If you’re considering a trip from Missoula out to Glacier National Park, this road trip itinerary is for you. Set in Glacier Country, Western Montana has some of the state’s most iconic destinations.
From Missoula, Kalispell, Whitefish, and on to Glacier National Park, there is a lot to pack into a road trip here. This is my second time exploring Western Montana with Glacier Country Tourism, and when I say this area has it all, it really does. With this trip, I focused on a few unique stays near the best small cities that have incredible access to nature.
I feel a sense of “welcome home” when I arrive in Western Montana. It’s a feeling hard to put into words — a sense of ease, laidbackness, and welcome. And there’s nothing really quite like the landscapes here to seal the deal.
And while wildly popular in peak summer months, I want to make a case for an early fall trip and a late spring getaway. The summer months bring in droves of people but there really is something to coming in sans the crowds. It’s another element to having an intentional experience while visiting Glacier Country.
Plan for a slower-paced trip, with ample time to discover state parks, lakes, bustling downtowns, and of course time in the iconic Glacier National Park. Book in at some incredibly unique and historic accommodations to tie it all together. Western Montana in Glacier Country has all of this and more to discover.
Read on for my take on a road trip through this part of the incredible state of Montana.
Short on Time? Here’s How I Would Spend 1 Week Road Tripping Western Montana:
Stop 1: Missoula — 2-3 nights
- Residence Inn by Marriott Missoula, for an art-centric stay
Stop 2: Kalispell – Columbia Falls – Flathead Lake — 2-3 nights
- Clark Farm Silos, for a luxury silo stay
Stop 3: Whitefish — 2-3 nights
- Snow Bear Chalet’s Ponderosa, for a treehouse getaway
Stop 4: West Glacier — 2-3 nights
- Belton Chalet, for a historic stay
Travel Tip: If you’re planning on visiting Glacier National Park, consider getting a National Park Annual Pass ahead of time!
Western Montana Road Trip Through Glacier Country
What to Know Before You Go
How Do I Use This Itinerary?
The itinerary below can be done forward or backward. Whether you start in Missoula or end there, you can plan to follow whichever way works best for you.
Where is Glacier Country?
Glacier Country is the westernmost part of Montana. It spans from Missoula to Whitefish, and into Glacier National Park to further east. It’s a large part of the state. Some small cities include Missoula, Kalispell, Bigfork, Columbia Falls, Whitefish, and West Glacier.
How Much Time Do I Need in Western Montana?
I would recommend a minimum of a week to do this itinerary if also planning to spend time in the national park. Glacier National Park I recommend a minimum of three days if you want to do a lot of the popular hikes and lakes. This would give you several other days to enjoy Glacier Country’s incredible outdoor spaces and small cities.
How Do I Get to Western Montana?
To get to this part of Montana, the best airports to fly into are Missoula Montana Airport (MSO) in Missoula or Glacier Park International Airport (FCA) in Kalispell. These sit on opposite ends of Western Montana, so if I were to plan it perfectly, I would fly into one and fly out the other. That said, you can easily do roundtrip out of one of these and just make the drive (2.5 hours between the two airports.)
Will I Need a Rental Car to Visit Western Montana?
Yes, you will need a rental car to explore this area. The nature of the road trip and the more remote destinations means you’ll need your own wheels. 4WD with chains are recommended for the winter season. I like to use Discover Cars to book my car rental when traveling.
What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Western Montana?
My preferred months to visit Western Montana are September and late May or early June when most of the crowds haven’t arrived or have left. The summer months are the most popular as Glacier National Park is most accessible at this time — remember snow starts in October and can often stay through early summer, closing down the park. Winter months are also lovely for those who want to do winter sports in the mountains near Whitefish.
What About Bear Safety in Western Montana?
This is a popular question asked in this area. You are in Bear Country (grizzlies included) in Whitefish and Glacier National Park, and the whole area is also Bear Country. A few things to know: hike in groups, always carry bear spray, and beware of your surroundings.
When There: Recreate Responsibly
Recreating responsibly in Western Montana is essential to preserve the region’s pristine natural beauty and protect its fragile ecosystems. When exploring this stunning landscape, remember to adhere to Leave No Trace principles: pack out all trash, stay on designated trails, and avoid disturbing wildlife. Respect local regulations, such as fire restrictions and camping permits, to prevent wildfires and minimize human impact.
Additionally, consider the importance of water conservation and use eco-friendly products to minimize your footprint. By practicing responsible recreation, you can help ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy the breathtaking landscapes and abundant wildlife that Western Montana has to offer.
Stop 1: Missoula
Welcome to Missoula — the small city set at the base of rolling mountains and hills. It’s a fun one, a lively downtown that is home to the University of Montana. It’s the perfect spot to start any road trip through Glacier Country in Western Montana. Find elevated eats, hip coffee shops, and lots of boutiques to explore. Plus, you’re at the gateway to nature like the Bitterroot Valley, Clark Fork River, and more.
Unique Place to Stay in Missoula: An Art-Centric Hotel
I never thought a Marriott hotel would be such an incredibly cool hotel to stay at when visiting. And when I say trust me, I mean it. The Residence Inn by Marriott Missoula is the perfect home base for downtown. Set with incredible design and furnishings, this hip hotel also houses one of the best collections of local art. You feel like you’re walking through your very own art museum while staying. Book the best rates here.
Where to Eat in Missoula
A lovely eatery in town that serves housemade bone broth and freshly tossed salads, this was one of my favorite meals I had in Missoula!
One of the busiest restaurants in town, I stopped in for a quick coffee in the afternoon. It’s super popular for brunch on the weekends and the food looked amazing.
For those looking for an elevated dinner in Missoula, book in at 1889. I’d call it “American nuevo” with plates like the bone marrow and hamachi crudo. The meal was fantastic here.
A must-try when in Missoula if you love creative takes on donuts. I came in and ended up with a pop tart as it was later in the day and all of the fun donuts had been sold out!
Clyde Coffee or Black Coffee Roasting Company – Both of these coffee shops were splendid. I did Clyde Coffee the first day, it’s over on the hip strip area. Black Coffee was my favorite in the downtown area!
What to Do in Missoula
Explore the Downtown
Downtown Missoula is where all of the fun things are happening. Go for a stroll, pop into a few shops, and stop by some of the coffee shops. I loved seeing some local shops like Clover, Tosca, Olive + Iron, and The General Public.
Hike the M
For those looking to get their heart rate up, make the climb to the famous M. It’s a short but vigorous hike, offering incredible views over Missoula.
Spend Time in “Hipstrip”
A great part of Missoula is the neighborhood area of the Hip Strip. There are several cafes to stop into like Bernice’s Bakery and Clyde Coffee. Small shops like Noteworthy Paper & Press, are also worth popping into.
Walk Along the Clark Fork River
Stretching along the downtown of Missoula is the Clark Fork River. There is a beautiful walkway called the Riverfront Trail that takes you along it. Spent my afternoon here just going for a stroll.
Visit a Local Farm
During my trip, I stumbled upon Turner Farms, a family-run organic farm about 15 minutes outside of downtown. It was a highlight for me getting to see a local Montana farm where you could also stock up on produce and kitchen goods in their year-round farmstand. In October, they also open up a weekend harvest festival where all the fall things are happening like pumpkin patches, cider donuts, and more.
Things to Do on Your Way to Stop 2
If you want to spot bison, go for a scenic drive through the reserve on your way to Flathead Lake. They can be a bit tricky to spot but nonetheless, it’s a scenic drive.
A coffee shop meets quintessential Montana Gift Store, come in here for tea, coffee, and gifts.
Along the drive, there are several stopping points at the lake like Flathead Lake State Park at Yellow Bay. It’s super scenic, so consider some time to explore here.
I loved stopping into Bigfork to check out the historic downtown and stroll through the shops. My favorite find was Sault which had the best curation of brands like Anine Bing and more.
One of my favorite meals the entire trip was here. A roadside diner kind of spot, full of locals, and incredible food. It was packed! But well worth the wait for lunch here before continuing on.
Stop 2: Kalispell – Columbia Falls – Flathead Lake
The Flathead Valley between Missoula and Whitefish is one of the areas not to miss. With charming historic towns like Kalispell and Columbia Falls, you’re right in the heart of it all. It’s a good base for exploring lesser-known spots like Flathead Lake, Jewel Basin, and beyond.
Unique Place to Stay in Kalispell: A Luxury Grain Silo
Clark Farm Silos might be the coolest place I’ve stayed in some time. 5 individual grain silos have been converted into these chic cabin-style rooms. Outfitted with every amenity you could need (from kitchen supplies to bear spray), this is a wonderful base for exploring Flathead Lake and beyond. Each of the silos comes with its own firepit that overlooks the mountains. I can’t say good enough things about this unique accommodation in Western Montana. Book the best rates here.
Where to Eat in Kalispell – Columbia Falls – Flathead Lake
A lovely brewery outside of Kalispell, they have a wide range of brewery classics to Asian-inspired bowls.
I didn’t make it in but this was one of the top restaurants recommended for Italian food. The menu looks delicious for those wanting something more elevated.
The best spot in Kalispell for housemade pastries, the huckleberry bun is a must-try.
For your coffee needs, come here to support local. They also have a good breakfast menu with bocadillos and breakfast sandwiches.
Located in Downtown Columbia Falls, this is a good spot for local beers and a yummy meal. It’s super casual but the food and beer are wonderful.
Small but cute little coffee drive-through. There are a few throughout the valley!
What to Do in Kalispell – Columbia Falls – Flathead Lake
Explore Downtown Kalispell
There is so much going on right now in downtown Kalispell with several new shops opening up. Some classics are The Toggery for all things outdoor gear and apparel. Honey Home & Design was my favorite store of the trip, with a beautiful curation of home goods and apothecary. Right next door is the sweet kid’s store, Lyon and Pearle.
Visit Flathead Lake
There are a few ways to enjoy Flathead Lake, whether you go to one of the state parks to enjoy the beaches and picnic areas. There are also local outfitters that rent kayaks too and some which offer tours.
Hike the Jewel Basin
I drove up the Jewel Basin road to get a sense of what the hiking is like out there and let me say, it’s so beautiful. This is very much backcountry, bear territory, and remote wilderness, so please do research for where to go.
Shop and Play Mini Golf at Scout and Gather
Just outside of Columbia Falls, this hip spot is like a one-stop for all. There’s a fun mini golf course, a beautiful home and lifestyle store, a coffee drive-thru, and a restaurant.
Stop 3: Whitefish
World-class ski and a quintessential lake town, Whitefish is a Western Montana favorite. Elevated with fine dining restaurants, and luxury accommodations, there is a lot to discover here. With plenty of hiking trails in the summer, and close to other spots to recreate, Whitefish is a wonderful base.
Unique Place to Stay in Whitefish: A Treehouse Getaway
For those looking for one of the most luxurious stays in Whitefish, book in at one of the Snow Bear Chalets. These individual “treehouses” are right on the slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort and offer unparalleled views of the mountain. I stayed in the Ponderosa, and once I checked in, I didn’t leave. With a loft-style setup, the treehouse looks out into the trees. There’s a hot tub, outdoor dining table, and even a bird’s nest at the very top floor. Book the best rates here.
Where to Eat in Whitefish
A favorite from my last trip was here, the food and beer was amazing. Still recommend this spot!
This craft distillery is a fun one, with seasonal cocktails and classics too.
I ordered out from here and the food was amazing! It’s known for pizzas, but I got a wonderful chicken pesto pasta, topped with pine nuts.
Right in downtown Whitefish, this is where I went for a late lunch. They had a few savory items, even though it’s popular for pastries and bread. Beautiful space and has great coffee too.
I had this bookmarked and it was unfortunately closed the night I was in town. I walked by, it looked absolutely stunning for an upscale dinner downtown.
What to Do in Whitefish
Visit the Downtown
The downtown is well worth an afternoon stroll. Grab a coffee at Fleur, and pop into some of the local shops on Central Avenue.
Enjoy the Lake
One of the main draws to Whitefish is the lake itself, which is absolutely stunning. The biggest beach is accessible at City Beach, where there’s space to park and go for a walk. My other favorite spot that I found on this trip was accessing it at Les Mason State Park. A bit quieter (bring bear spray), it was a tranquil spot to enjoy the views and go for a short walk.
Whitefish is known for its epic trail system of 42 miles of stacked loops and about a dozen trailheads. So if you want to get up on the trails, don’t look much further than here. The Danny On Trail is probably one of the most popular ones in the area.
Soak in the Views from Holbrook Overlook
Go for a drive and head to the Holbrook Overlook Trailhead parking lot. This offers some of the best views around.
Stop 4: West Glacier – Glacier National Park
The entrance to the western side of Glacier National Park starts in West Glacier. One of the best parts of the park to base yourself, there is several spots to dine (seasonally) as well as other amenities. You’re close to Lake McDonald and the scenic Going to The Sun Road in GNP. It’s good to know that almost everything completely closes for the season by the second week of October. So plan ahead when considering a trip to this part of Glacier Country.
Travel Tip: If you’re planning on visiting Glacier National Park, consider getting a National Park Annual Pass ahead of time.
Unique Place to Stay in West Glacier: A Historic Hotel
Known as the historic railway hotel at the entrance of Glacier National Park, this “Swiss-esque” chalet is a charming stay. For those looking for history and convenience to explore the park, don’t think twice about Belton Chalet. As a major perk, the restaurant and hotel stay open later than most places in West Glacier. Open seasonally. Book the best rates here.
Where to Eat in West Glacier
I came in too late to dine, but the restaurant looked amazing for elevated eats. The menu had things like elk ragu gnocchi, filet mignon, and more. (open seasonally.)
Where to go in West Glacier for a great burger, the food here is a favorite among locals (open seasonally.)
What to Do in West Glacier
The real draw to staying in West Glacier is to be at the entrance of Glacier National Park. I had the chance to spend a very full day in the park, exploring all that it has to offer. Now I’d say at least 3 days are needed to see the park properly and to do a handful of hikes. But with one day, some of the things I was able to do were:
- See Lake McDonald
- Drive the Going to the Sun Road
- Stop at several scenic spots along the drive (there are pull-offs everywhere!)
- Walk along Saint Mary Lake
- Drive out to Many Glacier to see the lake
- Make the hike to Hidden Lake Overlook from Logan Pass
- See lots of wildlife
If you’re planning on spending time in the park a few things to know:
- Consider getting your National Park Annual Pass ahead of time
- Absolutely have bear spray and hike in groups
- Bring all supplies if visiting in the shoulder season, everything was 100% closed in the park when I was there aside from restrooms. You couldn’t buy a single thing in the park, water or food, so plan ahead.
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