Car Free Journey

Car Free Journey: Whitefish, Montana/ Glacier National Park

Summer travelers depart Amtrak's Empire Builder at the Historic Whitefish Train Depot.
Steve Atlas
Written by Steve Atlas

Welcome to summer. Here in Florida, it is hot and humid, most times of the day. This makes me long for a cool vacation. How about you? How about escaping the heat by visiting a national park in the west? This month, we will visit Whitefish, Montana and Glacier National Park. If you are a lover of trains, you are in luck. Amtrak’s Empire Builder will take you directly to Glacier National Park from Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis and St. Paul to the east, and Seattle, Portland and Spokane from the west.

Many of you will want to combine a visit to Glacier with a stay in a northern Rockies mountain town. Then, consider making your headquarters Whitefish, Montana: this month’s car free journey destination.

Central Avenue in Whitefish, Montana: a small mountain town surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful mountains

©Brian Schott/Explore Whitefish

What’s Special about Whitefish?

Whitefish is a mountain town, located in the northern Rockies, that combines a wide choice of outdoor activities such as mountain and road biking, hiking, river rafting, kayaking, wildlife viewing, stream and lake fishing for plentiful trout and other species, and world class golf. In the summer, there are inexpensive shuttle buses to Glacier National Park. Whitefish Mountain Resort offers skiing, while nearby activities include ice skating, horse-drawn sleigh rides, dog sledding and more. Downtown Whitefish offers dining, shopping, theatre, and a choice of places to stay.

If you enjoy the outdoors and the special atmosphere of a small mountain town, Whitefish is a good place to stay during your visit to Glacier National Park. The town is known as the recreation capital of Montana. If you love nature, you will appreciate that the highest structures here are trees. Here, eagles and osprey soar through the sky as elk, moose, and mountain goats move through the land with natural grace.

Getting Here

By Train

The best way to get here, if you have the time, is on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. The train operates daily.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder arrives at the historic Whitefish Train Depot in downtown Whitefish.

©Brian Schott/Explore Whitefish

The west-bound train (from Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Fargo, North Dakota) arrives at 8:56 p.m. Mountain Time, and leaves at 9:16 p.m. to continue its westbound journey to Spokane, Seattle, and Portland (Oregon).

The east-bound train (from Seattle, Portland Oregon and Spokane) arrives at 7:26 a.m. Mountain Time, and leaves 20 minutes later at 7:46 a.m. where it continues east to Fargo, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

The Amtrak station, in downtown Whitefish, is located at the historic Whitefish Depot. You can take the east bound train to Glacier National Park in the morning and return the same day on the evening train.

By Bus

Greyhound buses stop at the Amtrak station in downtown Whitefish. For a list of all Greyhound locations where you can catch a (direct or connecting) bus to Whitefish, go to http://locations.greyhound.com/bus-routes/all-destinations/whitefish/mt.

By Air

Glacier Park International Airport (www.iflyglacier.com) is a short 10-minute ride away from Whitefish. The following airlines provide year-round and seasonal service here:

Delta

  • Year Round to Salt Lake City
  • Year Round to Minneapolis / St. Paul
  • Seasonal to Atlanta, and
  • Seasonal to Los Angeles

United

  • Year Round to Denver
  • Seasonal to Chicago

Alaska

  • Year Round to Seattle
  • Seasonal to Portland

Allegiant Air

  • Year Round to Las Vegas
  • Seasonal to Oakland
  • Seasonal to Los Angeles

The airport’s website is a good site to learn about communities and attractions in the region: http://www.iflyglacier.com/glacier-region.php.

To get to downtown Whitefish and other locations from the airport, if you don’t want to rent a car, you have three choices:

1) Use the complimentary shuttles at several lodging properties and the Glacier Shuttle Express to get to around Whitefish, to Glacier National Park and to Whitefish Mountain Resort.

2) Go to: http://www.iflyglacier.com/ground-transportation.php or

3) Contact Glacier Charters: http://www.glaciertransportation.com/ . E mail glaciercharters@gmail.com, Fax: (406) 892-3390, or phone (but please email or fax if possible) (406) 892-3390. With advance notice, Glacier Charters can take you to a wide variety of locations in the area, as well as Glacier National Park, and even Waterton Lakes National Park in (Canada). If you are visiting Glacier National Park, your best choice is to take Glacier Charters from Glacier Park International Airport to the Apgar Transit Center in the park.

There, you can catch free shuttles that will take you to a wide variety of park destinations. There are also several hotels in the park, including the Village Inn at the Apgar Transit Center. Glacier Charters operates all year. It can be especially helpful for backpackers and visitors who plan to stay at a hotel in the park for several days or more. We strongly recommend contacting Glacier Charters before starting your trip.

Where to Stay

There are several places to stay that are near the Amtrak station. These include:

Several lodges including The Lodge at Whitefish Lake (http://www.lodgeatwhitefishlake.com/ or call toll free 877/887-4026, or the local number: 406/863-4000), Grouse Mountain Lodge (http://www.glacierparkinc.com/lodging/grouse-mountain-lodge/ or call (844) 868-7474), Rocky Mountain Lodge (http://www.rockymtnlodge.com/ or 406-862-4569), and Good Medicine Lodge (http://www.goodmedicinelodge.com/ or 406-862-5488) have free shuttles for their guests to and from both the Amtrak station in Whitefish and Glacier Park International Airport.

A brand new Hampton Inn, 1.7 miles from the Amtrak station recently opened and offers complimentary shuttles. Here is the link: http://hamptoninn3.hilton.com/en/hotels/montana/hampton-inn-and-suites-whitefish-FCAWFHX/index.html.

For a more complete list of places to stay, go to: http://www.explorewhitefish.com/places-to/stay

Getting Around

The Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau shares this list of local taxi companies with us:

Let’s Visit Glacier National Park

Using Whitefish as your basecamp, Glacier National Park is not to be missed.

©Brian Schott/Explore Whitefish

The Glacier Park Express operates between Whitefish Mountain Resort, downtown Whitefish, and the Apgar Transit Center (also known as the Apgar Visitor Center) in Glacier National Park between July 1 and September 5, 2016. There are several trips each day. One of the stops is at the Whitefish Library, near the Amtrak station in downtown Whitefish.

The cost to Glacier National Park is $10 each way ($5 for children ages 12 and younger). For details, go to http://bigmtncommercial.org/ for schedule information, and where to purchase tickets. This does NOT include the daily admission fee to Glacier National Park. (There is no cost to travel between Whitefish and Whitefish Mountain Resort.) For details about fees to enter Glacier National Park, go to https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/fees.htm.

However, there is NO FEE to enter the park on the following dates in 2016 (on or after July 1):

  •  August 25-28, 2016 – National Park Service Birthday,
  •  September 24, 2016 – Public Lands Day
  •  November 11, 2016 – Veteran’s Day

Once you have arrived at the Apgar Visitor Center, you will need reservations for the Red Bus or Going to the Sun bus tours that will show you highlights of the park. The National Park Service also has several free park shuttles.

For an introduction and summary of what is available, go to: https://glaciermt.com/blog/shuttle-service-and-transportation-in-glacier-national-park. The Going to the Sun Tours provide a unique native American perspective of the park’s sacred land known as the Crown of the Continent.

If possible, try to take one of the Red Bus Tours. Here is a brief description from the blog link: “Hands down, taking a red bus tour with Glacier National Park Lodges is one of the most scenic ways to see the park. The reds have roll-back tops that allow their passengers expansive views of the surrounding terrain. Red bus tours depart from both the west and east sides of the park, with partial day tours and full-day tours. For complete tours and pricing options, visit http://www.glaciernationalparklodges.com/red-bus-tours.”

Another Way to Experience Glacier National Park

If you are taking Amtrak’s Empire Builder, consider a stop at East Glacier.

Glacier Park Lodge is located right across the street from the Amtrak station. Several tours of the park stop here.

Red Bus Tours’ Big Sky Circle Tour is the most complete bus tour of Glacier National Park. If you are staying in Whitefish, consider taking an eastbound train from Whitefish to East Glacier and spend one to two nights at Glacier Park Lodge, which is the oldest lodging for the park and a delightful place to stay. For more information about Glacier Park Lodge, or to book a stay there, visit http://www.glacierparkinc.com/lodging/glacier-park-lodge/ or call (406) 892-2525.

Two Other Ways to Enjoy a Visit to Glacier National Park

For those of you who want a more adventurous experience, check out these two web sites:

A Few Tips from the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau

  • You can take an express shuttle directly to Logan Pass – 6800 feet on the Continental Divide – and do a classic hike like Hidden Lake. Then you can take the shuttle back down to where you started. Logan Pass is about the most spectacular place many people will ever visit.
  • Take a shuttle to Avalanche Campground – and hike to Avalanche Lake. Or go to the Loop and take a hike from there up toward Granite Park Chalet.
  • If you just want to stay close in West Glacier, you can walk to Apgar Village and kick around Lake McDonald, rent a canoe or paddle board and enjoy a day on one of the most gorgeous lakes in the world.

Stay a While in Whitefish

If you are like me, you will want to spend some time unwinding, shopping, walking, and enjoying the town.

Fortunately, Whitefish itself has a lot to do. The Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau has several suggestions to help you enjoy your stay here:

  • With limited time, enjoy the shops of Central Avenue and all the amazing restaurants. Walk over to City Beach and gaze out at Whitefish Lake. Enjoy the walking trails along the Whitefish River and the Whitefish Trail.

If you have more time visit Whitefish Mountain Resort and Glacier National Park. Whitefish Lake Golf Club offers an amazing 36 holes – a highly rated public course.

  • Explore one of Whitefish’s Neighborhoods: The Railway District is the small neighborhood just to the West of downtown that has additional shops and restaurants. City Beach is a great place to relax,take a swim, sit and enjoy the vast views across the lake and up into the mountains.

Are you a Sports Fan?

The Glacier Twins is an American Legion team that plays baseball in the summer. http://www.glaciertwinsbaseball.org/game-schedules.html You can catch hockey games at the Stumptown Ice Den (open year round for public ice skating as well.) http://www.stumptowniceden.org//.

Do you want to Explore Whitefish on your own?

All the kiosks in town have maps that show the lay of the land. It is a small downtown so it is easy to tour on your own. The Visitor Center at the Chamber of Commerce at 301 Spokane Ave. will give you maps and suggest locations.

If you are a lover of art, take a few minutes to visit the Stumptown Art Studio: http://www.stumptownartstudio.org/. If possible, plan a visit here on the first Thursday of each month,when you can visit 14 galleries and sample the works of many artists.

Enjoy a Bicyclist’s Holiday in Whitefish

Whitefish is a biker’s dream. There are lots of in-town paved trails along the river and then miles of single track mountain biking on the Whitefish Trail. You can rent bicycles at either Glacier Cyclery (http://www.glaciercyclery.com/ or call 406/862-6446) or Great Northern Cycle and Ski (http://www.gncycleski.com// or call 496/862-5321).

There are two very helpful websites to find information about bicycling trails. For information about trails in Whitefish, visit http://www.whitefishlegacy.org/trailheads/. For information about other area trails, or to learn how you can ride from Whitefish to Glacier National Park, visit http://fcvb.org/biking.php.

When You Get Hungry

You can get a list of local restaurants at: http://www.explorewhitefish.com/places-to/dine.

Evening Entertainment

Whitefish has two theatres where you can enjoy live performances: Whitefish Theater Co: https://www.whitefishtheatreco.org/ and Alpine Theater Project: http://www.atpwhitefish.org/.

Tips from a Local Resident

Ella Kobelt grew up in Whitefish and is now a college Junior in California. She offers these tips to help you enjoy your visit here even more:

“As an avid skier who tries to spend as much time on the mountain as possible, I use the S.N.O.W. (Shuttle Network of Whitefish) shuttle system to get me to and from the mountain without worrying about parking. The shuttle picks people up from several locations around Whitefish and brings them to either the base lodge or the ski village of Whitefish Mountain Resort.

“I haven’t used this yet but I’ve heard good things about the new Glacier Park Express. This shuttle takes visitors between Whitefish and Glacier National Park from July – September, departing from four locations in Whitefish four times per day and dropping them off at Apgar Visitor Center. It’s cheap too—round trip tickets are only $10 for adults and $5 for kids. http://bigmtncommercial.org/

“As kids growing up in Whitefish (before we had cars) we loved to walk through town and hit the bike path that starts on Railway Street near the Naked Noodle. The path follows the river and pops out by Whitefish City Beach with no exposure to car traffic. Once you’re there, go to Burly’s, the hot dog stand at the beach, and get a waffle cone with salty caramel ice cream. Unreal.

“If you time your trip right, try to make it to the summer farmers market on Tuesday evenings, located right outside the Amtrak station and at the north end of Downtown Whitefish. This event is a huge draw for locals and tourists looking for locally made food and crafts. Live music too! Favorite stands: Polebridge Mercantile baked goods, Glacier Ginger Brew and the Mountain Berry Bowl truck.

“Downtown Whitefish is very pedestrian friendly, mostly because it’s really only one main street. Definitely check out Montana Coffee Traders for that trendy/cozy coffee shop feel (and if you’re a tea drinker like me ask for a cup of Evening in Missoula). I love the Stumptown Market place, especially Zucca, which is one of their sandwich/salad stalls.”

We are Glad You Came. Come Back and See us in Winter

Whitefish is a well know ski resort, so you may want to return next winter. Here is some information about Whitefish in winter, from the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau:

Winter in Whitefish is one of the best kept secrets in the ski industry.

© Brian Schott/Explore Whitefish

Rising above the town of Whitefish, Whitefish Mountain Resort charms its guests with a friendly fun-loving vibe, variety of terrain, and virtually no lift lines at an unbeatable value.

Whitefish is the quintessential skier’s mountain averaging more than 300 inches of snow. After breathtaking natural experiences by day, guests discover award-winning cuisine and nightlife, while enjoying an abundant arts and culture scene. Other winter adventure includes snow shoeing, backcountry snow cat skiing, ice skating, and horse-drawn sleigh rides.

In the winter time there is a regular free S.N.O.W. Bus that travels to and from Whitefish Mountain Resort. www.skiwhitefish.com (15 minutes from downtown).

Whitefish Lake Golf Club magically transforms into the Glacier Nordic Center in winter, a 15-kilometer Nordic touring center that is tracked and groomed for skating and classic skiing.

Whitefish was ranked the number 9 ski resort in the country by SKI Magazine last winter. Here, you can explore 3,000 acres of bowls, glade and groomed runs as you ski amidst the snow ghosts—haunting, beautiful snow formations on trees that are a signature of Whitefish.

Relatively mild temperatures along with plenty of snow each winter make Whitefish and Whitefish Mountain Resort one of the best kept secrets in the ski industry.

For More Information:

Visit www.explorewhitefish.com/ or call toll-free (877) 862-3548

Steve Atlas welcomes your comments and suggestions. Do you have a favorite place that you wantCar Free Journey to spotlight in a future column. Send your requests to E-mail steveatlas45@yahoo.com

You can view more Car Free Journey columns (those posted before March 2015) at : http://www.pubtrantravel.com/carfreejourneys.html

About the author

Steve Atlas

Steve Atlas

Steve Atlas, author of two published books about parenting, has written newspaper columns and magazine articles about travel, career change, home-based business, parenting, and sales skills. Steve's column, “Single Parent Hotline,” was a weekly feature of Gannett News Service for several years. He has also been a contributing editor to Selling Power magazine. Currently Steve’s primary interest is reducing dependency on private automobiles. In addition to being a public transit advocate and author (since 2008) of Car Free Journey, Steve’s e-book: "Car Free at the Beach", and several reports he has written about Car Free Living can be viewed at www.pubtrantravel.com.

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