I will live in Montana. And I will marry a round American woman and raise rabbits, and she will cook them for me. And I will have a pickup truck… maybe even a “recreational vehicle.” And drive from state to state. Do they let you do that? – Capt. Vasili Borodin
If you have ever seen The Hunt for Red October one of the more memorable lines comes courtesy Capt. Vasili Borodin played by Sam Neill.
He never made it to Montana, at least not via the screenwriters, but a pretty clear reason exists why this Soviet era naval captain wanted to live in Montana upon defection to the United States.
I’ve been to Montana before, actually through Montana as the trip then consisted mostly of flying in to Bozeman, flying out of Billings and driving in between. Whitefish, MT appeared on the radar a few years ago for my wife after seeing photos of the town during Christmas. Though her preference was to visit during the holidays or summer, we chose this week. Easter week as it turns out, as well as our anniversary. But wouldn’t you know, three nearby houses to our home base still have their Christmas lights on!
A cozy town if ever there was one, but hardly a town, much like a city way up north in Montana with white mountains as a scenic backdrop and located just a short(ish) drive from Glacier National Park. We brought our two dogs which adds a few wrinkles to travel plans but with patience and endurance you can make a go of it in this ski lover’s town.
Visiting Whitefish, Montana at the beginning of spring feels more like fall. The trees remain bare but enough residents were raking leaves to make you question why the chore was not done months ago. Considering the amount of snow remaining, despite temperatures in the upper 50s, I concluded this was the first time since the first snowfall months ago that homeowners could see the ground.
Funny Moment: The owners of the house we rented asked if I could rake the leaves in the backyard because of mold. Their usual gardener was injured and they were out of town for an extended period. I obliged.
Traveling to Whitefish, MT
We split the 10 hour drive from Portland with a stop in Coeur d’Alene, ID about 30 minutes east of Spokane, WA. Driving to Whitefish from the east obviously offers several different travel options than coming from the west, including the I-90 to I-93 route. However, we took MT-125 (west of the I-93 turnoff) off I-90 at Exit 33. You get outstanding single lane roads with lots of passing opportunities, if you get stuck behind slower drivers, but the views unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Stop at the gas station just off the exit to tap off your gas for the three hour trip to Whitefish.
You can hit the brakes, if you want to, but no need if you find joy in easily doing the 70 mph speed limit and faster. (shh, don’t tell anyone.) Long straightaways give you plenty of opportunity to take in the background of looming mountains and the foreground of grassland or forests. Saw a Bald Eagle grazing on a dead animal which turned heads but on this trip no other wildlife sightings except deer.
Things to do in Whitefish
Skiing in Whitefish
I don’t ski. I want to ski. I’ve been skiing once. Like 25 years ago. I stretched tendons and muscles in my knee I did not know exist. Not in a bad way, just something I took away from that experience. But now older, I fear a bit snapping an ACL, and/or MCL, and/or PCL. Yeah, yeah, yeah, paranoid, I know, but I do someday hope to hit the slopes or at least the kiddie straightaway.
At any rate, skiers love Whitefish and it is indeed a snow lovers paradise. But more than enough activities remain for those who prefer otherwise.
Fishing in Whitefish
Lakes and rivers abound in and around Whitefish. If you understand flipping and jigging then bring your rods but know what hook types you can and cannot use in certain areas.
Restaurants in Whitefish
When I said Whitefish feels more like a city than a small town blame the plethora restaurants. So many places to eat in Whitefish you probably need a month to hit them all. And, I’m not talking greasy spoons. Chef inspired delicacies permeate downtown Whitefish and most host a Happy Hour.
Find most eateries centrally located in a few square blocks downtown but many pepper the I-93 from the south and heading north on Wisconsin Avenue towards Big Mountain, plus others in between. Plenty of local beer selections and a distillery, too.
Summer in Whitefish brings out the boaters, hikers and even sun seekers. A massive lake with public access beaches allows you to enjoy fishing, canoeing, rafting, paddle boarding and I’m sure swimming, eventually, when the water temperature gets warm enough. Whitefish Lake was partly frozen over during our visit.
Hiking in Whitefish
Trails abound for hikers. Check which ones allow dogs if you have brought your four-legged friends.
Glacier National Park
You have to visit Glacier National Park. More to come on that.
Train Watching in Whitefish
Like trains? Whitefish has a pretty busy freight train line and a mini train yard right through the middle of town. I can hear the trains coming and going from the house we rented and at least one train sat at the ready every time we crossed the bridge. The train station for Amtrak also houses a museum.
Other Things to Do in Whitefish
Whitefish has a skating rink and the Whitefish Theatre Company, a local playhouse. If Gin Blossoms can play Medford, OR then Whitefish, MT shouldn’t be too far off the beaten path. A very cool record store resides in downtown with a most friendly owner (I think she was anyway). Unfortunately, I did not find anything I couldn’t live without.
Visiting Whitefish with Dogs
If you plan to vacation with your dog(s), I’d suggest skipping the hotel for the rental homes. You can use any of the Big 3 (or 4, so many exist now) management companies that essentially welcome you to a stranger’s home. A house, at least for us, offered the convenience of a yard for the dogs and space to relax that a hotel room lacks. Renting a house also provides the opportunity to walk the neighborhoods and “live” like a Montanan for however long your stay.
But if your dogs have potty breaks dialed in with sturdy bladders, you can find a number of hotels in Whitefish offering pet accommodations and the usual fun and amenities for humans.
Dogs do prevent you from enjoying the inside of restaurants, however, thanks to COVID-19 (one silver lining I suppose) every restaurant we encountered offered take-out.
Whitefish, Montana reveals a sprawling, vibrant mountain community that tightly holds its bedroom characteristics and worth a visit any time of year. Depending on your druthers, you may find it more to your liking during the winter months if you ski or want to experience the coziness of Christmas in a Hallmark movie setting. Otherwise, come during the summer months to fully experience the great outdoors.
However, we understand the busy season of Winter and Summer really packs the crowds in. The end of March proved quite lively with enough activity to prevent feelings of seclusion but without hindering our ability to get around town quickly and smoothly.
One thing to consider, if possible, when renting a car, request one with Montana plates. The vehicle we rented came with plates from our state neighbor to the north. After a few not so friendly glances at the Washington plates by pedestrians, we began to wonder if residents do not like outsiders. After striking up a discussion with a friendly local, she indeed confirmed it was not in our heads. Unfortunately, people from California, Arizona and Washington have relocated to the Whitefish area causing a rise in housing prices and rent.
I understand their frustration. Californians have ruined Oregon too.