the sixties and serves big portions for hungry hikers; a visitor favorite is the huckleberry pie (the chef makes about 1,400 in a five-month season, sometimes 22 per day). Brownie’s Hostel and Bakery, Montana’s only Hostelling International member hostel, is a bakery and deli serving fresh cinnamon rolls and home-baked bread.

In Essex, have an evening meal at the Dining Car at the Izaak Walton Inn. Menu items include lamb lollipops with a watercress pesto, and mango chili–glazed sockeye salmon with wild rice and quinoa pilaf—and, of course, Montana's ubiquitous huckleberry cobbler, made with locally sourced huckleberries.

Montana and beer just seem to go together, and there are plenty of craft breweries and taprooms to choose from on this route. Kalispell Brewing Company operates a taproom in Kalispell that specializes in German-style lagers and northwest-inspired ales (no food is sold, but feel free to bring in your own). Inside Tip: Hikers who like to imbibe along the way can take out a 64-ounce growler or 32-ounce “grunt” filled with their favorite brew. In Whitefish, Bonsai Brewing Project operates a beer garden, and Great Northern Brewing Company holds a Hop Swap, for which locals are invited to trade in their locally sourced hops for beer.

Whitefish Pottery offers guided tours and demonstrations at its studios near Whitefish. The highlight of the year is the firing of the largest anagama (wood-fired, sloping kiln built on a hill) in the state. Only fired once annually, it demonstrates the oldest way of firing pottery—with wood—and requires five days to load, five days to fire (working 24/7), and a week to cool down before unloading.

To gear up for adventure and dress for the west, head to locally owned Sportsman and Ski Haus, with stores in both Kalispell and Whitefish, for seasonal sporting goods, repairs, rentals, and demonstrations. Western Outdoor in Kalispell boasts more than 3,000 pairs of boots and more than 2,000 cowboy and casual hats in their stock.

The Shops at Station 8, housed in an old Great Northern Railroad Station in Columbia Falls, specializes in vintage goods, including Montana sapphires, handmade candles, barn-wood shelving, and copper keepsake ornaments.

The place to buy, or simply look at, museum-quality Native American art and artifacts is the Montana Fur Trading Company in Martin City. See beadwork, jewelry, furs, and other goods in multiple themed rooms.

Whitefish Gallery Nights take place the first Thursday of each month from spring through fall, when about a dozen local galleries in Whitefish open their doors to show off new talent. Hit the galleries, which open at 6 p.m., for exhibitions and receptions (each participating gallery is identified with an “Art Spot” flag outside, and there are brochures with maps at each one).

The Great Northwest Oktoberfest covers two weekends of fun in September and October. The event blends the best of Old Germany and the Wild West, bringing some of the greatest polka and oompah bands in the U.S. and Canada to the Oktoberfest Bigtop in Whitefish Depot Park. Beer-fueled contests include waitress races, log sawing, stein holding, and keg hurling.

Glacier has a sophisticated transportation system throughout the park, which also serves as a way to tour the area. The ubiquitous Red Buses have canvas tops that roll back, giving riders unobstructed views of the Glacier scenery while they listen to commentary by tour drivers. Wooden boats ply the park’s bigger lakes. For a Native American take on the history, culture, and spirituality of Glacier—which the Blackfeet call the Backbone of the World—go with Sun Tours, a Native American-owned national park concessioner.

Whitefish Mountain Resort operates in both winter and summer, giving visitors to the summit of its mountain views of the peaks of Glacier National Park, the entire Flathead Valley, and most of Whitefish Lake, the Cabinet Mountains, the Whitefish Range, the Swan Range, the Mission Mountains, and the Canadian Rockies. In winter, ride the lifts to a ski area that offers an average of more than an acre per person of space. In summer, a scenic lift takes guests up just for the view.

For a unique side trip, head north from Columbia Falls on Outside North Fork Road/MT-486 for approximately 50 miles round-trip to the relatively less crowded North Fork area, an off-the-grid location with no pavement, power, or mobile phone service. The town of Polebridge boasts the historic Polebridge Mercantile, which houses a bakery specializing in huckleberry bear claws. Best Bet: The Polebridge Mercantile is the starting and ending point of the annual Le Grizz 50-mile ultramarathon on the second Saturday of October.

It’s an easy 25-mile round-trip detour on the eastern side of the park from Kiowa onto U.S. 89 to Browning, then back on U.S. 2 to East Glacier. The highlight in Browning is the Museum of the Plains Indian. Best Bet: Head for the back, where Native American artists demonstrate authentic crafts, including weaving with porcupine quills, with their works for sale.

Pick up Post Cards From Glacier National Park: A Vintage Post Card Book (Farcountry Press, 2006), a collection of 23 postcards offering views of the park’s history. Keep them as a souvenir or pull them out and snail mail them.

The Winter Carnival and World Ski Joring Championships in Whitefish in January combines rodeo and snow. The premiere event is the ski-joring championship, during which entrants on skis are pulled around a closed snow course by horses and mules.

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For those who want a gentler, quieter winter activity, take a two-hour ranger-led snowshoe trek from Apgar Visitor Center through parts of the park.

Gathering wild huckleberries is a Montana summer pastime, but the way to make sure you can savor the flavor is by ordering huckleberry pie at the Huckleberry Patch restaurant in Hungry Horse.

On MT-2, two and a half miles southeast of Walton Ranger Station outside Glacier National Park, turn off at the exit for the Goat Lick. Park and walk to a platform from which you may be able to see mountain goats and other animals on a riverbank, there to lick the mineral-rich cliffs.

Day One: Kalispell, Whitefish (Detour to North Fork)

Day Two: Kalispell, Whitefish to Glacier National Park

Day Three: Glacier National Park

Day Four: East Glacier to Kalispell, Whitefish (Detour to Browning)

Day Five: Kalispell, Whitefish

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