Kalispell is a quaint mountain town in northwest Montana filled with natural wonders, historic architecture, outdoor recreation and friendly people. With Glacier National Park as its close neighbor, it’s a great winter getaway destination for skiers and non-skiers alike.
Kalispell was founded in the late 1890s as a railway stop, but commerce, logging and agriculture took over as important industries. The recreational tourism boom began with the creation of Glacier National Park in 1910 and has never stopped.
Kalispell is located in the northwest corner of Montana at the intersection of US Highways 2 and 93. The town of about 26,000 people is 32 miles southwest of Glacier National Park, 80 miles south of the Canadian border and 120 miles north of Missoula. The nearest commercial airport is Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell.
The mountains average over 300 inches of annual snowfall, while the Flathead Valley, where Kalispell is located, has about 55 inches of annual snowfall. The average winter temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
I’ve always considered myself more of a warm-weather traveler, but a recent winter visit to Kalispell warmed my heart and toes with the beauty of the snow-covered forests and crisp, clean mountain air.
Here are my picks for fantastic Kalispell winter experiences to put on your itinerary.
My stay was hosted, but all opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own.
1. Clydesdale Outpost
At this 92-acre ranch in Whitefish, Clydesdale Outpost guests can partake in a menu of outdoor activities while engaging with Clydesdale’s resident horses. Also on the property are five luxurious two-bedroom overnight cabins (more are being built).
We opted for a four-person European sleigh ride through snow-covered open spaces, surrounded by a dense pine forest. The air was chilly, but we were bundled up and covered as a pair of Clydesdales led the way.
Afterwards, we mingle with the herd in their thatched barn, where a dozen or so horses live together in an open space rather than in individual stalls. They are huge, but they are also polite and sociable, and they get our attention by petting and caressing. We were thrilled to answer.
Pro tip: Winter parties of six or less can book a heated and beautifully decorated igloo where you can make s’mores. You are free to visit the barn and bring your own beer.
2. Lone Pine State Park
The 280-acre Lone Pine State Park in Kalispell overlooks the vast Flathead Valley with panoramic views of mountains and forests. On a clear day, you can see Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, as well as Glacier National Park.
More than 7 miles of hiking and snowshoe trails wind through the mountainous terrain. Take the short Ernest and Hazel White Memorial Trail, named for the people who donated part of their sheep farm to create the park in the 1940s. frame selfies or group portraits. Continue your walk upstairs and you can include the porch in your photos.
At the year-round visitor center, you’ll find educational exhibits about the park’s wildlife and ecology, a well-stocked gift shop, and a wraparound deck with bird feeders and far-reaching views. Snowshoes are available for rent.
Pro Tip: Time your visit for sunrise or sunset and you might be lucky enough to catch the beautiful alpenglow. It’s a natural phenomenon that seems to paint the mountains a rosy hue when the sun is close to the horizon.
3. Snowmobiling on Swan Mountain
My first time snowmobiling was both scary and exhilarating. We booked the Canyon Creek Half Day Guided Tour with Swan Mountain Outfitters, a 3 hour scenic tour that took us on manicured mountain trails through the Flathead National Forest.
Most tours, including ours, begin at the Columbia Falls office. That’s where you sign up and, if necessary, rent the appropriate snow clothes to keep you warm. Helmets and goggles are provided for you; as well as the avalanche headlights to wear around the neck.
At the trailhead, our guide first briefed us on safety precautions and how to drive our snowmobiles. He said we would go as fast as the slowest person, which was reassuring for a newbie like me. So off we went, up and down the mountain slopes. The landscape was surprising and varied: far-reaching views, a serpentine creek, a few woodland creatures, wildfire scars, and steep drop-offs. My favorite part was the long stretches lined with tall, snow-covered pines on either side.
Trails run 80 miles, but the distance covered by your group depends on the length of the tour, how fast you travel, and how many times you stop for photos along the way.
Swan Mountain Outfitters also offers guided hunting, fishing, horseback and wild rides and trips.
Pro Tip: Snowmobiles accommodate one or two people. In my opinion, the two-person snowmobile was easier to drive, perhaps because of the added weight.
4. Glacier Institute
With more than 1 million preserved acres of diverse terrain, Glacier National Park is a gigantic natural paradise. We maximized our time by booking a guided snowshoe hike with the Glacier Institute, the park’s educational partner.
Our winter glacier snowshoe hike, which follows the South Boundary Trail, started at the Belton Bridge, which spans the North Fork Flathead River. The Glacier Institute provided us with metal snowshoes and trekking poles. The tree-lined trail was mostly narrow and unkempt, so in places we walked through pristine snow over a foot deep. Several times, our guide stopped to share aspects of the ecology of the forest and the creatures that live there.
As we returned to the starting point, two white-tailed deer stopped near the bridge as if to welcome us back to real life.
Formed in 1983, the Columbia Falls-based Glacier Institute offers a year-round program of seasonal hikes and tours, nature courses and overnight camps within the park. Winter programming includes snowshoeing, cross country skiing, nature photography and hiking.
Pro Tip: Several areas of Glacier National Park, including the famous Going-To-The-Sun-Road, require vehicle reservations for 2023. But if you book a guided educational tour with the Glacier Institute, you’re covered for the fee you pay.
5. Whitefish Mountain Resort
Hit the slopes for downhill skiing or snowboarding at Whitefish Mountain Resort, located on Big Mountain and visible from downtown Kalispell. With 3,000 acres of skiable terrain, a 2,353-foot vertical drop, and over 100 marked trails, it’s one of the largest ski resorts in the country. Most trails are designated beginner or intermediate levels of difficulty. The longest run, called Hell Fire, is an intermediate run that runs for 3.3 miles.
While on the mountain, you are sure to see a number of large and mysterious ice formations. These are “snow ghosts”. They are masses of water droplets frozen from fog and mist, and they land and scatter wherever the gusts of wind hit them. Snow ghosts are very hard and heavy, so don’t dive into one on purpose, thinking it’s fluffy snow.
Whitefish Mountain Resort also offers overnight accommodations, restaurants, bars, shops and a ski school.
Pro tip: Check out the Whitefish Mountain Resort Snow Report, which is updated several times daily for current snow conditions and lift availability.
6. Center of Kalispell
Explore Kalispell’s vibrant and walkable downtown district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The busiest stretch, along Main Street between 4th and Idaho Streets, is lined with locally owned specialty stores, fashion boutiques, restaurants, bars and eateries. Don’t be surprised if you see Christmas holiday decorations in January. The architecture is an eclectic mix of early 1900s construction interspersed with murals and sculptures that depict the region’s heritage and its heroes. Even the traffic light boxes are wrapped in works of art.
These are some of my favorite stops:
At the Rocky Mountain Outfitter, a life-size sculpture of an ice climber appears to be scaling the brick facade of the outdoor gear emporium.
Toggery Montana is notable for outdoor brands including Pendleton, Levi and Free People, as well as beautiful window displays.
Sassafras is an artisan co-op supplying handcrafted household goods, gifts, fashion accessories and more. Tucked away at the back of the shop is a small bakery, the Ephemera Collection, which specializes in macarons and specialty cakes.
The Ritz is an Art Deco-themed luxury cocktail lounge and salon where you can sip on a handcrafted cocktail while getting a manicure and pedicure at the same time.
Western Outdoor, in a former opera house dating from the late 19th century, offers a wide range of Western-style clothing, including over 2,500 boots. In the basement is the Kalispell Antiques Market, a sprawling labyrinth of antiques from more than 40 dealers.
When you’re ready for a break, two mountain-brewed favorites are Sweet Peaks ice cream and craft brewery Bias Brewing.
Pro tip: Behind Bias Brewing, the exterior facade is painted with a mural by Jeanette Rankin, Republican from Montana and the first woman elected to the United States Congress in 1916. One of her favorite quotes is: “Go! Go! Go! No matter where, just like that you go, go, go!”