Category Archives: Wildlife

Air Adventures in Glacier Country

Western Montana boasts some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. Lush alpine forests, sweeping valleys and mountain meadows full of wildflowers create jaw-dropping views from every angle—but a bird’s-eye view of our spectacular scenery is a view you won’t forget. An aerial tour is a one-of-a-kind adventure, from tranquil hot air balloon rides to the adrenaline rush of skydiving. Take to the skies in Glacier Country. You’ll be glad you did.

Make a treasured memory in Western Montana’s Glacier Country. Photo: Mountain Butterfly

HOT AIR BALLOONING

Soar up, up and away on a hot air balloon flight. Be carefree in the crisp mountain air and enjoy the sheer beauty of Glacier Country from above—there’s not a bad seat in the basket! The panoramic views from high up in our big blue sky are unforgettable. A mellow sunrise or sunset flight is an unbeatable way to explore from above, whether you’re on a romantic getaway or looking for a once-in-a lifetime family adventure. Mountain Butterfly takes flight year-round throughout Glacier Country, with liftoffs from Whitefish to the Bitterroot Valley and points in between. Or, float over the Flathead Valley with 2FlyUs between June and September.

Float over our sweeping valleys. Photo: Mountain Butterfly

 AIRPLANE TOURS

Taking flight in Glacier Country is one of the best ways to explore our vast terrain. See the expanse of land dotted with backcountry glacial lakes you’d otherwise spend a day hiking into, survey many of our charming small mountain towns, take in our stunning peaks amidst sweeping valleys and try to catch a glimpse of wildlife, all from an aerial perspective. Bluegoose Aviation and Montana Air Adventures offer scenic aerial tours over the Mission Mountains, Flathead Valley and Flathead Lake.

Our professional and experienced guides will ensure your comfort. Photo: Montana Air Adventures

BONUS: Take to the skies in a float plane with Backcountry Flying Experience and glide across Flathead Lake—the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—Seeley Lake, Lake Koocanusa and other lakes across northwest Montana.

Waterfalls abound in Glacier Country. Photo: Montana Air Adventures

SKYDIVING

If you’re looking for an adventure that’ll get your adrenaline pumping, skydiving in Western Montana is not to be-missed. Skydiving is an epic adventure anywhere, but Glacier Country sets the scene for a picture-perfect jump. Soak in the 360-degree grandeur of mountain peaks, sparkling lakes and sweeping meadows during the 40 second freefall—you’d be hard pressed to find a more immersive aerial tour. Skydive Whitefish offers tandem jumps from an altitude of 10,000 feet, above the quintessential mountain town of Whitefish between June and October.

Fall in love with skydiving. Photo: Skydive Whitefish

You’d be hard pressed to find a better view. Photo: Skydive Whitefish

MUSEUMS

For those of you hesitant to jump in a small plane—or out of one—here are a few options to satisfy your curiosity of Western Montana’s aerial adventures, while keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground. The Smokejumper Visitor Center in Missoula is the nation’s largest smokejumper base. Displays give you a glimpse into the life of a smokejumper. You’ll learn about smokejumper gear, cargo and aircraft, and you can explore the reconstructed lookout tower. The Missoula Smokejumper Visitor Center is open Memorial Day to Labor Day, then by appointment only. The Museum of Mountain Flying, also in Missoula and very near to the Smokejumper Visitor Center, focuses on the history of mountain flying in the Northern Rockies. Displays include multiple vintage aircraft, clothing, photographs and personal narratives and diaries.

If you visit in the spring you may even see smokejumpers taking practice jumps. Photo: Smokejumper Visitor Center

Summer Fun: Top 7 Kid Friendly Activities

For generations Western Montana’s authentic way of living has drawn families to vacation here, where adventure comes in many forms and simple pleasures such as floating a river, picking cherries off a tree or seeing wildlife on Wild Horse Island are plentiful. Try kayaking on Flathead Lake, learning to ride a horse, or taking a zip-line tour at a ski resort. Summer fun abounds in Glacier Country.

Relax and refresh in Glacier Country.

KAYAKING

Whether you’re getting the whole family out on one of our numerous lakes or floating casually down a river, Western Montana is a prime kayaking destination. Our waters make up some of the most serene parts of our region and offer an intimate way to explore our landscape and catch a glimpse of wildlife. Rentals are available throughout the region, or hire a guide who can customize a float to your comfort level and age of kids.

Saddle-up for fun! Photo: Bar W Guest Ranch

HORSEBACK RIDING

Saddling up in Western Montana is a part of the western experience, and with thousands of miles of horseback riding trails to explore, there are options (and lessons) for every experience level. Riding on horseback is a great way to see the countryside inaccessible to motorized vehicles, and kids can find their inner cowboy or cowgirl. Experienced guides can take you out for a lesson in the arena, a ride on a creekside trail, or a daylong journey into Glacier National Park or the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Either way, your family’s Western Montana vacation is sure to be memorable from the vantage point of a saddle.

Imagine the magical moments you can have on Wild Horse Island. Photo: Explore Flathead Lake

WILD HORSE ISLAND

Flathead Lake—the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—is one of Glacier Country’s biggest playgrounds, and a summer recreation hot spot. Multiple islands dot the lake, the largest of which is Wild Horse Island. Accessible only by boat, this 2,160-acre island serves as a day-use state park. Wild Horse Island is sure to delight kids of all ages. Not only is the island breathtaking, it’s a prime wildlife-watching destination, home to wild horses (hence the name), bighorn sheep, coyotes, deer and a variety of birds. While hiking on one of the island’s short trails, you can tell your kids the legend of Wild Horse Island. The Kootenai American Indians were reported to have used the island to pasture their horses and to keep them from being stolen by neighboring tribes. The horses on the Island today are, if legend is believed, descendants of those horses. To access the island you can rent a boat, or book a private charter service with a guide such as Explore Flathead Lake.

If you can’t decide which horse to ride, just ride them all. Photo: Destination Missoula

CAROUSEL

A Carousel for Missoula is not-to-be-missed and delights children and adults alike. The carousel has more than 38 horses, 14 gargoyles and two chariots; each was hand-carved and painted. The carousel is housed inside, but on warm days the shuttered walls are opened. A band organ plays while the carousel spins around, and is the largest band organ (with 400 wooden pipes) in continuous use today in the U.S. Directly next to the carousel is Dragon Hollow Park. This magical park was constructed by volunteers and envisioned by children. It’s complete with a three headed dragon, an obstacle course and a tiny tots area.

Swing, climb and navigate your way through the Aerial Adventure Park at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

WHITEFISH MOUNTAIN RESORT

Whitefish Mountain Resort is one of our premium destinations for kid-friendly fun; with unique adventures from novice to expert, there’s an activity for everyone in the family. This skier’s paradise turns into a full-swing summer resort once the snow melts, and serves up fun on the Aerial Adventure Park, zip line, alpine slides, new tubing slide and much more. Rising above the town of Whitefish, sweeping views of the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park are jaw dropping from the mountain. With on-site lodging and food, it’s easy to play the entire day.

It’s not hard to find a delicious treat at a farmers market. Photo: Destination Missoula

FARMERS MARKETS

A farmers market is the perfect way to spend a Western Montana morning, and with more than 20 in the region it’s easy to plan one into your trip. Not only will kids get an authentic glance of life in our charming small towns, but they’ll have the chance to sample local fare. From elephant chai ice cream to baked goods or fresh fruits, the markets are chock-full of locally grown and handmade food. Treats are not the only thing to delight in; often you can find a vendor who does face painting or balloon animals.

Savor the flavor of our locally grown fruits and vegetables.

U-PICK FARMS

You’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic experience than a u-pick farm. U-pick farms let kids get their hands dirty, and play a role in picking out their food, both of which kids love. The Flathead Valley boasts more than 120 growers of our famous Flathead cherries. Western Montana’s warm days and cool evenings make the perfect growing conditions for this beloved fruit, and it’s hard to find a sweeter tasting cherry. The cherry harvest begins late July, and many u-pick orchards will place signs out welcoming you to stop by. In many of our towns you’ll be able to find a u-pick farm to pick a sampling of local fruit, vegetables and farm fresh eggs.

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

Bark Ranger Gracie Teaches Wildlife Safety

Glacier National Park boasts an abundance of wildlife—one of the most intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states. The park is home to at least 19 large mammals, including bear, moose and bighorn sheep. These magnificent animals are exciting to witness in their natural setting, however, wildlife is just that: wild. We need to respect their space, for their safety and ours. To help keep wildlife a safe distance from visitors, the park hired an expert on the subject—Gracie the Bark Ranger. Learn how Gracie is keeping you safe this season, and discover best practices when it comes to wildlife safety. Warning, cuteness overload ahead.

Gracie wears an orange vest on duty to let visitors know she’s a working dog. Photo: National Park Service/A.W. Biel

BARK RANGER GRACIE

The secret is out, Glacier National Park’s sheer beauty is unrivaled, and as the number of visitors increases each year, so does the likelihood of human-wildlife interactions. To address visitor safety, Glacier National Park hired an employee-owned dog for wildlife shepherding. Bark Ranger Gracie is a professionally trained border collie who moves bighorn sheep and mountain goats out of dense visitor areas. Gracie shepherds wildlife by applying pressure from a distance through standing her ground and the occasional staredown. And no, she does not work on bears!

Once the wildlife is a safe distance away Gracie stops shepherding. Photo: National Park Service/A.W. Biel

You’ll often find Gracie working on-leash at Logan Pass. At the crest of the Continental Divide, Logan Pass serves up jaw-dropping views of meadows filled with wildflowers and the occasional mountain goat or bighorn sheep, and, sometimes, a grizzly bear or two. As one of the most popular passes with the highest elevation reachable by car, the parking lot is generally full during the day. Bighorn sheep and other wildlife have been habituated to visit the parking lot to scavenge for litter left behind by visitors.

Gracie looks to Mark for instructions. Photo: National Park Service/A.W. Biel

Habituation happens when wildlife are repeatedly exposed to humans and then no longer see visitors as a threat. Wildlife may approach visitors themselves or may allow visitors to come close to them. However, any wildlife in close proximity creates a dangerous situation for both humans and animals. Wildlife can become aggressive at any point if they suddenly feel threatened, and they may kick, bite or gore. Bark Ranger Gracie shepherds animals to stay 30 – 75 yards away from the parking lot, which is still a close enough distance for visitors to watch and get a picture-perfect photo. Wildlife shepherding works because mountain goats and bighorn sheep have an innate fear of predators, and they view Gracie as a predator.

Gracie takes a break to share her love of Glacier National Park. Photo: National Park Service/A.W. Biel

Glacier National Park’s ultimate goal for the wildlife shepherding program is to teach mountain goats and bighorn sheep to decide for themselves to avoid dense visitor areas. You’ll also find Gracie educating visitors on wildlife safety and why approaching and feeding wildlife is dangerous. During the winter, Gracie keeps up with her commands by herding deer out of the park’s headquarters and residential areas. Mountain lions will follow their prey, and moving deer out of populated areas also helps reduce the presence of mountain lions.

Gracie reminds you to follow Glacier National Park’s pet regulations. Photo: National Park Service/A.W. Biel

Bark Ranger Gracie is a certified and professionally trained dog who is permitted to go to specific places in Glacier where other dogs cannot. Read the pet regulations for Glacier National Park when planning your trip. For more adorable photos and safety information, follow Bark Ranger Gracie on instagram.

Gracie knows the wildlife safety rules, do you? Photo: National Park Service/A.W. Biel

WILDLIFE SAFETY TIPS

Here are some tips for having a safe, pleasant, and respectful experience when wildlife watching.

View wildlife from the safety of your car or from a safe distance. Stay at least 25 yards away from all wildlife except bears—who you’ll need to give at least a hundred-yard berth. Tip: Bring binoculars and a camera with zoom if you’re looking for close-ups.

Never approach, touch or feed wildlife, even when an animal approaches or doesn’t seem to be threatened by your presence—wildlife may not know better, but you do! Don’t risk injury to yourself or the animal over a selfie. Some wildlife have been habituated to approach visitors for human food, but don’t feed wildlife, and be sure to distance yourself from them. Human food is harmful to wildlife, big and small, and can result in poor nutrition and a shorter lifespan. Learn about Leave No Trace for more information about respect for wildlife and their habitat.

Let wildlife know you’re nearby. When hiking, be sure to bring a chatty friend, carry bear spray, stay on designated trails and make noise at regular intervals. Learn more about specific safety information when camping or recreating in bear country.

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.

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.

Glacier Beyond the Crowds: Guest Blog by Andy Austin

As a guide in Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park (GNP) I am no stranger to their beauty, but I am also no stranger to their crowds. With record numbers expected to hit GNP again this year, I knew it was time to explore the surrounding regions. My name is Andy Austin, and I’m a photographer based out of Montana. For the past three weeks, I have road-tripped across Montana in search of spring wildflowers and epic adventures. As my tour starts to come to a close in northwest Montana’s Glacier Country, many of my friends guessed that my trip would take me to the Flathead Valley and GNP, an area I spend a good deal of free time in. But, for this adventure, I had my eyes set on solitude and escaping the crowds.

Video by Lyman Gillen. 

As I finished up my tour in Missoula, I headed north on my usual route towards the Flathead, but this trip was different, as I diverted my path west. My first stop was the National Bison Range, a detour that logistically only cost me 20 minutes, but in reality, kept me captivated for an entire morning. As I forced myself to part ways with watching a herd of bison majestically moving against the backdrop of the Mission Mountain Range I set my sights on the first official stop of the trip, Thompson Falls.

The National Bison Range in Moiese, outside of Charlo, is totally worth the stop. Photo: Andy Austin

Thompson Falls is a quaint little town with an almost immediate beauty hidden behind the historic main road. The town’s dam releases an impressive cascade of water and the views are unbeatable. Even one of my followers remarked that they had once driven through Thompson Falls, but didn’t even think to get off the main road. After a day of exploring the area, my friends and I headed to Island Park to get the best view of the dam and watch the sunset. In the two hours we hung out on those cliffs we didn’t see a single soul, and this was a foreshadowing for the solitude we’d find on our journey.

Sunset at the Thompson Falls Dam. Photo: Andy Austin

After a night of camping on Noxon Reservoir, we woke to a crisp mountain sunrise. The stillness of the lake was only matched by the stillness in the air as, once again, we were the only ones there to watch the sunrise. We packed up camp and headed to Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area to walk amongst the giants. These trees are up to 500 years old and photos don’t even begin to portray their size and beauty.

Ross Creek Cedar Forest offers amazing hiking opportunities; you have to see these trees to believe their size. Photo: Andy Austin

Libby was our next destination, and we arrived to check into our beautiful cabin along the Kootenai River at Dave Blackburn’s Kootenai Angler. The afternoon was spent exploring the Libby Dam before heading off to check a big item off of my bucket list, Kootenai Falls. I’ve seen photos of the falls before and expected a large crowd given how easy the hike is, but, yet again, we were some of the only people around. We took the swinging bridges across the Kootenai River and marveled at the powerful river below before finally heading over to see the actual falls. The whole experience lived up to the hype and then some.

Checked something off the bucket list: the Kootenai River Suspension Bridge. Photo: Andy Austin

The next morning, Kootenai legend Dave Blackburn himself offered to take us out for a float trip down the Kootenai River. The views were stunning and bald eagles were spotted around every bend. As much as I wanted to move into this beautiful cabin, there was still one more town to check off on my roadtrip across the region—Eureka. As we drove up from the Libby Dam we spent the next 40+ miles driving along Lake Koocanusa, and we finally got a feel for just how massive this lake really is. On my list of places to hit was the H.A. Brewing Co., but as I drove out there I realized I was heading off into the mountains. I thought, there is no way there is a brewery tucked out in the middle of nowhere. Sure enough, we arrived at a beautiful, rustic building with a pizza truck out front. Walking in I realized why this place was recommended by so many people I had come across on this trip. H.A. Brewing was an oasis in the middle of the mountains offering up tasty pizza and even tastier brews. Feeling properly fueled for another adventure, my friends and I headed back out onto Lake Koocanusa to go canoeing. Being only an hour from Whitefish I expected to see boaters in every direction, but, yet again, we were the only people out on the water. It was pure bliss.

An evening paddle on Lake Koocanusa is something I could get used to. Photo: Andy Austin

As a lover of Glacier National Park, I think I’ve found my answer when the crowds get the best of me and I need a little solitude. I’ve barely scratched the surface in these mountains, and I can’t wait to return!

Happy Adventuring,

Andy Austin

Beyond the Park: Explore Western Montana’s Glacier Country

The Crown of the Continent. The Backbone of the World. Heaven on Earth. Glacier National Park boasts some pretty apt nicknames. But did you know the epic beauty and unrivaled adventure extend well beyond park boundaries? From charming small towns to pristine rivers and recreation areas, Montana offers a wonderland of discovery.

Blodgett Canyon Overlook shows off Western Montana’s classic big-mountain views. Photo: Noah Couser

Summertime is the park’s busiest season, making it the perfect time to explore what the rest of Western Montana’s Glacier Country has to offer. Here’s a list of things to do and places to see outside the park, plus a few tips and tricks to navigate our peak season and busiest times of day.

SCENIC DRIVES
The stunning scenery and glacial-carved terrain roll right on out of the park for hundreds of miles in every direction. Take the road less traveled on some of Montana’s scenic byways for a jaw-dropping drive in some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. The best part? There’s usually a backroad adventure or hidden small-town treasure around every bend. Hit the road on one of our favorite routes:

Highway 200: Bonner to Clearwater Junction
Highway 83/Highway 12: Lolo to Idaho
St. Regis-Paradise Scenic Byway
Montana Tour 200 
Highway 2, Kalispell to Troy
Highway 89, St. Mary to Choteau
Lake Koocanusa Scenic Byway

WILDLIFE VIEWING
Sometimes the best way to spot our majestic wildlife is to go where the crowds aren’t. Western Montana is a birder’s paradise and haven for creatures big and small, offering some pretty incredible viewing areas. Remember to bring your binoculars and always follow wildlife safety guidelines—this is grizzly country, after all! Head to one of our most-treasured wildlife habitat areas:

National Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge
National Bison Range
Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge
Bull River Wildlife Management Area

HIKING
One of the easiest ways to cover ground in and get up close and personal with Montana is to head out on your own two feet. Every single one of our trailheads leads to a path of discovery, running the gamut from easy rambles to backcountry wilderness treks. You’ll find sprawling valleys, wildflower-filled meadows, towering peaks, pristine alpine lakes and waterfalls, lush forestland and quiet canyons, all offering an awe-inspiring and unforgettable adventure. The following wilderness areas offer of miles upon miles of trails to explore, or check out more of our favorite trails here.

Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex
Cabinet Mountains Wilderness
Mission Mountains Wilderness Complex

OUTSIDE PLAY
From rodeos to rock climbing and zip lining to llama trekking, Western Montana offers infinite ways to play. Here, we hit the rivers and lakes for boating, rafting and world-class fly-fishing. We explore small towns for real cowboy adventures and relaxing yoga retreats. We take to the trails by bike and by horseback. Below are some of our favorite ways to play, Montana style:

Biking: Whitefish Bike Retreat
Gondola Rides: Whitefish Mountain Resort
Rafting: Adventure Missoula
Fly-Fishing, Kootenai Angler
Yoga Retreats: Dancing Spirit Ranch
Horseback Riding: Swan Mountain Outfitters
Llama Trekking: Swan Mountain
Rock Climbing at Lake Koocanusa: Rock Climb Montana
Cowboy Up: Rodeos

With Swan Mountain Outfitters, see Western Montana by horseback, on a llama or on your own two feet. Photo: Donnie Sexton

HISTORY + CULTURE
Montana’s rich heritage and breathtaking vistas inspire a cultural landscape you’ll not want to miss. From two Indian Nations—the Blackfeet and the Flathead—to numerous museums, galleries, theaters, historical sites, farmers markets, shops, eateries (from fine dining to food trucks) and watering holes (did we mention we have more than 20 breweries and distilleries?) you’ll be planning your next visit before this one’s even over. Check out the following Montana must-see cultural destinations:

Bigfork Summer Playhouse  
Missoula Art Museum  
Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana
Museum of Mountain Flying
Smokejumper Visitor Center

The Missoula Art Museum showcases a thriving art scene in Western Montana. Photo: Slikati Photography

LODGES + CABINS
Staying outside the park gives you the opportunity to explore some of our border-town communities infused with the spirit of Glacier Country and that warm western hospitality we’re known for. Take advantage of beyond-the-park adventures and then head into the park at less crowded times of day. Here are three friendly and memorable places to get cozy beyond park boundaries:

Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge
Park Cabin Co.
Polebridge Cabins

STATE PARKS + FISHING ACCESS SITES
Psst…did you know that Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks fishing access sites are also campsites? Check out their website for campsite info. We love our state parks, and while many do reach capacity throughout the summer, they offer a true and unforgettable Western Montana outdoor experience. Make your way to one of the following public-land paradises: 

Logan State Park 
Thompson Falls State Park
Placid Lake State Park  
Salmon Lake State Park 

Swim, boat, fish and play at Placid Lake in the Swan Valley, a Glacier Country gem. Photo: Kelsey Lau

PEAK SEASON TRAVEL TIPS + TRICKS
Glacier National Park is expecting another record year for visitor numbers. Planning your trip with this in mind can help you navigate some of the peak-season challenges. Check out Glacier National Park’s Twitter feed for real-time updates on parking-lot statuses, weather, road closures, and other important information. Webcam feeds are also updated on Glacier website for some of the park’s most popular spots.

Here are few other tips and tricks we recommend for making your visit to Glacier National Park enjoyable and memorable:

  • Take a Tour: Help reduce traffic and hop on a bus for an educational and interactive tour with Red Bus Tours or Sun Tours. Check on the Glacier Institute’s list of summer programs and outings.
  • Shuttle it: Ride Glacier National Park’s Free Shuttle System.
  • Plan for delays: With a record number of people heading to Glacier National Park this summer, roads, parking lots and trails will be busier. Pack extra food and water, and set aside a little extra time to fully enjoy your adventure in The Crown of the Continent.

One of the best experiecnes you can have in Glacier National Park—a Red Bus Tour.

There’s so much to see and do in Glacier Country. From our charming small town to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we’ve got a lifetime of discovery and experiences to offer. Come see for yourself!

Picture Perfect Spring Road Trip: Charlo + Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge

There are few things better than hitting the open road with friends and discovering the beauty of a place from behind the wheel of your vehicle. One of the best places to explore by car: Western Montana’s Glacier Country. Our wide-open spaces, charming small towns, jaw-dropping landscapes and well-maintained highway system make for the perfect place to hit the open road.

The weather has been warming up, so, naturally, we found it necessary to take a road trip to the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. We kicked off our travels in Missoula and took the scenic route through Moiese. That was the right choice—it offered up some beautiful scenery! Here are some of our favorite shots from one perfect afternoon.

A big blue sky and puffy white clouds offered a picture-perfect day.

Driving to the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, we took a must-stop in Moiese at the National Bison Range.

We stopped in Charlo for lunch at this little gem. The food was delicious!

We made it!

We were greeted with spectacular views of the refuge and the Mission Mountains.

Excuse us while we swoon over this view.

This 4,027-acre refuge, open year-round, offers amazing opportunities for hiking, birding and wildlife viewing.

On our way home, we stopped at Great Gray Gifts. This place has some of the best Made-in-Montana gifts around.

And…the tastiest huckleberry milkshakes!

For more daily doses of Western Montana, be sure to follow us on instagram (GlacierMT) and twitter (GlacierMT).

Happy Adventuring!

 

Wildlife and Water Safety in Western Montana

Montana: wild, magical and unapologetically undiscovered. This beautiful state is home to wide-open spaces, national parks, rugged backcountry terrain, glacial rivers, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas.

From massive bison in the National Bison Range to grizzly and black bears in Glacier National Park, Montana is home to a variety of wildlife. In order to help all of us have positive encounters with Montana’s wildlife and wild landscape, we’ve rounded up a few tips and guidelines to keep in mind when exploring the great outdoors.

Wildlife is wild. While bison may seem like gentle giants and bears may look a little playful and cuddly, just remember this: it’s not the case! Do not approach wild animals, or try to pet or touch them. Keep this in mind not just in Glacier National Park, but in our refuge systems as well, and always follow the rules of the area you are visiting. For instance, when traveling along designated roads at the National Bison Range, you are not permitted to exit your vehicle. These rules are in place not just to keep visitors safe, but also for the safety of wildlife.

Follow the recommended wildlife viewing guidelines. Let’s be honest, we’ve ALL been tempted to get just a little bit closer to snag that perfect photo. And while moving in 10 feet closer may help you land that perfectly framed Instagram photo, just don’t do it. Park regulations state that all visitors should stay at least 100 yards (the length of a football field) away from bears and at least 25 yards away from other large animals, including bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose and coyotes. It’s always encouraged to view wildlife from the safety of your car. 

A black bear in Western Montana. Photo courtesy: tonybynum.com

Don’t trap them. Videos have been published showing bears and other wildlife pinned on bridges or feeling trapped on trails. If an animal feels trapped, it will become agitated. Try not to put yourself in a situation where you are more focused on taking photos or videos than you are on safety, and recognize when a situation can be handled more cautiously.

Never approach, touch or feed wildlife, even when an animal approaches you or doesn’t seem to be threatened by your presence—wildlife may not know better, but you do! Don’t risk injury to yourself or the animal over a selfie. Some wildlife have been habituated to approach visitors for human food, but don’t feed wildlife, and be sure to distance yourself from them. Human food is harmful to wildlife, big and small, and can result in poor nutrition and a shorter lifespan. Learn about Leave No Trace for more information on respect for wildlife and their habitat.

Let bears know you’re nearby. When hiking, be sure to hike with a buddy, stay on trails and make noise. Feel free to bust out show tunes or just say “hey bear” loudly as you make your way along the trail. Trust us when we tell you that bears don’t want to see you on the trail just as much as you don’t want to see them there.

Always give bears plenty of room and never approach. Photos: GlacierNPS Flickr (Tim Rains)

Water safety should be a priority. Did you know that water is the number one cause of fatalities in Glacier National Park? Swift, cold glacial streams and rivers, moss-covered rocks and slippery logs all present dangers. Rapid, frigid streams and deep glacial lakes are absolutely stunning, but need to be recognized as a possible threat. Avoid wading in or fording swift streams. Also be aware of signs of hypothermia when cautiously wading through calm streams, hiking trails or swimming in lakes.

Be sure to be safe around beautiful icy blue glacial water.

Stay safe, and happy exploring!