Something strange happens to Amtrak’s Empire Builder train from Chicago when it arrives in Whitefish, Mont.: Everybody gets off.
Well, not quite everybody. But northwest Montana, even in winter, is no secret to outdoors enthusiasts from around the country.
Most come for the downhill skiing at nearby Big Mountain (which also is drawing more skiers than usual from Washington and Idaho this winter, due to the scarcity of snow at Inland Northwest resorts).
But visitors to the region also are finding growing numbers of other recreation opportunities, from wilderness cross-country skiing to snowmobiling to sleigh rides to ice skating.
“People who go to destination resorts are always looking for new destinations,” says Victor Bjornberg, a spokesman for Travel Montana. “Montana’s kind of that new place to discover in winter.”
“We’re getting people from all over,” agrees Dorie Hipschman, executive director of the Flathead Valley Convention and Visitor Association.
Adora Maguire, a spokeswoman for Big Mountain, notes that last year, Northwest Airlines began service from Minneapolis to Kalispell with one flight a week; this winter, the number has risen to three.
With growing numbers of visitors have come growing numbers of things to do. Some examples:
Northwest Montana has more than 220 miles of groomed snowmobile trails and thousands of miles of scenic Forest Service back roads.
You can cruise fast, straight and level along the bottomlands of the Flathead Valley, or climb high and steep (a popular groomed trail climbs more than 3,000 feet to the 6,400-foot summit of Desert Mountain). Another popular snowmobile destination is Big Mountain, where more terrain has been opened up this year on adjacent Forest Service lands.
Several hotels also offer combined lodging/snowmobile packages, and guided tours are available.
Visitors who are bringing their own snowmobiles should be aware that elevations above 7,000 feet are not uncommon. It’s recommended that elevation kits be installed before you hit the trails.
The region offers a wide variety of terrain, from gentle groomed courses on the Whitefish Lake Golf Course to steep, sometimes icy hills in the Avalanche Lake area of Glacier National Park.
A brochure describing a dozen cross-country destinations is available from the Flathead Convention and Visitor Association, (800) 543-3105 or (406) 756-9091. Numerous outdoors-oriented businesses in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls offer equipment sales, rentals and more information.
The cross-country season usually continues through April. Temperatures in the Flathead Valley are relatively mild (typically, around 25 degrees), making it a good location for family fun.
Fun for children of all ages, you’ll find sleighs pulled by horses or dogs.
Several operators offer horse-drawn sleigh rides, ranging from short, 30-minute tours to longer expeditions that usually feature a Western-style dinner.
Dog Sled Adventures, near near Whitefish also offers a “dog-gone good time” - sleighs pulled by dogs through a 12-mile loop in the Stillwater State Forest. Guests cuddle up in elk furs, and there’s an optional soak in the hot tub at the end of the trip. For information, call (406) 881-BARK.
Another outfitter, based at Big Mountain, offers short trips or a dinner getaway to an Old West roadhouse. There’s a Montana-style dinner (if you don’t know what Rocky Mountain oysters are, you should probably ask before eating), plus live music, horseshoe puzzles, rope tricks and campfire songs. For information, call Big Mountain at (406) 862-2900 or Old West Adventures at (406) 862-2434.
Places to stay
Whitefish and the Flathead Valley have a wide variety of accommodations, from budget to luxury.
None of the lodges in Glacier National Park are open during winter, though - for the hardy - at least one campground remains open, without services.
Whitefish is a typical resort town with a good range of places to eat and drink, though restaurant prices are - as you’d expect - on the high side.
Many of the restaurants are also bars, so parents with children may prefer mall restaurants or fast-food outlets.
The city’s annual Winter Carnival (Feb. 2-4) features a torchlight parade, snow sculptures and other festivities. One of the parade highlights is always a team of sled dogs pulling a huge truck.
And if you’re really not a snow person, you can always go indoors. Groups under the umbrella of the Flathead Arts Council offer a variety of performance events, ranging from the local orchestra and chorale to community theater.
If that’s not enough, try rodeo. It’s offered every month through March at an indoor arena in Kalispell.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo