What To Do in Northwestern Montana in the Summer
If you've followed me for a little while you know that I grew up in Montana and it's my absolute favorite place to be, especially in the summer months when the days are long and the breathtaking scenery is at its peak. Because of my roots and love for Big Sky Country, I am frequently asked for suggestions on where to go and what to do in Montana. With over 147,000 square miles to explore, it can be tough to know where to start, so I'm focusing in on my favorite region - Northwestern Montana (think Glacier National Park, Flathead Valley, etc). In my opinion this is the best part of the state not only from a scenic standpoint but also from a recreational standpoint (followed closely by the Yellowstone/Big Sky region which I'll share about in the future). Whether you're a first time visitor or seasoned guest, here's my shortlist of what to do and where to stay in Northwestern Montana during the summer months.
What To Do
- Visit Glacier National Park - If I had to suggest just one thing to do in the region, especially for first time visitors, it would be to spend time in Glacier National Park, which probably comes as no surprise as over 3 million people visit the park annually. I'm not going to go in-depth in this post as to all you should see and do in the park (although I will at some point), but if you're limited on time (say only have one day) my suggestion would be to enter the park in West Glacier and head to the small village of Apgar for the best view of Lake McDonald and a quick breakfast at Eddie's Cafe. From there drive up the lake and stop in Lake McDonald Lodge, a classic Swiss chalet style lodge set on the banks of the park's largest lake, which is worth stopping in for a quick walk around the property and a few minutes sitting by the lobby's roaring fireplace. This is also the starting point for the park's most iconic attraction and an absolute must-do, a drive up Logan Pass, better known as Going To The Sun Road. To get the most out of the experience I suggest first-timers forgo their own means of transportation and book a famous Red Bus tour to take them to the top. Since much of the park’s scenery is vertically oriented, the buses roll-back tops are perfect for providing full views of the stunning mountains and the state's signature Big Sky, and the seasoned guides provide a wealth of knowledge. I take a drive up Logan Pass every summer and never tire of the magnificent views! Once you're at the top there's a great, easy hike to Hidden Lake Overlook or if you'd prefer a more relaxing nature trail, stop at the Trail of the Cedars on your drive back down. Last summer I took a horseback trail-ride through the park (read here) which is another fun thing to add to your itinerary!
Explore Whitefish Mountain and the resort town of Whitefish - Whitefish is a year-round playground offering world-class skiing in the winter and all types of outdoor recreation in the summer. Great for the whole family, Whitefish Mountain offers a wide range of activities from mountain biking and hiking, to zip line tours, an alpine slide and even an aerial adventure park. For spectacular views of the area including Glacier National Park, enjoy a leisurely ride on an enclosed gondola or an open chairlift to the summit. If you want to take things slow, Whitefish has a charming downtown where high-end art galleries and recreational outfitters rub shoulders, or a few minutes away lies Whitefish Lake, a gorgeous 7-mile-long glacial lake perfect for boating. For more on Whitefish, read my full guide to this charming western town.
- Take a scenic drive - This doesn't take much effort, as literally everywhere you'll travel to during your time in Montana will have beautiful views, but if you're looking to take a scenic drive one of my favorites is a seventy mile stretch through the Flathead National Forest between Seeley Lake and the town of Bigfork. Pristine lakes peek through the heavily forested mountains lining the road making it near impossible to drive the whole way without stopping to take photos.
- Spend the day in Bigfork - If home is where the heart is, my home is in Bigfork. Located in a bay at the north end of Flathead Lake, Bigfork is a quaint resort village brimming with art galleries, restaurants, golfing, boutiques and live theater. Whether you're staying on the lake or just passing through, a stop in Bigfork is an absolute must! Grab breakfast at Pocketstone Cafe, take a run along the Wild Mile or see a show at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse. Trust me, you won't want to leave!
- Enjoy time on Flathead Lake - You'll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful lake than Flathead! It's the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, with crystal clear water below, majestic mountains to each side and the Big Sky above. I spend every summer on these waters and never can get enough! Due to its large size, you often feel as though you have the lake to yourself making it a great spot for everything from speed boating to sailing. Watercraft rentals can be found around the lake, with the most options being in Bigfork, Polson and Lakeside. If you did nothing more than spend a week relaxing on its shores and boating its waters, your trip to Montana would be a success!
- Cherry picking at a local orchard - Speaking of Flathead, the eastern shore of the lake is lined with cherry orchards which come mid-July are ripe and ready to harvest. If you have the time visit a U-pick orchard (Bigfork Orchards is my favorite) and pick a basket full of the crave-worthy fruit yourself. I did this for the first time a few years ago and really enjoyed the experience (read here)! If you'd prefer to spend your time on the lake instead of its shores, stop at one of the many charming roadside stands and grab a bag to go. So delicious!
- Attend a rodeo - For an authentic western experience, pull on your boots, grab your cowboy hat and attend a rodeo! Head to Columbia Falls (10 miles from Whitefish and 20 miles from West Glacier) and attend Western Montana’s longest-running rodeo, which happens every Thursday all summer long. Brash Rodeo events include bull riding, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, team roping and barrel racing. You'll feel like a cowboy in no time!
- Go fly fishing on the Flathead River - Montana is legendary for its outstanding fly fishing and the waters that surround Glacier National Park are no exception. So why not give it a try while visiting? The Flathead River flows through the broad and beautiful Flathead Valley near Glacier National Park, Whitefish and Bigfork. Enjoy a guided trip on a drift boat down this gin clear river while fly fishing for native westslope cutthroat trout. Since the river is glacier influenced, the hatches are not as prolific as some of the more famous rivers in Montana. But neither are the crowds, resulting in much less fishing pressure and generally more willing fish. There are a handful of outfitters in the area that provide guided trips but be sure to make a reservation in advance.
Where To Stay
- The Lodge at Whitefish Lake - Inspired by the grand lodges of the past, with all the conveniences of the present, The Lodge has returned a sense of leisure and grace to the Montana travel experience. Surrounded by mountains with the pristine waters of Whitefish Lake at its back door, and all the amenities of a full-service resort hotel, The Lodge provides the perfect location for your Northwest Montana adventure.
- Averill's Flathead Lake Lodge - Steeped in Western lifestyle, ranching, and a splash of lake life, Flathead Lake Lodge is an all-inclusive Montana dude ranch that has been hosting guests from around the world for over 70 years. With activities ranging from horseback riding and whitewater rafting, to kayaking and waterskiing, to bonfires and barn dances, the lodge offers something for everyone making it a perfect family destination. It's not cheap, but truly is a world-class, one-of-a-kind experience!
- Under Canvas Glacier - There's no shortage of campgrounds in the area, but if you're looking for a unique experience stay at Under Canvas Glacier, a glamping camp located 7 miles from Glacier National Park. The Under Canvas safari-inspired tents include amenities such as daily housekeeping and fresh towels, plush king-size beds, luxurious linens, en suite bathrooms and even a wood burning stove for chilly nights.
- Bridge Street Cottages - If you want peace and quite without being secluded, Bridge Street Cottages are riverfront vacation rentals located at the edge of Bigfork putting you within walking distance of the best restaurants, shops and art galleries in the Northwest.