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The best things to do in Glacier National Park

Adventure awaits in and around Glacier National Park, whether you want an extreme excursion or prefer to relax

Photograph: Donnie Sexton

Adventure awaits, if you want it, no matter the season at northwest Montana’s Glacier National Park. Those who love their extreme outdoor adventures can go dog sledding, skiing, hiking or whitewater rafting, while those who prefer a leisurely hike or want to feast their eyes on local art are equally well served. Established in 1910, the vast park—it makes up more than 1 million acres—is older than the national park system itself (the system was established in 1916). Whether you arrive by plane or on Amtrak on one of the country’s most scenic train rides, get ready to discover one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. This is Big Sky Country.

Best things to do in Glacier National Park: Winter activities

Ride a snowmobile on Desert Mountain

Ride a snowmobile on Desert Mountain

Rent a snowmobile from Swan Mountain Snowmobiling and you can ride to the top of the world; or at least it feels like it as you climb through towering evergreens to the top of the 6,368-foot summit of Desert Mountain and look out over Glacier National Park, the Hungry Horse Reservoir and the Great Bear Wilderness.

Photograph: Chuck Haney

Ski at Whitefish Mountain Resort

Ski at Whitefish Mountain Resort

Known to locals as “Big Mountain,” Whitefish Mountain Resort is the place to go, whether you really want to focus on your skiing (you can even go night skiing on Fridays and Saturdays through early March) or just want to kick back and have a little fun. The resort is both expansive—stay in one of the 200 on-mountain condominiums, mountain homes or hotel rooms—and laid-back, with relaxing options for food and drinks steps from the slopes. Grab a classic burger at Ed and Mully’s or visit the burrito bar at Summit House—at 7,000 feet, you can look out over the region’s lakes and enjoy a panoramic view of Glacier National Park on a clear day. 

Photograph: Chuck Haney

Dog sled in Olney

Dog sled in Olney

You’ve probably never had an experience quite like dog sledding. When you climb in the snug sled at Dog Sled Adventures, there’s really no turning back, as a team of 12 dogs goes from barking excitedly to completely silent. Suddenly, all you hear is the rush of wind as they take off on a trail into state forest (don’t worry, you’re also led by a musher who keeps the dogs on course if they start to, you know, pause to roll around in the snow). You’ll find the dog sledding outfit in the unincorporated community of Olney, northwest of Kalispell, about 45 minutes away by car. Here, more than 100 dogs, many of them rescues, take turns leading curious folks from the rustic office (a modest cabin with a wood stove where you can enjoy some free hot chocolate later) into the woods. When you return 90 minutes later, your cheeks will be red from the cold and the laughter (seriously, how can you not laugh at the insanity of a dozen dogs barreling through the landscape, your sled bouncing over every hill along the way?). Call ahead to make a reservation, and be sure to dress warm. 

Photograph: Chuck Haney

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Snowshoe at Glacier National Park

Snowshoe at Glacier National Park

On the weekend, call ahead to rent a pair of snowshoes and learn about native plants and animals as one of the park’s rangers leads you on an enlightening hike through the forest from the Apgar Visitor Center. You can check out the conditions on the national park’s webcam.

Photograph: Laura Rote

Ice skate at Woodland Park

Ice skate at Woodland Park

For a quick, easy and memorable adventure, grab your skates and head to the large pond at Kalispell’s Woodland Park or rent a pair from the neighboring hockey rink.

Photograph: Chuck Haney

Ice fish on McWenneger Slough

Ice fish on McWenneger Slough

You could catch bass, pike, crappie or who knows what else when you try ice fishing on McWenneger Slough near Kalispell. But even if you don’t catch a single fish, the view of Swan Mountains in the background makes this a worthy adventure.

Photograph: Chuck Haney

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Watch the Pond Hockey Tournament in Kalispell

Watch the Pond Hockey Tournament in Kalispell

Kalispell’s signature winter event is the Pond Hockey Classic (February 19–21, 2016), one of only four such events in the U.S. It attracts adult players from all over the country and Canada. Watch as the four-player teams hit the ice with no goalie for a fast-paced game.

Photograph: Craig Moore

Cross-country ski at Glacier National Park

Cross-country ski at Glacier National Park

There are opportunities for cross-country skiing just about everywhere you look in western Montana, from seemingly random (but well thought out), groomed trails to the plentiful offerings within national forests. You can’t go wrong hitting the trails at Glacier National Park. And when vehicles can’t traverse the Going-to-the-Sun Road in winter, it becomes one of the most beautiful ski trails on the continent. 

Photograph: Devin Schmit

Hike around Lake McDonald

Hike around Lake McDonald

Take a walk around the fjord-like Lake McDonald, the largest lake in Glacier National Park at 10 miles long and nearly 500 feet deep. You could easily fill a large photo album (assuming you still print photos) with picturesque shots of the water, mountains and hemlocks here. In summer, the more than century-old, chalet-style Lake McDonald Lodge fills up with tourists getting by the fireplace after a long day of exploration.

Photograph: Devin Schmit

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Backcountry camp in winter

Backcountry camp in winter

Take camping to the extreme when you head to the wilderness in winter on a guided camping trip. One of the most beautiful camping spots be found along the Nyack Creek near Upper Nyack Creek Campground. The Nyack trail loops along the southern border of Glacier National Park.

Photograph: Craig Moore

Best things to do in Glacier National Park: All-season activities

Take a Red Bus Tour

Take a Red Bus Tour

On a sunny day, taking a Red Bus Tour on Going-to-the-Sun Road is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The wonderfully named 50-mile scenic highway is open to vehicle traffic from June to October. In spring, bicyclists travel the road, and in winter, many people traverse the two-lane on cross-country skis or snowshoes. The road spans the width of Glacier National Park, crossing the Continental Divide and climbing more than 6,500 feet as it passes everything from glacial lakes and cedar forests to windswept alpine tundra.

Photograph: Damon Ristau

Sail on Flathead Lake

Sail on Flathead Lake

In the summer, locals and tourists alike flock to Flathead Lake, the largest lake west of the Mississippi River. You can sail on a historic sloop with Flathead Lake Sailing & Charters.

Photograph: Damon Risteau

Watch (or compete in) the Dragon Boat Festival

Watch (or compete in) the Dragon Boat Festival

The annual Montana Dragon Boat Festival is a hoot, as crowds gather around Flathead Lake for family-friendly fun. Even if you aren’t part of the main festivities, you can find plenty to do to fill the weekend, with shops, restaurants and other attractions all within walking distance.

Photograph: Gravity Shots

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Bike ride in the Huckleberry 100

Bike ride in the Huckleberry 100

The Huckleberry 100 takes riders on a 100-mile course from Kalispell through the area’s liveliest towns and most scenic byways in the Flathead Valley. If 100 miles sounds like, well, a bit much, you can also sign up for the 50-mile, 25-mile or family ride options. No matter what, it’s a sight to see, as hundreds of cyclists fill downtown streets and rural highways alike.

Photograph: Noah Couser

Fly-fish at Glacier National Park

Fly-fish at Glacier National Park

Many area companies offer guided fly-fishing excursions. Or, if you’re already a pro, you can go it alone. Head to the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead River in and around Glacier National Park or hang out near the artsy community of Bigfork and hit Flathead River. Need supplies or advice? Visit the friendly folks at Bigfork Anglers for everything you need.

Photograph: Montana Office of Tourism

Hike in Glacier National Park

Hike in Glacier National Park

Peaceful escapes and hikes of all difficulties are always just footsteps away when you’re in northwestern Montana. Explore some of the 700-plus miles of hiking trails in Glacier National Park or hop on a simpler path on the Foy’s to Blacktail Trails at Herron Park, just 10 minutes from downtown Kalispell.

Photograph: Noah Couser

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See the park on horseback

See the park on horseback

Maybe you want to take things just a little bit slower. Or maybe you want to giddy-up. Either way, you can hop on a horse and see the Montana countryside from a different perspective. Swan Mountain Outfitters offers horseback riding in Glacier National Park as well as West Glacier. Heck, you can even make it an overnight trip, or sign up for “cowboy cookout,” which includes a steak dinner to satisfy your appetite after all that riding.

Photograph: Damon Risteau

Explore Lone Pine State Park

Explore Lone Pine State Park

Take a hike, go mountain biking, hit the free archery range or simply take in the scenic views from one of the overlooks, where, on a clear day, you can cast your eyes over Glacier National Park, the Whitefish Mountain range and Flathead Lake.

Photograph: Chuck Haney

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Best things to do in Glacier National Park: Eat, drink, play

Raise a glass at Glacier Distillery

Raise a glass at Glacier Distillery

Warm your cheeks with a tasting at Glacier Distillery in Coram. Whiskey—with names like Fireweed and Wheatfish—rules the roost at this red barn on the side of Highway 2. Wheatfish is a collaboration between the distillery and a popular wheat beer from Great Northern Brewing Company, about 30 minutes away. Call ahead for tours, but you can almost always pop into the Whiskey Barn for cocktails on Saturdays and Sundays from noon–6pm.

Photograph: David Hancock

Visit the Eric Thorsen Art Studio

Visit the Eric Thorsen Art Studio

The Eric Thorsen Art Studio is surprising even in the artsy little community of Bigfork. The bronze sculptures and paintings you see when you first walk in are what you’d expect—perfectly sculpted bears and paintings of forests that might remind you of jigsaw puzzles. Take a few steps back into the wonderfully messy studio, though, and you’ll find countless pieces of art that are refreshing works in progress, from torsos without heads to shelf after shelf of plaster limbs and half-formed African mammals. Stop by when it’s not a school day and you might get a tour from Eric’s own 9-year-old daughter—though the friendly family team at this shop will likely show you around most any day.

Photograph: Laura Rote

Dine and unwind at the Izaak Walton Inn

Dine and unwind at the Izaak Walton Inn

Way off the beaten path (60 miles from Kalispell) in a tiny unincorporated area called Essex, you’ll find the Izaak Walton Inn. Spend the night in a caboose or opt for one of the more traditional lodge rooms, with easy access to a charming restaurant—a depot-themed spot with a chef who’s both clever and accommodating (our party had both a vegetarian and a dairy allergy, and while offerings like stuffed mushrooms and garlic cauliflower may sound simple, they were divine). The historic inn under the stars dates back to 1939 and is open year-round. From here you can hit the trail to cross-country ski, or simply catch up on some rest after a long train journey (Amtrak will all but drop you at the inn’s door). Downstairs, a laid-back bar makes you feel like you’re hanging out in a friend’s basement, but with shuffleboard, foosball, pool and a piano, just in case you’re feeling fancy.

Photograph: Courtesy Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission

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Eat pizza at Moose’s Saloon

Eat pizza at Moose’s Saloon

Order a pizza from the walk-up window just inside Moose’s Saloon, a Kalispell institution since the ’50s. And don’t be afraid to get a little messy—you’ll find peanut shells all over the floor and past customers’ initials and messages carved into every inch of the tables and walls. While the eatery and bar is family-friendly all day, you’ll also be at home with the locals in the evening when you mosey on up to the bar for a cheap local beer in a frosted mug.

Photograph: Noah Couser

Try the burger at Hop’s Downtown Grill

Try the burger at Hop’s Downtown Grill

Hop’s fills up fast on weekends, so make a reservation and you won’t be let down. The atmosphere is relaxed, the space is small and the pours of regional brews are generous. This joint is known for its burgers, from traditional pub grub to the yak, buffalo or wild boar burgers. If you’re not feeling the burger (or if you’re a vegetarian), Sophie’s Veggie Lasagna goes above and beyond your typical “meat-free” offering when it comes to taste, as it’s packed with grilled vegetables like butternut squash, Italian cheeses, roasted garlic and rosemary cream.

Photograph: Courtesy Hop’s Downtown Grill

Tour the Great Northern Brewing Company

Tour the Great Northern Brewing Company

The Great Northern Brewing Company serves up favorites like the Wheatfish Lager and Going to the Sun IPA in the heart of the adorable small city of White Fish, MT (population less than 6,000). This ski resort town knows its brews, and you can tour the large brewery Monday through Thursday at 3pm for just $5, or call ahead for off-season $10 tours.

Photograph: Craig Moore

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See local artists at the Hockaday Museum of Art

See local artists at the Hockaday Museum of Art

While the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell hosts rotating exhibits that cover everything from women in art to photos of native wildlife, the permanent exhibition shows off the grandeur of Glacier National Park. Take in works from local photographers and artists as well as vintage maps. The museum itself is housed in a turn-of-the-century Carnegie Library Building.

Photograph: Chuck Haney

Try something sweet at Ceres Bakery

Try something sweet at Ceres Bakery

Take a coffee break at Ceres Bakery in downtown Kalispell and save room for pie. You’ll always find something to satisfy your sweet tooth at this bakery counter, from slices of key lime and blueberry pies to lemon bars and “kitchen sink cookies,” with chocolate chips, cranberries, white chocolate, walnuts and coconut.

Photograph: Chuck Haney

See a show at Alpine Theatre

See a show at Alpine Theatre

You might be surprised to find an array of theater offerings in the valley, but variety there is. Support local theater and keep an eye on the event calendars at the beloved Alpine Theatre Project or Whitefish Theatre Company, both located in Whitefish, MT.

Photograph: Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake

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Grab a beer at Kalispell Brewing

Grab a beer at Kalispell Brewing

Try a new style of beer or two when you pull up a barstool at Kalispell Brewing Company in downtown Kalispell. This family-friendly brewery invites you to bring in food from anywhere you like, take a seat and, on most weekends, listen to some local live music. The brewery prides itself on serving its wide array of brews—from pils and dunkel to IPA and seasonal concoctions—in the proper glassware, which is always appreciated (and we’re big fans of those dimpled dunkel glasses, we must say). Don’t know what you want? Order up a sampler. Just keep in mind the tasting room’s hours Monday through Saturday, noon–8pm. But hey, you can always grab a growler to go.

Photograph: Laura Rote

Go to the Rodeo

Go to the Rodeo

The Magestic Valley Arena hosts all sorts of events year-round, but the rodeo is a must for visitors—particularly if you’ve never been to one. Take in bucking horses, bull riding and, sometimes, even youth competitions. It’s sure to be an experience you won’t forget. Added bonus: You can enjoy all the adult beverages you can muster from the comfort of the stands.

Photograph: Saddle Up Productions

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