With a shudder, the Amtrak Empire Builder wheezes to a stop at the Whitefish Depot as fat snowflakes drift down from the morning sky. A porter in a suit and tie helps passengers down onto the platform, where taxis and vans have appeared, into a swirl of hugs and handshakes and hoisting baggage.
That throwback charm suits Whitefish, a Montana town tucked up against the Continental Divide 130 miles north of Missoula. In summer it gears up to host the denizens headed for Glacier National Park, 25 miles east. Come winter, the town kicks back, takes a deep breath and enjoys being a very different Whitefish: a now-empty national park, a little-known ski mountain, snowy trails and an easygoing, amiable downtown. In other words, all the reasons you should visit.
Whitefish grew up along the tracks of the Great Northern Railway, which pushed through here in 1904 to create the nation’s northernmost transcontinental route. To build business, the rail also lobbied for the establishing of Glacier National Park, and for years provided the only access to the park and the railroad-owned hotels it constructed there. The Great Northern selected an iconic Glacier resident, a shaggy mountain goat, as its logo.
More than a century later, Whitefish’s identity remains intertwined with those tracks. Just as a set is integral to a movie, its stately Tudor Revival depot is an essential part of its downtown, welcoming the daily arrivals of Amtrak—from Seattle every morning and Chicago every evening. It ranks as the busiest Empire Builder stop between Seattle and St. Paul, Minnesota.
It’s just a one-block stroll from the Whitefish Depot to downtown, which is laid out in tidy blocks along Central Avenue. Whitefish achieves that elusive balance of authentic town and destination: There’s still a hardware store selling snowblowers on the main street, alongside dining options and other amenities far more interesting than those you typically find in a Western town of 7,000.
Sip and Dine
Dining is doubly rewarding here, both high-quality and unpretentious. The top-shelf sake menu at Wasabi Sushi Bar & Ginger Grill (419 2nd Ave. E.; 406-863-9283; wasabimt.com; dinner for two, $40*) is your first clue that this isn’t your standard sushi place. At Latitude 48 Bistro (147 Central Ave.; 406-863-2323; latitude48bistro.com; dinner for two, $55), small plates mean more flavors to savor. The fire-roasted pizzas, with toppings like figs, prosciutto, chorizo and peppers, are standouts. The attention to detail extends to the cocktails, so order up a ginger-and-whiskey Montana Muley, served in a copper cup. Mornings often start at Montana Coffee Traders (110 Central Ave.; 406-862-7667; coffeetraders.com; breakfast, from $15) with a breakfast sandwich made from local sausage on a cornmeal scone.
Every ski town needs a good brewpub; the Great Northern Brewing Company (2 Central Ave.; 406-863-1000; greatnorthernbrewing.com; dinner for two, $20) got to the party early, in 1995. Along with a solid lineup of beers (try the Good Medicine strong red ale), it has a meandering space that looks down on the brewing operation. For something a little more rustic, wander across the street to the Great Northern Bar & Grill (27 Central Ave.; 406-862-2816; greatnorthernbar.com), a century-old railroad tavern.
Whitefish takes its name from Whitefish Lake, a glacier-carved body of water that stretches nearly seven miles north from town. Sealed under snow and ice for much of the winter, it provides a bracing venue for the annual Penguin Plunge, during the Whitefish Winter Carnival, every February.
The town is surrounded by miles of trails and dirt roads to explore. The Whitefish Trail (406-862-3880; whitefishlegacy.org) offers over 35 miles of marked trails leading to several lakes and overlooks.
At the Whitefish Bike Retreat (855 Beaver Lake Rd.; 406-260-0274; whitefishbikeretreat.com), owner Cricket Butler has created a casual lodge on 19 wooded acres with direct access to the Whitefish Trail. Butler, who does things like race a mountain bike from Canada to Mexico in her spare time, created the lodge to serve cyclers, tricking it out with cast-off rims, sprockets and other bike parts. In winter, you can rent snowshoes on-site, or try a “fat bike,” an oversized bike frame and tires that let you roll along the snow-covered trails like a monster truck. Groomed cross-country ski trails lie right across the road too, at the Stillwater Mountain Lodge (750 Beaver Lake Rd.; 406-862-7004; stillwatermtnlodge.com).
Whitefish Mountain Resort
You can hardly miss Whitefish’s biggest winter attraction. Big Mountain rises just eight miles north of downtown and is etched with the ski trails of Whitefish Mountain Resort (406-862-2900; skiwhitefish.com). Nearly a decade of improvements has turned what was largely a locals’ mountain into a growing regional ski destination. Weekenders roll in from Missoula and Calgary; Amtrak draws passengers from Seattle and Portland, who arrive by overnight train and ride the free Ski Bus to and from town. An airport in Kalispell, 24 miles south, provides another gateway.
Skiing here certainly still feels like a local secret: Because the ski slopes are spread across more than 3,000 acres and 2,300 vertical feet, there’s plenty of terrain to go around. From the 6,817-foot summit, slopes fan out in all directions.
Long intermediate trails arc down broad ridges on the south-facing “front” side, steeper runs drop into the gullies, and gentle beginner runs fan out near the base village. West-facing Hellroaring Basin provides a dedicated advanced area of chutes and steep shots through the trees. A new chairlift on the north side expands a forested amphitheater of mostly intermediate to advanced terrain that hides the resort’s driest, deepest snows. Sometimes the first person you’ll see is the liftie at the bottom, scooping you onto a half-empty chairlift, or some friendly locals inviting you to join them on their next run. In a couple of hours you’ll see them all again at the base-area bar, The Bierstube (3896 Big Mountain Rd.; 406-862-1993). It’s that kind of place.
Glacier National Park
Even Big Mountain is dwarfed by the ragged spine of peaks to the east, the crest of the Continental Divide that runs through Glacier National Park (406-888-7800; nps.gov). Established in 1910 as the United States’ 10th national park, Glacier encompasses more than a million acres of natural wonders—glacier-scoured mountains, more than 700 lakes, deep forests, rivers, waterfalls and populations of grizzly bear, gray wolf, moose, mountain lion and mountain goat.
Glacier becomes wilder in winter, when snow sometimes buries the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road. Sign up for a snowshoe or ski tour with Glacier Adventure Guides (877-735-9514; glacieradventureguides.com; private tours, from $155). Guides customize trips to suit your interests and skill level, from a relatively flat snowshoe tromp around Lake McDonald to a 2,800-foot climb up toward Sperry Glacier or an above-treeline ski tour along 5,220-foot Marias Pass. “In the summer the park averages 18,000 people a day,” says owner Greg Fortin. “In the winter it becomes a roadless wilderness; there might be 120 people in the entire park. It’s pristine—and it’s fun to have Glacier all to yourself.”
RCI affiliated resorts near Whitefish include:
An all-season resort offering snowmobiles in winter and golf in summer. 100 St. Andrews Dr., Columbia Falls
Shares amenities with Meadow Lake Golf Resort.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Whitefish include:
Hidden Moose Lodge
Lovely log lodge midway between Whitefish and Whitefish Mountain Resort, with extras like a full breakfast and an outdoor hot tub. 1735 E. Lakeshore Dr.; 888-733-6667; hiddenmooselodge.com; doubles from $99 a night
Grouse Mountain Lodge
Spacious rooms, sunny indoor pool and other amenities, with a good location near downtown. 2 Fairway Dr.; 800-321-8822; grousemountainlodge.com; doubles from $114 a night
Slopeside lodging for Whitefish Mountain Resort skiers, with boutique-hotel rooms (some with kitchens) and an excellent on-site restaurant. 3824 Big Mountain Rd.; 406-862-6098; kandaharlodge.com; doubles from $189 a night
Whitefish Bike Retreat
Private rooms with shared bath, kitchen and friendly hangout spaces, ideal for outdoor pursuits. 855 Beaver Lake Rd.; 406-260-0274; whitefishbikeretreat.com; doubles from $95 a night
*Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.