3 Days 81 Miles
3 Wintry Days Exploring Whitefish, Montana & Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park in northwest Montana is one of the most beautiful places on earth. That is a big claim, but for more than 100 years, this area has been referred to as the Crown of the Continent; long before that, the Blackfeet spoke of these mountains as the backbone of the universe, and a quick search of professional and amateur landscape photographers work will show why so many have traveled thousands of miles to photograph here. Glacier National Park, along with the Grand Canyon, and the Yosemite Valley is one of the great natural wonders of the American west.
This three-day itinerary will highlight why making the journey to Glacier National Park during the winter is an adventure of a lifetime and one that you’ll be talking about for years.
Since this is a short trip, we highly recommend flying to Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell, Montana. The airport is serviced by four major carriers and four discount carriers, but in the winter months, flights can be limited, so make reservations well in advance. Once you arrive in Kalispell, the Pine Lodge in Whitefish is an easy 20-minute drive from the airport.
Where to Stay Near Glacier National Park
The Pine Lodge on Whitefish River makes an ideal basecamp for your visit during the winter months. The proximity to skiing at Big Mountain, easy access to the western entrance to the park and being in the charming town of Whitefish make this an ideal place to call home. One of the best things about a winter stay at the Pine Lodge is their White Glove Experience package. This includes being able to purchase lift tickets right at the front desk, complimentary shuttle service to Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, and even a “slope pack” with hand warmers, cocoa mix and snacks.
Day 1 – Whitefish Mountain
Today we’re heading to one of the largest ski areas in the west, Whitefish Mountain. Whitefish Mountain is a winter sports enthusiasts’ paradise at 6,817 feet with more than 3,000 skiable acres and five freestyle terrain parks. Complimentary shuttle service is provided from the Pine Lodge, and lift tickets are available from the front desk, so getting there will be a breeze.
The mountain is broken into three faces, each offering a wide array of bowl and alpine skiing. Across the three faces, there are 14 lifts to provide easy access to the more than 120 ski runs. The majority of the runs are classified as either advanced or intermediate, but there are plenty of runs for the beginner and black diamonds for the expert.
Atop Whitefish Mountain is the Summit House. This restaurant and bar is nearly 7,000′ in elevation and overlooks the ski slopes and the westernmost sections of Glacier National Park. Summit House is perfect for a quick break between runs, a light lunch, or to grab a drink on a longer break before heading back down the slopes.
There is a range of outdoor specialty retailers and dining options in the resort village. We loved the Hellroaring Saloon and Eatery for casual dinner after a day conquering the slopes and fabulously failing at freestyle skiing. The restaurant is in a lovely historic Chalet, is family-friendly, and has some great views too.
Day Two – Glacier National Park
Today we venture into the vastness of Glacier National Park to explore some of the landmarks on the western side of the park and see the spectacular natural wonders. The west entrance to the park is about a half an hour’s drive; there are shops open along the way and in West Glacier. However, once we enter the park, don’t expect anything to be open other than restrooms at the Apgar Visitor Center. Be sure you have snacks, drinks and anything else you will want during the day before entering the park.
There are multiple cross-country skiing and snowshoe trails in the western portion of the park; we’ll cover a few of the shorter ones. A complete list of all winter trails is on the park service’s downloadable skiing and snowshoe brochure. These trails are accessible along the Going-to-the-Sun Road from West Glacier to Lake McDonald. This section of the road is kept plowed and open throughout the year, whereas the majority of the other park roads are closed beginning in mid-autumn. Please plan accordingly and always check for road openings and closures before heading into the park.
Lower McDonald Creek
Lower McDonald Creek is a three-mile round trip trail that begins just south of the McDonald Creek Bridge. This entire area is excellent for exploring on your own, even for those inexperienced with snowshoeing. The terrain is gentle and wonderful for cross-country skiing too.
The most popular area for winter exploration is about eight miles further into the park along the Going-to-the-Sun Road at Lake McDonald. There will be open parking near the lodge (all amenities will be closed). As we approach the road closure signs, the Going-to-the-Sun Road becomes an excellent skiing trail to head deeper into the park towards Avalanche Picnic Area.
McDonald Falls, which offers sensational views of teal blue waters flowing over the rocks in summer, is just as spectacular in winter. Getting there is a two-mile snowshoe hike or cross-country skiing journey along the closed section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
From the parking lot at the Lake McDonald Lodge, you can snowshoe or ski around the edge of the lake to take in some of this fantastic landscape. Lake McDonald is extremely beautiful any time of year, but seeing it in winter is sight reversed for very few “in the know” travelers. Do not go on to the lake or McDonald Creek; frozen bodies of water are hazardous.
After an exhilarating day exploring Glacier National Park, head back to Whitefish for dinner and a relaxing evening at the lodge. We love the laid-back atmosphere at Backslope Brewing, a local favorite and just a 10-minute drive from Pine Lodge.
Day 3 – Downtown Whitefish
While we’ve been staying in Whitefish until now, we’ve not taken the time to explore its charms. Whitefish is not the typical mountain town, although looking down Central Avenue, you can almost imagine the street with horses and cowboys.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and one of our favorite breakfast places anywhere happens to be right here in Whitefish, Buffalo Café. About a six-block walk from the lodge, this Whitefish staple is known for their amazing eggs Benedict, “Nicole’s French Toast,” and “Buffalo Pies,” these aren’t actually a pie but rather a stack of delectable breakfast foods atop a pile of fresh hash browns.
After a leisurely breakfast, walk around the corner to Stephen Isley Jewelry. This local jeweler specializes in Montana Sapphire, something we didn’t know existed. These gems are singularly gorgeous and can only be found in this part of the state. There are very few genuine souvenirs that capture a time and place, but a piece of fine jewelry crafted by Stephen Isley using locally sourced sapphires will be a cherished memento of your time in Montana for decades.
Just up the street is our next stop, The Toggery Montana. This local, family-run shop opened in 1947 and sells a highly curated selection of quality outdoor gear. Pick up some extra layers for your trip or those new all-weather boots you’ve been meaning to buy!
The three-block stroll north takes us past galleries, boutiques, outdoor and specialty retailers and even a saloon or two. Take the opportunity to uncover your own unique discoveries in the town. At the northern end of Central Avenue is Depot Park and Whitefish Depot, this working Amtrak station sees the arrival of thousands of visitors a year, but for those who love American Alpine architecture, this building is a gem. The Great Northern Railroad engine alongside is a fun place for a selfie too. The depot is also home to the Stumptown Historical Society’s Whitefish Museum, for railroad buffs or those looking for a taste of local history.
Heading back down Central Avenue, experience another four blocks of wonderful small shops, boutiques, antique stores and more. Check out Montana Coffee Traders for a perfect early afternoon pick me up or warm-up on a cold day.
As you head back to the lodge, be sure to visit Heidi Haugen Pottery and Bookworks of Whitefish. This small but extraordinarily well-stocked bookshop has a wide selection from local history to best sellers, perfect for reading on the flight home. Heidi’s stoneware is remarkable, and as a fourth-generation resident of the Flathead Valley, she is as local of an artist you’ll ever find.
Where to Eat in Downtown Whitefish
After a day exploring downtown Whitefish, you’ve surely worked up an appetite. Make a reservation at Tupelo Grille for delicious Southern cuisine—and hospitality—in a cozy atmosphere. And if you’re still feeling adventurous after your meal, check out the nightlife in Whitefish by heading to The Great Northern Bar for live entertainment or the Red Room Lounge for a more upscale experience.
Back at the lodge, the heated indoor/outdoor pool and hot tub will be a welcome retreat—and a relaxing way to end your winter adventure in Montana.