Montana's Glacier Country: Majestic Mountains, Hip Downtowns
By Esha Samajpati
While struggling to keep myself from sliding off the saddle, I held on to the reins with one gloved hand and tried to slip on the hood of my jacket with the other. It had started to drizzle and the trail was becoming increasingly soggy. I was on horseback at the Bar W Guest Ranch in Northwest Montana, surrounded by 3000 acres of state forest.
Being the fourth biggest state in the US, Montana is divided into various regions – from northwest to northeast lie Glacier Country, Russell Country and Missouri River Country. At the bottom half of the state, from west to east stretch Gold West, Yellowstone and Custer Country. That puts me in Glacier Country, located approximately 535 miles east of Seattle, Washington, and 900 miles north of Denver, Colorado.
Riding on a Ranch
The Bar W Guest Ranch consists of a 6,200-square-foot lodge, cabin suites, stables, barns and an entertainment area along with sweeping prairies, lakes, mountains and foothills to help perfect your riding skills. If you are a beginner like me, experienced wranglers will provide you with the necessary tips and tricks of western style riding.
A handsome creature named Cash, my horse had a shiny coat of cinnamon brown and a white streak down his forehead. Assigned to me based on my riding experience, height and weight, he trotted at his own pace, oblivious to the rain and the surrounding chatter of our motley group of seven.
“He is built like a pony although we make sure we refer to him as a horse when he is within earshot,” whispered Ashley, Marketing Coordinator at the Bar W. She looked every bit the Western cowgirl in her wide-brimmed hat, blue denims and leather chaps with fringes down the side.
Forget the riding helmets, long coats and tight breeches associated with English riding. Right from the first casual “howdy,” everything from the attire to the riding style is more relaxed here in America’s Wild West.
The saddle with the deep seat and the horn in front is a throwback to a time when cowboys would spend long hours on a horse. The saddle horn came in handy for fastening a lariat (also called a lasso) when roping cattle.
It was nice to know that the extra inches on our riding boots have more to do with the western style of riding than with fashion. Hmm… finally a sport where wearing heels is a good thing. I can see myself take to riding seriously.
“Best vacation ever” is a phrase that keeps popping up in the Bar W guestbook and not without reason. If you are looking for an authentic western experience in the midst of Montana wilderness, Bar W is the right choice for you.
Rocky Roads and Trendy Towns
It’s not that uncommon to peg Montana as a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, what with all the sporting activities, wildlife and scenic drives that are on offer. But if you dig deeper, there’s much more to the state than just sports and games.
One such example is the town of Whitefish, in the northern Rockies, surrounded by National Parks and Forests. It began as a fur trading center in the late 1800’s and later thrived with the advent of the logging industry and the Great Northern Railway. Now it is home to a world-renowned ski-resort, a beach, a 36-hole golf course, numerous restaurants, art galleries and a renowned professional equity theatre.
Often referred to as “Broadway's Second Home”, the Alpine Theatre Project was founded in 2004 by David Ackroyd, Betsi Morrison, and Luke Walrath, all three of whom had settled in Montana’s Flathead Valley after successful careers in the entertainment industry.
It didn’t take long for them to make the Project a roaring success. Of course, the steady flow of talent and productions from New York and other major cities did much to help build a reputation.
I recommend starting your day with a latte from Montana Coffee Traders in Central Avenue. The walls are lined with bricks and the chalkboard menu has items like Bocadillos (pronounced boca-dee-yo, it’s a grilled wrap) and This Lil’ Piggy (applewood-smoked bacon, rosemary-roasted red potatoes, hard-boiled egg, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese). All in all, the café can be summed up as funky, friendly and flavorful.While on the subject of Whitefish, I can assure you that your palate will be in for a gastronomical joyride if you dare to explore. From saloons flaunting the local flavors to delectable Cajun and Southern cuisine to sushi bars to gourmet coffee, this charming mountain town has it all.
Always a sucker for eco-friendly fashion, my next stop was Ethos, a Parisian fashion house which has picked Whitefish as its second location in the whole wide world. Part of the larger ethical fashion movement, Ethos is a pioneer in socially responsible and environmentally friendly fashion without losing sight of the task at hand – chic wearable outfits and accessories.
For fine dining, be sure to visit the Tupelo Grille in downtown Whitefish specializing in Cajun and Southern cuisine, fresh sea food, steaks and pasta. They also have an award-winning selection of local and international wines.
No wonder Whitefish was chosen as one of the “Top 10 Coolest Small Towns in America” by Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine. Well, this town is no stranger to being voted the best. Whitefish Mountain Resort (formerly known as Big Mountain Resort) is rated one of the top 20 resorts in North America by Ski Magazine.
Whitefish Lake Golf Club, a 36-hole course has contributed to the popularity of the Flathead Valley area by being named as one of the “50 Greatest Golf Destinations in the World” by Golf Digest.
Hip downtown and scores of recreational activities aside, the entire region offers stunning vistas all year round. I was there in late October when some of the trees like the western larch, aspen and cottonwood had turned yellow while the fir, pine and spruce had remained green.
Set against the blue of the open Montana sky, the brilliant gold of the trees cheerfully dominated the palette of Glacier National Park; where the promise of adventure and wildlife sighting awaited us.
During the summer season, one of the main draws of the park is the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which offers 50 miles of incredibly gorgeous mountain driving through the park. But here’s the inside scoop – try going there in spring when this road is closed to cars but open to bikers and walkers, providing you with a more intimate experience of the park and all that it has to offer.
Cabooses and Lodges
Located next to Glacier National Park and set against the snow-dusted peaks of the Rockies is the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. Although cell phone connection is unavailable and Wi-Fi is contained to certain areas, this historic Tudor lodge with its steam radiators and knotty pine walls exude an enduring charm reminiscent of old railway towns and inns.
Constructed in 1939 by the Great Northern Railroad for the use of railway personnel, today the inn has some of the best cross-country ski trails in the Mountain Region. In addition to the lodge rooms, one can choose from cabooses, cabins and luxury railcars depending on the budget and number of guests.
In Whitefish, our lodging of choice was a 1979 mountain-style cedar lodge, located just eleven miles from Glacier Park International Airport and seven miles from the famed Whitefish Mountain Resort. Named Good Medicine Lodge keeping in mind the region’s Native American history, this tastefully done B&B is open year-round to pamper and indulge their guests.
Crackling fireplaces, plush waffle-cotton terry robes, hot tub spa, wine and cheese laid out in the lounge, Swiss therapeutic showers and jetted tubs in the bathrooms, chocolate truffles by the bedside and balconies which overlook the Rockies – you get the picture.
As for the morning fare, our hosts Betsy and Woody Cox had an appetizing selection laid out at the breakfast table. “It’s a Montana-made butter sourced from nearby Columbia Falls,” explained Woody as he trickled crunchy almond honey butter over a halved pear, baked to perfection.
Committed to serving seasonal and local ingredients at the inn, he also doubles up as the technical assistant if your Wi-Fi acts up for some unforeseen reason. Really, if you feel the need to unwind after spending a day riding horses or zipping down snowy slopes, the Good Medicine Lodge is just what the doctor ordered.
In course of my stay in Montana’s Glacier Country, I came to know that it is a coveted spot for second home owners, especially during the summer and then there are those who have moved here from far-off places to be closer to nature, in search of a quieter life.
I am not surprised. Montana may very well serve as a second home to some folks, its theatre could be second to Broadway but when it comes to year-round amusement and adventure, it is second to none.
Winter recreational activities in Glacier Country include skiing, ice climbing, sleigh rides, snowmobiling, ice-fishing and much more. For starters, Glacier National Park is open year-round and is an ideal destination for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Check out this their site for more information; they even have a live chat option Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Mountain Standard Time.
Glacier Outdoor Center does guided trips into the park, provides groomed trails, equipment and on-site lodging.
Another expert in adventure travel, Glacier Guides Inc. offers services in areas ranging from backpacking and hiking to rafting, fishing and lodging.
Glacier Park, Inc. is the concessionaire for the lodges and motor inns in the park. They also operate the red bus tours known as “Jammers”, a time-honored Glacier tradition. You can find more information on their site. They are launching a new tour next year called Great Glacier Adventure.
Authored by the tourism board’s Public Relations Manager Tia Troy, the Glacier Country Blog brings forth slices of everyday life in Montana’s Glacier Country and is a must-read for anybody interested in local events and unconventional trip ideas.
Esha Samajpati worked in advertising in India, before moving to Connecticut and becoming a travel writer. “Even now, when I visit a city, the billboards draw my attention,” she says. “How a city advertises tells me a lot about the place and the people.”