The best things to do in Whitefish Montana vary with the seasons. Whitefish is a charming mountain town at the base of Whitefish Mountain Resort, formerly known as Big Mountain. Art, culture, delicious food, and superb accommodations abound with an homage to the town’s cowboy and railroad past. Whitefish is also the most tourist-friendly of the towns near Glacier National Park. You can hike Glacier NP and be home in time to enjoy the outstanding brewery scene.
If it sounds like I’m in love with Whitefish, you’re right. I lived here for four years, taught skiing at Whitefish Mountain, was the lead therapist at the former best day spa in Whitefish (RIP Sage Spa Whitefish), and I still dream of retiring here with Ed as an old adventure couple. (amazing adventures for for elderly people anyone?) Until then, I’ll be staying at Whitefish Montana hotels, enjoying the best times to visit Glacier National Park and all of the adventures at the Whitefish Mountain Resort and Whitefish Lake. I hope you enjoy this guide, and it inspires you to visit one of my favorite mountain towns ever!
Things to do in Winter in Whitefish
Winter in Whitefish is a celebration of snow. Whitefish averages more than 300 inches a year and due to its location in northwest Montana where Pacific air flow with cold Canadian and continental air flow. The snow is more dry than the Pacific Northwest, yet because of its higher water content than the Central Rockies (and fewer crowds) the snow in Whitefish lasts longer, and is of better quality throughout the season.
The moist air creates another winter wonder that Whitefish is famous for – snow ghosts. Snow ghosts form when the water droplets that are floating through the air turn into ice when they hit the trees. This is a particular type of ice called rime, that’s almost exclusively found in Northwest Montana, specifically Whitefish.
Skiing on Whitefish Mountain Resort
Skiing on Whitefish Mountain Resort, aka skiing Big Mountain, aka Ski the Fish opens in early December, depending on snowfall. In 2019 SKI Magazine dubbed Whitefish Mountain Resort the #3 overall ski resort in North America! I taught skiing at Whitefish for four years, and I’ll let you in on a little secret. Whitefish is THE BEST place to learn how to ski. Their learn to ski package is amazing. For $85, you get two half-day lessons, a two-day lower mountain lift ticket, and two days of rentals. As a graduate, you get discounts for the remainder of the ski season on rentals, lessons, and lift tickets.
Whitefish Mountain Resort offers terrain for skiers and snowboarders of all levels. There are 50% beginner and intermediate runs and 50% advanced and expert runs. Skiers just starting out will begin at the Big Easy Carpet. Once you graduate from the Big Easy, you’ll have your choice of three lower mountain lifts (weather depenant) to get your turns in: Chair 6, Chair 9, and Chair 10. In all, there are 15 lifts at Whitefish Mountain Resort and 105 marked trails.
When you return with your full lift ticket, head to the top of the mountain and take Russ’s Street the whole way down. You’ll see the Summit House for the first time and take a long flowing catwalk back to the base area. The first pitch of Russ’s Street can be a little intimidating, so make sure you’re solid on your turns and stops, but it mellows out as you make your way down. Once you conquered all the greens on the front side, head to the backside to take a graduation run down Caribou. You’ll get to see the other side of the mountain and feel like an all-mountain skier.
Naturally, intermediate skiers have more terrain choices open to them. On a clear day, you can enjoy picturesque views of Whitefish Lake, downtown Whitefish, and your first glimpses of the legendary snow ghosts by taking Inspiration down the front side of the mountain. The backside features long, open intermediate runs with the occasional ungroomed sections. White Tail or Goat Haunt are fan favorites.
Advanced and expert skiers have the entire mountain opened up to them. Take the front side straight down, carving around snow ghosts on Ptarmigan Bowl or Big Face. If steep tree-lined chutes are your go, check out the nooks and crannies below North Bowl Face and Schmidt’s Chute. Though the backside doesn’t have a lot of expert terrain, there’s fun to be had ducking into the trees from the Summit House around Black Bear and Big Horn. Don’t forget to head to Hell Roaring Basin for a backcountry-like experience dropping into Glory Hole, Picture Chutes, or The Back 9. This is also where you’ll find the longest run of the resort, Hellfire, checking in at 3.3 miles.
Celebrating Christmas in Whitefish
Christmas in Whitefish is the most wonderful time of the year. The downtown Whitefish shopping district is filled with specialty shops and art galleries that are very walkable. For Christmas, they deck out Main Street Whitefish downtown with holiday lights, and you can see the snow-covered runs of Whitefish Mountain in the background. It’s literally, picture-postcard perfect. However, the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce found a way to make it even better with the annual Christmas Stroll.
The Whitefish Christmas Stroll usually occurs on the first Friday in December. Chestnuts are roasting on open fires. Carolers are singing, and bells are ringing. It’s the Christmas celebration you’ve always dreamed of complete with (more often than not) natural snow falling from the sky. It’s also a great time to visit Whitefish after the slopes open and before the holiday crowds.
Whitefish Winter Carnival
In between the peak January ski season and spring skiing, Whitefish hosts a fun, festive event called the Whitefish Winter Carnival. The backstory is that the carnival is an homage to Ullr, the Norse god who allied with humans against the Yeti. Throughout the town in different vignettes, this story plays out to the delight of the locals. Of course, it’s really just an excuse to have fun.
The festivities start with a penguin plunge into the frozen waters of Whitefish Lake for charity. There are parades, costumes, and more food than you can shake Ullr’s bow at. However, my favorite event was always the skijoring, which combines Montana’s two great passions of horses and skiing. Imaging water skiing with horses instead of boats and snow instead of water. As professional rodeo announcer, Joe Warner says – “There’s plenty of places in this great state you can see skijoring, but there’s only one place on this planet you can see the world championship.” If you’re going to go to one skijoring event in your life, make it the Whitefish Winter Carnival!
Springtime Activities in Whitefish
Spring in the mountains is a slow and gradual season that comes first to the valley floor and works its way up the hillside. It’s not uncommon to have trees leafing out in town with snow falling at higher elevations. Whitefish is at roughly 3000′. The ski resort is at 4500′ and the summit of Whitefish Mountain is at 6,800′, which is slightly higher than Logan Pass in nearby Glacier National Park. Visiting Whitefish in the springtime allows you to find almost any season you’re looking for without the peak winter and summer crowds. However, make sure you come ready for any weather because it can change from hot and sunny to cold and breezy in a single afternoon.
Spring Skiing on Whitefish Mountain Resort
When I worked at Big Mountain (it will always be Big Mountain in my heart), I lamented the end of winter. You could tell when the reign of Ullr was ending. Spring skiing kept that sadness at bay.
The snow might be a little wet, but the warmer weather and longer days brought a particularly fun atmosphere to the slopes. Parkas give way to long sleeve t-shirts, and goggles are swapped out for sunglasses. You can soak up the sun with a tall frosty craft beer on the sundeck, and après ski lasts that much longer.
Springtime in Glacier National Park
Whitefish is one of the best towns near Glacier NP to base your vacation from. It has a lively town scene with great food and places to stay, but it’s only a half-hour away from the entrance to the park. Spring is one of the best times to visit Glacier National Park too. During winter and early spring, you can Nordic ski on the Going to the Sun Road and snowshoe up to recently rebuilt Sperry Chalet.
As the season progresses, Going to the Sun Road gets cleared one section at a time. In early spring, the road segment from Lake McDonald Lodge to Avalanche opens up. The road stays closed at Avalanche (Trail of the Cedars) until it’s cleared all the way to Logan Pass, which usually occurs sometime between Memorial Day and Father’s Day.
The road closure to Logan Pass creates a unique opportunity for road bikers. In late spring (mid-May till the road opens), you can bike up Going to the Sun Road without a single car on the road. Late enough in the spring season, you can make it up to Logan Pass with waterfalls gushing down beside you. Going to the Sun Road is a marvel of roadway planning because it maintains a steady 6% grade to the top, which is steep but very bikeable.
Things to do in Whitefish in the Summer
Summer in the high country is intense and brilliant, like a million stars exploding at once. All the plants and animals take advantage of this brief and fleeting season. Meadows fill with a brilliance of wildflowers, and the animals work hard to fatten up for the upcoming winter. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes on Earth, and people have begun to notice. Summer tourism in Whitefish is starting to rival snow season, and the savvy visitor looks for ways to beat the crowd. With almost sixteen hours of daylight in June and July, you’ll have plenty of sunshine to work with.
Summer Activities in Downtown Whitefish
The town of Whitefish celebrates summer with monthly Art Walks through the downtown district and weekly farmer’s markets every Thursday night. Locals hit the beach at City Beach on Whitefish Lake, and the bold take to the skies on a float-plane ride with Backcountry Flying Experience. It’s a cheerful time of warmth, sun, and abundance.
Summer Fun at Whitefish Mountain Resort
When I worked on the mountain, we shut the doors in April and headed off for greener pastures. That time has passed, and Whitefish Mountain Resort offers a full season of summer fun. Since my time there, they’ve put in alpine slides, a mountain bike park, ropes course, and zip line. I had an opportunity to try the alpine slide and ropes course on my last visit, and they were legit fun. The ropes course had plenty of challenging and diverse obstacles, and the alpine slide was fast and smooth. I can’t wait to come back for the zip-line. It’s the longest zip-line tour in Montana. I’ll save the mountain biking for my husband Ed, that’s more his thing.
Perhaps my favorite part of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s summer lineup is the gondola to the Summit House. You can ride one way or both to the Summit House, which offers a full menu and bar. There’s also a ton of trails winding through the resort that offer epic views with a lot fewer people than Glacier. That means more huckleberries for you 😉
Summer Mountain Sports in Western Montana
Summer outdoor activities in Whitefish are everything you would expect from a true mountain town. Rock climbing in Whitefish doesn’t feature the clean granite routes of Yosemite, but is fun and challenging none the less. Best still, there are great local outfitters, such as Rock Climb Montana, who will get you geared up to climb some of the best climbing routes in western Montana. If you are looking for a less vertical outdoor experience, there are tons of hiking options between Whitefish town trails like the Living Wetland Interpretive Nature Trail, Whitefish Mountain Resort, Glacier NP, and all of the surrounding areas.
Twelve trailheads and over forty-two miles of natural surface trails snake through the forest on Whitefish Trail for the fat tire crowd, and road bikers will love climbing Big Mountain Rd. to the resort or cruising along the paved trails along Whitefish lake. Class II-III single day and multi-day whitewater trips run all summer long on the Middle and North Fork of the Flathead River. If you love mountain sports, you’ll love Whitefish in the summer.
Things to do in Glacier National Park in the Summer
Summer is the best and worst time to visit Glacier NP because so many people are there. On the one hand, it’s animal world, and the wildflowers are epic. Even on a short hike to Hidden Lake from Logan Pass, you’ll likely see mountain goats and bears. Make sure you apply bear spray to your kids before hiking. (Editor’s Note: Never apply bear spray to kids. That’s just a Montana a joke we use to make you feel at home).
Wildflowers like beargrass, indian paintbrush, arrowleaf, and yellow bells cover the hillside and don’t get me started on the huckleberries. If you don’t enjoy hiking in Glacier in the summer, then perhaps you ought to find another pastime. It’s epic in every sense of the word. There are just so many darn people.
If you’re going to Glacier in the summer, here are our hints to avoid the crowd.
- Get to the top of Logan Pass super early, like before 8:00, which means a 6:15 departure from Whitefish.
- Sleep in a little and take the Glacier Park Shuttle from Avalanche. Consider hiking Trail of the Cedars / Avalanche Lake first as a little warm-up before Hidden Lake and the High Line Trail. It will add to your daily mileage for sure, but you can catch the 9:39 shuttle up to Logan Pass and not have to worry about parking.
- Catch a shuttle from lower in the park. The shuttles down from the Loop (terminus of the High Line Trail) are a lot easier to catch than the ones up to Logan Pass, and you’ll be that much closer to Whitefish for dinner (last shuttle westbound is 5:00 at Logans Pass so plan your hiking accordingly).
Summer in Glacier also means boating, kayaking, or SUPing on Lake McDonald, Red Bus Tours, and huckleberries. You’ll be glad you came, as soon as you find a parking spot.
Huckleberry Season in Montana
August is prime huckleberry hunting season. Huckleberries are a lot like wild blueberries. They refuse to be tamed and produce solitary fruit instead of clusters like their domesticated cousins. No wonder they are the unofficial fruit of Montana.
Montanans go crazy over these little guys too. Huckleberries find their way into pies, ice cream, soap, shakes, craft beer, and just about everything else. You can also pick them wild hiking in Glacier or on Whitefish Mountain. If you enjoy nothing else on your summer visit to Montana, savor the flavor of the huckleberry.
What to do in the Fall in Whitefish
Fall in Whitefish comes gradually at first, with patches of fall color spreading down the mountain like a slow-motion Rorschach Test. Summer sun and temperatures can linger through September, and for a moment, you might imagine this time could last forever until it doesn’t.
Fall comes fast and hard, bringing sheets of rain and high elevation snow. The temperature can drop over 50 degrees in a single day. Fall visitors need to come prepared for anything, especially late in the season, but they’re rewarded with shoulder season prices and significantly fewer people.
Whitefish Rainy Day Activities
With fall weather in Whitefish being what it is, you have to be prepared with a few indoor activities. Here are some of my favorite things to do on a rainy day in Whitefish.
Go to a spa
- Spa at Whitefish Lake, which features massages, facials, and body wraps.
- Natural Elements Massage & Spa offers CBD massage and cupping.
- Saltbox Whitefish offers massage and dry salt therapy, which might help you in ways you’ve never imagined.
Take a yoga class
- Shanti Yoga specializes in various styles of Hatha Yoga
- Love Yoga Whitefish offers a variety of heated and non-heated classes
- Yoga Hive has classes varying from slow pace to medium pace to fast pace
Swim some laps
- Whitefish Wave is a community non-profit fitness center
Catch a movie
- Mountain Mall Cinema, Whitefish’s local movie theater
- Head towards Kalispell with more cinematic variety at the Signature Stadium 14 with RealD 3D options
Belly up to one of the local bars
- The Great Northern Bar and Grill (also one of the best places in town to see live music!)
- The Craggy Range
- The Bulldog
Bring a rain jacket or umbrella on a self-guided art gallery hop at
Read a book
- by the giant fireplace at The Whitefish Lake Lodge
- at a cozy corner in Montana Coffee Traders
Fall Hiking in Glacier National Park
Make sure you check the weather before you go and be prepared for whatever the day may bring. It’s always a good idea to bring bear spray, but it’s particularly important in the fall. From the NPS –
As the summer season ends, the air becomes crisp, leaves change and fall from trees, and bears become more active. They’re on the hunt for food. During the fall months, bears eat and drink nearly nonstop. They need to put on weight to prepare for winter and hibernation. This process is called hyperphagia. During hyperphagia, bears are very active, and many visitors have a chance to see them in action. But do not feed the bears!
You also might see low clouds filling the Lake McDonald Valley from the High Line Trail or waterfalls filled from fall rains. Fall is a beautiful time to visit Glacier National Park without the summer crowds if you exercise reasonable caution.
Fall Sports in Whitefish
During early fall, many of the same activities are available, but they are not always offered every day. Whitefish Mountain Resort opens on weekends through September. Whitewater rafting typically shuts down in early September, but float trips run daily until late September and three days a week into mid-October. There’s plenty to do in Whitefish in fall, but you have to keep an eye on the weather. Be sure to double-check which trips are running on which days.
Whitefish Montana Hotels
An essential part of your trip is picking where to stay in Whitefish. For the fall season, this goes double. First of all, you can get amazing deals on some of the best lodging in Whitefish. Secondly, if you get rained in, you might as well be someplace beautiful with things to do on a rainy day.
Whitefish Mountain Resort Lodging is one of the things that makes this town special. You can stay right on the mountain and still be close to everything else. While this is undoubtedly awesome on a bright and sunny day, it’s great on rainy days too. The best VRBO rentals on Whitefish Mountain will let you enjoy your mountain views from the warmth and comfort of your living room, but double-check on the amenities if that’s important to you. There is often a lot of maintenance going on in the fall to get ready for ski season. If amenities are important to you, you can’t beat the Kandahar Lodge. It comes fully equipped with hot tubs, steam rooms, and saunas, as well as the magnificent Cafe Kandahar.
There are plenty of great options in town too. The Pine Lodge is located right on the Whitefish River. If there’s a break in the weather, you can hop out for a ride on the bike trail or kayak/SUP the river as soon as you see sunshine. The urban and sophisticated Firebrand Hotel is located right in downtown Whitefish, making it a perfect base for a rainy day gallery hop. The Good Medicine Lodge B&B would make a fantastic place to put your feet up and read away a rainy day.
Whitefish Food and Brewery Scene
Cafe Kandahar is often considered, not only the best restaurant in Whitefish, but all of Montana. Everything starts with their incredible staff. Owner/operator Chef Andy Blaton is a four-time James Beard Foundation Semifinalist. He creates a locally sourced and sustainable menu that highlights the best flavors of Montana. The Forest Mushrooms with Madeira Creme and Montana Chevre was the best mushroom dish I have ever tasted. Sommelier Renee Nadon’s pairings for the four-course tasting menu were spot on. Cafe Kandahar is an unforgettable Montana dining experience.
The rest of the Whitefish foodie scene is pretty fantastic, as well. Having lived in Whitefish for four years, these are my local picks from high-end upscale cuisine to down and dirty dive bars, and yes, I have eaten at all of these places:
- Latitude 48 – A chic bistro specializing in tapas and Mediterranean cuisine. Must tries – homemade pasta or bahn mi bao bun.
- Tupelo Grille – Upscale southern cuisine with a Cajon flair. Must tries – chicken and dumplings or shrimp and grits
- The Boat Club – Located in the Lodge at Whitefish Lake, it’s the only lakefront dining in town with an expansive outdoor patio featuring classic, contemporary comfort food. Must try Boat Club Chips from the Longe Menu
- Pescado Blanco – Featuring “Mountain Mexican” dining, classic Mexican dishes with a Montana twist. Must tries – two taco combos or bison enchiladas in red mole sauce
- Wasabi Sushi Bar – The best Asian fusion rolls I have ever had that happens to be located in Montana. Must tries – OMG It’s Spicy Roll or Going to the Sun Roll.
- Loula’s – A hometown cafe that’s known for breakfast or a slice of pie. Must tries – seasonal huckleberry pie or lemon stuffed French toast.
- Ciao Mambo – A local chain of immigrant style Italian Cuisine that’s easy to enjoy. Must tries- Pasta Ravenna or Nachos all’ Italiana
- Mackenzie River Pizza – A Montana chain with fresh ingredients and some highly creative pizzas. Must-tries- Thai peanut wings or pear and blue cheese flatbread.
- Montana Coffee Traders – Incredible coffee roasters with delicious sandwiches and wraps.
- Wrap and Roll – Voted Best Dinner on a Budget by Whitefish locals offering huge wraps that are fresh and healthy. Must tries – Thai peanut wrap or The Fatty.
- Bulldog Saloon – Full-on dive bar with classic pub food. Make sure you check out their NSFW bathrooms. Must tries – seasonal wings (the huckleberry wings are bomb.com) and garlic burgers.
- Great Northern Brewing Company – Time tested standard for craft brewing in Whitefish. Must tries – Going to the Sun IPA or the Good Med Montana Red Ale.
- Bonsai Brewing Project – Extensive assortment of experimental brews with a down home feel. Must tries- Unkindness Stout Stout or the Lil’ Honey Blonde.
- Spotted Bear Spirits – Local distillery with organic, regionally sourced ingredients. Must tries- Limoncello or coffee liqueur with Montana Coffee Roaster coffee.
Best Time to Visit Whitefish Montana
When is the best time to visit Whitefish Montana? It depends on what you’re looking for. Whitefish is a genuine, four-season destination. Snow and skiing on Whitefish Mountain make Whitefish a winter wonderland. Springtime offers warmth in the valleys while there’s still snow at elevation. Hiking through fields of wildflowers on a long summer day fills up your senses, and the fall can offer a little of every season, sometimes all in the same day. There’s no wrong time to visit Whitefish, and each season is distinctive enough to make it worth coming back again and again to discover something new.
A big thank you to all that provided me with their gorgeous photography to make this post possible! Though I lived in Whitefish for over 4 years, I was not blogging at the time, so my own snaps for each season were few. Brian Schott from Explore Whitefish provided the cover shot and all of the winter and skiing shots. He also provided the alpenglow on Whitefish Mountain Resort photo, the cycling through Glacier National Park Photo, and the paddleboarding on Whitefish Lake photo. Dan Hansen provided the epic drone shot of me rock climbing, and Priya Vin from Outside Suburbia for the delishious french toast shot from Loula’s 🙂
As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.
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