The best things to do in Whitefish Montana vary with the seasons. Whitefish is a charming mountain town at the base of Whitefish Mountain Resort, formerly known as Big Mountain. Art, culture, delicious food, and superb accommodations abound with an homage to the town’s cowboy and railroad past. Whitefish is also the most tourist-friendly of the towns near Glacier National Park. You can hike Glacier NP and be home in time to enjoy the outstanding brewery scene.
If it sounds like I’m in love with Whitefish, you’re right. I lived here for four years, taught skiing at Whitefish Mountain, was the lead therapist at the former best day spa in Whitefish (RIP Sage Spa Whitefish), and I still dream of retiring here with Ed as an old adventure couple. (amazing adventures for for elderly people anyone?) Until then, I’ll be staying at Whitefish Montana hotels, enjoying the best times to visit Glacier National Park and all of the adventures at the Whitefish Mountain Resort and Whitefish Lake. I hope you enjoy this guide, and it inspires you to visit one of my favorite mountain towns ever!
Things to do in Winter in Whitefish
Winter in Whitefish is a celebration of snow. Whitefish averages more than 300 inches a year and due to its location in northwest Montana where Pacific air flow with cold Canadian and continental air flow. The snow is more dry than the Pacific Northwest, yet because of its higher water content than the Central Rockies (and fewer crowds) the snow in Whitefish lasts longer, and is of better quality throughout the season.
The moist air creates another winter wonder that Whitefish is famous for – snow ghosts. Snow ghosts form when the water droplets that are floating through the air turn into ice when they hit the trees. This is a particular type of ice called rime, that’s almost exclusively found in Northwest Montana, specifically Whitefish.
Skiing on Whitefish Mountain Resort
Skiing on Whitefish Mountain Resort, aka skiing Big Mountain, aka Ski the Fish opens in early December, depending on snowfall. In 2019 SKI Magazine dubbed Whitefish Mountain Resort the #3 overall ski resort in North America! I taught skiing at Whitefish for four years, and I’ll let you in on a little secret. Whitefish is THE BEST place to learn how to ski. Their learn to ski package is amazing. For $85, you get two half-day lessons, a two-day lower mountain lift ticket, and two days of rentals. As a graduate, you get discounts for the remainder of the ski season on rentals, lessons, and lift tickets.
Whitefish Mountain Resort offers terrain for skiers and snowboarders of all levels. There are 50% beginner and intermediate runs and 50% advanced and expert runs. Skiers just starting out will begin at the Big Easy Carpet. Once you graduate from the Big Easy, you’ll have your choice of three lower mountain lifts (weather depenant) to get your turns in: Chair 6, Chair 9, and Chair 10. In all, there are 15 lifts at Whitefish Mountain Resort and 105 marked trails.
When you return with your full lift ticket, head to the top of the mountain and take Russ’s Street the whole way down. You’ll see the Summit House for the first time and take a long flowing catwalk back to the base area. The first pitch of Russ’s Street can be a little intimidating, so make sure you’re solid on your turns and stops, but it mellows out as you make your way down. Once you conquered all the greens on the front side, head to the backside to take a graduation run down Caribou. You’ll get to see the other side of the mountain and feel like an all-mountain skier.
Naturally, intermediate skiers have more terrain choices open to them. On a clear day, you can enjoy picturesque views of Whitefish Lake, downtown Whitefish, and your first glimpses of the legendary snow ghosts by taking Inspiration down the front side of the mountain. The backside features long, open intermediate runs with the occasional ungroomed sections. White Tail or Goat Haunt are fan favorites.
Advanced and expert skiers have the entire mountain opened up to them. Take the front side straight down, carving around snow ghosts on Ptarmigan Bowl or Big Face. If steep tree-lined chutes are your go, check out the nooks and crannies below North Bowl Face and Schmidt’s Chute. Though the backside doesn’t have a lot of expert terrain, there’s fun to be had ducking into the trees from the Summit House around Black Bear and Big Horn. Don’t forget to head to Hell Roaring Basin for a backcountry-like experience dropping into Glory Hole, Picture Chutes, or The Back 9. This is also where you’ll find the longest run of the resort, Hellfire, checking in at 3.3 miles.
Celebrating Christmas in Whitefish
Christmas in Whitefish is the most wonderful time of the year. The downtown Whitefish shopping district is filled with specialty shops and art galleries that are very walkable. For Christmas, they deck out Main Street Whitefish downtown with holiday lights, and you can see the snow-covered runs of Whitefish Mountain in the background. It’s literally, picture-postcard perfect. However, the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce found a way to make it even better with the annual Christmas Stroll.
The Whitefish Christmas Stroll usually occurs on the first Friday in December. Chestnuts are roasting on open fires. Carolers are singing, and bells are ringing. It’s the Christmas celebration you’ve always dreamed of complete with (more often than not) natural snow falling from the sky. It’s also a great time to visit Whitefish after the slopes open and before the holiday crowds.
Whitefish Winter Carnival
In between the peak January ski season and spring skiing, Whitefish hosts a fun, festive event called the Whitefish Winter Carnival. The backstory is that the carnival is an homage to Ullr, the Norse god who allied with humans against the Yeti. Throughout the town in different vignettes, this story plays out to the delight of the locals. Of course, it’s really just an excuse to have fun.
The festivities start with a penguin plunge into the frozen waters of Whitefish Lake for charity. There are parades, costumes, and more food than you can shake Ullr’s bow at. However, my favorite event was always the skijoring, which combines Montana’s two great passions of horses and skiing. Imaging water skiing with horses instead of boats and snow instead of water. As professional rodeo announcer, Joe Warner says – “There’s plenty of places in this great state you can see skijoring, but there’s only one place on this planet you can see the world championship.” If you’re going to go to one skijoring event in your life, make it the Whitefish Winter Carnival!
Springtime Activities in Whitefish
Spring in the mountains is a slow and gradual season that comes first to the valley floor and works its way up the hillside. It’s not uncommon to have trees leafing out in town with snow falling at higher elevations. Whitefish is at roughly 3000′. The ski resort is at 4500′ and the summit of Whitefish Mountain is at 6,800′, which is slightly higher than Logan Pass in nearby Glacier National Park. Visiting Whitefish in the springtime allows you to find almost any season you’re looking for without the peak winter and summer crowds. However, make sure you come ready for any weather because it can change from hot and sunny to cold and breezy in a single afternoon.
Spring Skiing on Whitefish Mountain Resort
When I worked at Big Mountain (it will always be Big Mountain in my heart), I lamented the end of winter. You could tell when the reign of Ullr was ending. Spring skiing kept that sadness at bay.
The snow might be a little wet, but the warmer weather and longer days brought a particularly fun atmosphere to the slopes. Parkas give way to long sleeve t-shirts, and goggles are swapped out for sunglasses. You can soak up the sun with a tall frosty craft beer on the sundeck, and après ski lasts that much longer.
Springtime in Glacier National Park
Whitefish is one of the best towns near Glacier NP to base your vacation from. It has a lively town scene with great food and places to stay, but it’s only a half-hour away from the entrance to the park. Spring is one of the best times to visit Glacier National Park too. During winter and early spring, you can Nordic ski on the Going to the Sun Road and snowshoe up to recently rebuilt Sperry Chalet.
As the season progresses, Going to the Sun Road gets cleared one section at a time. In early spring, the road segment from Lake McDonald Lodge to Avalanche opens up. The road stays closed at Avalanche (Trail of the Cedars) until it’s cleared all the way to Logan Pass, which usually occurs sometime between Memorial Day and Father’s Day.
The road closure to Logan Pass creates a unique opportunity for road bikers. In late spring (mid-May till the road opens), you can bike up Going to the Sun Road without a single car on the road. Late enough in the spring season, you can make it up to Logan Pass with waterfalls gushing down beside you. Going to the Sun Road is a marvel of roadway planning because it maintains a steady 6% grade to the top, which is steep but very bikeable.
Things to do in Whitefish in the Summer
Summer in the high country is intense and brilliant, like a million stars exploding at once. All the plants and animals take advantage of this brief and fleeting season. Meadows fill with a brilliance of wildflowers, and the animals work hard to fatten up for the upcoming winter. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes on Earth, and people have begun to notice. Summer tourism in Whitefish is starting to rival snow season, and the savvy visitor looks for ways to beat the crowd. With almost sixteen hours of daylight in June and July, you’ll have plenty of sunshine to work with.
Summer Activities in Downtown Whitefish
The town of Whitefish celebrates summer with monthly Art Walks through the downtown district and weekly farmer’s markets every Thursday night. Locals hit the beach at City Beach on Whitefish Lake, and the bold take to the skies on a float-plane ride with Backcountry Flying Experience. It’s a cheerful time of warmth, sun, and abundance.
Summer Fun at Whitefish Mountain Resort
When I worked on the mountain, we shut the doors in April and headed off for greener pastures. That time has passed, and Whitefish Mountain Resort offers a full season of summer fun. Since my time there, they’ve put in alpine slides, a mountain bike park, ropes course, and zip line. I had an opportunity to try the alpine slide and ropes course on my last visit, and they were legit fun. The ropes course had plenty of challenging and diverse obstacles, and the alpine slide was fast and smooth. I can’t wait to come back for the zip-line. It’s the longest zip-line tour in Montana. I’ll save the mountain biking for my husband Ed, that’s more his thing.
Perhaps my favorite part of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s summer lineup is the gondola to the Summit House. You can ride one way or both to the Summit House, which offers a full menu and bar. There’s also a ton of trails winding through the resort that offer epic views with a lot fewer people than Glacier. That means more huckleberries for you