Mix Western Tradition with the Great Outdoors in This Montana Town

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

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

A luxe new steakhouse recently opened in the heart of Kalispell, Montana. Under a mounted elk head with massive antlers, you can add foie gras to your slab of meat and sip dangerous cocktails like The Good Stuff, a sazerac rye with cardamom dusted with a spritz of absinthe.

While the offerings are new, the sturdy brick space has long been around. Built in 1892, the 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, blends 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 park-goers. But spend some time in this rapidly growing town and you may get caught up in its Old West ways—possibly while sipping milkshakes at Norm’s Soda Fountain, est. 1938, or eating BBQ at DeSoto Grill, a rockabilly joint in a former blacksmith shop from 1910, or kayaking on Flathead Lake, dotted with islands where wild horses roam and twenty-somethings throw raves.

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

Eat, drink, and dress like a cowboy

Wanna live like a modern day cowboy? In Kalispell, that can easily be arranged. First get the look and shop jackets, hats, and boots at Western Outdoor on Main Street. The largest Western outfitter in Montana is housed in an old opera house building that dates back to 1896. (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. For an even more immersive stay, book a night at Artemis Acres, a Western lodge and horse riding facility where you can take the 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 has gambling machines, an obligatory moose head, and, in the summer months, a rowdy rodeo out back. Really, what else do you need?

They make a mean cocktail at Mercantile Steak. | Photo courtesy of Discover Kalispell

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, specializing in locally-raised meats. Withey’s Health Foods has elk, yak, bison and anything else you’d like to throw on the grill (pro tip: if you stay at the Homewood Suites by Hilton, they provide outdoor grills for guest use).

Visiting in 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, near the entrance to Glacier. (Warning: this thing is huge. Bring a friend to share.)

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

Dive into the town’s Old West history

Kalispell may have been founded in 1891 as a railroad town, but the First Nations were here long before (“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. Ninety percent of the furnishings are original; see a first-generation dishwasher, and 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 of downtown and learn about the buildings that still stand from the 1890s. 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 gifts and antiques shop where you can browse handmade products by local artisans.

A bighorn sheep on Wild Horse Island. | Lloyd Hendricks/Shutterstock
A bighorn sheep on Wild Horse Island. | Lloyd Hendricks/Shutterstock

Get outdoors, duh

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 railroad tracks have been transformed into the easily-navigable Rails to Trails system, stretching from Somers to Kila. Meanwhile, 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, Flathead Lake also features 13 islands, many of which you can explore. Float up to Wild Horse Island, a state park where you can spot giant bighorn sheep and, yes, wild horses.

Celebrate winter, Montana-style

If you want winter sports, there’s 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 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. Participants don an elaborate costume and race on tricked-out skis. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a barstool. 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 and start working on your costume for next year.

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