A fall trip to Whitefish.
One crisp morning, you look up at the surrounding mountaintops and notice something new: a fresh dusting of autumn snow. And you know, just as surely as those peaks are white, so too will the snow fly in the lower country as the season wanes on. For some, it can’t happen soon enough; for others, that first snowfall is the most dreaded day of the year. But whether you love the impending winter or loathe it, one thing’s for sure: it’s time to make the most of the fall. The out-of-state visitors are mostly gone, and there are some particularly pleasant places to enjoy the peace and solitude that the season brings. Whitefish is one of those places.
Like other vacation destinations in Montana, tourism in Whitefish slows down at the end of summer. That leaves most of the fun and games for locals, or for astute Bozemanites in the know. Whitefish also has some of the best fall colors in the state. What better way to spend the fleeting days of fall than by chasing the ever-elusive foliage? Even if you don’t fancy yourself a leaf-peeper, there are plenty of other ways to experience the best of northwest Montana—be that a bike, hike, run, or drive.
The town of Whitefish has a quaint and classic design with some modern touches—a lot like Bozeman’s downtown, but without the sprawl. It feels like the clock’s been turned back as you stroll around. In the fall especially, it feels particularly sleepy.
In the summer, cars line up bumper-to-bumper just to get a glimpse of the landscape that makes Glacier so famous. But this time of year, you have a much better chance at solitude.
When it’s time to get settled in for the night, camping is always a great option. Hotels and lodges are comfortable, but you lose the intimacy with your surroundings. To find a spot for your tent, you’ll need to get a bit out of town. There are some dispersed camping areas once you get closer to Coram or Apgar; or try poking around North Fork Road on the Flathead River, or near Blankenship Bridge. Don’t forget your fishing rod.
Hit the Trails
Just inside Glacier National Park, at the West Glacier entrance, the Apgar Lookout Trail is a great hiking option to get your bearings. You’ll get a stunning perspective on Lake McDonald with expansive views into the park. There are lots of other options in the area if you want a little more seclusion. As always, the further you go into the woods, the fewer people you’ll probably see and the more wildlife and untouched scenery there will be. Just be sure to bring along a canister of bear spray.
Hit the Saddle
Had enough hiking for the weekend? Give your legs a rest and take to the trails on horseback at the Bar W Guest Ranch. Experienced riders and complete novices alike can tag along with expert guides to see the landscape in a whole new way. Located right at the foot of Spencer Mountain, Bar W is in the heart of the most beautiful terrain Whitefish has to offer. Explore the lush mountain forest through tall larch trees—turning golden, if you hit it right—on singletrack trails.
Hit the Road
With so much area to explore, a driving tour is a good way to see a whole lot of country in a short amount of time. Going to the Sun Road is renowned for its breathtaking views and access to Glacier Park’s higher reaches. In the summer, cars line up bumper-to-bumper just to get a glimpse of the landscape that makes the park so famous. But this time of year, you have a much better chance at solitude. Just be sure to keep an eye on the weather when planning your drive. Conditions often change on a dime, which can lead to dangerous driving and even road closures. Typically, the road stays open through October; however, you’ll still need a reservation. If you’d rather just sit back and enjoy a ride without the hassle, check out Sun Tours. They offer daily interpretive tours on Blackfeet culture along Going to the Sun Road—land that is part of the Blackfeet’s ancestral territory—along with private tours.
Hit the Town
You’ve earned a nice, relaxing evening after a long day out on the trails. There are plenty of great places around the area in which to kick back and get a taste of the local fare. One such place is Glacier Distilling’s tasting room, just outside of town. Their spirits stand chin-to-chin with the best. I recommend the Trapline Rock & Rye. The orange spice is sure to remind you of the changing autumnal colors.
So what do you say? Whether you want to hold onto the season a bit longer, or you’re just looking for a unique road trip this fall, make your way up to Whitefish—before the snow flies.
Editor’s note: Like most beautiful mountain towns, Whitefish is being loved to death. With the increased traffic, wear and tear is inevitable—but we can each do our part to minimize impacts by simply being mindful of our surroundings. The Whitefish Chamber of Commerce has created its “Friend of the Fish” campaign to ensure the town operates sustainably. Give their checklist a run through at explorewhitefish.com.