Montana's Flathead Valley is a scenic gateway to Glacier National Park. Located in the northwest corner of Montana, it takes its name from Flathead Lake, the largest fresh water body of water west of the Great Lakes. Flathead Lake takes its name from the Flathead Indians.
The valley is an outdoor lover's paradise. It is near or adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, which has 1,800 miles of hiking trails; the Jewel Basin Hiking Area; and the Danny On Memorial Trail at Big Mountain Ski Resort. The National Bison Range with its two-hour, self-guided drive is at the south end of the valley.Flathead Valley is good for just about any outdoor, non-spectator sport - hiking, fishing, bicycling, river running, water sports, skiing, snowmobiling and golf. What's available varies only with the season.
The landscape is generally rural - ranches and fields and log fences. The valley itself is surrounded by pine-covered mountains.
Kalispell, population 14,000, is the valley's business hub. It is also a town of charming neighborhoods. The Conrad Mansion, built in 1895 for Charles Conrad, is in one of those quiet locales.
Conrad made his fortune in trading, ranching, mining and banking and was one of the city's founders. The three-story house is a fascinating structure with original furniture, elaborately carved woodwork and refined touches of Tiffany glass and a Waterford crystal chandelier. An 1880 Kanabe piano built in Baltimore, a wedding gift to his wife, is in the music room. The kitchen has a four-oven stove, a biscuit machine and a speaking tube that connects with the master bedroom. Window seats built into the walls are throughout the house.
His first-floor library has a view of his private game reserve where he kept a herd of buffalo. After his death Mrs. Conrad sold the bison, some of which went to the National Bison Range.
Conrad retired in his 40s and died at the age of 52. The couple had several children. For years their youngest daughter lived with her husband in a trailer house behind the mansion. In 1974 they gave the house to the city of Kalispell. It is now national historic site and open for public tours. Admission is $4 for adults and $1 for children.
Whitefish, a stone's throw from Kalispell, is my favorite of the Flathead Valley communities. It is small - the shopping district extends the length of two blocks - and friendly - everyone smiles and says `hi'. Stores that sell Montana-made art and crafts catch my eye although I make my only purchase, a pair of tan suede cowboy boots, at a western wear shop.
Bigfork, on the north end of the lake, is considered the artistic community. Bigfork Summer Playhouse presents Broadway musicals from mid-June to September.
There's plenty to do and see in Flathead Valley in both winter and summer.
DOWNHILL SKIING: Big Mountain ski resort bills itself as the largest ski area in the Rocky Mountains. Its vast and varied terrain is impressive but what I remember most is its friendliness and lack of lift lines. Its down-home atmosphere reminds me of some of Utah's ski resorts.
The magnificent peaks of Glacier National Park are part of the scenery. The view of Flathead Valley is also impressive.
The season runs from Thanksgiving to spring. The cost of a day pass: adults, $27; juniors and seniors, $21; children (7-12), $14, 6 and under ski free. Day care is available for $3.25 an hour ($4.25 an hour for infants).
There is night skiing and the resort's Nordic Center has 15 kilometers of groomed trails. For information call 1-800-858-5439.
CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING: In addition to the Nordic Center at Big Mountain, Isaac Walton Inn near West Glacier offers cross-country skiing, lessons and guided cross-country trips into the park. The Inn was built in 1939 to house crews that maintained the Great Northern Railway that skirts along the southern edge of Glacier National Park. The inn is rustic but cozy. Winter rates for two people range from $45 to $64.
Hiking along trails in the surrounding national forest is a popular summertime activity. And people who bicycle through the park often stay here.
We took Amtrak from Whitefish, where the train leaves at 6:25 a.m., and disembarked at Essex, 40 minutes or so later. For information about the inn call (406) 888-5700. For information about Amtrak call 1-800-872-7245.
SNOWMOBILING: The vicinity's four groomed trail systems cover 220 miles. There are hundreds of miles of ungroomed trails. I took Canyon Creek Trail. One of the area's most popular groomed routes, it winds up the back side of Big Mountain to its summit. The trail parallels a creek for part of the ride and cuts across meadows at the base of the mountain. The trail to the summit is fairly steep. Going up isn't bad but coming back down is another story. Beginners should slide something over the skis to slow down their snowmobile. We ate lunch at the Summit House with its panoramic view of Glacier Park and Flathead Valley. The trip takes a good part of the day.
The best riding is from mid-February to mid-April. Snowmobile rentals are available. We rented ours from Fun Unlimited in Columbia Falls.
GOLFING: Flathead Valley has eight golf courses, five of which are municipal. Prices range from $17 to $12 for nine holes and $12 to $22 for 18. Cart rentals range from $8 to $12 for nine holes and from $14 to $18 for 18.
They include: Mission Mountain Country Club 14 miles south of Flathead Lake; Meadow Lake Golf Resort in Columbia Falls; Whitefish Lake Golf Course; Eagle Bend Golf Club near Bigfork and Flathead Lake; Buffalo Hill Golf Course in Kalispell; Glacier View Golf Club near West Glacier; Polson Country Club at the base of Flathead Lake.
OTHER SUMMERTIME activities include hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, picnicking and river rafting. Flathead Lake offers the typical water sports including sailing, powerboating, water skiing, scuba diving, yachting, swimming and windsurfing.
Wildhorse Island in the middle of Flathead Lake is home to wild horses that have been there since Indians first inhabited it. There are also bighorn sheep, bald eagle nests and rare and endangered plants.
ART: The community of Bigfork at the lake's northern end is considered the area's artistic hub. It has numerous galleries and the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts presents plays throughout the summer.
In my opinion, however, the area's most interesting art attraction is on the east side of the park in the Indian reservation town of Browning. There, in a ramshackle building with the words "Bob Scriver's Hall of Bronze" painted on the facade, is a wealth of bronze sculptures. They are worthy heirs to the legacy of Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington.
Scriver, born in 1914, is a native of Browning. His father was an Indian trader who founded a store on the Blackfoot reservation. Bob received bachelor's and master's degrees in music and worked in Chicago as a cornet player. He started his career as a sculptor at the age of 42.
Scriver's Museum of Montana Wildlife is also contained in this complex. Scriver did the taxidermy work himself, a by-product of his interest in art. "Back in those days there were no schools and I wanted to be an animal sculptor. I taught myself taxidermy as a reference."
Don't let the warren of delapidated buildings deter you. The collection of bronze sculptures is world-class and the display of wildlife extraordinary. Historic Indian photographs hang on the walls, too.
The Hall of Bronze is a jewel of artistic genius in the dusty Montana plains. It is open from Mother's Day to the end of hunting season. Admission is $2 for adults, $5 for families.
Located near the junction of U.S. Highways 2 and 89. For information call (406) 338-5425.
MUSEUMS: Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning displays artwork of a number of tribes including the Blackfoot, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux, Assiniboine, Arapaho, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Flathead, Chippewa and Cree. The museum's historical displays depict social and ceremonial aspects of Indian life. "Winds of Change" is a multi-media presentation of the history of Native American culture. There are temporary exhibitions, too.
Open daily from June-September from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open Monday-Friday from October thru May from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. No admission fee. Call (406) 338-2230.
For information about Flathead Valley call the Flathead Convention and Visitor Association at 1-800-543-3105.