Kalispell is a picturesque mountain town in Northwest Montana abundant in natural wonders, historic architecture, outdoor recreation, and friendly folks. With Glacier National Park as a nearby neighbor, it’s a grand destination for a winter getaway for snow skiers and non-skiers alike.
Kalispell was founded in the late 1890s as a railroad stop, but commerce, logging, and agriculture took over as significant industries. The recreational tourism boom began with the establishment of Glacier National Park in 1910 and never stopped.
Kalispell is located in the northwest corner of Montana at the intersections of U.S. Highways 2 and 93. The city of about 26,000 is 32 miles southwest of Glacier National Park, 50 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 300+ inches of annual snowfall, while the Flathead Valley where Kalispell sits 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 wintertime visit to Kalispell warmed my heart and toes to the beauty of snow-frosted forests and the crisp, clean mountain air.
Here are my picks for fantastic winter-in-Kalispell experiences to put on your itinerary.
My stay was hosted, but all opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own.
1. Clydesdale Outpost
On this rambling 92-acre ranch in Whitefish, guests at Clydesdale Outpost can partake in a menu of outdoor activities while engaging with the resident Clydesdale horses. Also on the property are five luxurious two-bedroom cabins for overnight stays (more are being built).
We opted for a ride in a four-person, European-crafted sleigh through snow-covered open spaces bordered by thick pine forest. The air was chill, but we were bundled and blanketed as a duo of Clydesdales led the way.
Afterward, we mingled with the herd in their straw-lined barn where the dozen or so horses live together in an open space rather than in individual stalls. They are massive, but they are also mild-mannered and social, and they commanded our attention for strokes and nuzzles. We were thrilled to oblige.
Pro Tip: Winter parties of six or fewer can book a smartly decorated, heated igloo where you can make s’mores. You’re 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 vistas of mountains and forest. 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 snowshoeing trails meander through the hilly terrain. Take the short Ernest and Hazel White Memorial Trail, named for the folks who donated part of their sheep ranch to create the park in the 1940s. The trail leads over a wide bridge and around the hillside to a stone balcony perfect for framing selfies or group portraits. Continue your trek upward and you can include the balcony in your shots.
At the year-round visitors center, you’ll find educational exhibits about the wildlife and ecology of the park, a well-stocked gift shop, and a wrap-around deck with bird feeders and far-reaching vistas. 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 appears to paint the mountains with a rosy hue when the sun is near the horizon.
3. Swan Mountain Snowmobiling
My first time snowmobiling was both scary and exhilarating. We booked the Canyon Creek Half-Day Guided Tour with Swan Mountain Outfitters, a scenic 3-hour jaunt that took us on groomed mountain trails through Flathead National Forest.
Most tours, including ours, begin at the office in Columbia Falls. That’s where you sign in and, if needed, rent the appropriate snow apparel to keep you warm. Helmets and goggles are provided for you; so are avalanche beacons to wear around your neck.
At the trailhead, our guide first instructed us on safety precautions and how to drive our snowmobiles. He said we would go only as fast as the slowest person, which was comforting to a newbie like me. Then, off we went, up and down the mountainsides. The landscape was astounding and varied: Far-ranging views, a serpentine creek, a few forest creatures, wildfire scars, and steep drop-offs. My favorite part was the long stretches that were flanked with towering, snow-covered pines on each side.
The trails run for 80 miles, but how far your group will travel depends on the length of your 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 wilderness tours and trips.
Pro Tip: The snowmobiles seat either one or two people. In my view, the two-person snowmobile was easier to steer, perhaps because of the added weight.
4. Glacier Institute
With more than 1 million preserved acres of diverse terrain, Glacier National Park is a humongous natural wonderland. We maximized our time by booking a guided snowshoe hike with Glacier Institute, the educational partner of the park.
Our Winter Snowshoe In Glacier hike, which follows the South Boundary Trail, began at the Belton Bridge which spans the North Fork Flathead River. Glacier Institute provided us with metal snowshoes and trekking poles. The tree-lined trail was mostly narrow and ungroomed, so in some places, we ambled through pristine snow more than a foot deep. Several times, our guide stopped to share aspects of the forest ecology and the creatures who live there.
Upon our return to the starting point, two white-tailed deer stood 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 inside 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 excursion with Glacier Institute, you’re covered by the fee you pay.
5. Whitefish Mountain Resort
Hit the slopes for downhill skiing or snowboarding at Whitefish Mountain Resort, located at Big Mountain and visible from downtown Kalispell. With 3,000 acres of skiable terrain, a vertical drop of 2,353 feet, and 100-plus marked trails, it’s one of the largest ski resorts in the country. Most of the trails are designated beginner or intermediate levels of difficulty. The longest run, called Hell Fire, is an intermediate run that stretches for 3.3 miles.
While you’re on the mountain, you’re sure to spot a host of large, eerie ice formations. These are “snow ghosts.” They are masses of flash-frozen water droplets from fog and mist, and they land and layer wherever wind gusts buffet them. Snow ghosts are very hard and heavy, so don’t dive into one on purpose, thinking it is fluffy snow.
Whitefish Mountain Resort also has overnight accommodations, restaurants, bars, shops, and a ski-and-ride 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. Downtown Kalispell
Explore Kalispell’s vibrant and walkable downtown district, which is listed in 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 snack shops. Don’t be surprised if you see Christmas holiday decorations long into January. The architecture is an eclectic mix of early 1900s construction interspersed with murals and sculptures depicting the area’s heritage and its heroes. Even the traffic signal boxes are wrapped in artwork.
These are a few of my favorite stops:
At Rocky Mountain Outfitter, a life-size sculpture of an ice climber appears to be scaling the brick facade of the outdoor gear emporium.
The Toggery Montana is notable for outdoor brands, including Pendleton, Levi, and Free People, as well as gorgeous window displays.
Sassafras is an artisan cooperative purveying handcrafted home goods, giftware, fashion accessories, and more. Tucked into the back of the store is a small-batch bakery, Ephemera Collection, that specializes in macarons and specialty cakes.
The Ritz is a luxe Art Deco-themed cocktail lounge and beauty salon where you can sip a craft cocktail while treating yourself to a mani-pedi at the same time.
Western Outdoor, in a former opera house dating to the late 1800s, stocks a vast array of Western-style apparel including more than 2,500 boots. In the basement is Kalispell Antiques Market, a sprawling warren of vintage wares from more than 40 dealers.
Pro Tip: Behind Bias Brewing, the exterior facade is painted with a mural of Jeanette Rankin, a Montana Republican and first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1916. One of her favorite sayings is, “Go! Go! Go! It makes no difference where, just so you go, go, go!”