Why Whitefish, Montana, is heavenly in winter

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In winter, you can spend a few days skiing at Whitefish Mountain and another day exploring Glacier National Park. ©Hilary Nangle
When friends ask why Whitefish, I reply: Heavenly Whitefish, Montana, is blessed with abundant snow, a great town, and a primo location near Glacier National Park. By the way, the statue of Jesus was placed here by former 10th Mountain Division troops working with the local Knights of Columbus, and the flamingo beach arose when a local on vacation teased about being on a beach. ©Hilary Nangle

I’m hoping my first trip to Whitefish won’t be my last, and I’m wondering why I waited so long to visit this Montana mountain and community that share the name. Why Whitefish? Here are just a few of the reasons this four-season resort should be on your radar, whether you’re a skier/rider or not.

Why Whitefish, Montana? It's easily accesed by train or air. ©Hilary Nangle
Why Whitefish? Amtrack’s Empire Builder stops downtown, and Glacier International Airport is just 15 minutes away. ©Hilary Nangle

• Why Whitefish: Location, location, location

Whitefish, sited in northern Montana, scores triple location points: It’s roughly 30 miles from Glacier National Park; the town is 15 minutes from Glacier Park International Airport; the Amtrak Empire Builder stops in town: and if you’re looking for a ski trifecta, it’s only an hour from the Canadian border, making it easy to loop in Fernie and Kimberly.

Why Whitefish mountain: It’s big…

No, really; truth is: Big Mountain was its previous name. It was changed to associate it with its base town and to avoid confusion with Big Sky, in the southern Montana. Whitefish Mountain Resort comprises 3,000 acres with 105 marked trails + plentiful bowls, steeps, and trees serviced by 14 lifts & tows. The vertical drop is a respectable 2,353 feet; the longest run is 3.3 miles. Truth is, the mountain skis bigger than it first appears. As one ascends, bowls and ridges appear. Thanks to its multiple faces, one can usually find good conditions, not matter what the weather. Hint: Locals told me the north side is always lighter and dryer, so when in doubt, head north.

Above the clouds at Whitefish Mountain, Montana.©Hilary Nangle
A weather inversion leaves Whitefish mountain sunny while downtown Whitefish is cloudy. ©Hilary Nangle

• … But not too big

With a summit elevation of 6,817 feet, no worries about altitude issues. You won’t be gasping for breath or experiencing a killer headache if you bend over.

and Pho & ahi in the cafeteria

I could eat lunch every day in the Summit House and be happy. Not only was the food very good, but also very appealing, and reasonably priced. One day I enjoyed a steaming bowl of hearty pho, another a Mexican chicken. I was tempted by an ahi tuna dish as well as the burritos. Most choices were in the $8-12 range—very fair considering the quality and location.

Why Whitefish? Two classic ski bars. At The Bierstube, shoot pool and catch up with locals. ©Hilary Nangle
For apres ski, look no further than The Bierstube in the village on Whitefish mountain. ©Hilary Nangle

Why Whitefish: 70 years & counting

The mountain is celebrating its 70th anniversary this season. When I visited, I had the opportunity to hear long-timers share stories about the early years. I also caught the Clod of the Week/Frabert Awards, presented on Wednesdays at 5pm in the Bierstube (a.k.a. the ‘stube), the classic ski bar in the Village (go in if just for the nostalgia and decor—think old ski movies on the big screen, pool table, and old ski gear, signs, flags, and other mementos adorning the walls and hanging from the rafters); another good spot to soak in the atmosphere is the Hellroaring Saloon.

Why Whitefish: The price is right!

No, not the TV show, but the prices for everything. For starters, winter is off-season in Whitefish, so accommodations are reasonably priced. Lift tickets are low for a major resort; rack rate: $79 adult 1-day, $72 each additional day (buy a $50 frequent skier card, and the daily rate is $50 adult). And hey, if you’re 70 or older, you ski free.

There's no need to have a car in Why Whitefish? Thanks to the free transportation system connecting the town with the mountain. ©Hilary Nangle
Why Whitefish? S.N.O.W. buses provide free transportation between town and mountain in Whitefish. ©Hilary Nangle

• Why Whitefish: Car free is carefree

Free S.N.O.W buses connect the town with the mountain, stopping along the way. You can stay on mountain and enjoy afternoons and evenings in town or stay in town and still catch first and last tracks.

What's better than a book store that also sells chocolates? ©Hilary Nangle
Why Whitefish? Independent stores and restaurants line the streets downtown. ©Hilary Nangle

• All that, plus it’s a fun town …

Not only is downtown Whitefish compact and easy to navigate, it’s streets are lined with independent shops, galleries, restaurant, and even two microbreweries and a micro distillery. There’s even an independent downtown hardware store, a rarity these days, especially in a resort community. Does it get any more perfect than Voyageur, a shop that sells artisan chocolates and used books? Oh, and nearly every restaurant or shop selling anything food related will have something in the huckleberry flavor. It’s local, it’s good, try it.

In winter, the Bar W Guest Ranch offers sleigh rides as well as B&B lodging. ©Hilary Nangle
Stay at the Bar W Guest Ranch or simply enjoy an afternoon sleigh ride complete with refreshments afterward. ©Hilary Nangle

• … with fun off-mountain options

Beyond skiing, riding, shopping, and eating, Whitefish makes it easy to have a good time. So on those days when fog shrouds the mountain, consider the alternative outdoor pursuits: sleigh rides, dog sledding, Nordic skiing, fat-tire biking, and snowshoeing. Or, dive into the aquatic park, visit a spa, or simply curl up with the highly regarded Whitefish Review, a literary journal published twice each year. 

Ski or snowshoe in Glacier National Park, an easy drive from Whitefish, Montana. ©Hilary Nangle
Why Whitefish? In winter, you’ll have Glacier National Park practically to yourself. ©Hilary Nangle

Why Whitefish: Glacier National Park

The elephant in the room is Glacier National Park. Truth is, most people come in summer, which is why winter rates for lodging are low. The park in winter is quiet and spectacular, and it’s open for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, winter hiking, or simply oohing and aahing. Glacier Adventure Guides makes it easy.

There's often live music at The Firebrand Hotel in downtown Whitefish, Montana. ©Hilary Nangle
The lounge in the Firebrand Hotel is a fine spot for a tapas-style dinner. ©Hilary Nangle

*****

Where Whitefish: A few thoughts on where to sleep and eat

One of the many things I loved about Whitefish in winter is the wide array of options for sleeping and eating.

The Snow Bear Chalets provide luxurious accommdations on Whitefish mountain, Montana. ©Hilary Nangle
You can’t get any closer to the lifts and trails at Whitefish mountain than the Snow Bear Chalets. ©Hilary Nangle

Lodging

• Cheap sleeps: on the mountain, Hibernation House (from $89pp with lift, lodging, & breakfast); in town, the Whitefish Hostel (from $75/bed; whole house rental available).

One of the rooms at Good Medicine Lodge ©Hilary Nangle
Good Medicine Lodge ©Hilary Nangle

• B&Bs: one-third mile from town & on bus route, Good Medicine Lodge, which has especially nice lounging areas  (from $135 w/breakfast); intown Garden Wall Inn (from $155 w/breakfast)

• Hotels & Inns: on the mountain, Kandahar Lodge (from $159 w/continental breakfast); in town, The Firebrand (from $119)

• Luxury ski-in/out chalets: Snow Bear Chalets, on the slope tree houses (from $3,000/week)

• Dude ranch: located on the outskirts of town, the Bar W Guest Ranch offers B&B rates during winter.

Spotted Bear Spirits is a distillery in downtown Whitefish, Montana. ©Hilary Nangle
For apres-ski cocktails, slide into Spotted Bear Spirits in downtown Whitefish. ©Hilary Nangle

Dining

• Breakfast—On the mountain, I grabbed a breakfast quesadilla at Village Coffee in the upper village; in town, head to Loula’s, Swift Creek Cafe, or Amazing Crepes.

Of course Sweet Peaks serves huckleberry ice cream. ©Hilary Nangle
Pop into Sweet Peaks when downtown Whitefish for homemade ice cream, sorbet, and yogurt. ©Hilary Nangle

• Ice cream: I know it’s winter, but trust me on this, you don’t want to miss Sweet Peaks, which its own ice cream, sorbet, and yogurt. And of course you can get huckleberry.

• Dinner—On the mountain: For a wonderful dining experience with a highly regarded chef, make reservations at Cafe Kandahar. Intown: Abruzzo prepares excellent pastas and wood-fired pizzas; mountain Mexican is served at Pescado Blanco (I’m still signing over the bison enchiladas), Tupelo Grille specializes in Cajun and Southern fare; the lobby lounge at the Firebrand Hotel serves a tapas-style small-plates menu.

 

 

 

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