Glacier Country: Real Dining, Real Skiing in Northwest Montana
By Jaclyn C. Stevenson
The Northwest corner of Montana is a land of long drives, big mountains, and far-reaching plains.
It’s also an outdoor adventurer’s dream: inversion clouds dump foot after foot of snow during the winter months, guaranteeing skiing and snowmobiling through mountain passes that the locals call ‘steep and deep.’
In the summer, hiking, biking, kayaking, and canoeing along one of the region’s many roaring rivers abound. There’s also a rustic charm here that binds every Montanan experience together, though – from a soak in natural hot springs to dinner at one of the state’s finest restaurants. Tall trees frame the roadways, menus include wild game dishes, and men in 10-gallon cowboy hats and plaid shirts belly up to the bars.
This is what’s known as Glacier Country, where the only skyscrapers are nature-made, and there’s more than enough open space to run wild and free.
Glacier Country Montana is made up of three sub-regions: the areas of Flathead, Glacier, and Lake counties; Missoula and Ravalli counties; and Lincoln, Sanders, and Mineral counties. Perhaps its most notable feature is Glacier National Park, but this area is just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless state and national forests, protected public lands, rivers, and basins scattered throughout, as well as Native American reservations, scenic byways, and even eerie ghost towns – their only residents vestiges of the past.
Mangia in Missoula
Accessible via the Missoula International Airport, the region unfolds right outside of the baggage claim’s doors. It’s just a short drive to downtown Missoula, where locally-famous watering holes like the Oxford and Sean Kelly’s Irish Pub welcome weary travelers with a pint of Scape Goat pale ale, Trout Slayer, or Moose Drool (all produced by Missoula’s own Big Sky Brewery).
For a more refined dining experience, Blue Canyon and Scottie’s Table deliver. The former is one of four different locations in the U.S., in Montana, Texas, and Ohio, offering an inspired menu directed by Chef Brandt Evans. Evans is a charismatic force who’s among the next crop of hopeful ‘cheftestants’ on the Bravo network’s Top Chef; he travels the globe in search of new flavors for his dishes or line of Blue Canyon spices, and visiting vineyards where he mixes his own table wines.
That said, six-course wine dinners at the Blue Canyon chef’s table are a special treat, pairing international wines with some of the local region’s finest cuisine – roasted duck breast with smoked tomato corn spoon bread, for instance, or bison strip loin with red onion marmalade.
Across town at Scottie’s Table, owned by Chef Scott Gill, similar treats await in this retrofitted theater and dance hall.
Inventive takes on local game such as quail and grass-fed beef pepper the menu, and a burgeoning specialty at the still-new restaurant is its savory French toast.
There is a decidedly casual and family-oriented vibe throughout Northwestern Montana, even with a wide array of dining options. Scottie’s Table, for example, not only includes a diverse children’s menu, the selections come with a challenge:
In order to consume one of the following meals, one must know all Sponge-Bob Square Pants characters,” the menu commands. “We have an eight year old, so don’t even think about bamboozling.”
The pride of all Missoulians is Snow Bowl – an expansive ski mountain that caters to true lovers of the sport at all levels. Locals watch the thick, low-hanging inversion clouds during winter and spring months for signs of new snowfall, and once the skies open up, it’s downhill all the way.
Experts can take a quick peek at the Montana vista from the top of Snow Bowl before plummeting down a vertical drop, but more casual skiers can also take their time, winding down a quiet, three-mile trail. Either way, the lodge at the base has brews, flatbreads, and a warm fireplace waiting, as well as some of the region’s best Bloody Marys.
The Forest Through the Trees
Easy access to a number of attractions makes Missoula an apt starting point of any Glacier Country trek, but certainly not the only destination. Roads north wind through the Flathead Native American reservation, and along the scenic vistas of Flathead Lake.
Lakeside, Montana is home to Blacktail Mountain, one of the state’s newest ski areas, but gaining more fame for its orientation. Dubbed the ‘upside-down hill,’ Blacktail’s base area is at the top of a 14-mile mountain road. Skiers take any number of newly-cut trails down from the base, and chairlift back up to shop at the Blacktail Trading Company, or have lunch at Muley’s Pub.
For some, local brews atop a snowcapped mountain are akin to Paradise. Follow the Clark-Fork River from Lakeside, however, and the locals will soon disagree. Paradise, Montana is home to four-seasons of outdoor adventure options, from canoeing to hiking, and several pools of natural hot springs, such as those at Quinn’s Hot Springs resort.
Quinn’s is an interesting little blip on the vast Montana radar screen, and has been since the 1800s. It’s comprised of private cabins, a lodge of private rooms, the Harwood House Restaurant, Quinn’s Tavern, and a geometric pattern of manmade pools, filled with natural waters piped down from the surrounding mountains.
The waters are rich in silica, calcium, potassium, sulfate, and other minerals, and as such have a number of health benefits. Quinn’s owners, Andre and Jessica Melief, are European expats who can often be seen in the dining room or the pools, enjoying an out-of-place slab of Kobe beef or a perfectly placed soak in a super-heated tub.
Paradise by the Dashboard Light
From Paradise, several more hidden gems in Northwest Montana are a one- to two-hour drive, and all of them capture the local irreverence of the entire region. Montana is a state of long, tree-lined stretches from destination to destination, speckled with homemade billboards advertising land for sale, fishing gear, and hot coffee.
Full-service ‘travel centers,’ which include gas pumps, restaurants, game rooms, gift shops, and more, are sometimes attractions unto themselves. The St. Regis Travel Center, for example, not far from the Idaho border, boasts an animatronic band and photo-staging areas with massive stuffed animals for the kids, as well as the ‘Free Trout Museum;’ a live-aquarium of indigenous, Montanan fish.
Further south in the Bitterroot Valley, towns with their own individual charms including Hamilton, Darby, and Lolo are scattered along the highway. Casinos are also abundant, found at nearly every filling station and in countless restaurants and hotels.
One-of-a-kind watering holes like Bradley O’s Steakhouse & Saloon in Hamilton also capture the Montanan spirit of simple pleasures and big laughs. With cocktails named Root Beer My Ass and Cowgirl in the Sand, Bradley’s is referred to by locals as ‘infamous,’ and also creates amazing burgers made with an elk and buffalo blend and specializes in high-end cuts of steak.
Its margaritas are a favorite of bed and breakfast owner Stu Dobbins, who is sometimes seen schmoozing in the dining room – identifiable by his broad cowboy hat and brass belt buckle.
Dobbins’ bed and breakfast, Deer Crossing in Hamilton, is homey and cozy, with just a touch of kitsch. The ‘Moose Meadows’ room, for instance, challenges guests with counting every moose in the bedspread, drapes, wallpaper, and beyond.
The Honeymoon Suite features a pot-bellied stove and an array of antiques on the shelves and window sills, but also a Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom. Original breakfast recipes are the highlight of the mornings, and the resident horse and donkey often join guests in the front yard for coffee.
Not far from Hamilton is Darby, home of the Painted Rock State Park and reservoir. Brent Nelson and his sons, Mike and Dave, also own the Rye Creek Lodge here, where they welcome guests for world-class fishing, rafting, and multi-level hiking.
In the winter, the Nelsons also lead snowmobile tours along the Lewis and Clark trail in Montana and Idaho. Indeed, the Montana-Idaho border offers more than expected, including some tough but rewarding skis on mountains like Lost Trail and Lookout Pass, which are each part of the Continental Divide and straddle the states’ borders.
Just driving from place to place offers a snapshot of North America that is seen less often every year: little gems of culture, cuisine, and history, nestled within quiet plains and majestic mountains. That said, the long, quiet drives are just what’s needed to rest and recover from physically invigorating outdoor treks, and in a sense, Glacier Country is Montana’s past and present, as well as an apt model for the future of American travel: one that offers a chance to stretch muscles, palates, and imaginations.
Read more GoNOMAD stories by Jaclyn Stevenson:
Studying Gastronomy in Lyon, France’s Culinary Capital
Atlanta’s Rail and Bus System: A Whirlwind Weekend Making Time With MARTA
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