I ventured to the beautiful northern Rocky Mountains and the historic, yet progressive town of Whitefish, Montana with a group of diverse, energetic travel writers. My goals? Try a new adventure and see Glacier National Park in what they call the “Secret Season.” We all had different interests, skill levels, and abilities but what we had in common was the desire to experience a few Whitefish, Montana adventures, and take in the outdoor beauty of this gorgeous area. A side goal was to expend enough energy to earn one of Whitefish’s famous craft brews or farm-to-table meals at the end of the day without the usual guilt.
Experiencing the Secret Season
Most outdoor destinations have a popular season, an off-season, and shoulder-seasons, but Whitefish has a “Secret Season.” It’s the spring and I had the joy of being in Whitefish and Glacier National Park when the weather was mild, the snow was still melting in the higher elevations, and the area was pretty much left to the locals to enjoy. That’s a pretty good deal for a town of 6,500 that hosts over a half million out-of-state visitors annually.
Everyone who visits Glacier National Park knows about the famous 50-mile scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road where you can drive (or take an iconic Red Bus Tour) over Logan Pass at 6,646 feet. But many do not know that in the “Secret Season,” the late spring, you can bike part of this road car-free!
Since snow is still a barrier to opening the road, this famous byway is open to cyclists and pedestrians until the snows melt more, creating a scenic bike ride starting at Avalanche Creek. Riders and hikers can enjoy several miles of a fairly even road with views of the cascading falls of McDonald Creek. After that, the road starts to climb to places where you’ll have stunning views of snowcapped Heaven's Peak and Bird Woman Falls, a 560-foot waterfall just west of the Continental Divide.
The goal is to get to the snow line or, perhaps, see a mountain goat, bighorn sheep, or other wildlife (bring bear spray) before turning around and enjoying the downhill ride back to where you started. Since it’s an out-and-back ride, you can go as far as you want before turning back.
For those who don’t have their own bikes with them, you can rent bikes with helmets (and even join a guided group ride) from Glacier Guides close to the west entrance of the national park.
Whitefish, Montana Adventures: Rock Climbing and Rappelling
As our van approached the scenic Stillwater River and Stryker Rock just outside of Whitefish, the chatter became a little less casual and a little tenser as we anticipated our rock climbing adventure with Rock Climb Montana.
Some of our group had done a little bit of rock climbing, some were eagerly anticipating the adventure, and a few of us considered ourselves a little over-the-hill for the experience. But, we were soon to find out that we were all in for an adventure to suit our ability levels. Throughout the experience, we were all very safe under the watchful eye of professional climbing instructor Link Neimark and his assistant.
I opted to photograph the rappelling and rock climbing and hike from the top of the cliff around the rocks to the bottom near the river, rather than rappel down. Link, being over-the-top safety conscious, asked that I gear up complete with harness and helmet and attached my webbing with a strong carabiner to the line doubled around a sturdy tree at the top of the cliff. From my vantage point, I had the thrill of photographing writer Lavi Nair of San Francisco as she made the transition from standing on the top of the cliff to using her strong legs to push against the cliff-face and slowly make her way to the bottom.
In watching Lavi, I learned that there is a point at which your instincts take over and warn you of danger no matter how secure you are in your ability to climb or rappel. As she placed her heels out over the cliff and could no longer rely on her secure footing for protection, her feelings and instincts fought her every little bit of the way until she overcame them and inched her feet over the cliff. This is the point at which some people’s legs feel like jelly!
We watched and encouraged her as sheer determination and courage won out. Once the conflict between instincts and will was over, she relaxed, smiled, and easily let herself down the cliff face. The entire time, Link advised her on how to manage the lines and where to place her feet.
Several of our group followed her down the cliff as Link’s assistant hiked with a couple of us down the hill, over some slippery rocks to the rushing river below. Once we were at the base of the cliff, we watched the rest of our group rappel down. And then, it was rock-climbing lessons.
Rock climbers learned how to place the tips of their fingers, made less slippery by chalk dust, and feet (in special climbing shoes) on small outcroppings and niches in the wall to make their way up the rock. Some of our group made it to the very top and some were faster than others. All were equally encouraged and felt a great sense of accomplishment when they finished.
It was exciting and a learning experience for all of us. On the hike back up the hill, Link explained that he teaches people of all abilities (and all limitations) to rock climb. He’s been doing it for years along with being a long-time skiing and snowboarding instructor at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Light Hiking in an Accessible Wilderness
Glacier National Park and the Whitefish area have enough trails to keep you hiking and exploring for years. But visitors who want to experience the beauty of the forest and mountains, learn a little about area wildlife and the glacial environment on shorter, sometimes very accessible trails can certainly do that.
The Whitefish Trail consists of 12 trailheads and more than 42 miles of natural surface trail comprised of stacked loops, scenic overlooks, single‐track trails, and gated logging roads. You can do short parts of the multi-use trail or spend the whole day on a more challenging part. The Whitefish paved bike and pedestrian path system weaves throughout the town and is bustling with walkers and bikers. I enjoyed a very brief but scenic walk from The Garden Wall Inn, where I stayed downtown following the river.
Walking on dirt trails and boardwalks, we enjoyed the wetland environment, a beautiful aspen grove, and even saw evidence of bears. This is cougar and bear country so, as with most hikes, we were advised to bring bear spray with us and know how to use it.
And, of course, we sought out a couple of “light adventure” trails in Glacier National Park. With a guide from Glacier Guides, we first discovered an amazingly beautiful and accessible trail close to where the Going-to-the-Sun Road bikers left on their journey. The Trail of the Cedars, one of two wheelchair-accessible trails in Glacier National Park, is a loop hike that begins and ends on the Going-To-The-Sun Road, 5.5 miles east of Lake McDonald Lodge.
It’s only a mile, and mainly on the boardwalk, but the old-growth cedars are worth seeing and doing a little health-giving “forest bathing.” As you walk, you’ll hear the rushing waters of glacier-fed Avalanche Creek cascading through the mossy boulders. The boardwalk takes you right over this beautiful creek.
A second short hike, suggested by our guide, was through a previously burned area that was coming back to life after the wildfires. The Forest and Fire Nature Trail is another short mile loop but there was much to discover.
As you hike down into what used to be a lodgepole pine forest, you’ll see burned out trees, charred logs, and new pine and aspen saplings.
This area of the national park was burned in 1967, and then again by the Moose Fire during the summer of 2001. The view out over the once-barren and burned land is now full of new growth and wildflowers. It’s worth the drive to this trailhead to learn about the part that wildfires play in forest maintenance.
Getting to Whitefish, Montana and Glacier National Park
Glacier Park International Airport is in Kalispell, with direct flights from major cities. Whitefish, Montana is accessible from many west coast locations for a long weekend or an extended vacation. Your Whitefish, Montana adventures can be as laid-back or strenuous as you want. During our trip, we discovered there are many ways to experience all the area has to offer, including things we didn't get to try like boating, skiing, and white water rafting, yet each outing was truly an adventure to remember. Be sure to read more on Wander about what you can experience in Montana.
Note: The author toured as a guest of Explore Whitefish. As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodations, meals, tours, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.