Pay a visit to Glacier National Park and you’ll understand how it earned the nickname “the Crown of the Continent.”
Situated in northern Montana, Glacier National Park straddles the U.S.–Canada border, encompassing more than 1 million acres, sections of two mountain ranges, 130 lakes, and thousands of species of flora and fauna. With so much beautiful territory to explore, it’s no surprise Glacier is near the top of many travelers’ wish lists.
But the fun doesn’t end there. The nearby charming small towns of Kalispell, Whitefish and West Glacier give visitors a taste of Western hospitality. Not only do they offer authentic places to dine, shop, stay, and explore local culture, but they’re also home to ski slopes, golf courses, lakes and hiking trails.
Whether your group is faith-based, multi-generational travelers wanting to explore national parks, or friends in search of a Western adventure, Glacier and the surrounding towns offer groups a chance to experience not only the region’s natural beauty but also the culture of the West.
Inside the Park
Travelers have 1,583 square miles of alpine meadows, deep forests, waterfalls and two dozen glaciers to explore, with many ways to experience the terrain, from hiking its numerous trails to driving the Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Additional activities include fishing, kayaking, rafting, horseback riding and snowshoeing. The park is home to several historic lodges and nearby towns that offer the essence of Montana spirit.
Shortly after the area was designated a national park in 1910, the Great Northern Railway constructed several lodges and chalets that are still in use today, many on the National Register of Historic Places. Lake McDonald Lodge has 82 total rooms and is 10 miles inside the park on Going-to-the-Sun Road. The shores of McDonald Lake (the park’s largest lake) feature a Swiss-style chalet, cabins and dormitory-style accommodations. There are several dining options at the lodge, including Russell’s Fireside Dining Room, Jammer Joe’s Grill and Pizzeria, and Lucke’s Lounge. Activities abound outdoors: There are Red Bus tours, boat cruises, horseback rides, evening ranger programs and numerous other outdoor activities year-round.
To preserve its natural beauty, the park has relatively few roads, making it a great place to view wildlife like the mountain goat (the park’s mascot), moose, grizzly bears and lynx.
“One of the best ways to experience the area is the Glacier Institute, the official educational partner of the park,” said Tia Troy, public relations representative with Discover Kalispell. “They offer year-round programming from guided snowshoe hikes, full moon adventures [it’s a designated International Dark Sky Park], wildlife tracking and guided tours of the park.”
Kalispell is roughly an hour from Glacier National Park and is the largest town in the region. The town of 25,000 people features shops, restaurants, cultural attractions and access to outdoor recreation.
Kalispell is close to both Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain and Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, is seven miles from Flathead Lake (the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River) and is home to the Robert Muir Graves-designed Buffalo Hill Golf Club. And while Glacier National Park can get crowded and requires a timed entry reservation, nearby Lone Pine State Park doesn’t and offers many similar recreational activities such as hiking and snowshoeing. It offers a bird’s eye view of the entire valley from the wraparound deck of the visitor’s center, and Far West Boat Tours offers sightseeing charters of Flathead Lake.
Kalispell was incorporated as a city in the 1890s, and the home of one of its founders, the Conrad Mansion Museum, is one of the area’s top attractions. The majority of the artifacts inside are original, and groups can tour the property with guides in period dress. The Hockaday Museum of Art is in a former Carnegie library and has both permanent and rotating exhibits.
Historic downtown Kalispell is a walkable haven of locally owned shops and has a thriving culinary and beverage scene. There’s a shop that sells books, one that sells vinyl records, one that sells souvenirs made in Montana, and, naturally, a Western-wear store with thousands of pairs of cowboy boots. At Mercantile, travelers can sit down to a juicy steak or get some barbecue made in a former blacksmith shop at DeSoto Grill.
Twenty minutes’ drive north of Kalispell, Whitefish was once an important center for logging in Montana and has been a skiing destination (at Whitefish Mountain Resort) since the 1930s. For lovers of rail travel, Whitefish is a stop on the Amtrak Empire Builder, with connections to Spokane, Portland, Seattle and Chicago. Whitefish is great for groups of up to 300 people and has 25 lodging properties, including two convention hotels with 10,000 square feet of meeting space, Grouse Mountain Lodge and Lodge at Whitefish Lake.
Whitefish makes a great basecamp for groups just half an hour from the park. Groups can snowshoe, ride in a horse-drawn wagon, cross-country ski, even go dog sledding. There are 43 miles of paved walking and cycling trails throughout town and around Whitefish Lake. Smaller groups can take yoga classes, enjoy a spa day or take a hot-air balloon ride.
The quaint downtown area offers boutiques, galleries and dozens of restaurants ranging from a unique riff on a sandwich at The Wich Haus to comfort food at family-owned local staple Loula’s. Travelers can enjoy regional specialties like elk chili at Casey’s Bar and Grill or listen to live music at the Craggy Range Bar and Grill.
And on the way from Whitefish to West Glacier, many travelers plan a stop in Hungry Horse at The Huckleberry Patch for a slice of huckleberry pie or a jar of jam to bring home.
The closest town to the south entrance of Glacier National Park, West Glacier offers plenty of amenities for groups that want to spend time in the park but not stay in it. This gateway town offers historic accommodations like the Belton Chalet, the first lodge built by the Great Northern Railroad, plus places to relax and recreate with a backdrop of breathtaking vistas.
If your group is visiting from May to October, a stop at the historic watering hole Freda’s is in order — it’s the perfect place to grab a burger and a beer after a long hike. Heaven’s Peak Montana Kitchen serves barbecue fusion with a side of panoramic views of the mountains.
At Glacier Distilling Company, groups can enjoy a spirits tasting or a tipple at the on-site speakeasy, Josephine’s.
“The park is obviously a big draw,” said Troy. “But the area’s culinary scene is booming. There are breweries, wineries, Montana-focused stores, cocktail bars — so much for visitors to explore.”