Tim Viall | On the Road
Long before the first Europeans came to the Whitefish/Glacier National Park area in Montana, Native American tribes, including the Pend Oreille, the Kootenai and the Salish called the area home for up to 14,000 years.
Though trappers and westward immigrants passed through the area during the second half of the century, it wasn’t until 1883 that the first permanent settler, John Morton, built a cabin on Whitefish Lake and soon was joined by local lumbering pioneers.
The Great Northern Railway was built through Whitefish in 1904 and brought rapid growth to the area. The Whitefish Depot was a stop on the Amtrak Empire Builder line, and nearby Glacier Park continued to draw increased visitation.
Skiing as a growing industry came on strong right after World War II, and Whitefish Mountain, originally named Big Mountain, came to be one of the top 20 ski resorts in the country with a dozen ski lifts, 2,500 vertical feet and marvelous snow conditions (though we saw some rain on our recent trip).
We have been coming to the area steadily for over 40 years, as both skiers and Glacier Park aficionados. In addition to world class skiing and stunning Montana and Glacier Park views, the town of Whitefish offers the best of western ski towns, maintaining its small western town vibe and a host of shops, galleries, restaurants and bars, many offering live entertainment.
Be sure to stop at the old Great Northern Railway Station and the resident Stumptown Historical Museum for the history of both the town and the railroad in these parts.
We recently spent four nights at our favorite lodge, Grouse Mountain Lodge, on the city’s west side. Cross country skiing/snowshoeing options abound on the Whitefish Lake Golf Course, surrounding our lodge, with 15 kilometers of trails are laid out, including 4 kilometers lighted for night skiing.
We were joined by another 20-some representing National Ski Patrol alumni, who enjoyed skiing and the sights despite a rainy early part of the week; unusual, since this part of Montana is cold to very cold, with usual deep snows.
Consider a dogsled tour for a truly memorable experience. Dog Sled Adventures, located 15 miles northwest of Whitefish in Olney, offers a company with nearly 100 Alaskan huskies to pull sleds, catering daily to couples, families or groups. We have done the dogsled adventure several times, as have our fellow travelers, and the experience goes down as one of life’s more memorable adventures.
Glacier National Park is 26 miles east of Whitefish, and in winter, visitors can drive 12 miles into the park, along Lake McDonald to Lake McDonald Lodge on Going to the Sun Highway. Though the road is closed in winter at the old lodge, one can continue on cross-country skis or snowshoes along McDonald Creek towards Logan Pass (the pass is another 21 uphill miles, however).
Other cross country trails head up the north side of Lake McDonald. The view looking down the lake to the northwest from Glacier’s Apgar area, into the depths of the national park, is one of the great views of the west.
Continue along Highway 2 on the south side of the park to the town of Essex and the Izaak Walton Inn. The inn was built as the Izaak Walton Hotel in 1939 by the Great Northern as a kitchen and overnight stop for railway workers. The Tudor Revival hotel was named after Sir Isaac Walton, the English writer and its location in Essex, formerly called Walton.
The inn offers 33 rooms in the old hotel, with another dozen refurbished cabooses, locomotives and railway club cars available for overnight lodging; a stop here will make railroad fans out of young and old. It is surrounded by cross-country ski and snowshoe trails, which makes it very popular for outdoor enthusiasts.
Following our Glacier Park experience, we are headed seven hours to the southeast to Yellowstone National Park’s Mammoth Hot Springs area, where bison, elk and wolves abound in an area of otherworldly hot springs and fumaroles. More on that in next week’s column.
For more information: Whitefish, explorewhitefish.com; Grouse Mountain Lodge, glacierparkcollection.com; Dog Sled Adventures, dogsledadventuresmontana.com; Glacier National Park, nps.gov/glac/.
Contact Tim at [email protected]. Happy winter adventures in your world!