Every year, Western Montana’s Flathead Lake and its surrounding communities teem with summer sun worshippers, but with the first flurries of Rocky Mountain snow it transforms into another world. The lakeside towns of Polson and Big Fork as well as the Glacier National Park-gateway cities of Kalispell and Whitefish play host to those seeking the enchanting beauty and excitement of a Montana winter.
A 135-mile drive north on U.S. Highway 93 from Missoula to Whitefish lets you take it all in. Fly into Missoula and rent a car. The Highway 93 drive won’t cross any mountain passes, so winter driving should be drama-free. Nonetheless, to be safe, check road conditions and weather before you hit the road (download the Montana Department of Transportation traveler-information mobile app at mdt.mt.gov/travinfo/mobile.shtml). You will find Missoula lodging and car rentals at destinationmissoula.org. The road trip can be done in less than three hours, but it’s best to take at least three days to experience the true magic of this scenic route.
Your first stop will be to view something that is, for most visitors, completely unexpected. About 30 miles out of Missoula, you’ll come to the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. A vast plot of land on the Jocko Valley floor north of the town of Arlee is the site of a magnificent shrine featuring a thousand hand-cast Buddha statues arranged in the design of the eight-spoked Dharma wheel—a symbol that is said to awaken altruism and wisdom in those who visit. The shrine’s central figure represents the perfection of wisdom. Take time to marvel at the extraordinary sight of identical Buddhas stretching toward the hills and mountains at the edge of the valley. Regardless of your beliefs, you can’t help but pause here and reflect. Find information and directions at ewambuddhagarden.org.
Re-energized—and maybe just a bit more enlightened—start your engine and continue north on U.S. 93. Your next stop will be the St. Ignatius Mission on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The mission dates to 1854, and the current mission church is on the National Register of Historic Places and dates to 1893. It’s still a functional Catholic church; if it’s open, peek inside to view the walls and ceilings adorned with original paintings by a monk who was the mission’s cook.
When Flathead Lake comes into view, you’ve reached the town of Polson. The scene of the lake surrounded by mountain peaks (on a clear day) will make you want to hang out here for a while. Fortunately, you’ve landed in a vibrant little town with plenty to discover. Park downtown and stop in at the aptly named Mrs. Wonderful’s Bakery and Café for lunch (mrswonderfulworld.com); order a cup of their wonderful chili for starters and go from there. Take time to stretch your legs and browse downtown shops before continuing your drive north. For more information about what’s in Polson, visit polsonchamber.com.
The highway eventually rejoins the lake and traces the lakeshore for miles, treating you to one of the most scenic stretches along the route. When you leave the lake, a short distance after the town of Somers, take a detour on Highway 82 and then Highway 25. This spur side trip takes you to the small village of Big Fork (bigfork.org), worth a spin through for its quaint, lakeside charms. Big Fork is to adventure what Polson is to bakery cafes. A short distance out of town, you’ll find Base Camp Big Fork, in winter a dog sledding destination. (Book a dog sledding excursion before your trip at basecampbigfork.com.) The canines at Base Camp Big Fork aren’t just any sled dogs—they are authentic Inuit sled dogs, and pulling sleds is in their DNA. Here, you’ll get a hands-on experience and learn to drive your own dog team on either a half-day or full-day adventure.
Retrace your steps back to Highway 93 and continue north to Kalispell in the heart of the
Flathead Valley. This is a good city in which to bunk down for the night. Reserve a room at the historic Kalispell Grand Hotel (kalispellgrand.com), right on Main Street, perfectly situated for browsing the downtown shops. Unfortunately, you won’t pay the $2 per night rate that guests paid in 1912, but the off-season rates are still budget-friendly. While in Kalispell, be sure to visit Conrad Mansion (conradmansion.com), the historic home of one of the city’s prominent past citizens; in winter months, reserve your tour at least a day ahead. For dinner, funky and fabulous Desoto Grill is a must (desotogrill.com) for generous BBQ platters done right, a selection of Montana beers and decadent desserts to feel guilty about.
Next stop: Whitefish (explorewhitefish.com), the end of the line. Whitefish is home to one of Montana’s prime ski hills and Whitefish Mountain Resort (skiwhitefish.com). If you’re a skier or snowboarder, put this on your itinerary. Whitefish’s small, walkable downtown is outfitted with excellent shopping, restaurants, a great craft brewery and distillery tasting rooms. You’ll have lots of choices for lodging, and quaint Kandahar Lodge (kandaharlodge.com) at the base of the mountain is a solid choice for its ski-lodge ambience. It’s also home to a fine dining restaurant you must not miss: Café Kandahar (cafekandahar.com), the culinary playground of owner and renowned chef Andy Blanton.
If you’re in Whitefish during Winter Carnival, plan far in advance for accommodations, and check out the festivities at whitefishwintercarnival.com. Also, you might schedule your Whitefish visit during the World Invitational Skijoring event (whitefishskijoring.com), a thrilling world-championship race that pairs horseracing with skiing.
When it’s time to go, you can drive back to Missoula and return your car, or, if you arranged for a Whitefish drop off, you can catch the Amtrak Empire Builder (amtrak.com) to points east or west. Whitefish conveniently happens to be an Amtrak stop.
For complete information about traveling through Western Montana, visit glaciermt.com.