Category Archives: Things To Do

Andy Austin Spring Tour: I-90 Corridor

Every summer, thousands of travelers drive I-90 as they cruise across Montana. Many of these folks will take a detour south near Bozeman to head to Yellowstone, and others may take the detour north of Missoula to Glacier National Park. But Montana has so many hidden gems tucked just off the interstate, from endless mountain views to quaint small towns with big personalities. My name is Andy Austin. I am a Montana-based photographer and lover of the lesser-visited places in my beautiful state. When Glacier Country Tourism reached out to do a shoot in the I-90 corridor west of Missoula, I was quick to say yes to exploring one of the few areas I have only driven through. 

I-90 and the Clark Fork River in a perfect scene under a double rainbow. Photo: Andy Austin

Day 1:
I met up with some friends in Missoula in the morning and we headed west to Tarkio to put a few boats in the river and try our luck at fly-fishing. Any day on the river is a good day in my book, but the beautiful weather and stunning scenery along the Clark Fork made for a picture-perfect day (literally). After catching a few trout, we took the boats out at Forest Grove and headed for the quiet town of Superior.

Our fly-fishing guide, Sarah, with a beautiful rainbow trout caught on the Clark Fork River. Photo: Andy Austin

We set up camp just minutes from town in the secluded Trout Creek Campground before setting our sights on the countless forest service roads sprawling throughout the Bitterroot Mountains. Driving up Thompson Peak was one of the more incredible drives I’ve taken this year, as wildflowers and grandiose views kept me wanting to stop every few feet. Watching the sunset up here made me realize how large and vast this range is, and I realized how little of it I actually have seen from the interstate.

Enjoying the peace and quiet of the Lolo National Forest with friends and campfire stories. Photo: Andy Austin

Day 2:
A rainy morning made for the perfect opportunity to spend the day exploring the small towns just minutes from the interstate. We started in Alberton at the historic Montana Valley Bookstore, and, honestly, I would have been happy if you left me there all day. With more than 10,000 used books, this small bookstore immediately leaves you in awe. From here we headed down the road to St. Regis and one of the most visited attractions of the area, the Travel Center. Of course, I had to get a huckleberry milkshake (okay, I had two) while I wandered the store and found some Montana-made gifts to send to out-of-state friends.

It’s called the “Best Shake Ever” and I cannot disagree with that. Photo: Andy Austin

We rounded out the afternoon with a trip to Haugan and a visit to the 50,000 Silver Dollar Bar (although the number of silver dollars has now passed 75,000) as well as a visit to Superior for a beautiful hike up the Vista Trail Scenic Overlook. We headed back west for a good night’s rest in a cabin along the Clark Fork River just north of St. Regis.

Alberton offers this hidden gem of a bookstore on its historic Railroad Avenue. Photo: Michael Graef

Day 3:
An early morning trip to the Montana/Idaho state line was in order so we could spend the majority of our day on the Route of the Hiawatha Trail. A rails to trails mountain biking route took us down 15 miles of the most scenic riding I’ve ever been on. This route followed the original route of the Milwaukee Railroad as we crossed seven steel trestle bridges and through 10 tunnels that have all been here for more than 100 years. Along the way, numerous informative signs told us the rich history of the area and the trail we were on. After completing 15 downhill miles, a shuttle bus was waiting at the bottom to take us back to the top.

Riding the Route of the Hiawatha was a perfect way to cap off an incredible trip. Photo: Andy Austin

Overall the trip will always hold a special place in my heart and now I’m going to have to budget a lot more time when I take I-90, as I have many new favorite places to make stops for.

Happy Adventuring,
Andy Austin

Explore The East Glacier Park Area

Glacier National Park covers a staggering 1 million acres, surrounded by some of Western Montana’s charming small communities that serve as gateways to the park. East Glacier Park, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, is less than 10 miles from the Two Medicine park entrance. This historic community, with its 363 residents, is ready to give you a warm western welcome this summer and is the perfect place to begin a Western Montana adventure.

It took 75 men a year and a half to construct the two main buildings. You won’t want to miss the splendor of Glacier Park Lodge.

It’s easy to get here. Amtrak’s historic Empire Builder train stops (seasonally) at East Glacier Park and convenient car rentals are available to help you get around. The East Glacier Park train depot was built in 1913 and sits directly across from Glacier Park Lodge, built the same year by the Great Northern Railway, beginning its rich and unique history with the railway. The architecture of Glacier Park Lodge will take your breath away; even if you’re not staying the night, be sure to stop in to see the grandeur of the lodge and its lobby. Explore the grounds further and you’ll find a nine-hole golf course—the oldest grass greens course in Montana, where each hole is named after a chief of the Blackfeet Nation. Not-to-be-missed are the lush gardens with breathtaking views of Dancing Lady Mountain.

The exposed beams, gabled roofs, large windows, and decorative moldings of Glacier Park Lodge were designed to resemble Swiss-style architecture.

When it’s time to eat, Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant has you covered. The restaurant building is the oldest house left standing in East Glacier Park. Built in 1909, it has since been updated with modern conveniences. Specializing in Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, customers leave bragging about their meal—and come back for more. For a spin on a classic taco, try the locally raised bison taco when offered as a special, or choose a bison burger with green chili and jack cheese—a regular on the menu. Note: this popular restaurant does not take reservations and sometimes has quite a wait—it’s worth it, but plan accordingly.

Saddle up! Horseback riding is one of the most intimate ways to explore Glacier Country. Photo: Visit MT

Once you’ve fueled up on food, saddle up for a guided horseback ride from Glacier Gateway Trailrides. Experience unspoiled beauty riding along the eastern border of Glacier National Park and deep into the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. American Indian guides will take you off the beaten path, providing an intimate view of Looking Glass Mountain and the Two Medicine River gorge. Offered June through September, you won’t want to miss this tranquil and unique adventure.

You won’t find a more genuine Western Montana affair than this. Photo: Bear Creek Ranch

You’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic ranch experience than Bear Creek Guest Ranch during their Montana Cattle Drive or Horseback Riding Retreats. Immerse yourself in cowboy culture, participate in roping, cattle drives, arena riding, hiking or fishing in Glacier National Park, float trips and more. Choose between staying in the main house with your hosts, the Beck family, or stay in one of the on-site cabins.

The nearby Two Medicine Valley has some of the most spectacular hiking spots. Photo: Josephy Kennedy

Of course, in East Glacier Park—located right outside Glacier National Park—recreation abounds. The surrounding streams and lakes offer world-class trout fishing. Numerous hiking trails dot the area, and wildlife watching commonly delivers sights of moose, deer, elk and mountain goats among spectacular scenery.

Relax, rejuvenate and enjoy the view at The Cottages at Glacier. Photo: The Cottages at Glacier

Still looking for a place to rest your head? The Cottages at Glacier provide luxurious accommodations. The detached two and three-bedroom cottages feature a stone fireplace, a full kitchen, AC, Wi-Fi, and a balcony that serves up unmatched views of Glacier National Park. The newest cabins have a Jacuzzi tub, and, after a full day of exploring, you’ll rejoice from a relaxing soak. Owned by the family that founded St. Mary Village, the original cottages were built it 1929 for the children of the founders. Today those cottages comprise The Cottages at Glacier.

This tightly knit community charms with events like the Glacier Half Marathon, approaching soon on June 22, 2019. Visit East Glacier Park for yourself. Click here for more information on where to eat, stay and play, and to learn about the history of East Glacier Park.

Hidden Gem Golf Courses in Western Montana

With wide-open vistas and room to roam, it should come as no surprise that Western Montana’s Glacier Country is a golfer’s paradise. Come spring, we gleefully trade our ski poles for golf clubs. Here, we have the perfect blend of breathtaking landscapes, renowned courses and affordability. Pair that combo with small-town charm, and teeing up in Montana is a real treat. Get on the green in Glacier Country, where you’ll find some of the most stunning and enjoyable golf experiences, and get to know our scenic travel corridors while you’re at it.

Sunset bathes hole 12 of the Nick Faldo-designed course at the Wilderness Club. Photo: Wilderness Club

NORTHWEST CORRIDOR

Along Montana’s quiet Northwest Corridor, you’ll find three courses all offering something special. Eureka may be small but it boasts not one, but two golf hot spots. At Indian Springs Ranch play the links-style, 18-hole championship course that’s pure fun. Bask in the beauty of the Tobacco Valley at this unique, master-planned recreational community. Also in Eureka, the stunning Wilderness Club—designed by golf legend Nick Faldo—was ranked the No. 1 golf course in Montana by Golfweek and Golf Magazine and the No. 2 Best New Private Golf Course in the U.S. by Golf Magazine. In Libby, the aptly named Cabinet View Golf Club offers just that—a great game of golf among gorgeous Cabinet Mountain views.

BITTERROOT VALLEY

The beautiful Bitterroot Valley beckons all year long, but any season you can swing a golf club here is extra special. The unique Whitetail Golf Course in Stevensville is located within the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, so it’s the perfect place to find an authentic Montana golfing experience…and spot some wildlife on the green. Further down U.S. Highway 93 in Hamilton, the Hamilton Golf Course offers a fabulous round of golf and some of the best views in the valley.

Playing the 14th hole at Meadow Lake Golf Resort. Photo: Meadow Lake Golf Resort, Inc.

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK SURROUNDING AREA + EAST GLACIER CORRIDOR

If your trip to Glacier National Park isn’t complete without a round of golf (we don’t blame you), here are four places in and around the park to swing your clubs. Meadow Lake Golf Resort in Columbia Falls is a must-play, and Golf Magazine agrees. Golf Digest gives this treasured course 4.5 stars and named it one of the top four public courses in Montana. Within the park itself, Glacier View Golf Course in West Glacier blends natural beauty with a polished game of golf. Along the East Glacier Travel Corridor in East Glacier Park, tee up at Glacier Park Lodge Golf Course. This historic course on the Blackfeet Reservation is the oldest grass greens golf course in Montana, and all 9 holes are named for former Blackfeet chiefs. At the Cut Bank Golf and Country Club a mile west of Cut Bank, enjoy small-town golf at its finest with an exceptional game and down-to-earth vibes.

TOUR 200

The laid-back Wild Horse Plains Golf Course in Plains is a family favorite along Montana’s scenic Tour 200 just north of Paradise. From there, drive the length of this scenic byway and end up in the quaint town of Thompson Falls for another round at Rivers Bend Golf Course, where every third hole finds you back at the clubhouse.

The Mission Mountain Golf Club offers gorgeous views of its namesake. Photo: Mission Mountain Golf Club

FLATHEAD CORRIDOR

The Flathead Valley has been named a “Top 50 Golf Course Destination” by Golf Digest. There’s no denying the beauty of the region and the caliber of its courses. At the southern tip of Flathead Lake—the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—the Polson Bay Golf Course in Polson offers beautiful mountain views and fairways adjacent to the lake. South of that, in Pablo, the 9-hole executive Silver Fox Golf Course winds its way through lush trees, serene ponds and a wildlife corridor on the Salish Kootenai College campus. Even farther south, take in exceptional Mission Mountain views and a challenging game of golf at the Mission Mountain Golf Club in Ronan.

I-90 CORRIDOR

Experience good old-fashioned Montana hospitality 10 miles west of Missoula at King Ranch Golf Course in Frenchtown, where you’ll find 18 holes on wide fairways along the scenic Clark Fork River. Another I-90 Corridor favorite along the Clark Fork, and one of Western Montana’s hidden gems, is Trestle Creek Golf Course in St. Regis—known for some of the finest greens.

The Double Arrow Lodge features a spectacular golf course plus lodging and dining in Seeley Lake.

SEELEY-SWAN CORRIDOR

The recreation opportunities in the Seeley-Swan Corridor are some of Montana’s best, and golf is no exception. In the storybook village of Bigfork on the north shore of Flathead Lake, the semi-private Eagle Bend Golf Club offers a championship 27-hole course. In Seeley Lake, the pristine ponderosa pine setting of the Double Arrow Golf Course offers resort golfing nestled between the Swan and Mission mountain ranges. Watch wildlife as you make your way around water features and bunkers, and don’t miss the No. 15 signature hole, featuring an elevated tee and island green.

The list goes on—Western Montana is dotted with golf courses, from small-town favorites to large championship and semi-private golf clubs and resorts. Go green under our famous blue sky. For more inspiration, visit the Northwest Montana Golf Association, and read more about Glacier Country’s larger golf courses here.

Added Bonus: In addition to stunning scenery and incredible terrain, golfing in Western Montana won’t break the bank; it’s part of the warm western hospitality we’re known for.

7 Mountain Bike Trails to Explore in Glacier Country

Mountain biking Glacier Country’s extensive trail systems is the perfect way to cover epic ground while breathing in fresh mountain air. Shred a single-track mountain biking trail or visit our family-friendly ski resorts turned downhill mountain bike resorts. There’s no shortage of terrain to pedal; miles of trail systems crisscross the region, and there’s something for every skill level. Explore Western Montana on two wheels. Here are a handful of our favorite trails.

Elevate your mountain biking adventure in Glacier Country.

WHITEFISH MOUNTAIN RESORT – WHITEFISH 

Level: Children and Beginners – Advanced

Whitefish Mountain Resort, located 8 miles north of the quintessential mountain town of Whitefish is a mecca of meandering trails. Ski mountains provide some of the best terrain for mountain biking and family fun for riders of every skill level, and Whitefish has it down to an art. At Strider Bike Park aspiring young mountain bikers, ages 2 – 6, practice their riding skills on pedal-less bikes. A bike school is offered for first-timers, while skilled riders can explore 30-plus miles of chair lift-accessed cross-country mountain bike trails. Unbeatable panoramic views of the Flathead Valley can be taken in from the top. Bike rentals are available on site. Whitefish Mountain Resort opens for summer activities May 25, 2019 (weather dependent).

Round Trip Distance: Varies

Western Montana’s alpine forests wait to be explored. Photo: Whitefish Bike Retreat

WHITEFISH BIKE RETREAT AND BEAVER LAKE TRAIL – WHITEFISH

Level: Beginners – Intermediate  

Eight miles west of Whitefish is the Whitefish Bike Retreat, the perfect place to begin your biking adventure. Make it an overnight—trail-side lodging and on-site bike rentals let you sleep, wake and ride. Warm up for the day by taking a lap on the short loop circling the 19-acre property, navigate berms on the pump track or weave through obstacles in the skills park. When you’re ready to explore more, the Whitefish Bike Retreat connects directly to The Whitefish Trail, serving up more than 42 miles of single-track trails. The Beaver Lake Trailhead, located next to the retreat, is a short but fun 3-mile loop. Choose to turn back, or keep exploring The Whitefish Trail system.

Round Trip Distance: 3.5 miles

Take in panoramic views of the Missoula Valley at Montana Snowbowl. Photo: Montana Snowbowl

MONTANA SNOWBOWL – MISSOULA

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Montana Snowbowl, located minutes from downtown Missoula, is a local’s favorite ski mountain in the winter and a mountain bike enthusiast’s dream during the summer. Ride the Grizzly Chairlift to 7,000 feet, taking in the sheer beauty of Lolo National Forest with breathtaking views of sweeping meadows and alpine forests. Challenge yourself to bike to the top of Point Six Trail, an elevation gain of 926 feet, and try to beat the record of 37 minutes, 36 seconds. After a hard but brief push to the top, enjoy mostly downhill trails on the other 25 miles of trail systems, then ride the chairlift back up and do it all again. Cap off the day with a post-adventure bloody mary and delicious wood-fired pizza. Montana Snowbowl opens for summer activities in late June.

Round Trip Distance: Varies

BLUE MOUNTAIN – MISSOULA

Level: Intermediate

Directions: After exploring Missoula—the arts and culture hub of Western Montana—head south for 2 miles on U.S. Highway 93. Turn right onto Blue Mountain Road and the trailhead is on the left where the road makes a 90-degree turn. This popular recreation area boasts more than 41 miles of trails, so be sure to pick up a map. You’ll begin your ride in open meadows, where you can enjoy views of the Missoula Valley and Sapphire and Rattlesnake mountains, before you ascend into forested wilderness. Ride a quick and easy 3-mile loop, or explore much farther.

Round Trip Distance: Varies

Ride to Paradise on the Clark Fork River Trail. Photo: Vo von Sehlen

CLARK FORK RIVER TRAIL – ST. REGIS

Level: Intermediate

Directions: From St. Regis, travel east 11 miles on State Highway 135. The trailhead is at the Ferry Landing fishing access, located on the north side of the highway. The Clark Fork River Trail takes you through Lolo National Forest along the Clark Fork River between Paradise and St. Regis. It’s a smooth single-track trail that winds along lush old-growth forest and sweeping wildflower meadows. The first switchback climbs are the most difficult, but push through them because this ride is well worth it.

Round Trip Distance: 18 miles

There’s plenty of fun to be had at Lake Como.

LAKE COMO TRAIL – DARBY

Level: Intermediate/Advanced

Directions: After experiencing the Old West charm of Darby, travel north for 4 miles on US-93 then turn left on Lake Como Road. Follow it for 3 miles until you meet the campground and trailhead on your right. Lake Como Trail is a relatively flat yet technically difficult trail. Discover beauty around every bend as you circle Lake Como, pass by a waterfall and take in the dramatic mountain setting. This is a popular hiking trail in the summer and it’s a bit narrow, so spring is the perfect time to ride it.

Round Trip Distance: 8 miles

BUTTERCUP LOOP – HAMILTON

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Directions: From Hamilton, turn south onto US-93 for 2.8 miles before turning left on State Highway 38 heading east. After 0.7 miles, turn right onto Sleeping Child Road and continue for 4 miles until you reach the junction of Little Sleeping Child Road. Park at the junction where you’ll often see vehicles of fellow bikers, but there is no designated parking lot. This is the beginning of the Buttercup Loop trail. The first 7 miles of the ride are on Sleeping Child Road, but views of the canyon make the short road-riding portion well worth it. You’ll start climbing on Black Tail Road and wind through woodland terrain until it opens up to meadows popping with color. After a bit of a difficult climb, the fresh mountain air and unrivaled views of the Bitterroot Valley are worth it before coasting back down to the car. Go the distance on this loop and you won’t be disappointed.

Round Trip Distance: 21.1 miles

The Crown of the Continent beckons cyclers.

BONUS: GOING-TO-THE-SUN ROAD – GLACIER NATIONAL PARK

Level: Intermediate Road Biking

You won’t want to miss the opportunity to bike the Going-to-the-Sun Road—an engineering marvel and National Historic Landmark—before the road is fully open to cars. In the spring, hikers and bikers are given first access, and biking one of America’s most scenic roads is a pretty epic way to see spring flourish in Glacier National Park. Take in jaw-dropping views of glacial-carved terrain.

Round Trip Distance: Varies. Check road status here.

Pro-Tip: Catch a shuttle on the weekends between Apgar Visitor Center and Avalanche Creek. Shuttle service begins mid-May and operates until the road is fully open to vehicles. Or, do a guided trip with our friends at Glacier Guides, who provide shuttle, bike rental, helmet and lunch.

GEAR UP

  1. Spring weather is unpredictable. Dress in layers and bring a rain jacket. Wear worn-in and comfortable biking shoes.
  2. It’s important to stay safe in the sometimes remote Western Montana wilderness. Wear a helmet.
  3. Pack a light backpack with water, snacks, a map and a tire pump.
  4. Carry bear spray with you—you never know what wildlife you’ll encounter.

Helpful trail maps can be found at local visitor centers, ranger stations and forest service offices. Bike rentals are available throughout the region.

Top 5 Reasons to Travel to Western Montana’s Glacier Country

Travel matters. It matters to the traveler, and it matters to the destinations and communities where adventure seekers are spending their hard-earned vacation resources. National Travel and Tourism Week is May 5 – 11, 2019, and in Glacier Country we’re celebrating the fact that we’ve got endless once-in-a-lifetime experiences to offer, and so many travelers helping our small towns thrive. We’re grateful for this amazing place we call home, and we’re extending a hearty helping of warm western gratitude to all of our visitors. How can you celebrate? Come visit again. You’ll be glad you did.

Two Medicine Lake reflects a visitor’s appreciation of the grandeur of Glacier National Park. Photo: Brian Powers

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Offering world-class adventures all year long, the Crown of the Continent beckons. One million acres of glacial-carved terrain provides jaw-dropping views from every angle with infinite ways to explore towering snowcapped peaks, cascading waterfalls, aquamarine lakes, alpine forests and the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road—one of the most scenic drives in the country. Added bonus: Western Montana’s sheer beauty and adventure doesn’t end in Glacier National Park. There’s much more to explore beyond the park, too.

The Thompson Falls Dam is a sight to behold. Photo: Andy Austin

CHARMING SMALL-TOWNS + SCENIC TRAVEL CORRIDORS
In Western Montana, every route is scenic. Our 75+ charming communities are connected by wide-open highways lined with mesmerizing beauty. Discover our scenic byways, travel corridors and backroads of discovery, all surrounded by world-class recreation opportunities. Take a scenic drive and explore our charming small towns along the way. From walkable downtowns with breweries, distilleries, farmers markets, live music, and arts and culture, to rich history, quaint Old-West charm and easy access to the great outdoors, come live it up like a local.

A quiet paddle on Western Montana waters will soothe your soul. Photo: Andy Austin

RIVERS + LAKES
Not only is Western Montana home to the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—Flathead Lake—but countless glistening waters grace our landscape. At Flathead Lake enjoy swimming, water skiing, sailing, fishing and so much more. Throughout the region you’ll find places to fly-fish blue-ribbon trout streams, raft, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard one of many rivers, or hike to one of hundreds of hidden alpine lakes. There’s no shortage of ways to play.

ACCESSIBILITY/DIRECT FLIGHTS
Western Montana, to some of you, may seem like a faraway place. It may not even be on your radar as an extraordinary vacation destination. But it’s just that—and getting here has never been so easy. With two major airports—Missoula (MSO) and Glacier Park (FCA)—offering year-round direct flights on six major airlines from multiple metropolitan areas, you’d be surprised how soon you can make the switch to Mountain Time.

YOU WORK HARD FOR YOUR VACATION DAYS
Travel has been shown to increase physical and emotional well-being. It’s educational, eye-opening, soul restoring and downright fun. The change of scenery, the change of pace—they’re necessary. And the thing about traveling in Western Montana’s Glacier Country is that it’s easy to unplug, unwind and embark on the unforgettable among wide-open spaces, fresh mountain air and western hospitality. Do yourself a favor and get away to Glacier Country. You’ve earned it.

Wildlife Viewing Areas in Western Montana

One of the things that makes Montana so special is that we share the land with an abundance of beautiful, wild creatures. There are plenty of undesignated places to watch wildlife in Western Montana, but some pretty amazing spots are set aside specifically for Montana’s mammals, birds and reptiles. Glacier Country’s year-round wildlife refuges and viewing areas boast a diversity of habitat and offer a look at some of the region’s most majestic inhabitants.

A drive through the National Bison Range offers a look at these majestic mammals. Photo: Andy Austin

The beloved National Bison Range in Moiese is not only an excellent place to view bison (250 – 300 head of bison call this area home), but deer, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions and the occasional black bear also roam the area, along with 200+ species of birds. The range consists of a diverse ecosystem of grasslands, fir and pine forests, riparian areas and ponds. Open dawn to dusk daily, the range includes three wildlife drives. The West Loop and Prairie Drive are short year-round drives. Red Sleep Mountain Drive is open mid-May to mid-October. It’s a two-hour 19-mile loop with switchbacks and 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Make sure to bring your camera and binoculars or spotting scope. Plan your visit with seasonal visitor center hours in mind.

Keep an eye out for muskrats, waterfowl and deer while riding along Wildfowl Lane in the Lee Metcalf NWR.

In the beautiful Bitterroot Valley, the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge—2 miles north of Stevensville—is one of the most popular refuges in Montana. Open dawn to dusk daily, walk along the 2.5-mile Wildlife Viewing Area Trail and 1.25-mile Kenai Nature Trail. Drive or bike Wildfowl Lane, a county road that runs through the refuge and provides a close look at ponds packed with migrating waterfowl in the spring and fall. More than 240 species of birds have been observed in the area, and mammals in the refuge include white-tailed deer, yellow-bellied marmots, porcupines, beavers and gophers, among others. Plan your visit with time to stop by the year-round visitor center.

Dusk is a great time for wildlife watching at Ninepipe. Photo: Dave Fitzpatrick/USFWS

Stunning Mission Valley views accompany the scenic Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine wetland complex in Charlo. Photographers flock here to capture the evening grandeur of the reservoir’s Mission Mountain backdrop. In addition to 200+ species of birds, you’ll find nationally acclaimed winter raptor viewing and mammals like white-tailed deer, the occasional grizzly bear and wetland creatures like muskrats, skunks, mice and voles. Explore the interpretative site for interesting information about the refuge.  Directly across the highway from the refuge, explore the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana. Established to accommodate nesting birds, access to the refuge changes with the seasons, and there are no amenities or facilities of any kind at the refuge itself, so plan your visit accordingly. Driving on Ninepipe Road is available year-round. Walking is limited on the refuge as water comprises more than 80% of the area and much of the land is very wet during the spring.

Wild Horse Island/Flathead Lake State Park is a true Montana treasure, featuring old-growth ponderosa pine forestland and prairie grasslands with scenic trails and ample wildlife viewing. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the wild horses for which the island is named. Accessible only by boat, the biggest island (3 miles long) on the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—Flathead Lake—abounds with wild adventures like hiking, swimming, sailing and boating. Other island inhabitants include bighorn sheep, deer, songbirds, waterfowl, bald eagles, falcons and bears. (Note: store food in bear-safe containers on your boat.) Also, a joint state/tribal fishing license is required for anglers at this Flathead Indian Reservation site. For a fun paddling adventure, kayak to the island from Dayton. It’ll take you about 45 minutes.

Two miles south of Polson—and also within Flathead Indian Reservation boundaries—the Pablo National Wildlife Refuge provides a unique glimpse at pothole wetlands and offers hiking, biking, fishing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. This serene setting is the site of the trumpeter swan release during the 1996 reintroduction to the Mission Valley, and continues to be an important release site. Vehicles can access the refuge along roads across the dam and along the north side of the refuge. The wetland habitat supports abundant waterfowl species and common wetland-friendly mammals, like muskrats, striped skunks, mink, field mice and meadow voles. There are no amenities or facilities of any kind here, and portions of the refuge are closed in the spring to minimize human disturbance to nesting birds, so plan your visit accordingly.

Seeing a moose in the wild is an unforgettable experience. Photo: tonybynum.com

The Swan River National Wildlife Refuge is situated between the breathtaking Swan and Mission Mountain ranges south of Swan Lake, offering a scenic wildlife viewing adventure. The refuge provides wetland and grassland habitat for 171 bird species, white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, and moose, plus beavers, muskrats and raccoons. Visitors enjoy hiking and snowshoeing this picturesque refuge from east to west via Bog Road. You’ll find a viewing platform and information kiosk with interpretive panels, but there are no significant facilities on the refuge, so plan your visit with that in mind.

Lost Trail’s Dahl Lake draws animals looking for a drink or a swim. Photo: Beverly Skinner

Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge lies in the tranquil Pleasant Valley mountain drainage area northwest of Marion. Prairie grasslands, riparian and wetland areas and aspen groves serve as important habitat for a variety of wildlife including elk, deer and moose. Although elusive, wolverines, Canada lynx, fishers and grizzly bears have all been documented here as well. This remote refuge offers a secluded authentic Montana experience. Please note, GPS navigation to the refuge is not always perfect and cell phone service can be spotty, so plan your visit accordingly.

As always, remember that wildlife is just that—wild. Respect their space, keep your distance and stay safe when recreating in wild places. Read more about Western Montana wildlife safety here.

Unique Ways to Explore Glacier National Park

The Crown of the Continent beckons outdoor enthusiasts. With more than 1 million acres of towering peaks, cascading waterfalls, wild meadows and sparkling waters—the sheer beauty of Glacier National Park is jaw-dropping from every angle. However, it can be a little intimidating. For those of you who don’t want to bite off more adventure than you can chew, but still want to get out of your car and away from the crowds, here’s an insider’s guide for a low-key introduction to the park.

Glacier National Park is captivating from every angle.

Explore in style by moped, horseback, boat, or a guided walk. These mellow adventures are some of the best ways to cover ground and discover the raw splendor of the park’s glacial-carved terrain. Experience a truly off-grid authentic Montana moment, without breaking a sweat.

Enjoy aquamarine glacial waters on a walk with Glacier Guides. Photo: Glacier Guides and Montana Raft

GUIDED WALKS

Set out on one of the park’s forested footpaths. Glacier National Park has more than 734 miles of maintained trails, including many short walks that provide an intimate tour of the terrain. Glacier Guides and Montana Raft leads hikes for all ages and fitness levels. New this year is a half-day nature walk. Learn about Leave No Trace, forest fire science, river ecology and the history of early settlers, while leisurely strolling on two easy walks—first at Lake McDonald Valley and then in the North Fork Valley. Each walk is about 1.1 miles, with an elevation gain of only 180 feet. 2019 guided walks are available May 30 – August 29. You can also request a custom walk, if you want to go to a different location.

The Sinopah, built in 1926, cruises Two Medicine Lake.

BOAT TOURS

For a different park perspective, step aboard a scenic boat tour by Glacier Park Boat Company. A guided tour of St. Mary Lake, Lake McDonald—the park’s largest lake—Many Glacier or Two Medicine Lake offers panoramic views of the surrounding peaks, allowing you to take in 360 degrees of Glacier National Park grandeur. One of the most tranquil ways to explore the park, you’ll also have the option to get off the boat for a short guided walk. Each tour is unique, informative, and, most importantly, the view from the water is always extraordinary. Book a 2019 tour between May 18 and September 22, depending on location.

Saddle up in Glacier Country. Photo: Swan Mountain Outfitters

GUIDED HORSEBACK TRAIL RIDES

Get off the beaten path and take in Glacier National Park from the saddle with a guided horseback trail ride from Swan Mountain Outfitters. Experience unspoiled beauty and aquamarine glacial waters, along with wildlife and wildflowers around every bend. Trail rides vary from one hour long to one and a half days, and accommodate all levels of riders, beginner to expert. Take off from one of three locations—Apgar, Lake McDonald or Many Glacier. No two trails are alike; choose what views you’d like along the trail, from meadows to forests and lookouts to lakes. Tours are offered mid-May through the end of September/early October, weather dependent.

Enjoy an open ride through the fresh mountain air.

MOPED RIDES

Not wanting to stray far from the road? We’ve got you covered. Revel in the freedom of a self-guided road tour on a moped from Glacier Moped Rentals. Why? Because mopeds are exhilarating! You’ll also enjoy open views, plus the sounds and scents of the fresh mountain air. You don’t need a motorcycle license to ride; a helmet, map and safety briefing are all provided. Rent for as little as an hour, or choose a multiday trip. Mopeds make scenic viewpoints and pull-outs a breeze. Don’t miss the chance to ride the more undiscovered areas of the park on roads less traveled, taking in unrivaled, breathtaking views.

 

For more adventure inspiration, itineraries, facts, and safety information, visit glaciermt.com/glacier-park.

Montana’s Ronan Area: Exploring Glacier Country’s Travel Corridors

Less than 20 minutes south of Flathead Lake—the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—Ronan is quietly situated against the backdrop of the majestic Mission Mountains. This picturesque community off U.S. Highway 93 is more than a small-town agriculture community. The views alone are worth the visit to the Ronan area, but there’s more to this Mission Valley gem. Year-round recreation abounds here, like fishing, hiking in the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area (by permit), birding, camping and golf.

Jaw-dropping views of the snowcapped Mission Mountains will delight visitors to the Ronan area.

Ronan offers a warm Montana welcome with the impossible-to-miss iconic Main Street Arch. If you’re anything like us, one of the first things you think in a new place is “where can I get a coffee around here?” Ronan’s got you covered. Grab a fresh doughnut and a mighty fine latte from Dobson Creek Coffee Company. Fuel up on food for your adventure with a scratch-made breakfast at Stella’s Bakery & Deli or lunch from Little Montana. Once you’ve got your fix, and you’ve also explored downtown Ronan’s shops—including Muley Bluz-Cowboys Toys—there’s much more to see.

Mmmm…nothing beats coffee and a donut at Dobson Creek Coffee Company.

The Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge isn’t just for the bird enthusiast. This pristine wetland complex boasts more than 800 glacial potholes, a large reservoir and excellent wildlife watching opportunities. In addition to 200+ species of birds, you’ll find nationally acclaimed winter raptor viewing and numerous mammals and reptiles. Explore the interpretative site for interesting information about the refuge.

Face to face with a grizzly at the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana.

Directly across the highway from the refuge, explore the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana. The museum honors the history and culture of the Flathead Indian Reservation and early Montana with four rooms of artifacts, historical photographs, a selection of stunning beadwork, guns, bows and arrows and a diorama room filled with mounted wildlife and an American Indian camp circa 1880. For an exceptional view of the Mission Mountains, don’t miss the short nature trail.

North of Ronan (outside Polson), the Pablo National Wildlife Refuge also provides a unique glimpse at pothole wetlands and offers hiking, biking, fishing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in one of Western Montana’s most serene landscapes.

The People’s Center in Pablo showcases the history, culture and craftsmanship of local tribes.

At The People’s Center, explore a museum honoring the rich cultural heritage of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai tribes through rotating exhibits, educational displays and programs. The People’s Center gift shop has an extensive collection of local American Indian art and handcrafted items for sale, including paintings, beadwork, jewelry and tribal moccasins.

Pick out some cute Made in Montana and Montana-themed souvenirs at Great Gray Gifts.

 

Authentically western and cozy accommodations can be found at Ninepipes Lodge—featuring an in-house restaurant and one of Montana’s best gift shops, Great Gray Gifts. You’ll find plenty of Made in Montana items to take home, like unique jewelry, leather goods and bath and body items. You can also set up camp at Diamond S RV Park and Campground, or, for a relaxing home away from home, rent the Mission Valley Escape.

If you’re visiting in the summer, plan your trip to the Ronan area around one of the community’s annual events, like the three-day Chainsaw Carving Rendezvous taking place in June at the Ronan Fairgrounds.

For more information about the Ronan area, stop by the Mission Mountain County Visitor Center, serving summer visitors to the Mission Valley. You’ll also experience a warm dose of western hospitality while you’re there.

Top 7 Easy Spring Hikes in Glacier Country

Spring has sprung and we couldn’t be more excited. The snow is melting, wildflowers are blooming and wildlife is emerging. While the snow in the mountains will take longer to melt, at lower elevations the snow has quickly disappeared. Which means our closer-to-town trails are cleared off and ready to hike. One of the easiest ways to explore Western Montana’s charming small towns is by foot. Stretch your legs and enjoy these leisurely hikes.

Spring colors are surreal. Photo: Missoula Parks and Recreation

FORTLOOP TRAIL

Directions: In Missoula—the cultural hub of Glacier Country—head to the newest city park: Fort Missoula Regional Park. Home to nine multisport fields, tennis courts, a dog park and more, Fortloop Trail loops the entire park—an approximately 2.5-mile hike. In total, there are 7 miles of trails to explore, some of which connect directly to the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, which houses 20 historical structures and buildings on the grounds.

Round Trip Distance: Fortloop Trail, 2.5 miles.

Walk along the Clark Fork River from bustling downtown Missoula into the serene Kim WIlliams Nature Area. Photo: Missoula Current

MILWAUKEE TRAIL / KIM WILLIAMS TRAIL

Directions: Located in the heart of downtown Missoula, the Milwaukee Trail follows the Clark Fork River through downtown to the University of Montana. The trail then merges into the Kim Williams Nature Trail, and eventually between the Clark Fork River and the base of Mount Sentinel. On top of the old Milwaukee Railroad tracks, this trail is wide and flat. If you stay quiet along the river you’re likely to see wildlife, like blue herons and sandhill cranes or an osprey in one of the multiple nests along the way. To walk the entire length of the trail, park at McCormick Park.

Round Trip Distance: From McCormick, 13 miles. For a shorter hike, turn around at the university, 4.4 miles.

At a distance of only 2 miles to the summit, the views are worth the hike. Photo: Explore Libby

FLAGSTAFF TRAIL

Directions: After exploring Libby, travel north on Highway 37, turn left at River Road and travel 4 miles. Turn right at Quartz Creek Road 600 and follow it for 5 miles, then turn left on West Fork Road. Continue until the road ends at a “T” junction. Turn left to follow Road 4690 7.3 miles to the trailhead. The Flagstaff Trail winds through grassy meadows, filled with wildflowers this time of year, and leads to the summit of Flagstaff Mountain. It’s 2 miles to the summit with an elevation gain of 1,642 ft. Once there, the trail continues another 3.45 miles, or you can turn around.

Round Trip Distance: Flagstaff Mountain Summit, 4 miles.

This scenic path is great for all ages. Photo: Brian Schott / Explore Whitefish

WHITEFISH RIVER PATH

Directions: Whitefish has a network of in-town trails which are maintained year-round. The Whitefish River Trail, one of the most accessible walks, begins at Riverside Park. The paved path travels through town along the Whitefish River and along part of Whitefish Lake. The path eventually connects to Reservoir Road, just 0.5 miles from the Reservoir Trailhead of The Whitefish Trail—one of 12 trailheads that encompasses 42 miles of single track trails.

Round Trip Distance: The Whitefish River path has approximately 15 miles of paved path, which then connects to The Whitefish Trail. Hike for however long you want, then turn around.

Explore as much or as little of this 22-mile trail. Photo: Rails to Trails of Northwest Montana

GREAT NORTHERN RAILS TO TRAILS

Directions: The Great Northern Historical Trail extends 22 miles between Somers—at the north end of Flathead Lake—and Kalispell, then South, ending at the tiny community of Kila (no amenities, but parking is available). Start in Somers, Kila or Kalispell. The trail follows the old Great Northern Railway route, serving up unrivaled views of the Swan, Mission, Salish and Whitefish ranges. To find the trail in Kalispell, head west until you meet the intersection of U.S. 2 and Spring Creek Road. Find parking just east of the intersection.

Round Trip Distance: 44 miles round-trip. Pick your starting point, then turn around whenever you want.

Enjoy views of the Cut Bank Coulee and rolling plains on the 2-mile Cut Bank Coulee Trail.

CUT BANK COULEE TRAIL

Directions: From Cut Bank, find parking for the Cut Bank Coulee Trail at two trailheads. The east trailhead is located at Seventh Avenue South and Dean Drive. The west trailhead is located at Mountain View Boulevard and Lookout Road. This U-shaped trail follows the Cut Bank Creek Coulee for 2 miles.

Round Trip Distance: 4 miles.

MULE PASTURE LOOP

Directions: Mule Pasture Loop is 0.5 miles north of Thompson Falls. Follow the USFS direction signs from either the east or west ramp north of Highway 200. The Mule Pasture Loop travels through a beautiful wooded setting, which feels remote yet is in town.

Round Trip Distance: 2.3 miles.

If trekking up steep hills and mountains isn’t your idea of fun, these hikes are a great option— allowing you to get outdoors but keep things casual. Enjoy these hikes year-round and find more trails at glaciermt.com/hiking.

Western Montana Wings: Birding in Glacier Country

Western Montana’s pristine landscape makes for prime bird habitat. Our skies are graced with soaring raptors, our lakes and rivers are flush with waterfowl and shorebirds, and our grasslands and woodlands are visited by beautiful songbirds. Whether you’re an avid birder checking birds off a life list, or someone who just wants a look at something wild and free, there’s plenty of opportunity to catch some good glimpses of Glacier Country’s feathered residents.

There’s no better way to locate and learn about Western Montana’s birds than to go on a birding trip with a local expert. Glacier Country is home to four chapters of the Audubon Society: Bitterroot Audubon, Five Valleys Audubon, Flathead Audubon, and Mission Mountain Audubon. These groups frequently offer free or low-cost outings, but you may need to sign up in advance. Usually the group leader sets up a spotting scope for everyone to share, but you’ll want to bring your own binoculars. Check out The Montana Natural History Center in Missoula for birding events, like Naturalist Field Weekend: Sage Grouse Experience at the end of April and Naturalist Field Day: Birding by Ear in May.

The Montana Natural History Center offers birding classes and outings. Photo: Montana Natural History Center

If you’d like to do some birding on your own, check out the following hot spots:

In the Bitterroot Valley there’s no better place to bird-watch than Stevensville’s Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge. More than 225 species of birds have been recorded there. Hit the riparian habitat along the walking path by the Bitterroot River trail. Don’t miss the ponds on the north end of the park that fill with migrating waterfowl in the spring and fall.

Downtown Missoula is steps away from the Riverfront Trail, where even without binoculars you can often spot osprey, great blue herons, kingfishers, and more. If you’re willing to venture a little further, the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area is teeming with avian life. Word is, birders often don’t even need to leave the parking lot.

The Flathead Valley’s Owen Sowerwine Natural Area abounds with songbirds and waterfowl. Also scope out the West Valley Ponds, where there’s a new viewing area from which to see hundreds of sandhill cranes during fall migration.

Base your birding adventure out of the Mission Valley. There are three outstanding destinations here: the National Bison Range, Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge and Pablo National Wildlife Refuge.

NOTABLE GLACIER COUNTRY BIRDS

A western meadowlark bursts into song. Photo: Brian Williams

Montana’s state bird, the western meadowlark, can be seen in abundance at the National Bison Range in the spring and summer. This medium-sized songbird with a striking yellow neck and chest nests and forages in tall grasses, so you’ll often hear its beautiful voice before seeing it. Luckily, you won’t have to wait long before it flies up to perch on a fence or a shrub to put on a concert for you.

Who ordered take-out? An osprey delivers a fish. Photo: Alan D. Wilson

The osprey is one of Glacier Country’s most recognizable birds. Not only is the city of Missoula’s semi-pro baseball team named after this charismatic raptor, but the stadium includes a nesting platform where an osprey pair can be reliably seen from April through September. It’s a real treat to watch one fishing—osprey plunge feet first into the water to grab a fish, which they’ll hold facing forward and upright in their talons as they glide off to find a dining spot.

Male harlequin ducks are a sight to be seen. Photo: Alan D. Wilson

Glacier National Park claims the densest population of harlequin ducks in the state and is, therefore, one of the best places to find them. Still, one researcher claims it’s rarer to spot a harlequin than a grizzly. Harlequins are the only North American duck that breed and forage in clear, fast rivers and streams. Keep an eye out for these distinctively colored ducks during May and June at Upper McDonald Creek near the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

A variety of woodpeckers call Western Montana home for part of the year. Named after Corps of Discovery adventurer Meriwether Lewis, Lewis’s woodpeckers can be spotted in Council Grove State Park from roughly May through August. Look for dead trees, where the birds nest in cavities. Their greenish-black back and wings, salmon-colored bellies and red faces make them easy to identify.

Look for pileated woodpeckers in areas with large dead trees. Photo: Alan D. Wilson

Over a foot long, with black bodies, white-striped faces and flaming red crests, pileated woodpeckers are always an exciting find. Their loud calls and drumming will help you locate these year-round residents in their forest habitat, like the cottonwood snags in the Owen Sowerwine Natural Area.

Mountain bluebirds match the color of Western Montana skies.

Glacier Country’s skies get even bluer when mountain bluebirds and western bluebirds arrive in the spring. The males of these two species of songbirds are easy to tell apart; mountain bluebirds are blue all over, while western bluebirds sport an orange chest. Western bluebirds prefer open woodlands like Blue Mountain in Missoula. Mountain bluebirds are prevalent at the National Bison Range. Like western meadowlarks, both species flit between the ground and low perches.

A sandhill crane flies with its legs and neck fully stretched out. Photo: Alan D. Wilson

One of the largest birds you’ll see in Montana is the sandhill crane at 3.5 feet tall with a 6-foot wingspan. These elegant gray giants fly with neck and legs extended, looking like prehistoric pterodactyls come to life. From April to October, the long-legged cranes can be seen in open habitats like marshes and grasslands. The best place to spot them is during fall migration at the new viewing platform in West Valley near Kalispell.

Trumpeter swans are making a comeback at the Flathead Indian Reservation. Photo: Alan D. Wilson

For a chance to see America’s largest waterfowl, the trumpeter swan, head to the Flathead Indian Reservation’s Pablo National Wildlife Refuge, where these impressive birds have been successfully reintroduced. Biologists for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have been working for 20 years to establish a viable population, which now numbers roughly 200 swans.

Great blue herons are a common sight in Western Montana waters. Photo: Alan D. Wilson

The majestic great blue heron can be found year-round almost anywhere there’s a river, lake or wetland. Birders can get relatively close to the nesting colonies at Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge. In the spring and summer, the conifers near the pond host several nests each, and visitors are treated to an abundance of heron activity.

Snowy owl sightings in Western Montana are a rare treat. Photo: Elaine R. Wilson

Western Montana is home to 15 owl species, and one of the foremost owl researchers in the world, Denver Holt. His Owl Research Institute, based out of Charlo, often leads workshops and field days, which are open to the public. Driving through the Flathead and Mission Valleys in the winter, you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for snowy owls—they sometimes migrate down from the Arctic to feast on voles.

Common loons arrive in the summer to nest on Glacier Country’s lakes. Photo: Elaine R. Wilson

Glacier Country boasts the only common loon habitat in Montana. If you’re hoping to hear this black and white bird’s legendary call, visit Spencer Lake west of Whitefish from March through September. There are three distinctive vocalizations you might hear during the summer months: 1) a long, and some say eerie, cry, 2) a high-pitched fast call, and 3) the territorial yodel of the males.

For more information on birding in Western Montana, visit glaciermt.com/birding.