Visit Northwest Montana’s Best Kept Secret
As the gateway to the lakes, rivers and peaks of Glacier National Park in the Rocky Mountains, Whitefish is a resort town without the crowds of Vail and Aspen, Colorado. It’s a natural base of operations for skiers, snowshoers and mountain bikers that just want to get away.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder train from Portland to Whitefish rumbles through the Columbia River Gorge at happy hour, a perfect time to sit back and catch glimpses of the gorgeous cascades of Multnomah Falls. The engine chugs toward Spokane, where the cars will couple to the Seattle train before continuing eastward through Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains and into Montana. The daily train is scheduled to arrive just after 7 a.m. in Whitefish, where winter play awaits.
Whitefish and the railroad are inextricably linked. The Great Northern Railroad depot, built in 1928, established the town’s fortunes. No fabricated Swiss-style resort design here; the tall wooden facades and low-slung awnings that line Central Avenue remain much as they did from a century ago. Call me nostalgic, but there’s something special about skiing by day, then spending evenings in an authentic Western town.
About a five-hour drive from Spokane, Whitefish doesn’t command the attention that other Rocky Mountain winter resorts receive. You might want to make dinner reservations during those two infamously clogged ski weeks in December and February, but don’t worry about long waits at the lift lines; you won’t find them here. Residents and regular visitors alike believe this secret stash of winter bliss is best kept a secret.
Friendly People, Beautiful Space
Far from being aloof, however, people in Whitefish treat me like a local, whether I’m gaining intel on evening entertainment from a bartender at the Bonsai Brewing Project, a brewhouse and restaurant, or soaking up a little trail guidance when skiing. With no local university as in Bozeman or Missoula, Whitefish culture grows primarily from those who love high country outdoor adventure, folks like native Jenny Cloutier.
While Cloutier wasn’t sure she’d permanently settle in Whitefish, she said the region called her home once she completed her master’s in environmental education in Bellingham. Today Cloutier is executive director of the Big Mountain Commercial Association, which oversees the S.N.O.W. Bus — a fleet of mountain shuttles that greatly reduces resort traffic and provides free transportation for resort employees.
“When I was growing up here as a ski-brat rat-pack kid, we only had a tow rope and two double chairs that really bounced,” Cloutier says. “I remember my cousin bouncing off right into the pit a couple of times. We have 11 chairlifts today but the local hill feeling remains very much the same.”
Cloutier says the mountain dictates this attitude. “Like Montana itself, Big Mountain, aka Whitefish Mountain Resort, is all about open space,” she explains. “It isn’t this extreme place. You can certainly find steeps in the picture shoots and elsewhere but our terrain is considered very friendly. The original planners were very intentional in creating a plan where everyone has something fun to ski. We’re actually proud of having great, wide-open groomers.”
And what a space it is. The ski area yawns across 3,000 acres with nary a lift line in sight. On many days, save peak Saturdays and certain holidays, it’s possible to ski or snowboard entire runs and see fewer than 10 people. Much of the terrain also faces north, where the snow stays colder and conditions remain similar throughout the day.
Cloutier applauds the independently owned resort for transitioning from real estate development to on-mountain improvements. “They’re moving the Hellroaring chair to a higher elevation this summer, which adds open terrain and more glades on the north face and eliminates a lengthy, narrow ski-out,” she says. “This higher elevation also means this terrain will open earlier and stay open later each season.”
A Mix of Old and New
Fortunately, not all is new in Whitefish — far from it. The mountain’s favorite wind-down watering hole, The Bierstube, is a low-raftered, dark saloon notorious for its weekly Frabert Awards, through which the ski patrol pokes fun at someone’s unfortunate actions the week before.
On the night I sat by the fire, a resort employee won the dubious award. He called in sick on his birthday, even though he was actually taking advantage of a massive powder day on the hill. What he forgot in his illness fog was the resort tracks season passes at every chairlift, a service that stores each skier’s vertical accomplishments. Turned out his supervisors tracked his skiing all day.
Like the mountain, downtown casts old and new together in a delightful milieu. The town’s most popular saloon, the Great Northern Bar & Grill, is over a century old. One block away stands Fleur Bake Shop, an exquisite French-style bakeshop.
The nearby Tupelo Grille debuted in 1995 and features a menu that’s regularly updated to match the season. House-made pastas and wood-fired pizzas make the Tupelo ideal for post-ski refueling and family dinners. Latitude 48˚ Bistro also serves fire-roasted pizzas and pastas, but I’m intrigued by the Southern-fried kimchi rice balls and Thai fried tofu, by far the tastiest bean curd I’ve ever eaten. In Montana of all places — who would have thought?
A Different Kind of Trail
Whitefish is like that, though: home to Western traditions and new trends alike. One activity I adore is fat-tire biking. The bikes are equipped with extra wide tires designed to ride across snowy trails. So I’m thrilled to head to the Whitefish Bike Retreat, the brainchild of former ultra-endurance cycling pro Cricket Butler.
Butler relocated from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Whitefish eight years ago after pausing here three different times while participating in the Tour Divide race. That 2,800-mile mountain bike competition straddles the Continental Divide from Jasper in Alberta, Canada, to Mexico.
Not one to take the simple route, Butler has created one of America’s first true mountain biking resorts, complete with a training center, campground and a sleeping lodge that contains private and bunk rooms. The Whitefish Bike Retreat is tucked deep in the woods about 20 minutes outside of town. It is a natural hub for bike-packers who travel the length of the Continental Divide, similar to backpackers on the Pacific Crest Trail. Winter presents a quieter time to hop on a fat-tire bike for a ride on the groomed trails.
“When I moved here people didn’t know what a fat-tire bike was,” Butler says. “It’s become so popular I bought two snow machines and a groomer to make trails at the retreat and in the adjacent Stillwater State Forest, where I have a permit. Now people come in winter, rent bikes here and ride the 15 miles of groomed trails at no charge.”
I’ve ridden fat-tire bikes in places ranging from Quèbec to Hokkaido, Japan, but I’ve never felt so pampered as I go bouncing along a groomed trail here. I ride for an hour, almost to where the WBR trail merges with the Whitefish Trail, part of a planned 85-mile single-track system.
“Every year this trail keeps growing,” Butler says. “The trail will eventually circle Whitefish Lake. People will ride into town, have lunch and then ride around the lake.”
Given Butler’s determination, I have no doubt she will complete the trail. People get out and do things in Whitefish, like the Nordic skiers I encounter when I visit Glacier National Park about 25 miles from town to look for birds on Lake McDonald. Having skied, rode and explored the culinary and nightlife scene, I can think of no better place to be than in Whitefish in the winter.
– Written by Crai S. Bower, last updated in January 2023.