10 Memorable Ways to Explore Each of Montana's Tourism Regions
Montana’s Glacier Country is home to adventurers, athletes, and its fair share of down-home, ranch-born Montanans. This is Montana as the rest of the world envisions it—dense woods brimming with pines, open prairie dotted with deer, bison, and elk, ancient glaciers nestled in high-mountain peaks and glorious mountain lakes just begging to be played in. From wide-open grasslands to dense forests that bring to mind the Pacific Northwest, Glacier Country is arguably Montana at its best. A day spent exploring the region leaves no doubt as to why Montana is called Big Sky Country. There’s no shortage of activities in this diverse region. Here are a few of our favorites.
Going-To-The-Sun Road, sometimes simply called the Sun Road by locals, is one of the best-known adventures in Glacier National Park. It is the only road that traverses the national park, topping out an elevation of 6,646 feet as it crosses over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. The two-lane road offers steep drops and it can be challenging to both drive and fully appreciate the scenery, but there are options. During the spring season the road is closed to vehicles but open to bicycles, offering a unique opportunity for cyclists to take one of the most breathtaking rides of their life. During the summer season, the park’s famous Red Bus tours offer an ideal way to see and learn about the area while not worrying about staying in your lane.
Look on any map of western Montana, and the mass of Flathead Lake is easy to spot. The largest freshwater body of water in the lower 48 states west of the Mississippi, the lake is nestled in the rolling, pine-covered hills of the south end of Flathead Valley. It’s hard to ignore the lake’s crystal-blue waters bordered by the Mission and Salish Mountains, and the water offers plenty of opportunity for kayakers, canoeists, or stand-up paddleboarders. If you’re looking for something fresh, come in September for the Montana Dragon Boat Festival and watch both experienced and novice rowers paddle their striking 46-foot boats in some of the West’s most scenic waters.
Any visit to Montana should include fly fishing. The state is famed for its blue-ribbon streams and healthy trout, and Glacier Country is no exception. The Clark Fork River near Missoula is famous for its riffles and pools, gorgeous scenery, and healthy trout population. One of the longest rivers in Montana, the Clark Fork stretches more than 280 miles from its origin west of Butte to the Idaho border. The river even flows through downtown Missoula, so those not in the mood for a drive can fish close to town. Forested riverbanks, mountainous valleys, and plenty of wildlife bracket the river, offering both a promising fishing session and guaranteed scenery. If you’re not a fly angler, walk into a local fly-fishing shop (they’re not hard to find) and ask how to get started.
In the heat of summer, sometimes nothing feels better than a dip in a frigid high mountain lake. And a dip in Grinnell Lake, nestled in the Many Glacier Valley, is well worth the 7.2-mile loop hike. The well-maintained trail only gains 462 feet of elevation, and leads you past stunning lakes with views of the very glaciers that give the national park its rather apt name. Be sure to pack along a quick-dry towel and a swimsuit for the trip—few things in life are as grand as a swim in a glacier-fed lake.
Any visit to Glacier Country would be remiss without a stop at the famed Polebridge Mercantile, located in remote, rugged Polebridge. Access to the bakery is part of the adventure—if you go the easy way through West Glacier on the Camas Road there’s only seven miles of gravel road to navigate, but the road closes in the winter. This is grey wolf country, and while you likely won’t see the wolves, be sure to listen for their howls at night.
The bakery located within the mercantile is famous for its huckleberry bear claws and cinnamon rolls. Treat yourself before before hitting the nearby Bowman Lake Trail. While the trail’s full distance of 26.5 miles is suited for experienced backpackers ready for a multi-day journey, the out-and-back trail can be tailored to whatever distance hikers desire. This scenic corner of the park is excellent for bird and wildlife watching.
If you’re traveling to Glacier National Park from the Flathead Valley, your road will take you through the blue-collar town of Columbia Falls. Take a pit stop at Montana Coffee Traders (beans are roasted in the nearby town of Whitefish) for a hearty breakfast or lunch, and take along a selection of scones to fuel your adventures ahead.
Located on the west side of Glacier National Park, Lake McDonald is known for its crystal-clear waters, stunning view of the Continental Divide, and easy access thanks to Apgar Village. The Glacier Park Boat Company offers daily boat tours on their historic wooden vessel *DeSmet *during the summer tourist season. Catch the hour-long boat cruise or rent kayaks and enjoy the lake at your own pace. Afterward, step into the diner in Apgar for a scoop of huckleberry ice cream.
Located in the southern end of Glacier Country, Missoula feels far more arid than the Flathead Valley two hours north. Located along the Clark Fork River near its confluences with the famed Bitterroot and Blackfoot Rivers, this mountain town is easily explored by bike. Take in the many bike trails and be sure to stop at downtown’s Caras Park to watch surfers take on Brennan’s Wave on the Clark Fork—you’ll find plenty of locals eating a relaxed dinner while they watch the surfers show their skills.
Whether you are visiting Glacier Country during the sunny summer months or the snowy winter, Whitefish Mountain Resort has an adventure ready. Located at the northern end of the Flathead Valley, the resort is known for its excellent ski conditions in the winter. Summer travelers can try their hand at mountain biking, the Aerial Adventure Park, zip-line tours, gondola rides, and hiking. Whatever your season, enjoy the resort’s myriad of dining options before you head off on your next excursion.
The rivers flowing down from Glacier National Park are clear and cold, sometimes tinted a trademark green with glacial silt. There’s no better way to experience water than by getting on it, and a whitewater raft trip on the Flathead River is an excellent chance to experience the river in its purest form—while getting a little adrenaline burst. The Class II-III rapids of the Middle Fork offer an exciting way to spend a day—and a way to cool off in the summer heat.