Laid-back vibes and outdoor fun await you in Kalispell, a town frozen in time, tucked between Montana’s Swan and Salish mountain ranges. Here, you can feel at home spending a morning casting your line for rainbow trout, then relaxing with a burger and brew or a craft cocktail after a tour of a perfectly preserved historic mansion or art gallery. Late spring and early summer form a particularly wonderful stretch, when you can take in wildflowers and spot big game from uncrowded roads and trails.
In May, Glacier National Park will likely still have snowy peaks and rain showers, but that means lighter crowds within its one million acres of wilderness. Look for baby animals and wildflowers, and plan to hike at lower elevations to avoid snow. Going-to-the-Sun Road opens to full cross-park travel in mid to late June (weather permitting); before then, Camas Road should be open, with incredible views along the way. June brings summer programs and events to the area, as well: Guided day hikes by the Glacier Institute feature experts on topics such as wildflowers, birding, and geology. The Native America Speaks program offers an opportunity to learn about history and culture from Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribal members. Held at several locations in and near the park each summer, it is the longest-running Native speaker series in the national park system.
The new, accessible Kalispell Parkline Trail runs through historic downtown, an easy meander. Then it connects to the rail-to-trail Great Northern Rail Trail, with 22 miles of paved multi-use path, for those who want to continue onward. Get a bird’s-eye view of the entire Flathead Valley and surrounding mountains at one of several overlooks in Lone Pine State Park, which also has a wonderful visitor center with wildlife walk-through displays.
One of the largest natural freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi, at nearly 200 square miles, Flathead Lake is only a 10-minute drive from downtown Kalispell. Enjoy the mountain views as you paddle through glacial waters, fish for massive trout, or take a boat ride to Wild Horse Island. Keep your eyes open for the remaining handful of its namesake horses, as well as other wildlife such as bears, bighorn sheep, and mule deer.
The popular skiing spread Whitefish Mountain Resort keeps its slopes open in summer for adventure seekers. Take the Scenic Lift ride up the hill and hike 3.8 miles from the summit to the village of Whitefish on the Danny On Memorial Trail, or soar through the trees on Montana’s longest zip line tour. Kids will love the alpine slides and adventure course.
For the less outdoor-inclined, the Conrad Mansion Museum displays a slice of life from one of Kalispell’s founding families. Every detail in the 26-room house is lovingly restored, from the woodwork to the rotating collection of period clothing, toys, and tools, plus some 90 percent of the original furnishings and architecture. Call ahead for periodic special tours.
The Hockaday Museum of Art, housed in a former Carnegie library, is a don’t miss for art lovers, and the only art museum between Spokane and Missoula. Featuring regional art and a permanent collection that includes American Indian beadwork and Western-themed landscapes, the community-oriented space also has a special Members Salon for local art as well as a monthly Senior Tour and Tea Day on second Fridays.
Fuel up for morning road trips at the Spot, Kalispell’s unique donut drive-thru. Choose from creations like Boston cream, sticky caramel and pecan, or peanut butter glazed with grape jelly filling, as well as a range of breakfast sandwiches on homemade biscuits or bagels. Protip: Aim to arrive before 9:30 a.m. for the best selection.
For a hearty dinner of smoked prime rib or bison rib-eye accompanied by house-made popovers, head to Mercantile Steak. Housed in a beautifully refurbished provisions store built in1892, it still has the original mobile stock ladder and its track against one wall. Attached to the back of the steakhouse is the intimate, downright cool KM Bar, which prepares pre-Prohibition era cocktails behind the bar. Pair local brews with a classic cheddar burger and duck-fat fries or seasonal small plates with a Vesper martini.
Big Mountain Ciderworks is located on the northwest side of town in a rustic-chic tap house made from reclaimed wood. Take a seat inside the pole barn or on the shaded patio overlooking the orchards. Try the apple and walnut salad alongside a cider blend from one of the 16 taps—many are made from its estate-grown heirloom pears and heritage and dessert apples.
Downtown arts and crafts galleries dot Main Street. Honey Home & Design is stocked with a great mix of vintage and new housewares such as hand-shaped beeswax bowls and candles, table decor, and woolens. Sassafras, a lively artist cooperative filled with stalls hawking jewelry, artwork, and homemade cards, has a sweet little bakery tucked in the back, selling macarons and cakes, which is not to be missed. True Water Fly Shop is the place to stop before heading out to cast a line: It offers waterproof gear and rods, plus guided trips at a boutique lodge run by the same family, conveniently adjacent to the shop. On the way to Glacier National Park, stop in Hungry Horse for the Huckleberry Patch, a small-town favorite with candy, ice cream, pastries, and much more, featuring wild huckleberries and Flathead Valley cherries, two of the region’s specialties. —jennifer burns bright