Glacier National Park, the vast protected wilderness area in northwestern Montana, has always loomed large in my imagination — the dizzyingly steep mountain peaks, the glaciers remaining from the last ice age, and the mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and, of course, bears. The thought of coming across a bear on a hike is actually petrifying. My friend Ellie and I will be arming ourselves with plenty of bear spray.
But we have some exploring to do in the towns before we get to the park. In Whitefish, a historic railroad community, we stop for lunch at the Bulldog Saloon, which is decorated with dozens of wooden plaques depicting bulldogs (the local high school's mascot). Neither of us knows what to expect from the sour-cream-and-chive fries Ellie orders along with our burgers, but after one bite, she's hooked: "You need to taste these fries. Now."
A block away, Mrs. Spoonover's ice cream shop looks like a grandmother's home, with its doilies, denim tablecloths, and teapots lining the shelves. The friendly owner, Judy Scallen, whose silver hair is piled up in a bun, serves us Montana-made ice cream that she says contains the highest percentage of cream possible. I have a scoop of huckleberry — a berry native to the Northwest — and it would satisfy even a 5-year-old's sweet tooth.
Although we're pretty full, we can't resist a free sample in the tasting room at the Great Northern Brewing Company, especially when the beers have names like Buckin' Horse and Hellroaring. Since there isn't a tour — you just look at the tanks and pipes through a glass wall in the tasting room — we go down the street to split a beer at the Great Northern Bar & Grill (which has no affiliation with the brewery). We contemplate spending the day there, listening to a guitarist and drinking microbrews, but the annual Northwest Montana Rodeo awaits in Kalispell, 20 minutes to the south.
On our way out of town, we stop at Cowgirl Coffee. Ellie is delighted by all the souvenirs, particularly a T-shirt that says ONE SINGLE TALL COWGIRL, PLEASE. Outside, she sets the timer on her camera to take a photo of us on a bench with COWGIRL HEAVEN painted on the backrest.
The real-life cowgirls racing their quarter horses around barrels are the highlight of the rodeo, although we're also impressed by the bull-riding and cattle-roping competitions. After a huckleberry milkshake, we leave to find our hotel. The Kalispell Grand Hotel, which was built in 1912 and recently renovated, retains an old-fashioned ambience, right down to the plate of cookies left in the lobby for guests to snack on.
Kalispell Grand Hotel
100 Main St., Kalispell, 406/755-8100, kalispellgrand.com, $99
144 Central Ave., Whitefish, 406/862-5601, fart-slobber.com, burger $5
533 Second St. E., Whitefish, 406/862-9381
Great Northern Bar & Grill
27 Central Ave., Whitefish, 406/862-2816, greatnorthernbar.com
6356 U.S. 93 S., Whitefish, 406/862-5338
Great Northern Brewing Co.
2 Central Ave., Whitefish, 406/863-1000, greatnorthernbrewing.com
Northwest Montana Rodeo
265 N. Meridian Rd., Kalispell, 406/758-5810, nwmtfair.com, from $13
Charles E. Conrad is just fascinating: We're taking a tour of the house he built in Kalispell in the 1890s — now known as The Conrad Mansion Museum — and the guide is regaling us with tales about the charismatic shipping magnate. He represented Native American tribes in a land-treaty negotiation with the British in Canada! He could communicate in several Native American languages! The house is really interesting, too, with all sorts of quirky "modern" conveniences, like a speaking tube connecting the kitchen and the bedroom, and water fountains with compartments for ice blocks to keep the water running cold. Then the guide says something that floors me: Some of the light sockets contain the original bulbs, which still work today. (They'll function until the filaments inside break.)
By the time the tour is finished, Ellie and I are itching to be outdoors. We've arranged to go white-water rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River with the Glacier Raft Company. On the gentle flats of the river, I feel like I'm in “A River Runs Through It.” I only start to become nervous as we approach a set of rapids named the Bonecrusher, which is truly frightening in the early summer when the river swells with melting snow and ice from high in the mountains. Now, in August, the rapids aren't bone-crushingly intense, but a man in our group does go overboard. He's mortified when his 7-year-old son excitedly offers to jump in and save him from the shallow water.
At the next swimming hole, Ellie volunteers to try what the rafting guide calls the Wheel of Misfortune. She stands on the bow of the raft while the rest of us spin it in a circle until she loses her balance and falls in. The water is a beautiful green because of glacial sediments, and it looks refreshing, so I follow her lead and hit the water with a shock: It's freezing! I pull myself back into the raft, and another rafter starts pointing and laughing at my large goose bumps. She's apparently never seen any that big before. When we finally reach the shore, Ellie and I make a dash for our towels and dry clothes in the car.
Heading north along the outskirts of Glacier National Park, we stop at a store and shell out $50 for a can of bear spray, which is similar to pepper spray and repels bears at a distance of up to 25 feet. We plan to spend the night in the town of Polebridge, just outside the park. The word "town" is a bit of an exaggeration; it's really just a collection of cabins clustered around a 1914 general store named the Polebridge Mercantile (everyone calls it the Merc) and the Northern Lights Saloon restaurant and bar. The isolation of Polebridge is part of its appeal. Ellie and I gaze at the mountains in the distance as we sit on the Merc's porch, eating huckleberry macaroons and raspberry sugar cookies, and bonding with Zasha (a.k.a. Tripod), the resident three-legged dog.
Later, at the Northern Lights, we flirt with Dean, the good-looking bartender who's living in Polebridge for the summer with his brother Jesse, who works in the restaurant's kitchen. Dean pours us drinks of whiskey and lemonade in Mason jars and tells us about Aurorafest, an annual music festival that's taking place the next day in Polebridge.
We share a chicken-pesto pizza for dinner and then walk over to the North Fork Hostel to check in to our cabin. The owner, Oliver Meister, has braided pigtails and a German accent, both of which strike me as unusual for the area. But it seems that eccentricities are commonplace here. "Nobody is normal in Polebridge," says a local named Crazy Davey, who has just woken up from a nap on the hostel's couch. (It seems like a good idea not to ask how he got his name.) Our cabin, Klondike Kate, doesn't have much more than a bed, a couch, and a small space heater. In the middle of the night, I make a cold run to the outhouse and realize just how far away from civilization we actually are — the sky is a thick blanket of stars.
Glacier Raft Co.
West Glacier, 406/888-5454, glacierraftco.com, half-day trip $46
North Fork Hostel
80 Beaver Dr., Polebridge, 406/888-5241, nfhostel.com, from $40
265 Polebridge Loop, Polebridge, 406/888-5105
Northern Lights Saloon
255 Polebridge Loop, Polebridge, 406/888-5669, pizza $14
The Conrad Mansion Museum
300 Woodland Ave., Kalispell, 406/755-2166, conradmansion.com, $8