The best way to measure the appeal of Whitefish is to measure what it’s not: glitzy, overbuilt, or overpriced. Through the blessings of a remote Northern Montana location, a passionate local community, and an honest-to-goodness real town, this is a place totally comfortable in its own skin.
The mountain doesn’t literally spill into the town of Whitefish, but it always looms large from downtown, and even more importantly, in the heart of the community. There may not be any stronger simpatico between the locals and the mountain than you’ll find here.
Get yourself to the intersection of East 1st Street and Central Ave., pause, and take a deep breath of clean Montana air. Welcome to a tight-knit community with a chilled-out atmosphere. This former Montana railroad town has been transformed into an enthusiastic outdoor recreational hub with a surprising (and growing) array of top-notch restaurants and bars, with a few galleries nicely adding to the mix.
Outsiders like to peg a trip to Whitefish as a nostalgia-tinted journey back to the way skiing used to be. Nonsense. Talk to the locals and they see their town as the way skiing always has been, and always will be. Sure, some grizzly old-schoolers like to grouse about the handful of new hipster joints opening up. But the vibe of places like the Firebrand Hotel, Spotted Bear Spirits Tasting Room, and the Montana Tap House only show that Whitefish occupies the near-perfect homeostasis of small-town friendliness and urban-chic. Still aching for some nostalgia? Enjoy the timeless appeal of breakfast at The Buffalo Café or an après draft at the Bierstube up at the mountain.
A few years back, the resort marketers decided to re-brand the mountain Whitefish Mountain. Fair enough. However the locals still refer to their ski area as Big Mountain, and probably always will. There are bigger mountains. And mountains with more lifts. But turn for turn, Big Mountain, er, Whitefish Mountain punches up in its weight class, offering everything from learn-to-turn cruisers to master-class steeps—not to mention friendly lift mates who will actually tell you where the good stuff is. And the snow? Pffft. You’re in northern Montana, after all.
- Median Age: 40
- Population: 7,870
- Average Income (USD): $49,870
- Sales Tax: $0
Whitefish, Montana Highlights
Embracing its downtown location, the new Firebrand Hotel welcomes you as a lodging guest or an après-ski visitor to its spacious and comfy central lobby and bar. In-house spa, 24-hour fitness center, rooftop hot tub, business services, dog-friendly rooms, and lobby coffee bar make your stay seamless.
Spotted Bear Spirits
Here’s a sip of the new Montana hipster culture: a tasting room for a local distillery. The clean lines of the room telegraph its new-school ethos, as does the mustache printed on the bottom of the copper mugs (get it?). We’re partial to both the Spotted Bear Coffee Liqueur and the local vodka. Enjoy them together in the Snowghost.
Montana Coffee Traders
You can start your day without coffee, but why? At the intersection of café culture and local vibes, this joint offers a full espresso bar, Montana-strong coffee, fresh baked goods, and other coffeehouse standards. The downtown café also serves walls of local art and (thank you) free wifi.
Museum of Skiing
A small ski history museum is housed in the Whitefish train depot, but as of last summer, the Ski Heritage Center Museum of Skiing offers a new option for history lovers. The facility features a photographic homage to skiing in the area and a Hall of Fame, plus a new exhibit on the 10th Mountain Division's Ski Troops.
Abruzzo Italian Kitchen
A new addition to the dining scene, Abruzzo has become a local fave thanks to from-scratch dishes and an emphasis on simple presentations. Late-breaking plans? Head to the lounge (no reservations) and belly up to one of the longest bars in Whitefish. Good policy: The lounge and dining room serve the same menu.
Montana Tap House
This welcoming brewhouse serves 50-plus beers on tap—30 of them Montana-brewed— plus a full menu of tap-house-friendly eats, including delicious pizza using dough made at Kalispell-based Ceres Bakery. Settle into a couch in front of the fireplace and discover your new favorite local craft beer.
Whitefish Local Tip
"Skijoring during Winter Carnival (Feb. 7–9, 2020) is by far my favorite local event, and it’s been a staple crowd-pleaser since the 1960s! Some of the best rippers from Whitefish Mountain Resort hold onto a rope looped on the horn of a horse’s saddle and send it around a track with jumps and obstacles. I mean, how much more Montana can you get?!"
-Alyssa Seeman, co-founder, Revelry Experience, Whitefish
Originally published in the January 2020 issue of SKI Magazine. For more great writing delivered directly to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE NOW.