Sitting smack in the center of the valley, there is more to Kalispell than what you see from along U.S. Highway 93. As Northwest Montana’s largest city and the Flathead’s economic hub, Kalispell is undergoing rapid expansion, with national retail stores springing up in the north complemented by independent merchants in the historic downtown. New business ventures take root here, while farmers travel in for supplies and logging trucks rumble down Main Street. New homes creep west and north as the grand mansions of the lumber barons and early settlers perch on the east side, facing the Swan Range.
Thankfully, Kalispell (a Native word for “Prairie Above The Lake”) remains unpretentious and welcoming at its core. Don’t worry about dressing up. The soda jerk at Norm’s News won’t care, nor the staff at the Hockaday Museum of Art or the bicycle mechanics at Wheaton’s – the valley’s oldest store.
Wander among downtown’s historic buildings, then learn about that history at the Museum at Central School. Top it off with live music, a local yak burger and a Blackfoot IPA at Red’s Wines & Blues. This is as urban as the Flathead gets.
The Event at Rebecca Farm, a world-class equestrian triathlon, July 24-27
Arts in the Park, Arts and Entertainment Fair, July 25-27, Depot Park
Northwest Montana Fair, August 13-17, Flathead County Fairgrounds
Built in 1895, the Conrad Mansion Museum is an extraordinary example of how one of the wealthy founding families of the Flathead lived a century ago. The 26-room mansion underwent renovation and improvements this winter, and tours run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., on the hour, Tuesday through Sunday. Located on Woodland Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets East.
In a nondescript building at 42 First Avenue West, Blacktail Mountain Books has 50,000 hardcovers, paperbacks, audiobooks, comics and maps. Blacktail also buys and trades books, and many recent titles end up here shortly after release, with a few creases on the spine. Lose yourself in the stacks.
Situated on Main Street just south of the intersection of U.S. Highway 93 and U.S. Highway 2, Moose’s Saloon is a Flathead institution. Opened in 1957, Moose’s is a family friendly pizza joint that resembles the roughest of roadhouses. Shuffle through the sawdust and peanut shells on the floor, and order a pitcher and a pie.
Walking through downtown Whitefish in summer, one can’t help but look around and think, “Man, these people have it all figured out.” Folks whiz by on every kind of bicycle imaginable, from 1950s-era cruisers to carbon-frame racing bikes. Cars with kayaks and canoes strapped to the roof travel from river to lake. Everybody has a dog.
In short, Whitefish takes its recreation seriously. This city of more than 7,000 was a timber and railroad town that has grown into an outdoor destination, with Big Mountain, home of Whitefish Mountain Resort, rising above it all.
And, perhaps more than recreation, Whitefish is a town where it’s easy to indulge yourself. You can get a sushi roll or New York pizza by the slice here. Art galleries and pottery studios abound. And the Alpine Theatre Company brings some of the top actors in the country – all while keeping Whitefish a place with the thriving feel of a small town.
Compete, or just come out and support, racers July 12 in the Glacier Challenge, a six-leg relay race over 55 miles with biking, running and paddling. Competitive and recreational racers enter as individuals, partners and teams. Proceeds benefit the Flathead Youth Home. 406.755.4622 or 406.261.1831
Stretching from the City Beach to the Mountain Mall, Huckleberry Days is the arts festival that keeps kids in mind, with everything from a Bounce House to Karate demonstrations. Aug. 8-10. 406-862-3501
Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis directs and stars in “The Other Side of the Island,” a creative adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” with the Alpine Theatre Company. Aug. 26-Sept. 7. 406-862-SHOW
Take advantage of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s vertical offerings when it opens June 21. With mountain biking, hiking, huckleberry picking, the elevated nature tour, “Walk in the Trees,” a summer arts festival (July 19-20), and a Wine and Food Summit (Aug. 8-10), you shouldn’t have any problem staying busy.
Support the Flathead’s farmers, and get great deals on fresh, local food at the Whitefish Farmer’s Market. Every Thursday at the Pin & Cue Parking Lot beginning at 4 p.m., and downtown June through Sept. 25 at 5 p.m., pick up fresh pies, plants and crafts here too. 406-862-2043
If you feel like watching sports and gnawing on a basket of crispy, spicy buffalo wings, look no further than the Bulldog Saloon for cold beer and good bar food. 406-862-5636. If you’re up for some live music, head across the street to the Great Northern Bar and Grill. There’s always somebody playing. 406-862-2816
Once an industrial hub for timber and aluminum production, Columbia Falls has recast itself as the gateway to Glacier National Park, while remaining a quiet, family-oriented community.
While C-Falls is growing, with a population under 5,000, it’s still a place where most folks strolling down Nucleus Avenue greet each other by name. Downtown is becoming more vibrant every year, with several bars, restaurants and antique stores and one of the last drive-in movie theaters in the state.
Columbia Falls is an ideal place to stock up on supplies before heading out on trips to Glacier Park or out to the Hungry Horse Reservoir. For a less-crowded approach, drive north on County Road 486, also called the North Fork Road, along Glacier Park’s western boundary, and explore it via the Camas Creek entrance. The road isn’t paved for the last nine miles, so bring a spare tire. But with views this magnificent, it’s worth risking a flat.
Heritage Days is the main summer festival in C-Falls, running from July 25-27. Get physical July 26 when downtown’s streets close for a three-on-three basketball tournament (406-892-0681 for info) and the “Boogie to the Bank” 5K and 10K race (406-751-4750 for info).
The weekend also features a golf tournament, parade, barbecues, fund-raiser auctions and arts and crafts vendors.
Every Thursday evening from June 19-August 7 the Lions Club sponsors outdoor concerts at Marantette Park.
If you’re not feeling brave enough to shoot the rapids on the Middle Fork, maybe a day at Big Sky Waterslide is more your speed. Located one mile east of C-Falls at the junction of highways 2 and 206, the park features water slides for all age levels, mini golf, a river ride, an arcade and more. 406-892-5025
Check out the popular Back Room of the Nite Owl on U.S. Highway 2. But get there early, lines often stretch out the door for the generous portions of pork ribs (smoked, country, spare or baby back), fry bread and other specialties – perfect after a day in the park. 406-892-3131 or 892-9944
If you’re in the mood for country, head straight for the Blue Moon Grille. At the corner of Montana 40 and U.S. Highway 2. Several rodeo events are also scheduled there throughout the summer. Just make sure your boots are shined and you’re dressed for dancing. 406-892-3110
Bigfork in the summer time is booming. Situated where the white waters of the Swan River flow into Flathead Lake, this arts community boasts a year-round population of 1,400, a number that quadruples in summer months. During Bigfork’s epic July 4 celebrations, the village is one huge party.
There are an unbelievable amount of things to do here if you want to get out on the water, including kayaking, sailing and fishing. The Eagle Bend golf course is among the most difficult and beautiful in the nation. Electric Avenue is stacked with art galleries, antique dealers, booksellers, gourmet restaurants and bars. All this, and bowling too.
The village is dominated by the Bigfork Summer Playhouse, one of the finest repertory theaters in the Northwest – so it can be tough to get a seat at a restaurant before performances. But if you book your tickets to the shows well ahead of time and make reservations, you’ve got the perfect night all lined up.
The Riverbend Concert Series in Sliter Park runs from June 15-Aug. 17, every Sunday at 8 p.m. Bring a lawn chair, admission is $3 for adults and $1 for kids. 837-5888 or 837-4400
The Bigfork Museum of Art and History hosts a themed show featuring Montana’s alpine landscapes. Reception on July 11. 406-837-6927
Bigfork Festival of the Arts features over 125 arts and crafts booths, music, food and children’s activities. August 2-3. 406-837-5888
Several charter fishing services have reasonable rates to take groups out on the lake for full or half-days to catch Flathead’s monster lake trout. In the Bigfork area, check out A Able Fishing (406-257-5214), Flathead Lake Charters (406-837-3632) and Glacier Fishing Charters (406-892-2377).
Hike, bike, or horseback ride along the Swan River Trail. This gated and well-maintained gravel road runs a mellow two miles along the Swan River, affording views of kayakers running rapids below. It’s a flat and serene trail for hikers of all abilities, beginning at the top of the hill where Grand Avenue ends.
On a warm night, with a good bluegrass band playing, everyone flocks to the outdoor deck at the Garden Bar in Bigfork Village (406-837-9914). Then again, a sunset drink on the patio at The Raven in Woods Bay (406-837-2836), while overlooking the lake, is hard to beat. Try them both and you decide.
Located minutes south of Kalispell, the communities of Somers and Lakeside stretch along 10 miles of the northwest shore of Flathead Lake. With a combined population of only ¬¬about 2,200 residents, the West Shore is an escape from the hustle and bustle of the valley’s larger towns.
Despite its growing popularity, Somers hangs on to its origins as a main port on the lake and site of a major tie plant for the railroad. Tucked just off US Highway 93, in downtown Somers, the first general store, built in 1900, and other historic buildings are still in use by Sliters Lumber Company. Del’s Bar, a storied drinking hole, holds down the center of town with its combined bar and adult mini golf course and the adjacent Sip and Spin laundry.
In the summer, Blacktail Mountain, a local ski hill just above Lakeside, offers hiking and biking trails with scenic views of the lake and valley. In downtown Lakeside, after a long day on the lake, hungry boaters can enjoy drive-up service at The Docks, a restaurant where patrons can park their boats and eat dinner inside or on the patio. And in either town, public swimming accesses are a popular spot for a dip on a hot day.
The Somers-Lakeside 10th annual Cajun Street Dance Festival is the perfect small town bash. Enjoy several live bands and dancing in the streets of downtown Somers and the best Cajun food north of New Orleans. All proceeds benefit the fire department in Somers and Lakeside. Advanced tickets are available at Dels Bar in Somers, Sliters Hardware in Somers and Lakeside, and at Joe Blogs in Lakeside for $15.00. July 21.
The Lakeside Community Fair is a full community day of arts and crafts booths, baked goods, art auction, flea market and yard sale. July 19. (406) 844-3715
The Third Annual Big Sky Antique & Classic Boat Show takes place at the Waterside Resort in Lakeside. Boats will be on display from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday. A boat parade begins in Lakeside at 2 p.m. Sunday and travels up to Somers Bay. August 23-24. (406) 844-3715
Beginning in June, area residents and visitors can enjoy weekly sailboat races hosted by the North Flathead Yacht Club from the shores of Somers every Tuesday and Friday and most weekends. Weekday races start around 7:30, depending on the weather and the Somers Fish Hatchery provides a great view. The season culminates Aug 1-3, when the club hosts the Montana Cup Championships.
Hike, bike or even pick huckleberries on the Blacktail trails above Lakeside. These trails are popular cross-country skiing paths in the winter, but also provide excellent summer recreation with fantastic views of Flathead Lake. Take the road out of Lakeside toward Blacktail Ski Mountain or stop at Sliters Hardware downtown for Forest Service maps to find these routes.
Try the Tamarack Brewing Company in downtown Lakeside for dinner or drinks. A good atmosphere for families or singles, the pub-style fare is almost as good as their handcrafted beer. The creek-side patio is the perfect place to hang out on a nice day, while enjoying fish straight from the lake or a stout whiskey barrel porter.
Nestled between the southern shore of Flathead Lake and the Mission Range, the view from Polson is one of the most spectacular in the Northwest. This city of just under 5,000 is located in the Flathead Indian Reservation, and serves as both a tourism and an agricultural hub.
Opportunities to get out on the water abound, with epic rafting along the Flathead River below the Kerr Dam offering both rapids and calm, clear flows to get out and swim. Wild Horse Island, a 2,163-acre state park on Flathead Lake can be accessed via boat rentals or charter, available in Big Arm. True to its name, the park is teeming with wildlife.
Cherry orchards cluster along Highway 35 on the eastern side of the lake, and several bars and restaurants offer stunning lakeside seating. In July and August, the Port Polson Players offer rotating performances with everything from children’s theater to professional summer stock.
The most easygoing boat race you’ll ever compete in, the Chuckwagon BBQ and Fun Run, July 12, starts with a five card run around the lake that ends in a barbecue at the McCrumb Barn with auctions, music and dancing. 406-883-8251
Radio Waves Regatta, July 19-20, is a race between the insanely fast hydroplanes, high-powered boats that barely skim the surface of Flathead Lake. 406-883-5255
Cruisin by the Bay, Aug. 8-10, is one of the biggest classic car rallies in the Northwest with a carnival, free concert, shows and of course, lots of slow cruisin’. 406-675-8500
It’s impossible to describe everything at the Miracle of America Museum in just a few lines, but with everything from a military vehicle collection to a flying monkey from the “Wizard of Oz,” film, you’ve got to see it yourself. 406-883-6804
Tucked away on Third Avenue East, behind First Interstate Bank, the Old World Delicatessen offers authentic Greek and Italian food hard to find anywhere else, including olives, cured meats, cheeses and possibly the best espresso in the valley. 406-883-2245
Hit the Lake City Bakery & Eatery, where farmers and the occasional movie star mingle over a grilled cheese sandwich. 406-883-5667
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK/WEST GLACIER/CANYON
Heading east out of Columbia Falls on U.S. Highway 2 toward Glacier National Park, it’s clear you are approaching an international tourist destination by all the uniquely American roadside attractions that have sprouted up in the tiny communities of Martin City, Hungry Horse, Coram and West Glacier.
Stopping in these former trading posts while leaving or entering Glacier is a key part of any trip here, with dozens of rustic motels, camping and RV sites, and more huckleberry-related products available than you might have thought possible. Don’t leave without sampling a huckleberry milkshake and/or huckleberry pancakes. It will change your life.
And of course, there’s Glacier Park itself, which defies description in its diversity of wildlife, geology, and the sheer scope of natural beauty on display. Chances are pretty good Glacier Park drew you to this region to begin with, and you won’t be disappointed.
Pretty much every summer day in Glacier Park offers a chance to celebrate this wild and rugged landscape. From intense all-day hikes to one-hour wildflower walks, from boat trips to ranger led amphitheater programs, it’s best to hit the park’s Web site or talk to a ranger and plan the trip that suits you and your family best.
June 27 marks the 75th anniversary of Glacier Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. While the event in the park will only allow limited numbers to attend, the Belton Chalet, across from the park’s west entrance will be partying with a poetry reading and live music by the Belton Boys. 406-888-5000
If you like trains (railfanning, trainspotting, etc.), head east on U.S. Highway 2 to the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. It’s the ideal home base from which to snap the best photos of trains along Marias Pass. The Inn even offers maps of good vantage points. It’s a great place to spend the night as well. 406-888-5700
Completed in 1953, the Hungry Horse Dam is Montana’s highest, and the 11th largest dam in the U.S. Fourteen campsites surround the Hungry Horse Reservoir (406) 387-3800), and the dam itself offers guided tours on the hour, from mid-June through September. 406-387-5241
At the mouth of Badrock Canyon, the Montana Vortex and House of Mystery has giant signs that make it anything but “hidden,” but the oddity housed within this small tourist attraction is worth the price of admission, where strange magnetic forces distort perception. Bring a camera. 406-892-1210
Stop in for a cold one after a hot day in the park at the West Glacier Bar, (formerly known as Friedas.) Located just inside the gates of the west entrance, the bar has a nice porch where you can have a beer and watch the sun set over Glacier Park. (406) 888-9033
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