A weekend getaway in the frigid Flathead Valley.
Bozeman and Kalispell have a lot in common. Both are nestled in the shadow of stellar ski resorts and act as gateways to iconic national parks. Where Kalispell differs is its access to water, and I’m not talking about rivers. Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, is less than 10 miles away and harbors much of the area’s outdoor activities. During the summer, the lake bustles with sailors, boaters, and tubers in every direction. But lake recreation doesn’t exactly cool off once the lake freezes over. Be it on the ice or off, Kalispell in the wintertime has no shortage of outdoor opportunities.
The drive up is a good reminder to enjoy the journey as well as the destination. At just over five hours, the route takes you through many quaint roadside towns that are symbolic of rural Montana. One of my favorites is Seeley Lake. Catch it on the right day with a little flurry and you’re sure to feel like you're in a life-sized snow globe. Continuing north, take in the frosty forest and mountain lakes, ticking them off as you drive by: Inex, Alva, Swan, and finally Flathead. You’ve made it.
After half a day of driving, you’re sure to work up an appetite. Luckily, there are great food and drink options in Big Fork, right when you pop out into the valley. Grab a bite of fresh, farm-to-table grub at Montana Bonfire, and since you’re in the area, swing by Whistling Andy Distillery for a taste of tipple. Pick out your favorite bottle and bring it along. You’re gonna need that whiskey blanket later. While Bigfork could easily warrant its own outdoor write-up, we have other plans this time around. Hop back in and finish the final leg to Kalispell.
Tucked away neatly between the Swan, Mission, and Salish mountains, and just a stone’s throw from the famously clear waters of Flathead Lake, Kalispell is well worth the journey. With outdoor opportunities galore, and a past as rich as our own, you’ll likely find a few things that remind you of home. What you won’t find, though, are crowds. Kalispell’s population comes in at around half of Bozeman’s, with nowhere near the bustle. For a charming, convenient stay in the heart of town, try the Kalispell Grand Hotel. Established in 1912, this cozy abode will make you feel as if you’re really living in the wild west of Montana, though the accommodations have definitely caught up. The Grand Hotel’s downtown location is a prime spot to base out of for a weekend full of activities.
Once you’ve settled in, set your sights on what you came here for: the outdoors. Skiing is an obvious first choice, with a couple operating ski areas close by and near limitless backcountry possibilities in the Swan Range and other surrounding areas. If you prefer Nor-dorking or snowshoeing, check out one of the many trails, Forest Service roads, or state parks that offer skinny-skiing opportunities. In the case that you don’t enjoy sliding around on planks, look to one of Kalispell’s more arcane outdoor pursuits.
There are numerous dogsledding outfits in town that allow for a unique excursion exploring the vast expanses around the Flathead Valley. Or, look into a winter paddling tour on the lake. Don’t forget your wetsuit! Brought your rod and auger? Head to the frozen section and test your luck at an exciting variety of species from perch to pike to the notoriously monstrous lake trout. If the fishing’s no good, break out the skates and get a game of hockey or broomball going. The bottom line here is that no matter what you choose, boredom is not an option.
No good day is complete without some aprés to top it off. Before heading back to the Grand, enjoy a local brew and some fare at Bias Brewing. Don’t see anything you like? Wait 10 minutes, they will have likely added more beers to the menu to complement their “mainstays.”
So there you have it, a weekend of icy adventure in Kalispell. Surely, there is much more to do than included here, but we’ll leave the rest of the discovering to you, which is half the fun anyway. Take a trip this winter, then do it again once the lake thaws out for a whole new experience. But, no matter the season, you’ll surely find something swell to do in Kalispell.