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Hike, bike, fish, float, swing a club—or just eat and sleep. Whatever your pleasure, this is the place.

Mountain bikers in Whitefish, Mont., image
Photo caption
Big Mountain trails lead eager cyclists across fields of beargrass.

The small town of Whitefish, Mont.—population a shade over 7,000—inspires outsize ambitions. In the last election for governor, both of the major candidates were from Whitefish: a buttoned-down ex-teacher versus a bolo tie–wearing mint farmer. (The farmer won.) But explore Whitefish and you’ll see that this mountain town near Glacier National Park isn’t all about power and politics. You’ll see kayaks on luggage racks, mud-splattered mountain bikes locked to light posts, and plenty more evidence that in Whitefish, it’s all about the outdoors.

If you somehow land here with plans to catch up on sleep, don’t be surprised if you get swept up in ambitions of a different sort. You could find yourself on top of aptly named Big Mountain, taking in a view of Glacier National Park, the Swan Mountains, Flathead Valley, and two deep-blue lakes in particular, Whitefish in the foreground and Flathead in the distance. When you reach the vantage point by hiking the switchbacks up the Danny On Trail, you’ll clearly see why so many people visit Whitefish during the summer—and why they don’t spend much time indoors.

"I love the diversity of things you can do here," says Meghan S. O’Donnell, an outdoors enthusiast who has lived in the Whitefish area for four years. O’Donnell spends much of her summers hiking, biking, and paddling through the local scenery. She also leads groups of troubled teens on weeklong backpacking trips through Glacier National Park or the Bob Marshall Wilderness. "We climbed up a peak in the Bob Marshall, and the girls were in awe," she says. "They understood the vastness of the land they were in."

Like just about everyone else within driving distance, O’Donnell also enjoys hanging out on the shores of Whitefish Lake. Seven miles long and 2.5 miles wide, the lake attracts boaters and swimmers throughout the summer. The sandy City Beach is a good place for kids to wet their feet. Adults may want to take one of the guided kayak tours that are offered by Glacier Sea Kayaking. A moonlight trip may be appealing, especially if you don’t want to paddle through the wakes left by the armada of powerboats and pleasure craft that cruise the lake during the day.

If you enjoy water mixed with a little adrenaline, check out the swirling and foaming rapids in the surreally clear Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Several rafting companies operating out of West Glacier offer full-day and half-day white-water rafting trips and scenic floats. If you take the white-water option, be sure to dress in clothes that can get wet. And hang on.

Farther downstream on the main stem of the Flathead River, the rapids give way to mellow ripples and deep pools—water where cutthroat trout thrive. You don’t need to pack a fly rod or waders to see the native fish up close. Lakestream Fly Fishing Shop, located downtown, offers full-day and half-day guided trips for one or two anglers. You climb into a drift boat, the guide hands you a rod equipped with a big dry fly (often a stonefly imitation), and you spend the next several hours casting and reeling while the guide does all of the hard work: paddling, changing flies, untying knots, netting and releasing fish, and offering much-needed advice.

Your guide will point out rising trout and likely feeding spots. If you wildly miss the mark, you won’t be the first. "I get a lot of beginners," says Jeff Yost, a guide who floats the river several days each week throughout the summer. (What does Yost do on his days off? "A lot of fishing," he says.) Even a novice can tell that this is a special trip. Look down and you see fish darting along green and purple rocks eight feet below. Look toward shore and you see cottonwoods, firs, mountains, and meadows, but almost no signs of humans. Don’t look too long. Take your eye off that fly and you may miss your chance at a 15-inch fish.

There’s a reason so many of Yost’s customers aren’t exactly maestros with the fly rods: They came to Whitefish mainly for the greens, not the water. "Golfers are my No. 1 clients," he says. With five public courses within a 20-minute drive from town, it’s a little surprising that golfers manage to set aside even one day for fishing. Whitefish Lake Golf Club, a 36-hole complex stretching along the southwest shore of the lake, is especially popular. Again, it’s hard not to let the view distract you from the business at hand.

If your schedule is not full with tee times, think about taking along your bike as well. The terrain offers plenty of opportunities: Bikers charge down one of the single-track Spencer Mountain trails just west of town or the 22-mile loop near Tally Lake, and road cyclists pile up miles on the flat land in the valley and the hard climbs in the mountains. If you happen to be in town during a full moon, you can join the mobs of cyclists on the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The road is nearly free of cars, and the mountains glow in a way that daytime visitors never get to see. In downtown Whitefish, Glacier Cyclery can give you trip ideas and rent you a bike if you didn’t bring one along.

Golf, fishing, hiking, biking—at first, the choices can seem a bit overwhelming. But don’t forget the other option: Taking it easy. "You shouldn’t try to cram too much in," Meghan S. O’Donnell says. "It’s important to leave some time to just chill and walk around town."

You’ll walk past antique stores, pottery shops, and enough art to keep you busy for at least an afternoon. Even the Ace Hardware store occasionally displays high-quality paintings in the front window.

This town takes its food seriously, too. A meal at the popular Tupelo Grille—a small Cajun-inspired restaurant with jazzy artwork on the walls to match the house music—proves that local chefs have their own big ambitions. Nightly fish specials such as hearty blackened king salmon with avocado vinaigrette, heirloom tomato salad, and red pepper couscous are served alongside house staples such as flavorful Creole chicken and dumplings and bread pudding with rum butter and Chantilly sauce. Anyone lucky enough to be able to order from the kids’ menu is in for the macaroni and cheese of a lifetime. Plan ahead and make reservations; if you drop by unannounced, you could have a two-hour wait ahead of you.

Lines also tend to form in front of Mambo’s, a loud and lively place where guests draw on paper tablecloths that are then posted on the ceiling. The fragrant heat of the brick pizza ovens hits as soon as you walk through the door. The pizza crusts are light and airy, and the pasta sauces strike all the right notes.

That full stomach may be your sign that it’s finally time to really relax for the day. Find a vantage point and watch the sun go down over the lake. Ambitions are great, but sometimes you just need to take in the view.

Photography by Chuck Haney

This article was first published in July 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.