Spilling across the border of Montana into British Columbia, the 520 square-mile Glacier National Park boasts some of America's most stunning scenery and abundant wildlife. But most Bay Area residents have never seen it first-hand, heading instead for the hills of Yosemite and Tahoe.
The good news is, getting to Glacier is much easier than you might think, with just a two-hour direct flight into its most approachable gateway, Kalispell, a mountain-loving, craft beer-swilling town of 22,000 people. And, August is the perfect time to go, thanks to welcoming weather and inexpensive airfares.
Allegiant Airlines offers direct, two-hour flights from Oakland to Kalispell/Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) on Wednesdays and Sundays for as little as $43 each way. Because it's a discount airline, you'll end up paying extra to bring luggage or be seated with your travel companion, but it's possible to book a round-trip ticket for about $200. If Allegiant's schedule is too strict, Alaska, United, and Delta also fly between SFO and the Kalispell airport, which is located a mere 10 miles north of downtown. Those flights start at $309, with both direct and one-stop options available.
While renting a car from the airport is easy and affordable, it's not absolutely necessary. Some hotels offer free shuttles to and from the airport, and an Uber will only set you back about $20. Once you get to town, all the local amenities you'll need are within walking distance. A summer commuter bus operates July 1st through September 4th, shuttling passengers between Kalispell and Glacier National Park twice a day ($3 each way or $5 round trip.
More scenery from Glacier National Park.(Renée Alexander)
What to Do
Day Trips to Glacier National Park
While you're unlikely to score overnight accommodations inside the Park, day trips from Kalispell are equally awe-inspiring. You can drive the 33 miles to the park's west entrance and wait in line to pay the $35 per car fee for a 7-day permit, but we recommend taking the summer commuter bus ($20/person) from town. Once inside the park, you'll have unlimited access to another free shuttle that makes multiple stops along the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is littered with expansive vistas of snow-capped mountains, cascading waterfalls, and glistening lakes. It is impossible to take a boring photo along this 50-mile drive, which elicits new gasps of wonder around each bend. Taking the shuttle means someone else can pay attention to the traffic while you focus on the scenery. It also cuts down on carbon emissions inside the park.
If you choose to drive, be sure to make your way to the Many Glacier section of the park, accessed from Babb, Montana, just a short distance from the St. Mary Visitor Center at the east end of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Here, you'll find a little less traffic, a lot more breathtaking scenery, and a handful of hiking options with a high likelihood of wildlife encounters. On an easy, five-mile round-trip hike from the Swiftcurrent Pass Trailhead in June, we crossed paths with a grizzly bear and two cubs, as well as a moose and her calf. (Park officials encourage visitors to hike in groups and carry bear spray.)
For a sweet treat, when you pass through the tiny village of St. Mary, look for Park Cafe and Grocery (3147 US Hwy 89), which is famous two states over for its pie. Stop in for a slab of seasonal huckleberry pie (if it's available), and try to ignore the San Francisco prices: $7 per slice, or $45 per pie.
Get to Know Kalispell
You could venture into Glacier National Park every day for a week and never run out of new discoveries. But Kalispell also offers numerous entertainment options. The Great Bear Festival (Aug. 4, 2018) features 25-plus craft breweries, cider makers, and wineries in Depot Park on Main Street, where you'll also find a free concert every Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon in August. A few blocks away, the Museum at Central School (24 2nd Ave E N.) hosts free weekly Thursday!Fest live music on the lawn, complete with food trucks and face-painting. On August 14th, the Hockaday Museum of Art (302 2nd Ave. E.) will kick off its annual art show, A Timeless Legacy: Peace Park 2018 (through Dec. 1), focusing on works of art inspired by Glacier National Park. And at Flathead County Fairgrounds (265 N. Meridian Rd.), the Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo (Aug. 15-19) is world-class.
Shop in Whitefish:
If you have access to a car, the nearby town of Whitefish is worth the 17-mile drive from Kalispell. The Old West–style downtown is dotted with gourmet cafes, craft breweries, art galleries and boutique gift shops.
Kalispell Grand Hotel.(Courtesy of Flathead Beacon)
Where to Stay
Lodging within Glacier National Park books up months in advance, so your best bet is to stay in Kalispell. However, you might luck out during one of your day trips to the park if you stop by the front desk at one of the lodges around 11am to see if they've had any cancellations. In June, we were able to find a last-minute, $273 room for one night only at the Many Glacier Hotel, which is situated along the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake.
If you're staying in town, the elegant, family-owned Kalispell Grand Hotel (100 Main St.) is our top choice. It offers well-appointed rooms, a luxurious lobby, and an impressive breakfast spread for $113 to $183 per night.
If the Grand is booked, check out Red Lion Hotel Kalispell (20 N. Main St.), a decidedly upscale version of the chain hotel, which is conveniently located in the Kalispell Center Mall on the edge of downtown. Plush suites and cozy rooms can be had here for $200 and up.
In addition to modern rooms and suites, this resort-style Hilton Garden Inn (1840 Hwy 93 S.), near downtown, features on-site fitness facilities, a tavern, a gift shop, a casino, and a convenience store. Prices start at $225 with breakfast included.
(Courtesy of SunRift Beer Company)
Where to Drink
This drinking town with a mountain problem boasts three distinctly different breweries, all within stumbling distance of one another. Tucked away on a discontinuous street just outside the downtown area, the garage-style SunRift Beer Company (55 1st Ave. W. N.) is worth seeking out. On-site food trucks offer simple snacks and noshes, or you can bring your own food from any of the neighboring restaurants. The Blonde Bomber and Working Man's Wheat will quench the mightiest mountaineer's thirst.
Kalispell Brewing Company's (412 Main St.) downtown tasting room serves a handful of hand-crafted beers with outdoor-inspired names like Two Ski Brewskis Pilsner, Rope Tow Pale Ale, and Snowslip Stout. A food truck offers up an eclectic selection of sandwiches and salads.
Just opened in June 2018, Bias Brewing (1st Ave. E.) is serving a creative selection of whatever beers they felt like making at the time. Their most popular brews will be re-created, based on customer feedback and sales. The cold brew coffee on nitro is not only delicious, but supports a local charity. The owners chose the name "Bias" as a tribute to their backgrounds in electronics, which is a story worth asking about over a pint.
Moose's Saloon in Kalispell.(Courtesy of @theborderpdx)
Where to Eat
No trip to Kalispell would be complete without bellying up to the bar at Moose's Saloon (173 N. Main St.). The long-time local watering hole serves cheap beer and basic pizza in an Old West setting complete with sawdust on the floor and a moose head mounted on the wall. Though it may look like a fight could break out any minute, the patrons here are good-natured and friendly, and the pies are hot, fresh and fast.
Known for creative, seasonal dishes made with locally-sourced ingredients, Hop's Downtown Grill (121 Main St.) offers a wide selection of 100 craft beers and artisan wines. In addition to their signature gourmet beef burgers, they offer "extreme" burgers made from elk, wild boar, and yak.
Locals love to recommend Blue Samarai Sushi Bar & Grill (323 S. Main St.), which is where they all go to get their raw fish fix. Despite the restaurant's considerable distance from any ocean, the seafood seems as fresh as can be, and menu items include everything from sashimi and sushi rolls to stir-fry and steak.
After a long day of hiking in Glacier National Park, a giant plate of pasta is just the ticket. ScottiBelli's Ristorante Italiano (302 Main St.) offers down-home, familiar Italian fare in simple surroundings. If cheese, carbs, and meat sauce are what you crave, the large portions here will leave you stuffed and satisfied.
Smoked meat is the specialty at Desoto Grill (1st St. W.), where the barbecue is served with stick-to-your-ribs sides such as collard greens, cornbread, and jalapeno-bacon macaroni and cheese. Save room for dessert, as you won't want to miss the huckleberry cheesecake.