We just came back from a 6-week road trip, part of which was spent in the cool (literally) mountain region of northwest Montana where the famous Glacier National Park is located. Fortunately for us, dear friends keep a mountain cabin there. They are the first ones we met at Viewpoint in Arizona when we decided to stay for the winter back in 2012.
We usually stay overnight with them just to say hello on the way from Boise, Idaho, to Calgary, Alberta, for annual visits to our children. This year, however, we decided to find out what keeps them going back every summer. And we discovered eight incredibly cool (also figuratively) mountain towns east and west of their neighborhood, all along the region’s arterial Highway 2.
The Essex Neighborhood
Their summer mountain cabin is in Essex, an unincorporated community of about 100 families between the park entrances called East Glacier and West Glacier. July was precisely the right time to be there because huckleberries, those more flavorful relatives of blueberries that can only grow wild, were ripe for the picking. So, early in the morning after we arrived, I rode on the back of Bonnie’s ATV and we trekked up the hills, settling on a patch that had not been picked. The bushes were thick with the prized fruit and we both came home with little ziplock bags full that eventually found their way into delicious huckleberry pancakes.
The ATV rides also took us around their pristine neighborhood. We spotted rustic A-frame cabins like that of our friends, a unique neighborhood “lending” library hanging from a tree, the vistas of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River nearby, and a makeshift welcoming center for visiting hunters. Other friends from Viewpoint who camped here during summer joined us for dinner one night. But our best time was spent on their deck, looking out into the forest, listening to the birds, the bees, the breeze, and the banter.
Pro Tip: Haven, the little neighborhood motel/diner that had been closed for some time had been sold to new owners who now are preparing to open it soon.
Hungry Horse And Coram
About 40 minutes northwest of Essex is Hungry Horse, another census-designated unincorporated community of about 600. This is where our friends usually shop their groceries. The name comes from the dam which serves the area’s water needs and the hidden gem of a recreational area the town hosts. Fascinated by the town’s junk shop, I also spent some engaging time at our friends’ favorite mountain arts store, and was quite intrigued by a unique camp of the Jesus is Lord Church. I thought, “No town could be more quaint.”
The catchment area of businesses in Hungry Horse includes the 400+ residents three minutes north in the little town of Coram, Montana. That is where our other friends from Viewpoint camp on land they own. Their set-up is smartly laid out, not only with space for their own rig but also for those of their son and daughter and their families. The in-laws are also on an adjacent lot. They all share a good-sized storage shed and a spacious laundry/restroom unit.
Pro Tip: The Montana Fur Trading Company is truly a treasure of a Western arts store. I am sure you will find something you want to bring home.
Whitefish And Kalispell
Twenty minutes northwest of Hungry Horse is the popular ski resort and tourist town of Whitefish where almost 8,000 live. Fifteen minutes away is its partner mountain city of 25,000, Kalispell.
It was a cloudy summer day with some scattered showers when we visited, so we skipped the ski resorts. Instead, we spent the time in downtown Whitefish. It is the historic site of the still operating and lovely Amtrak Station known as the Great Northern Railway Depot, where the spectacular train rides of the Canadian Rockies pass. This is also where a lot of the oil passes through from the seats of the oil and gas industry in areas around Cut Bank. The National Geographic website write-up opens with this: “If you’re a railroad buff, you’ll love this historic depot, the busiest Amtrak Train stop between Seattle and Minneapolis.” The Whitefish Museum is also housed onsite with lots of memorabilia. Also on the grounds is the historic Bruck (bus+truck), a one-coach train that used to ferry people from the station to local spurs.
Even given the weather, some families were enjoying the waters at the Whitefish City Beach. Bushes thick with yellow flowers created a pretty natural boundary for the parking lot. A pretty little cottage housed a small visitor center and a nice stone sign marks the entry. Imagine our pleasant surprise to come across and photograph a pair of whitetail Bambies traipsing down the grassy area!
But there were so many who were relishing their freedom and traveling like us. Thus we could not find any seats in the recommended local restaurants grouped around the beautiful clock tower. Famished, we hurried to the city of Kalispell, where we finally had late lunch at Famous Dave’s, a national barbeque restaurant. Such chains are not allowed in Whitefish.
Kalispell has all the conveniences of a good-sized U.S. city so if you cannot find it in Whitefish, go to Kalispell. As a matter of fact, on another day, my husband and I had our COVID tests done there, with results guaranteed on the same day — a requirement for entry into Canada. Whitefish and Kalispell make a great pair.
Pro Tip: We found a great local eatery in Kalispell: Nickel Charlie’s Restaurant and Casino is where locals go for breakfast. Marvel at its transportation-themed décor hanging from the ceiling and feast on the heartiest day-opener you will ever have.
Cutback And Browning
East of Essex, the landscape changed. As we were leaving Montana to cross into Canada, hundreds of cattle appeared grazing on great fields of grass. Soon, however, they changed into herds of big bison! When you get to the town of Browning (population, about 1,000), you are sure to have reached a different territory. It is the headquarters and the only incorporated town on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. There are the usual casinos and Native-American shops on the reservation.
About 50 minutes farther east is the town of Cut Bank, with a bigger population of 3,000. It is the seat of the area’s oil and gas industry, which started in the 1920s when the first well was discovered. The name comes from its location, the cut bank (outside curve of a meandering river) east of Cut Bank Creek.
Here you will find a 27-foot-tall concrete penguin erected in 1989 proclaiming it as the “Coldest Spot in the Nation.” The record has been surpassed by Alaska which recently recorded -80 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in the contiguous U.S., Roger’s pass north of Helena has also recorded -70.
Pro Tip: If you don’t go through Shelby, the cool town of Cut Bank can be your last stop before the Sweetgrass-Coutts border crossing just 50 minutes away. This is the shortcut.
We stayed here overnight on the way from Boise to our friends’ mountain cabin in Essex. We also stopped here for another overnight stay on the way from Calgary after crossing the border. Even with such short visits, we found the time to visit three cool places in Dillon.
Montana gold was first discovered in what is now known as Bannack State Park. We have seen so many promotions of ghost towns before but this state park is different. It is 1,600 acres at over 5,000 feet elevation, complete with all the deserted buildings of a town: a restaurant/saloon, a hotel, a church, a school, the governor’s house, and many fine examples of mountain cabins of the time. Here, you can really imagine Bannack’s bustling life during its heyday.
The other landmark we visited is Clark’s Lookout State Park. It sits atop a hill where views of the surrounding areas are excellent. A short loop trail leads to the exact rocks where William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame stood on August 13, 1805, and took compass readings of three distant landmarks. In fact, there is an engraved compass face to mark the spot. The Park is still largely undeveloped, though.
The third place is a fascinating store: Atomic 79 Boots & Western Gear, a popular boot repair shop. But it is also a huge outlet for all kinds of cowboy boots and other western gear, like clothes, hats, mountain home décor, knives, etc. Going through all the interesting items took us a couple of hours and I went back to our hotel with a cool, unique denim top! The store ships items all over America.
Pro Tip: We dined at two places. We found out that the older folks congregated at Sparky’s Garage, while the younger ones frequented Mac’s Last Cast. Both are great places to get a bite and feel the vibe.
Montana is alive with small, historic places worthy of a visit. Consider: