Going deep into God’s Country
written by HEATHER KW BROWN
photos courtesy of VACATION RACES; SAMANTHA TAYLOR PHOTOGRAPHY; DONNIE SEXTON; MONTANA OFFICE OF TOURISM AND BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT; NOAH COUSER; TOM ROBERTSON
LIKE AN OVERSIZED ROAD MAP, the state of Montana unfolds one section at a time, and the closer you get, the more beautiful the view. In a place graced with a moniker like “God’s Country,” possibilities among the mountains, meadows and valleys exceed every expectation. Finding a reason to visit is the easy part; narrowing the choices is not.
Crown of the Continent
Often called the “Crown of the Continent,” Glacier National Park straddles the Continental Divide and spans a whopping 1,583 square miles. Best of all, it feels like the last of a wild frontier, just waiting to be tamed. Despite an increase in tourists over the years, Glacier enables hikers the peace and quiet of a trail to themselves with plenty of panoramas in every direction.
My incessant chatter about this national park finally convinced one of my friends to join me. The catch, of course, was to run a race. Salem Stanley, founder of Vacation Races, had fortunately made that decision an easy one as well. His company encourages everyone to “run somewhere breathtaking” and they host more than 20 races of varying distances in and near national parks to help runners accomplish that goal.
“I saw the growth of destination events and after further research, it looked like people were interested in running at the National Parks. I grew up outside of Zion National Park, so I gave it a shot. We see two main types of groups coming to the races: families (including childless or mature couples) and friend groups (girls trips),” Stanley explained.
“What is interesting,” he continued, “is that 40 to 60 percent of our participants use the races as a reason to visit for the first time. It’s really a stunning statistic.”
Though I’d been to Glacier National Park more than 20 years ago, the idea of running a race in its proximity is precisely how my friend and I found ourselves running uphill surrounded by incredible views in Montana. The litany of logistics required to host thousands of runners inside a national park often keeps the race route just outside the lines, but we didn’t mind. The race was well organized and delivered on the promise of running somewhere breathtaking.
Of course, we didn’t need much motivation to dedicate more time inside the park. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is an engineering marvel that has been one of the main draws for visitors over the years — the experience of traveling that road is unlike anything else. Even if you decide to drive it, I recommend one of the Red Bus Tours. These historic tours use bright red convertibles that wind their way along the glacially carved Garden Wall to the high–alpine regions of the park, past waterfalls, wildflowers and glaciers that experts estimate could be gone within a decade.
When staying in East Glacier, the historic Izaak Walton Inn in Essex is the place to be. Originally built as housing for the workers of the Great Northern Railroad, the property offers 33 rooms in the lodge with another 33 rooms found among six family cabins, a locomotive and nine rail cars converted into tiny homes. Though each has a different layout, most sleep four to six.
In addition to the onsite restaurant, aptly dubbed The Dining Car, the resort has other amenities like a sauna, hot tub, laundry facilities, a downstairs bar and space for kids as well as roughly 33 kilometers of ski trails, all accessible on property. While East Glacier is more remote, we found plenty to do in West Glacier.
Being the gateway to Glacier National Park may have originally been why visitors ventured into Kalispell, but this town is becoming its own frontier to explore.
Among many reasons to spend time in the downtown area is the Kalispell Grand Hotel. One step inside is all it takes to yield an undeniable sense of yesteryear. Black-and-white photos highlight the hotel’s history and are a stark contrast to looking outside the hotel’s windows today. When the doors first opened in 1912, downtown Kalispell boasted eight hotels. After changing hands a number of times, the Kalispell Grand remains the lone landmark hotel. The family-owned property is immediately warm and welcoming, in part because of the smell of freshly baked cookies wafting from the kitchen. The floors creak up the original wooden staircase, reminding those of us fortunate to stay that we are now a part of the hotel’s history.
Proof that Kalispell is a town on the uptick is The Kalispell Brewing Company. The aging downtown building on Main Street is home to husband-and-wife Cole Schneider and Maggie Doherty’s 10-barrel brewery and tasting room, where locals and visitors alike flock for flights of small batch beer. We worked up an appetite sampling fun, ski-themed brews like Two Skis Brewskis Pils and Snowslip Stout.
Small but mighty when it comes to dining options, Kalispell restaurants like Bonelli’s Bistro, Split Rock Cafe, Sykes Diner and 406 Bar & Grill sit atop local lists as fan favorites. We’d come for a true taste of Montana, so we settled into Hop’s Downtown Grill for an appetizer of grilled elk bratwurst. For my entrée, I made the delicious call of ordering the Spring Brook Ranch Yak Burger with Tibetan barbecue sauce, ginger and grilled onions.
Don’t pass DeSoto Grill without stopping in for a bite of barbecue or Montana Coffee Traders, which serves healthy breakfast options and copious amounts of caffeine when a kick-start is necessary. Motivation beyond refueling isn’t needed around this town.
Discovery in all Directions
Located in Montana’s Flathead Valley, Kalispell encourages discovery in every direction and for good reason. From museum tours to mountain bike trails, we stayed happily occupied for days. Housed in a Carnegie Library Building listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, the Hockaday Museum of Art embraces the beauty of its century-old building and preserves the artistic legacy of Montana and Glacier National Park. Inside, guests will find a permanent collection of Glacier National Park art and artifacts as well as rotating exhibits by nationally renowned and emerging artists.
For visitors that enjoy perusing beautiful homes, a tour of the Conrad Mansion is an absolute must. Similar to taking a tour of the Biltmore, we learned the history of the mansion, the family and how both have evolved since 1895 when the family first moved into the three-story, 13,000-square-foot home. Furnished with 26 rooms and eight sandstone fireplaces, the house and the craftsmanship within is a lost art today. Filled with 90 percent of the family’s original furnishings, the home was donated by Alicia Ann Conrad, the youngest daughter, as a museum to her parents’ legacy.
Pedaling its own way onto Kalispell’s list of attractions is Wheaton’s Cycles. From typical tune-ups to trail rides of varying lengths and difficulty, the town’s oldest bike shop continues to establish its own legacy. Bicycle expert Hans Axelsen and his wife Jeni recently took over as proud owners. Essentially a concierge of bike experiences, Wheaton’s makes hopping on a bike fun for all ages and experience levels. A brief 10 minutes from downtown Kalispell, Herron Park is home to approximately 440 acres ready to transport riders into new territory along the Foy’s to Blacktail trails.
After a fun trek through the woods, we continued through Flathead Valley over to Lakeside and then to Big Fork, which is a happening little town full of charm right on Flathead Lake.