Montana’s glorious Glacier Country: the state’s northwestern corner abounds with fine resorts and delightful towns as well as watchable wildlife and postcard scenery

Montana’s glorious Glacier Country: the state’s northwestern corner abounds with fine resorts and delightful towns as well as watchable wildlife and postcard scenery

Ellen Clark

It’s easy to wax poetic when describing Montana’s Glacier Country, a land filled with stunning natural beauty. But majestic mountains, crystal waters, and lush forests aren’t all the area has to offer. While outdoor activities of every kind can be enjoyed in scenery that inspires adjective overdose, towns have gourmet restaurants, museums, art galleries, theaters, and pristine B&Bs.

Glacier National Park covers the northernmost boundary of the area. A rugged section of the northern Rockies, Glacier abounds with riveting vistas. The famous Going-to-the-Sun Road twists its way for 52 miles past spectacular overlooks, grazing mountain goats, and sparkling creeks. But the best way to see Glacier is to get out of the car and explore on foot. With over 700 miles of trails, there’s something for every inclination and ability.

Staying at one of the park’s historic lodges is a treat and each has its own distinctive personality. Glacier Park Lodge is the park’s oldest, with a towering lobby supported by gigantic lodge pole pine pillars and a nine-hole golf course. Many Glacier Lodge is a Swiss chalet-style building with spectacular views of Swiftcurrent Lake and craggy mountain peaks. Lake MacDonald Lodge is the smallest and most laid-back property with a rocking chair-filled back porch that overlooks Glacier’s largest lake.

On the outskirts of the park, the south, middle, and north forks of the Flathead River call to rafters and fishermen. Guides, with companies like Glacier Wilderness Guides and Montana Rafting, steer rafts filled with thrill-seekers over bubbling whitewater, past tranquil alpine scenery and casting fly fishermen in search of a record catch.

Whitefish is a little Western-style town tucked into the foot of the Rockies on the shore of Whitefish Lake. The broad main street is usually lined with pickup trucks and the covered sidewalks filled with a mixture of cowboy-booted locals and strolling tourists. Stores sell souvenirs made by local artists, and some artwork even spills out onto the sidewalk, like the almost life-sized moose that doubles as a chair.

Whitefish has a variety of restaurants, but for hearty breakfasts and lunches it’s hard to beat the Buffalo Cafe; there is usually a line. Dark, noisy, and decorated in early garage sale, the Great Northern Bar & Grill serves up man-sized helpings of cholesterol-loaded goodies like chili burgers and jalepeno-and-cheese omelets, all of which can be washed down with a local brew. The train stops in Whitefish at a historic depot, and golfers can play their hearts out on the area’s only 36-hole course.

Just a short ride away is Big Mountain Ski & Summer Resort. Winter skiing and snowboarding are replaced in the summer by hiking and mountain biking. The gondola ride to the peak provides a fabulous panorama anytime of the year and, in the summer, hardy souls choose to walk up the Danny On trail to the summit.

South of Whitefish, Kalispell is a bustling burg where the old meets the new. Modern shopping complexes rub elbows with small shops housed in older buildings. Accommodations run the gamut from national motel chains to bucolic bed-and-breakfasts, while restaurants serve everything from fast food to gourmet meals.

To get into the swing of Western living, stop by Western Outdoor, an enormous emporium on the main street that carries boots in every size from infants to size sixteens. And, if shopping causes you to work up a thirst, scoot next door to Norm’s News, where you can sip a malted at an authentic old-time soda fountain and listen to ’50s tunes pouring out of the jukebox.

The miles of glistening, rippling water south of Kalispell is Flathead Lake. The largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, it covers 188 square miles with 128 miles of shoreline. In the warmer months, the lake is filled with boats of every description from outboards to kayaks. The largest island on the lake is 2,163-acre Wild Horse Island, inhabited only by protected wildlife such as bighorn sheep, mule deer, bald eagles, and wild horses.

Located where the Swan River enters Flathead Lake, Bigfork has evolved over the past hundred years from a tough logging community into one of the most sophisticated small towns in the area. The picturesque main street is lined with art galleries and craft shops. The Bigfork Summer Playhouse, one of the best repertory theaters in the Northwest, has been producing Broadway musicals for the past 40 summers, while restaurants like La Provence serve superb meals on flower-filled patios.

At the south end of Flathead Lake, near the town of Polson, the Miracle of America Museum and Historic Village is like a garage sale aficionado’s dream gone wild. Eclectic and eccentric, this is one couple’s collection of stuff. Thousands of square feet are crammed full of everything from The Paul Bunyan, a 65-foot boat listed in the National Register, to moonshine stills, toys, cars, motorcycles, and even a jet attack bomber.

From all of this manufactured Americana, it’s a short drive to see some living remnants from our nation’s past. The National Bison Range was established in 1908 to protect the American bison. There are now 350 to 500 of these big, furry beasts ambling around this 19,000-acre grassland. There are two self-guided loop trails around the range. If you have a couple of hours, take the longer 19-mile, one-way Red Sleep Mountain Drive to see the most wildlife, including elk, deer, pronghorn and, occasionally, ever a black bear.

Glacier Country’s largest city is Missoula. A university town, Missoula sits at the head of five scenic valleys and the junction of three rivers. So, if urban activities leave you cold, there’s plenty of opportunity to get outdoors on foot, bicycle, or boat.

Missoula has its cultural side also. Entertainment ranges from children’s theater to classical music. Fort Missoula, an 1877 military post that now covers 32 acres, has a fine museum and 13 historic structures. The main building of the museum was the former quartermaster’s storehouse and is filled with information about the history of Missoula County.

For an inside look at the lives of the brave men who fight the forest fires in the area, visit the Smokejumper Visitor Center. Dioramas, photographs, and videos chronicle the history of fire-fighting in the forest service and give an insight into the dramatic lives of the dating moke jumpers.

Glacier Country clearly has it all, from award-winning regional theaters to scenery that is beyond breathtaking. But what I like best is the way this corner of Montana seems to exude all the best characteristics of the American West–spacious, friendly, and unique.

Contact: Travel Montana, (800) VISIT MT, www.visitmt.com; or Glacier Country, (800) 338-5072, glacier. visitmt.com.

COPYRIGHT 2002 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group