Northwest Montana: Summertime for the Sedentary Traveler

The author, niece Ellie, and son John, riding the chairlift down Big Mountain in Whitefish, Montana I’ve written a lot recently about Montana: the hiking, the berry-picking, the swimming, all the vigorous activities you can get up to in the Rocky Mountains. As one last post inspired by my recent trip home, here’s one for the people who want to enjoy Northwest Montana without spending a hard-core month at the gym beforehand.

Both Whitefish and Glacier Park have plenty to offer the more sedentary traveler. For summertime activities, there’s Big Mountain in Whitefish (which I cannot, I’m sorry, start calling by the name chosen by its new Aspen Corporation owners: Whitefish Mountain Resort. It’s too much of a mouthful. And the logo looks like a fish from the nuclear plant in the Simpsons). A ski resort in winter, in summer the mountain offers, in addition to hiking and mountain biking, an Alpine Slide, a Zip Line, a “Walk in the Treetops;” and, so you can have beers and a stunning view at the summit, the gondola chairlift that runs all summer long. My 5-year-old niece adored the ride up the gondola, and we chose a chair — pictured above — for the ride down, which was less utterly silent but offered more scope for views.

If you get to the top and feel up to it, you can take an easy wildflower walk around the top ridges of the mountain. Even more than stupendous mountains, there’s nothing like a delicate meadow of paintbrush, beargrass, and lupine that says “Montana” to me. The Summit House also has a little field museum downstairs, where you can learn about the various flora and fauna in the area. The even have lots of stuffed dead creatures and various fur pelts so the kids can get an idea of size, scale, and fur style of various local animals.

Down in the town, there’s the Amtrak train station, which always draws my train-loving husband. The station museum is a testament to Whitefish’s gritty railroad frontier history that gave rise to its original name “Stumptown.” It’s also full of memories for me, as I spent my entire 4 years of college riding Amtrak back and forth from this station to St. Paul, Minnesota, every Christmas and summer.

Handmade pottery at the annual Huckleberry Fair in Whitefish, MontanaIf you make it in August, you might be in town at just the right time for Huckleberry Days, a celebration of the Rockies’ treasured huckleberry. Music, festivities, and the Huckleberry Fair in the train depot park at one end of town. I was delighted with the fair, having never been before: craftspeople and artists from all over the Northwest make an annual pilgrimage to sell their wares here.

The Huckleberry Fair is definitely a step back in time. While there are fast-food vendors and glossy town-related pamphlets, there aren’t, for example, eager hawkers of tawdry goods. “Web site?” repeated one artist and crafter after another. “Nah. I just sell at fairs, like this. Much more fun than keeping up a storefront, and I’m just not interested in shipping stuff through the Internet.”

Need antlers? Horn art at the Huckleberry Fair in Whitefish, MontanaWay to make you feel like what you’re buying is unique. Although I really don’t see myself going in for antler art. I know people who buy vacation homes in Montana think you’ve got to decorate them with silly moose-patterned blankets and so on, but a lamp made of deer antlers, however well crafted, does come across as a little weird.

If you aren’t in town for the fair, the Whitefish Farmers Market is open all summer, every Tuesday from 5 to 7:30 p.m. In addition to local produce (both wild and cultivated), there are artisans selling everything from jewelry to soap, and entertainment by local musicians.

Red Jammer tour bus, a tradition in Glacier National ParkAnd then there’s Glacier National Park, which, however much I value its miles and miles of hiking trails and solitary mountain scrambles, is by no means inaccessible to those not interested in lacing on the boots. One of the park’s most popular things to do is to take a Jammer bus tour. Known prosaically as Scenic Interpretive Red Bus Tours, the vintage red buses roam all over the park on scheduled tours. They’re immensely popular, and I’d almost say that hiking purists miss out on one great park experience by avoiding the guided bus trip.

Lake McDonald Lodge, Glacier National Park, unchanged for decadesAnd afterwards, whether you’ve hiked the nearly 14 miles to Sperry Chalet and back, stretched your legs on one of Glacier’s easier hikes, or stuck with the Jammer bus, it’s worth stopping by Lake McDonald Lodge or Apgar Lodge for a Moose Drool beer, a buffalo burger, and a real introduction to the park’s history. Lake McDonald Lodge has the kind of view that grabs you by the throat: the still, sparkling motor-free lake (except for the scheduled boat cruises) backed by completely wild mountains showing the scars of 2003’s forest fires. Inside, the rustic Swiss chalet-style architecture, with strong beams and a fireplace you could walk into, has remained nearly unchanged since 1914.

Just because you don’t hike doesn’t mean Montana isn’t for you. All you need is a sense of humor, a sense of adventure, and a love for nature in its wild form.

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