A Girl’s Trip to Montana, Starting in Missoula
By Kelly Westhoff
At Latitude 48, a hip little bistro in Whitefish, Montana, I sat on a high-top stool overlooking an open kitchen. The kitchen was staffed by five hunky men doing their best to keep up with the orders coming in from the packed dining room.
Even so, they looked up every few moments to smile. Obviously, they could not resist the charms of the women perched at their bar.
I was one of those women, and I—like my five traveling girlfriend companions—was enjoying a round of jokes about how hot men should always cook for hot women. In the light of the day, I’m sure, our jokes weren’t very funny.
But on that night, we told them with gusto and flair—and peals of laughter—thanks to an abundance of wine. Earlier, the restaurant’s sommelier had taken us under his wing agreeing to choose and uncork a different vintage to accompany each of our five courses.
When dinner was done, we ladies were in no mood to call it a night. We headed downstairs to the Red Room, a chic martini bar, then walked a block and a half to the Great Northern Bar and Grill where a local band was pumping out tunes.
We ordered pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon simply because it seemed an appropriate thing to do and promptly carved out a space for ourselves on the dance floor.
The Modern Wild West
I was skeptical about this girlfriend getaway to Montana. In my mind, Montana—with its Wild West reputation—didn’t conjure up images of relaxing spa treatments and chic wine bars, two things I considered vital to a perfect girls’ retreat.
Instead, I pictured rugged terrain, weathered men and far-reaching cattle ranches. Yet while cowboys do indeed roam the expansive scenery, Montana also offers a surprisingly cosmopolitan edge.
For example, the day after our fun night out on the town, my gal pals and I actually did head to a spa where a team of experts kneaded away our lingering hangovers.
We also headed to Café Kandahar, a small but mighty restaurant on the slopes of the Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort. There, Chef Andy Blanton, who has been nominated for a James Beard Award, shared his philosophy of food (thoughtful, fresh, local) and explained how those ideas are incorporated into his menu.
Our group clustered around a private table in the chef’s kitchen and asked him questions as he whipped up and served us six different small plates, each one more exquisite than the last, like tender shrimp in Cajun sauce, mushroom crostini, pork belly served with a watermelon reduction and a pear-ginger-white-chocolate tart.
Starting Point: Missoula
Our girlfriend getaway had started four days earlier in Missoula. Missoula is the second largest city in the state. It’s also the biggest city in western Montana. With its modern airport and rental car services, Missoula is the perfect gateway to western Montana, a region known as Glacier Country because it is home to Glacier National Park.
Missoula is a funky college town with an eclectic, educated vibe. Mountains surround the well-preserved, historic downtown, which begs to be explored by foot. The Clark Fork River curls around the city’s bottom edge, and green space runs along both banks of the river boasting walking trails.
Our hotel was just steps from the river. We stayed at the Missoula Holiday Inn and booked the Girlfriends Getaway rate, which entitled us to, among other things, a mimosa brunch. Yet we had a whole day and night ahead of us before we could sip morning mimosas.
Intimidated by the Wilderness
After changing into leggings and long-sleeved tees, a van picked us up at the hotel and took us to 10,000 Waves, a kayaking outfitter just beyond town. A band of three hippie guides with a genuine enthusiasm for the great outdoors ushered us into wet suits and helmets, then gave us a quick lesson in paddling before hauling us over to the Clark Fork River.
Putting in at the river’s edge, I’ll admit, was a nerve-racking experience. Our calm spot on the river bank quickly gave way to a rushing current we could see churning just a few kayak lengths from where we clumsily paddled about trying to find our balance.
For me, this was a lesson in wildness intimidation. I wanted to go river rafting. I wanted to experience the natural beauty of Montana that I’d seen advertised by web sites and brochures.
After all, when I did pick up my head to look beyond the scary current, I could already see a promising sliver of the scenery I would experience if I could just work up the courage to get my kayak into that swift flow.
Adrenaline raced through my veins as one of the guides urged me on. Luckily, two of my friends had already taken the plunge so I had the benefit of having watched their technique.
Suddenly, before I even really knew what had happened, my kayak had joined the running water and I was drifting along on top of the current.
Turns out, I shouldn’t have been so intimidated. Montana, while stunningly gorgeous, is also friendly and accessible, even for a bunch of giggling gal pals.
Road Trip to Glacier
After our stay in Missoula was complete, we loaded up a rented SUV and headed north to Glacier National Park.
We took rooms at the Belton Chalet just outside the West Glacier entrance.
Upon checking in, we learned that the chalet was built in the same year that the park opened, making it 100 years old, too. Its rooms had private showers and toilets but still retained an old-fashioned air. There was no wi-fi, which served to remind us that here, nature ruled.
Except in the dining room. On-site at the Belton Chalet is a superb restaurant. After a meal there, we rolled back to our quaint little rooms seriously hoping that none of us would encounter the hotel’s rumored ghost in the night.
There are so many different ways to explore Glacier National Park. The red bus tours are a classic choice.
However, my band of girlfriends and I were still riding high from our Missoula kayaking adventure. Why would we settle for riding around the park in a bus (albeit a cool antique bus) when we could see it from horseback?
Swan Mountain Outfitters runs horseback riding tours through Glacier National Park. We signed up for a two-hour ride. Once we were up in the saddle, our guides told us that 100 years ago when the park first opened, horseback tours were the most popular way for guests to tour the scenery.
It felt fitting, therefore, that we picked this activity in the park’s momentous 100th anniversary year.
Although the ride was informative and pleasant, it lacked the adventure factor that we girlfriends were seeking. Jonesing for another rush, we signed our names on the line for a white water rafting excursion and again found ourselves facing wet suits.
As we struggled to pull on those tight neoprene numbers, the guides at the Glacier Raft Company tried to scare us off, telling stories about the size of the waves we would shortly encounter. “Are you ready for a glacial facial?” they taunted.
We didn’t know whether we were or not, but we weren’t about to back down. Instead, we cried out, “Bring it on!”
If you do end up spending a day or two in Missoula, the Red Bird Restaurant and Wine Bar is a perfect place for an evening out. This swanky little spot is tucked away in the lobby of an art deco building downtown.
If you go, be sure to order the champagne fondue—and ask that your dipping platter include the bison tips. The bison is tender and oh-so-good with the fondue, but it’s such a treat that the kitchen will hold it back if the customers don’t request it.
The Iron Horse Brew Pub is a good bet for a downtown Missoula lunch. Also, keep it in mind if you’re looking for a hopping happy hour.
If, on the other hand, you want to check out a real Missoula institution, head for the Oxford Saloon. But don’t expect anything high class. This 24-hour joint has been open for business since 1883—and it smells like it.
On The Way to Glacier Park…
What’s a road trip without a stop or two along the way? If you pack up and leave Missoula after breakfast, you’ll be ready for lunch (or a coffee break) by the time you reach the tiny town of Big Fork.
This artsy village is home to a string of galleries and boutiques. The Pocketstone Café is the perfect place to grab a cup of soup or a piece of pie. Three local owners make everything from scratch using their grandmas’ recipes.
In Whitefish MT…
Book a room with a view of Whitefish Lake. The Lodge at Whitefish Lake sits right at the water’s edge and offers expansive docks and a clean beach.
There is a bar and a restaurant on site, plus a spa. The massive lobby is cozy and warm and just the sort of place you’d want to curl up with a book.
If you’d rather a kitchen all your own, check with Five Star Rentals. The agency lists a number of short-term rental properties right on the lake.
Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort offers a wealth of activities in both the summer and winter months. Once the snow melts, six zip lines crisscross the ski hill. An alpine slide is also set up, and a canopy hike through the treetops will have you feeling like you’re walking on air. It’s pure thrill.
The city of Kalispell is close to both Glacier National Park and the town of Whitefish, plus, Kalispell has an airport. It’s easy to fly into Missoula but home from Kalispell. That’s what we did.
If you’d like to experience the great outdoors, but you’d also like to experience some serious pampering, consider a stay at Paws Up.
This sprawling, luxurious resort is sort of like a dude ranch in that you can book an all-day horseback tour or an afternoon of four-wheeling through the trees. The difference is, however, that after your fun, you can relax with a spa treatment or fine dining experience.
Large groups can book a stay in one of the resort’s many furnished homes. Or you could choose to go “glamping.” Glamping is camping with a glamorous twist.
Glamping tents are large enough to accommodate real beds, and each cluster of glamping tents comes with a butler who is in charge of killing spiders, hosting meals on site and making sure that anyone who wants to go fishing has a worm on their hook.