Northwestern Montana just doesn’t get the credit it deserves. When most tourists ponder Big Sky Country, they think of big lakes, outback hunting and skiing at Big Sky Resort. Truth is, all of those things are most definitely found in the Treasure State, but there’s a slice of this place that manages to package a raft of winter sporting activities with a slice of natural beauty that’ll burn a collection of lasting memories into your brain.
The place is Whitefish, Montana, and the vibe is simply unforgettable. Sitting just an hour south of British Columbia and light years away from that nuisance known as “hustle and / or bustle,” this cozy town of 5,000 or so acts as a perfect base for your idyllic winter getaway. Most folks head to a ski town to hit a few good runs, a few decent bars and a few overpriced merchandise stores. But if you’re flying into FCA this winter, I’d recommend bringing an entirely different set of expectations. Read on to find out why.
%Gallery-114796%No question about it: the star of Whitefish is Big Mountain, home to Whitefish Mountain Resort (and this rediculous mansion situated near lift 3). Unlike the vast majority of ski towns in the U.S., this town was actually a thriving place prior to 1947, the year it was turned into a ski destination. That simple fact has led to locals being almost universally emphatic about its existence — during a quick jaunt to Moose’s Saloon in downtown Kalispell, I was greeted by three residents who could tell by my garb that I’d been on the hill earlier. “How were the conditions up there today? Good I hope!” That’s the kind of attitude that permeates through the greater Whitefish region, and it makes the entire place remarkably hospitable to outsiders like myself.
I spent a couple of solid days at Whitefish Mountain Resort, and it’s definitely the gem of the northwest. Lift lines were practically nonexistent, conditions were stellar, powder was abundant, and even the amenities onsite were downright impressive. The 3.3-mile Hellride is just the tip of the iceberg; unlike many mountains, riders can soar down both sides of Big Mountain, giving you a nearly endless array of trails to choose from. Even advanced skiiers and snowboarders could spend a solid week here and barely have time to test out all of the routes.
Whitefish has also done a commendable job in making sure there’s plenty to do all day; you’ll find top-notch eateries at both the Village and the Base Lodge (Ed & Mully’s had some of the best resort grub these chompers have ever sunk into), as well as numerous shops (with fair pricing!), a gaggle of lodging options and a view to die for. Oh, and did we mention that a single day lift ticket ($64) is 21 percent cheaper here than at Big Sky ($81)? It is.
If you’ve managed to place an undue burden on your knees and twist your back in ways they should never be twisted, there’s a perfect midweek escape just a half-hour away. And it’s one that’ll require a shockingly small amount of physical exertion to enjoy. The destination is Glacier National Park, and a ride through in the winter is certainly an ideal way to find R&R during a otherwise revved-up week of vacation. Glacier just recently celebrated its 100th birthday, and she’s as gorgeous as ever at 101. Only ~12.5 miles of roadways are cleared during the winter season, but it’s enough.
Crowds are unheard of when visiting this beaut in the off-season — in fact, I only spotted three other humans during an entire afternoon there last week. I’ve always been a huge proponent of visiting National Parks in the off-season, and the images below capture my explanation of ‘why’ perfectly. Guests can cruise the entire length of Lake McDonald (the largest in the park), and there are numerous opportunities to pull off and take a stroll down to the shoreline. If you catch it on a particularly foggy day, you’ll be hard pressed to believe you’re not somewhere in Iceland.
If faced with good visibility, and one more extreme itch to scratch, I’d recommend making a beeline to Olney, MT. 20 or so minutes up Highway 93 North puts you at Winter Wonderland Sports, otherwise known as The Time of Your Life. These folks have a vast network of snowmobile trails right in their backyard, and at just $135 for the day, there’s hardly a better way to get your adrenaline boosted to near-unhealthy levels. The trails here are well maintained and chock full of astounding views — it’s an argonaut’s paradise, doused in untouched powder and surrounded by peaks and lakes that have been immune to commercialization. Wondering what kind of universe exists atop a mountain in the backcoutry of northwestern Montana? Have a gander below.
For snow-loving adventurists, you’ve got too many options to count. But if you’re looking for a delicate mix of serenity and insanity, Whitefish is one of the few places that really nails it. Toss in a community’s worth of friendly locals, too many stellar eateries to count (Piggyback Barbeque gets a special nod, though) and world-class skiing, and you’ve finally got a reason to embrace Old Man Winter. If you find yourself here in Whitefish or the surrounding area, check out a few recommended day trips that I’ve compiled below…
- Skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort
- Cruising through Glacier National Park in the winter
- Shopping and dining in downtown Whitefish, MT
- Snowmobiling in northwestern Montana
- Road Trip around Glacier National Park and the Canadian Rockies
[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]