Flathead Valley Family

Nurture Through Nature

The Flathead Valley is home to a suite of educational programs, camps, and outdoor activities that help connect kids with nature

By Tristan Scott
Columbia Falls’ family fishing pond in River’s Edge Park. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead Valley is home to a trove of educational programs, camps, and outdoor opportunities spanning all four seasons, engineered to help connect kids with nature through structured activities laced with life lessons and exercise. From multi-week overnight options to day trips to the local fishing pond, youth-only hunts and walks in the park, your family won’t want to miss out on the adventure with these opportunities to get your kids outside. 

Camps and Outdoor Programs

Several nonprofit outdoor education organizations have established themselves as experts at transforming northwest Montana’s wooded expanses into nature’s classrooms. Meanwhile, state wildlife and land management officials understand that imbuing a child with an appreciation of hunting and fishing at an early age can instill an enduring conservation ethos that will help preserve the Treasure State’s prized natural resources for generations to come. 

There are so many options, in fact, that families can often get overwhelmed and lose track of when and how to register. To help navigate the outdoor-learning landscape, here’s a selection of camps, classes and education opportunities to get your kids out the door and into nature.

Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center

Brett Holmquist used to be a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Bigfork Elementary School before he shifted his educational focus from the classroom to the woods. 

With obesity rates rising in Montana and nationwide, and kids getting diagnosed with an increasing number of maladies, Holmquist and his wife started the Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center, which the Montana Environmental Education Association has named “Business of the Year.” 

In an age when most kids are plugged in, nature gets tuned out, and the learning center’s motto is: “Connecting people with nature, community and self.” Now in its 20th year, the community-based nonprofit has done just that, serving over 10,000 local youth while providing outdoor programs for area schools through funding from the Whitefish Community Foundation’s Great Fish Community Challenge, as well as contributions from local donors. The organization offers a fee structure designed to make the programs accessible to families and schools from all income levels. 

In addition to its summer camp programming, Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center offers numerous day camps, classes and workshops in Columbia Falls and Kalispell. Courtesy photo

This summer, Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center will be offering several day camps in Columbia Falls and Kalispell. 

Summer program registration opened on Feb. 1. Call (406) 260-8620 for information or visit the website at www.ravenwoodolc.org for details on registration, pricing levels, income-based scholarship discounts and other Ravenwood programs.

In Columbia Falls, there will be three sessions of Ravenwood’s usual multiple weekday camps as well as two new, themed single-week day camp programs in partnership with F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company at their Trumbull Canyon Camp. In Kalispell, Ravenwood will host one session of its popular Wilderness Kids Club.

Glacier Institute

Longtime students of the outdoors already understand why the Flathead Valley ranks so high in the geographic canon of Mother Nature’s most influential works, but teachers on a mission to reach a whole new freshman class are celebrating the strides the Glacier Institute has taken in recent years to spread the gospel of nature-based learning.

Founded in 1983, the Glacier Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Columbia Falls and is the official education partner of Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest, with a mission to strengthen connections to the natural world through outdoor education. Since its inception, more than 32,000 youth have taken part in programs, including educational guided day hikes, field courses, camps, and field trips.

Most recently, its “Restoration Big Creek” campaign has been gaining steam to secure the future of the organization and its programs by renovating the Big Creek Outdoor Education Center, a historic forest ranger station that is the home base for the institute’s camps and courses for youth and local schools.

Each year, over 1,500 children participate in the Glacier Institute’s courses, ranging from animal tracking and orienteering to fly fishing and snow science. Most of these youth programs take place at the Big Creek Outdoor Education Center, located up the North Fork of the Flathead River. 

This summer, the organization is offering a slate of youth summer camps in and around Glacier National Park, as well as guided hikes, private tours and programs for the entire family. For detailed programming information and pricing, as well as to learn more about the Youth Scholarship Application, visit glacierinstitute.org.

Whitefish Legacy Partners

The Whitefish Trail serves as a portal to bring people outdoors and provide the community a connection to the natural lands surrounding Whitefish. The nonprofit Whitefish Legacy Partners that facilitates development of the trail system offers a variety of natural interpretive programs and outdoor recreation activities for kids, including free youth programs, guided hikes, an online learning library, all of which is geared toward bringing students and nature together while increasing awareness of the natural world. 

“The importance of children spending time in nature cannot be over-emphasized — not only does it lead to positive impacts on health and well-being, it also greatly increases the development of lifelong environmental awareness,” according to WLP’s programs director.

Organized programs reach locals, visitors, and youth through school field trips, winter and summer guided hikes, youth-specific activities, an adult speaker series and trail fitness programs. Programs based on the Whitefish Trail provide a way for the community to learn about and explore the open lands surrounding Whitefish, and be a part of a conservation and recreation legacy for years to come.

For a calendar of events and program details, as well as opportunities to support the organization, visit whitefishlegacy.org/education-programs.

Go Fish

Area ponds provide a great place to introduce children to fishing. A few great kid-friendly spots in the Flathead are the Pine Grove Pond off Rose Crossing, Shady Lane Pond near the Old Steel Bridge in Kalispell, and the Dry Bridge Slough south of the Conrad Mansion, which is stocked with rainbow trout. You can also take them to the Creston Fish Hatchery to learn about fish and conservation where they can observe fish in different life stages in the large tanks. There is also an interactive nature trail on site that is open to the public.

Learn more about kids’ fishing opportunities at the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) website at https://fwp.mt.gov/fish/kids.

FWP’s Region 1 headquarters in Kalispell also offers fishing rods and life jackets for families who need to borrow gear for free. Families can inquire by calling the FWP office at (406) 752-5501.

Happy Hunting

Hunting has been a Montana tradition since before it was even a state, and some of the first laws enacted after the territory became a state in 1889 were regulations to protect big game populations for future generations — and hunting seasons. Since the 1950s, the state has required new hunters to take hunter education courses that teach ethics, regulations and basic skills for venturing into the wilderness, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Regional Information and Education Program Manager Dillon Tabish. The courses are typically held for a few hours every night for one to two weeks. Nearly all are led by volunteers.

Apprentice Hunter Program

The Apprentice Hunter program allows anyone 10 or older to hunt for up to two years without completing a hunter education course. Certain restrictions apply, and anyone certified as an apprentice must be accompanied by a certified mentor. 

A Fish, Wildlife and Parks hunter education course at the Spring Brook Ranch in Kalispell. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Youth Waterfowl and Pheasant Weekend

Montana’s young hunters will have a special treat the weekend of the youth waterfowl and pheasant special seasons in September. Licensed hunters, 15 and under, will be able to hunt ducks, mergansers, geese, coots and pheasants statewide on these two days.

Youth Deer-Only Hunt

A youth hunt for deer limited to youngsters between the ages of 10–15 is held each October. These dates typically coincide with Montana’s annual two-day teachers’ convention, which are no-school days for most public school students.

To learn more about youth hunting education and courses visit https://fwp.mt.gov/hunt/youth.

Parks and Places

The valley’s three main communities all have parks and recreation departments, so check their websites details about summer programing. Head up to Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain and visit the U.S. Forest Service’s Summit Nature Center. Lone Pine State Park in Kalispell frequently hosts children’s activities and interpretive programs, and Wild Horse Island State Park offers visitors a chance to enjoy world-class wildlife viewing opportunities (although they’ll need a boat to access the island). And Glacier National Park is full of interpretive destinations for the entire family.

The annual Lone Pine Shoot. Beacon file photo

Other family friendly state parks or FWP sites include Somers Beach State Park, which is perfect for a walk on the beach, while expert fishers call Pine Grove Pond the best family fishing spot in the state. Les Mason State Park on the outskirts of Whitefish is a watery oasis on hot summer’s days, while River’s Edge Park in Columbia Falls is a city park that FWP stocks with westslope cutthroat trout.

Learn more about family friendly education programs and events at the visitor center or on the trails: https://fwp.mt.gov/stateparks/lone-pine.

National Bison Range

More than 30 million bison used to roam across the plains of North America, but a combination of factors, led by commercial hunting and incentivized slaughter, dropped the wild population to fewer than 100 by the end of the 19th century. Multiple recovery efforts over the last hundred years have brought about a resurgence of America’s federally designated national mammal.

Today, the bison population is home to a fluctuating menagerie of 300-500 animals, roaming the range alongside elk, whitetail and mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, coyotes and more than 200 species of birds. 

In December 2020, a two-year transition period began to transfer management of the bison range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, allowing the tribes to lead conservation efforts on the range for the first time ever. 

The entrance to the Bison Range is at Moiese, just off U.S. Highway 93. Stop at the visitor center, open May through October, where there are numerous exhibits covering the natural history and conservation of bison as well as Mission Valley history, and knowledgeable staff to answer questions and offer current information.

Even when the visitor center is closed, two scenic dirt roads, the 14-mile looped Prairie Drive and the shorter West Loop, can be driven year-round. From May through October, the 20-mile one-way Red Sleep Mountain Drive takes visitors through the heart of the range and to the top of Red Sleep Mountain. 


Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks offers numerous family friendly camping options, including on Flathead Lake. Reserve spots three months in advance as well as limited first-come, first-serve opportunities: https://fwp.mt.gov/stateparks.

Pick up Flathead Valley Family magazine on stands across the valley or read it in digital form here.