A herd on the move in Kalispell, Montana. | Gary Samples/Moment/Getty Images
A herd on the move in Kalispell, Montana. | Gary Samples/Moment/Getty Images

Mix Western Tradition with the Great Outdoors in This Montana Town

And if you want a casino and a Huckleberry beer, you can have that too.

A couple of years ago, a luxe new steakhouse opened in the heart of Kalispell, Montana. Under a mounted elk head with massive antlers, diners are able to add foie gras to their slab of meat, top their mac and cheese with lobster, and pair it all with dangerous cocktails like The Good Stuff, a rye Sazerac infused with cardamom and finished with a spritz of absinthe.

While the offerings are new, the sturdy brick space has long been a town fixture. Built in 1892, the Kalispell Mercantile "KM" Building previously housed a buggy supplier, warehouses for the Great Northern Railroad, and government offices. Now, the Mercantile Steakhouse, along with the more casual KM Bar, draws on vestiges of history—like a rolling library ladder, original Tiffany-style lamps, stained glass, and copper-tinned ceilings—while toasting to the future of this Old West town.

This is Kalispell, Montana. At the mouth of Glacier National Park, it’s usually dismissed as a pit stop for those seeking respite in nature. But spend some time in this rapidly growing town and you may get caught up in its throwback ways—possibly while sipping milkshakes at Norm’s Soda Fountain, est. 1938, or eating barbecue at DeSoto Grill, a rockabilly joint in a former blacksmith shop from 1910. Or while catching the game with the community in the new Flathead Field (Go Glacier Range Riders!) or kayaking on Flathead Lake, dotted with islands where wild horses roam and twenty-somethings throw raves (those are separate islands, thankfully).

Intrigued? Here are the best things to do in Kalispell.

Need some cowboy boots? This place has over 3,000 pairs. | Courtesy of Discover Kalispell

Eat, drink, and dress like a cowboy

Ranching was one of the first industries in Montana, with cattlemen answering the mining towns’ demand for beef. Today, the mining boom may have died down, but the ranches remain—and along with them, establishments that help the laymen get a taste of the cowboy life, without any of the actual work. Shop jackets, hats, and boots at Western Outdoor on Main Street. The largest Western outfitter in Montana, it operates out of an old opera house dating back to 1896. You can’t miss it—just look for the model horse above the awning.

Pop by the 1912 Kalispell Grand Hotel next door, where beloved painter and chronicler of the American West, Charlie Russell, spent his time (to check out a whole museum dedicated to the man, you’ll want to hit Great Falls). For an even more immersive stay, book a night at Artemis Acres, a Western lodge and stable where you can take horses out for two rides a day. If you get Prairie, he’ll pretend to want nothing to do with you. But don’t worry: It’s all just for show.

Hungry? At Moose’s Saloon, you can carve your name into the booths and throw your peanut shells cavalierly on the sawdust floor. Just outside of town, the divey Blue Moon Nite Club features gambling machines, an obligatory moose head, and, in the summer months, a rowdy rodeo out back. Really, what else do you need?

Taste local game and seasonal specialties

Montana might be one of the best states for carnivores. If you’re curious to try local game, you’ll find a hefty portion of cheesy elk lasagna at Hops Downtown Grill, which specializes in locally raised meats. The new, swank Alchemy Lounge has elk ragu and wild boar tenderloin on the menu among more traditional options, while the Rancher’s Daughter is a farm-to-table retail store partnering with local producers for things like beef, lamb, and made in Montana gifts. And speaking of made in Montana, at Withey’s Health Foods you’ll find elk, yak, bison, and anything else you’d like to throw on the grill (stay at the Homewood Suites by Hilton, and you can score an outdoor grill for guest use).

Visiting in the summer? Seek out Flathead Lake cherries, a sweet variety that grows in July and August. Look for them in fruit stands or pick your own around Flathead Lake. (And while you’re in the area, check out one of the gloriously kitsch-heavy casino bars that line the lake near Somers).

By late summer, the huckleberry reigns king, and can be found in everything from cobblers to pancakes to beer. It’s also featured in one delicious vegan shake at gluten-free and plant-based Dan d’Lion in Hungry Horse, near the western entrance to Glacier. (Warning: This thing is huge, so bring a friend to share.)

Travel back in time at the Conrad Mansion Museum. | Photo by Noah Couser

Ride the rails into the region’s past

Kalispell may have been founded in 1891 as a railroad town for the Great Northern Railway’s transcontinental rail line, but the First Nations were here long before (the name Kalispell comes from the Sadish Indian language, meaning “flat land above the lake”). Learn about the history of the region at the Northwest Montana History Museum, housed in the 1894 Central School building.

Then, walk in the footsteps of the city’s founder, Charles Conrad, who made his fortune trading on the Missouri River. His Victorian-style house, which once hosted dignitaries like Teddy Roosevelt in its 26 rooms, is now the Conrad Mansion Museum, open year-round for tours. Ninety percent of the furnishings are original—see a first-generation dishwasher, Edison light bulbs that still work, and maybe even some ghosts if you come in October.

If you’re hungry for more history, take yourself on a self-guided walking tour and learn about the late 19th-century buildings that still hold court downtown. Sassafras on Main Street? In 1892, it was a men’s social club and bowling alley where you could get beer on tap for 5 cents. Today, it’s a gift and antiques shop where you can browse handmade products by local artisans.

The beauty of Flathead Lake is undeniable. | Diana Robinson Photography/ time/ Getty Images
The beauty of Flathead Lake is undeniable. | Diana Robinson Photography/ time/ Getty Images

Get outdoors

You may be just a stone’s throw from Glacier National Park, but there’s plenty to do right around town, all with a fraction of the crowds the park often sees. Less than 10 minutes from downtown Kalispell you’ll find Lone Pine State Park, which offers seven miles of hiking trails with views of Flathead Valley. Also nearby, Foy’s to Blacktail Trails has a range of hiking options from one to 18 miles with rewarding overlooks. And with 15,349 acres and 27 lakes, the Jewel Basin in Flathead National Forest is specifically designated for hiking and fishing—motorized vehicles and horses are restricted.

For bikers, the former Great Northern Railway tracks have been transformed into the easily navigable Rails to Trails system stretching from Somers to Kila, while this July, the two-mile Kalispell Parkline opened right downtown. Formerly railroad tracks, now it’s a linear park and multi-use trail for walkers, bikers, runners, and active pups.

And for some watery views, the rocky cliff trails of Wayfarers State Park peek out over Flathead Lake. But warning: Once you see it, you’re gonna want to get in it, whether by swimming, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, fishing, paddleboarding, or powerboating. The largest natural freshwater lake in the western US, the perimeter of Flathead Lake includes six state parks, while the lake itself boasts 13 islands, many of which you can explore. Float up to Wild Horse Island, another state park where you can spot giant bighorn sheep and, you guessed it, wild horses.

When the temperatures drop, people get creative. | Photo Courtesy of Visit Montana

Celebrate winter, Montana-style

Montana in the winter is definitely its own animal. Sure, you’ve got your winter kayaking, dog sledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, ice-fishing—you name it. But after months of cold and early darkness, things can get… wacky.

Come in mid-February, and you’ll witness the 40+ year tradition of Cabin Fever Days in Hungry Horse, an explosion of pent-up energy that results in a long weekend of live music, food, and tons of booze. Spectators of all ages—including elusive mountain men—converge for the main event: Barstool Ski Races.

Here’s the backstory: In the dead of winter, 1978, two drunk guys in the saloon had an idea. One challenged the other to make his way down snowy, steep Sugar Hill, the main drag in Martin City. The catch? It had to be on a barstool on skis, and he had to cross the line in the drinking position. He made it most of the way, and a tradition was born. Today, annual participants don elaborate costumes and race on tricked-out skis, but they don’t necessarily have to be on barstools. Past entrants include guys on recliners watching TV and a full band on a mobile stage (talent!). As the official website says: “Mount some skis on something you can ride and put on a costume if the mood strikes you.” Register now for next year’s race, and start your brainstorming.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She wants Prairie the horse to know that she loves him.