Gorgeous vistas, adorable towns, plentiful activities, and delicious food: This is Montana’s Glacier Country, situated in and around Glacier National Park. It’s perfect for a weekend getaway — although you may find yourself wanting to stay longer!
This was my first trip to Montana, and I admit that I expected lots of country music, cowboy hats, wide, open spaces, and all the steak I could eat. When I arrived, I instead found folk music and art, breathtaking mountains, superb dining — and a surprising shortage of cowboy hats (though I did see my fair share of boots).
I was also delighted by the genuine warmth and welcome from the people I met. For all the finery available in Montana, no one really cares what you are wearing; the gorgeous scenery is stunning enough that, even when dining in a nice restaurant, your flannel shirt won’t raise an eyebrow.
Where to Stay
Your first order of business is choosing a base for your adventures. There are many places to stay in Glacier Country, and while some of them do close down in the winter due to impassable amounts of snow, many are open year-round.
In the artsy village of Whitefish, you can check into one of five gorgeous Craftsman-style Downtown Suites situated right along the main avenue of what has got to be Montana’s cutest town. Seriously, Whitefish is full of local art, indie shops, and a wonderful sense of community; you could spend an entire weekend here and go nowhere else in the state. There’s also the nearby Whitefish Mountain Resort, which is perfect for outdoor adventurers and ski lovers.
On the west side of Glacier National Park is the aptly name town of West Glacier, where you can stay in the cozy and well-appointed cabins at the Glacier Outdoor Center. They’ll sleep anywhere from six to 12 people, so they’re perfect for groups; the largest cabin even has a conference room on the first floor. For those who are traveling alone or as a couple, the nearby Belton Chalet offers comfortable rooms with authentic Arts & Crafts details as well as a spa and a truly superb restaurant.
To the east of the park is St. Mary Lodge & Resort, situated perfectly at the end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, with back porches and balconies overlooking a bubbling stream. If you’re looking for wildlife, this is a great part of Glacier Country to check out; we saw several black bears while touring the area and were informed that elk and moose are frequent visitors, too.
Train lovers will enjoy the Izaak Walton Inn, a historic whistlestop inn along the Great Northern Railroad. Located in Essex and surrounded by woods, it borders the southern edge of the park as well as the Great Bear Wilderness Area. Stay in the main building, or rent a train car that’s been transformed into a cabin.
What to Do
The most obvious place to look for recreation in the Glacier area is, of course, the park itself. At the very least, you should take a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which will give you some of the best views of the park.
With over 700 miles of trails, hikers will be at no loss for adventure. And never fear — there are trails for every ability level, from beginners to seasoned hikers. Our hike through Logan Pass to Hidden Lake Overlook with Corrie Holloway from Glacier Guides was full of rugged, beautiful country full of snow-capped mountains, windswept plains, and glistening lakes; it was one of the highlights of our trip. Horse lovers will be excited to know that Swan Mountain Outfitters offers horseback trail rides and overnight trips inside the park if you really want to get in there and explore.
Those who prefer the wet and wild will appreciate Glacier’s approximately 200 lakes and 1,500-plus miles of rivers and streams, all with stunningly clear water that shows off the area’s distinctive multicolored rocks. Rafts, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards are available for rent from Great Northern Glacier Park Raft, who also offer guided river tours. We had a blast kayaking on Lake McDonald, but we also loved the sheer beauty and peace of Bowman Lake.
For a truly unique perspective of the area, schedule a guided jeep tour with Blackfeet Outfitters. The tours, which are all led by Blackfeet guides, will take you off the beaten path (yes, that means off the road!) and over some of the 3.5 million acres of the Blackfeet Reservation, where your likelihood of spotting wildlife is high. Our tour included gorgeous views of Chief Mountain as well as a crash course in Blackfeet history and culture. For lunch, we were treated to traditional delicacies such as bison tongue, bison steaks with roasted vegetables, mint tea, and a cake with bullberry sauce that was to die for.
Just down the road from Whitefish, in Columbia Falls, you can get your zip on at Glacier ZipLines. Their two hour-long canopy tour will having you zipping from tree to tree, enjoying scenic views and a pump of adrenaline with the best zip line guides ever. Keep an eye out for yetis!
If you’re in the area May through September, be sure to stop by the Whitefish Farmers Market on Tuesdays. You’ll find live music, food trucks, and plenty of locally-produced goods and goodies.
Where to Eat
Glacier Country is surprisingly well-stocked when it comes to good food. Hunters of the huckleberry will be pleased to know that we counted over 30 foods and products featuring this wild-grown regional favorite, including — but certainly not limited to — ice cream, pancakes, pie, licorice, and popcorn.
Whitefish boasts an incredible array of cuisine, from sushi at Wasabi to local specialties at Cafe Kandahar. We enjoyed cocktails crafted from regionally-made spirits at Tupelo Grille before heading to a fabulous dinner at Latitude 48. If you’re a connoisseur of local beer, make sure you stop by The Great Northern Brewing Company for a sip of Wild Huckleberry Beer.
Those who prefer more casual fare will enjoy Basecamp Cafe in Columbia Falls as well as Glacier Highland Restaurant in West Glacier (I dare you to order a huckleberry float). If you want the biggest breakfast burrito I’ve ever seen, slide yourself up to a family-style table at Johnson’s Cafe in St. Mary.
Lovers of fine dining will swoon over the restaurants at the Izaak Walton Inn and the Belton Chalet, both of which feature exquisite menus created by incredible chefs — but expect Montana-sized portions, of course. The Cattle Baron Supper Club in Babb, near St. Mary’s Lodge, is a unique and rustic spot to grab a slab of steak or a bite of bison (I finally got my steak!).
Wherever you go, keep an eye out for locally roasted java from Montana Coffee Traders. Yes, there is huckleberry coffee, too.
There are two airports within easy driving distance of Glacier Country. Glacier Park International Airport is located on the west side in Kalispell, just down the road from Whitefish; it’s also the cutest little airport I’ve ever gone through. To the east is Great Falls International Airport in Great Falls.
For something a little different, take the train! Amtrak’s Empire Builder line stops at Whitefish, Essex (by the Izaak Walton Inn), Apgar in West Glacier, and East Glacier.
No matter how you get there or what you do, Glacier Country is waiting to amaze you. A weekend — or even a week — won’t be enough, and you’re sure to find yourself booking another trip soon.
The author received an all-expenses paid trip to Montana from Glacier Country Tourism. All opinions are the author’s own.
All photos courtesy of the author.