The Flathead Valley in northwestern Montana lies between Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake, which holds the distinction of being the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. More than that, it’s a piece of paradise. Between the valley and the lake, the area offers a plethora of outdoor recreation opportunities year-round, plus western heritage and friendly hospitality. Our family has been enjoying this area for years, but we recently headed down for an extended long weekend, with plans for a few new experiences.
Downtown Kalispell is a beautifully preserved small western city, with interesting historical architecture and a great collection of shops and restaurants. It’s also home to the Museum at Central School and the Hockaday Museum of Art.
We didn’t have time to visit both museums, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time at The Museum at Central School. Housed in the historic Central School building, which first opened its doors in 1894, the museum brings to life the history of the Flathead Valley, from its indigenous peoples through the Wild West period of western settlement and beyond.
Notable characters from the region are beautifully highlighted, there’s a fascinating display on logging (including a x-section of a tree that lived from about 1200 AD to 2000!), and currently (through May) there is a traveling exhibit from the State Historical Society in Helena, interpreting Montana’s Modernist architectural legacy of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
We’ve always meant to visit Norm’s News Soda Fountain & Candy Shop on downtown Kalispell’s main drag, and we’re really glad we finally got around to it. A classic soda shop, candy store and magazine stand, Norm’s is a fun family experience. Their menu is classic diner fare combined with mouthwatering sodas, ice cream and shakes. It’s all pretty filling, so you may need two visits to try their savoury offerings and their treats. We did.
Our kids loved perusing Norm’s huge selection of candy and picking out a few treats for their friends back home. Friends are a great reason to buy some extra treats without overdoing the sugar rush!
Following our delicious lunch, we checked out the adjoining Western Outdoors store, where we were blown away by their selection of cowboy boots and all things western/horsey/ranch-styled. We live in Calgary, so I thought I knew western stores, but this takes it to a whole new level. I’m pretty sure I’ll be picking up a little something on our next trip down, to wear to Calgary’s Stampede this summer!
A few minutes east of Kalispell’s downtown sits Woodland Park, a family destination for all seasons and clearly a community hub. Home to gardens and a pool with waterslides in summer, the winter park features an outdoor artificially-cooled hockey rink, large skating pond and a terrific kids’ playground. There is free public skating on the rink at certain times, and any time on the pond. It’s even lit for night skating until 11 pm.
Another ‘Flathead First’ for our family was visiting Lone Pine State Park, a day-use area just a few minutes outside central Kalispell. Originally intended to be a snowshoeing excursion, our plans were waylaid by the recent warm dry weather, but the walking trails were in excellent condition and the air gloriously fresh and pine-scented.
In addition to sweeping views of the valley and its surrounding mountains, and miles of pristine walking trails, Lone Pine State Park is home to an excellent interpretive centre. Focused on the wildlife of the region, including urban wildlife safety, the centre houses some very professionally-produced (and wonderfully hands-on!) exhibits. We were impressed by the enthusiasm of the centre’s staff and volunteers and their eagerness to connect with our kids and teach them about the area’s flora and fauna.
Out-of-state residents pay $5 USD per vehicle to enter the park, but the interpretive centre is free. We’re excited to come back in the spring and summer for hikes and picnics, interpretive programs for the kids, and hopefully next winter for that snowshoeing we had planned. Snowshoe rentals are available and a guided excursion runs each Saturday at 1 pm, weather-permitting.
Our family is fortunate to have a place to stay when we visit the valley, but the Best Western Flathead Lake graciously invited us for a tour and a swim in their pool. Centrally located between Kalispell and Lakeside, and just minutes from the top of Flathead Lake, the hotel offers clean, comfortable, family friendly accommodation. The indoor pool is one of the best for kids that we’ve experienced in a hotel. It’s long enough for lengths swimming, but boasts 2 shallow ends, ranging from 3′ to just 5′ at the deepest point.
The hotel also includes a comprehensive hot breakfast with every stay. What a great way to stretch your family’s vacation budget and fuel up before heading off for a day of winter fun.
Many western Canadians are familiar with Whitefish Mountain, a popular ski area in Whitefish, north of Kalispell. Few, however, seem to have heard of Blacktail Mountain ski area, and that’s a shame. The hill is located about 20 minutes up the mountain from Lakeside, which is a small town on the western shores of Flathead Lake. Blacktail is an affordable and family friendly ski area with terrain for all skill levels. Its north facing slopes are known for their light dry snow and amazing views of the Flathead Valley. At this friendly and uncrowded hill, you can let your kids enjoy a lesson with a fun and knowledgeable instructor, ski together as a family, enjoy lunch in the cafeteria or sit-down restaurant upstairs, and maybe even sneak in a snuggle with the owners’ Labradoodles! And when I say affordable, I do mean affordable: kids ski free until they turn 8 and an adult lift ticket only costs $38 ($25 on Thrifty Thursdays).
Everyone knows that aprés-ski is an important part of the sport and there’s a great place just down the hill from Blacktail Mountain. Owned and operated by Lanny McDonald (of Calgary Flames fame) and his extended family, the Tamarack Brewing Company in Lakeside, on the western shores of Flathead Lake, is home to stellar beer, delicious food, rustic chic architecture and an everyone’s-welcome atmosphere. We’ve been coming here in all seasons since it opened and it just keeps getting better. It’s so popular now, in fact, that they are in the process of building an addition to expand the dining area.
If you love beer and it’s your first time at Tamarack, order their regular or seasonal sampler. Better yet, do what we did and order both! On our most recent visit, there were 14 Tamarack beers on tap, including ‘Training Wheels’ root beer (adored by the kids) and Old ‘Stache stout, brewed in honour of Lanny himself and thick enough to stick to anyone’s lip fuzz.
Kids eat free on Mondays (not to mention for lunch at home the next day – large portions!), a growler refill will only cost you $8 on Sundays and Wednesdays, and Thursdays bring inexpensive tapas-style additions to the menu. Any day of the week, may I highly recommend the beef dip with sautéed mushrooms and onions? It’s one of our favourites. Just be prepared to eat half and take the rest home; it’s huge!
Although our family has loved Flathead Lake and the Flathead Valley for years, this visit opened our eyes to some new experiences that will now become a regular part of our Montana trips. And there’s still lots more to explore, which we plan to do with the help of Discover Kalispell and VisitMT.com.