Visiting Western Montana has been high on my travel list for the past year or so. I know Montana isn’t the first state to come to mind when people think of going on vacation, but there were two reasons I wanted to visit; Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park! Now, if you ever saw pictures of this National Park online, then you can understand why so many tourists visit during the summer months (about three million people annually). The views are incredible and the lakes are fed by glacier water making them crystal clear. Images of Lake McDonald have been circulating the internet for years because of its colorful rocks and clear water. This is also how I found out about Glacier National Park and started planning my trip since.
Besides Glacier, Western Montana is known for Flathead Lake. It’s the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. Just like Lake McDonald, it’s crystal clear with colorful rocks, but not as vibrant as the ones in Glacier.
Unfortunately during our stay, there were wildfires burning across the west and in Montana. This resulted in a lot of smoke and ash in the sky which clouded the full views of The Big Sky Country. Nonetheless, Montana is beautiful, but I would love to go back when the wildfires aren’t active.
Where To Stay:
When traveling to Montana for Glacier National Park, you have two options. You can either fly into Missoula and drive up to the park or fly directly into Glacier Park International Airport. We chose to fly into Missoula since we planned on staying in an Airbnb in Polson, which was right on Flathead Lake. We also wanted to check out Missoula on the last day and Polson was about an hour away. It’s important to note that the park is about an hour and a half north of Polson, so if you stay this far out, you will need to get a head start early in the morning. Parking for the popular trails at Glacier National Park fill up quickly. Most of the spots were gone by 7:30 – 8 a.m., so it’s best to have a plan and be in the park before 7 a.m. There are limited lodging options inside the park and they also fill up quickly. Reservations usually need to be made a year in advance.
There are numerous towns outside of the park like Whitefish where you can get an Airbnb or hotel if you want to stay closer, but the drive there and back from Polson was scenic to say the least! It’s just like I envisioned Montana to look like. Open fields and cattle (and maybe some wildlife like deers alongside the road). There was rarely ever any traffic making the drive faster and more enjoyable.
There are over 700 miles of trails providing excellent opportunities for both short and long hikes. Many are difficult, but there are some moderate and easy trails that most people can do. I saw all ages on the three trails we did and everyone went at their own pace, so no need to rush (something I kept telling my mom)! For any reason that you can’t or don’t want to hike, you can simply drive along the “Going-to-the-Sun Road” (GTTSR) and see the park from your car! It’s about 50 miles and there are multiple places to park and enjoy the view or take pictures. Many of the trailheads begin along the GTTSR as well. Starting this year (2021), they’re requiring a $2 entry ticket along with your park pass. Both are valid for seven days, but without the entry ticket, you cannot access the GTTSR which is a huge part of the park and extremely important if you plan to hike.
Some of the hikes I would recommend are:
- Avalanche Lake
- Trail of the Cedars (also the beginning of Avalanche Lake Trail)
- Hidden Lake Overlook
- Grinnell Lake Trail
- Grinnell Glacier Trail
- Iceberg Lake Trail
No matter what trail you pick, you will not be disappointed! We got to see some wildlife throughout our adventure, but do not forget your bear spray! Bears are super active at Glacier National Park and it’s best to know what to do if you come in contact with one. There are also options to rent bear spray, but you need to plan ahead.
What To Do:
Aside from Glacier and Flathead Lake, there are some other locations to check out in Western Montana. Like I mentioned prior, we stayed in Polson so we could be on Flathead Lake, but also near Missoula. Some of the places we stopped at were along U.S. 93 which takes you down to Missoula from Polson (it actually starts at the Canada-US border).
Some other spots worth checking out:
Garnet Ghost Town is high up in the mountains about an hour outside of Missoula. After eight miles or so on gravel road, you will reach this little gold-mining town of log cabins from the 1890s. It’s very well preserved with numerous artifacts dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was very interesting to see how people used to live back then and how times have changed now. I definitely recommend checking it out. It’s only $6 per person!
Where To Eat:
Honestly, I was a little let down by the food choices in Montana. I figured I would be indulging in bison and elk, but I was wrong. I had bison once, but just like my trip to The Smoky Mountains, I found a bug in my food which kind of ruined my bison experience there. 😭 (The best bison I had was still in Colorado!) I also missed out on trying huckleberries or a bear claw from Polebridge, but there’s always next time.
The restaurants worth going to are:
Western Montana is beautiful and unique in its own way. Whether you plan on visiting Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, or Missoula, you’ll get to experience all the open land and mountains surrounding you from each side. Once you get to Montana, you’ll understand why it’s called God’s Country!