It's impossible to come to the Flathead Valley and not feel like you're a part of the wild frontier. The valley fades into a lavender mountain backdrop that melts up into the sky. The rivers are rugged and untamed. Wildlife encounters are primal and some species – like the mountain goat – are iconic to the region. More than anything, it's a region that sticks with you long after you've returned home.
Here are some of the top ways to enjoy the wonders this amazing region of Montana has to offer.
Hiking Glacier National Park
No visit to Montana is complete without seeing Glacier National Park, aka ‘The Crown of the Continent’. This stunning and majestic testament of nature's beauty offers over 700 miles of hiking trails that crisscross the 1583-sq-mile park. Summit trails reach peaks that allow you to see for miles in every direction, and few places offer more in the way of day-hike options. If you want vistas, try Logan Pass, a spectacular Hidden Lake Overlook hike that brings you past Reynolds and Clements Mountains before reaching the overlook itself. By then you'll feel the altitude, but the reward is mountain peaks, often cloud-shrouded, everywhere you look. In springtime the trails explode with wildflowers, and mountain goats are often spotted on the cliff sides. Be sure to look for the many signs explaining the flora, fauna and natural history of the area. Watch out both for wildlife and for 'jammers,' the nickname of the ubiquitous red sightseeing buses, given because the drivers 'jam' the gears into place while riding the Going-to-the-Sun Rd.
Camping in Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex
Named after the naturalist and conservationist, ‘the Bob’ as it is affectionately called by locals is the third largest wilderness in the contiguous United States, and spans the Continental Divide. No motorized or mechanical traffic is allowed (not even bicycles), so plan on hiking and camping in some of the most pristine, remote and wild areas the US has to offer. The Chinese Wall, a ridge of white stone on the Continental Divide in the interior of the wilderness, is a popular destination. Access it via Benchmark Road Campground in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, where you can leave your vehicle overnight for the five- to six-day round-trip expedition. It can be done faster, but you'll lose the luxury of fully exploring the area.
Rafting the Flathead River
Made famous by the Meryl Streep movie, The River Wild, the Flathead River starts in the Canadian Rockies and runs through northwestern Montana before emptying into Idaho's Clark Fork. Along the way it comprises of one of the region's wildest river systems, fringed by vast forests and rugged mountain peaks. Rafting the Flathead River merges the adrenaline-fueled experience of class III rapids with serene views, wildlife sightings and a hearty stock of fish like cutthroat trout. Tour operators offer half-, full- or multi-day trips, all geared toward a specific set of abilities or tastes for adventure.
Mountain biking in Whitefish
While the Bob Marshall Wilderness doesn't allow bicycles, mountain bike enthusiasts will be happy to know Montana has hundreds of places for great trail riding. There are winding dirt roads accessible only to 4x4 vehicles that make for adrenaline-pumping rides, as well as dirt-bike and cycle trails, and numerous paved access points for finding your own way. The Whitefish Trail system is a donor-supported network of trails starting just minutes from downtown Whitefish. Highlights include Lion Mountain, which provides quick and easy access to scenic viewpoints, and Spencer Mountain, with its miles and miles of thrilling freeride trails.
One of the more unique ways to mountain bike here is at Whitefish Bike Park (skiwhitefish.com/mountain-biking), which is a ski resort in winter and has lift-served mountain biking in the summer. From there, you let gravity and endurance take over for the downhill adventure. Best of all, a Great Northern Brewing Company (greatnorthernbrewing.com) craft beer awaits you back in Whitefish.
Hiking Jewel Basin
Not far from Kalispell in the Flathead Valley, is the aptly named Jewel Basin, where there are over two dozen lakes and about 35 miles of trails, bringing you face-to-face with mountain goats, elk, deer, coyotes and other fauna. The popular (but often uncrowded) 4.3-mile Mt. Aeneas Trail starts at Camp Misery and ends at Picnic Lakes; the latter offer mirror-like reflections of clouds and sky on calm days. It's a moderate-level hike but doable even for energetic beginners. The Jewel Basin is open year-round, but only maintained June through October.
The other side of this area is its rich history of cowboy life and livestock wrangling, and Flathead Valley prides itself for being home to many family-owned ranches and farms where visitors can join the experience. Try your hand at horseback riding, cattle driving or other classic occupations of the Wild West. One of several spots to consider is Flathead Lake Lodge (flatheadlakelodge.com), a family-owned and operated ranch on the shores of Flathead Lake. Dark wood paneling, deer horns mounted on the walls, authentic family-style cooking and a host of outdoor excursions from swimming to horseback riding are why people come here.
Tips for experiencing Montana’s great outdoors
As with any wild area, take care to leave it as wild as it was before you arrived. Pack in and pack out all your gear and trash, and make sure you leave camping areas refuse-free. You'll need permits and plans for nearly all the overnight expeditions. In many of the above, you will be entirely on your own if any emergencies occur, without access to cellphones or easy ways out. For most, if not all, however, that's part of the reason you come here: to really and truly get away from it all.