When I see the gourmet salted caramel cookies in the Pig & Olive Sandwich Shoppe display case for just 50 cents each, right next to the 75-cent mini chocolate raspberry cupcakes, my eyes light up. Fifty cents?! These treats would cost $4 each in Chicago!
Between the bargain-priced sweet treats and the adjacent gift shops featuring locally-made goods, the indoor Stumptown Marketplace is winning me over just minutes after I arrive in Whitefish, Montana, one of the coolest towns near Glacier National Park.
Later, I will soak in the surrounding mountain scenery, discover the quirky sights around town (moose statue in front of the credit union!) and then enjoy a Glacier Gimlet and some live acoustic music at the Tupelo Grille.
“Charming” is an overused word in the travel world, but it’s an apt description of Whitefish, which blends the best elements of big cities, like a walkable downtown and high-quality bars and restaurants, with the laid-back, uncluttered vibe (and cheap baked goods!) of smaller communities.
Note: If you’re looking for lodging in the area, scroll to the end of the article for some recommended Whitefish, Montana accommodations. We also have a section on other towns near Glacier NP, including Polebridge, Columbia Falls, and Kalispell.
Getting to Whitefish, Montana
Cool businesses aside, the real selling point of Whitefish is its location. The town (technically a city, population roughly 6300) is situated near both Glacier National Park and the popular ski resort at Big Mountain, making it a good launching point for vacations in the area.
If you’re looking for the closest city to Glacier National Park, this is basically it. There are other cities in the region, but Columbia Falls isn’t as cool, Polebridge doesn’t have electricity, and Kalispell is a bit too far. Whitefish is less than an hour from the western entrance of the park.
Whitefish is only 16 miles from Glacier Park International Airport, but one of the best ways to reach it is via the Amtrak Empire Builder line from Seattle to Chicago.
A motivated individual can experience this beautiful part of the country without a vehicle by taking the train to Whitefish, then grabbing one of the $10 shuttles to Apgar Visitor Center, right at the start of Going-to-the-Sun Road, where there are additional free shuttles that travel deeper into the national park.
Backpackers may view Montana as difficult to get to, but the train makes it very accessible. There’s plenty of lodging within walking distance, from the condo-style Whitefish Downtown Suites to TownePlace Suites by Marriott to the Whitefish Hostel, which has beds for around $35/night. You can take your bike on the shuttles into the park.
Discovering the Coolest City Near Glacier National Park
What is there to do in Whitefish, Montana? One of the things I like about the town is the wide range of activities. It’s possible to spend the day antique shopping and eating refined cuisine like duck and toasted couscous at Latitude 48.
Or, head for the mountain to tackle the bike trails, then refuel with a bison bratwurst from the “all natural Montana meat” food truck.
Not a lot of small towns have activities that run the gamut from sophisticated to rugged, and that’s a cool thing for people like me with varied interests. If you’re in town on a summer Tuesday, stop by the Whitefish Farmers Market, which reveals a distinct Montana flair.
During my market visit, a fossil booth sold pieces of rock embedded with turtle fossils while an acoustic musician urged people to try the bubble tea in between verses of “No Woman No Cry.”
A local company sold huckleberry pies and cherry jam made with cherries from nearby Flathead Lake. Other booths sold intriguing foods like avocado chocolate pudding (a little too earthy tasting) and bacon smoked almonds (yum!)
Whitefish also has a noteworthy ski resort, which makes it one of the few towns near Glacier National Park that is worth visiting during the winter. It gets very cold and snowy in the part of the country!
I was only in Whitefish for a short time but it was long enough to convince me that it’s worth spending a couple nights here if you’re coming to the Glacier area. When I returned to Glacier NP last year to see mountain goats, I stayed in Whitefish again and once again had a fantastic time.
Recommended Whitefish Montana Accommodations
TownePlace Suites by Marriott. Extremely modern and clean hotel with a gym, pool, and other nice amenities. Should be at the top of your list of places to stay in Whitefish.
Whitefish Downtown Suites. This collection of five suites sits on the second floor right above Abruzzo restaurant in the heart of town. They are fancy but cozy and have cool balconies attached. I greatly enjoyed my stay here.
Stumptown Inn of Whitefish. Located right by the Whitefish River, the Stumptown Inn offers comfortable rooms at prices that are quite affordable for this expensive part of Montana.
Downtowner Inn. The name says it all. You won’t find a more centrally located hotel. This one has a green, brown and beige exterior that fits right in with the forest environment in this part of Montana. Average amenities and pretty good prices.
Whitefish Hostel. I’ve stayed here on a few occasions. It’s the cheapest lodging you’ll find in Whitefish, with beds starting at around $35/night. The vibe is fun and relaxed, and they do sell out in summer, so book early.
Check out a few more sights from Whitefish:
Other Towns Near Glacier National Park
You should definitely stay in Whitefish! But if you want to understand the full scope of towns near Glacier NP, here are a few others to consider:
Polebridge. As mentioned earlier, Polebridge is one of the last remaining American towns without electricity. That makes it quaint and old-fashioned. It’s also super-small. They do have a few cabins and a hostel, but otherwise, the only reason to stay here is because of the novelty.
Columbia Falls. I did enjoy Columbia Falls. I went ziplining here and had lunch at a cute little sidewalk cafe. It’s a fun area for outdoor recreation, but the town itself is small. They do have a handful of eateries, coffee shops, and drug stores. Columbia Falls may actually be the closest city to Glacier National Park, so if you’re going to stay somewhere other than Whitefish, try Columbia Falls (especially Cedar Creek Lodge!)
Kalispell. Glacier is a popular destination for road trippers, but if you do fly here, you’ll likely fly into Glacier Park International Airport near Kalispell. This town has around 20,000 residents and a main street with a business district.
Babb. Located on the eastern side of Glacier NP, Babb is a very rural area with a couple of restaurants and a hotel. I stayed there for a night when I was trying to explore the northeastern section of the park and get a spot at Many Glacier Campground. This area is close to Blackfeet Outfitters, which provides off-roading tours of rarely-seen parts of Glacier NP and meals with local native families.
Note: I was a guest of Glacier Country Tourism and Explore Whitefish. As always, all opinions are my own.