Montana: The Last Great Place
You’d be right to think Montana is a popular ski destination. But it might surprise you to know that the majority of the state’s visitors now come for Montana’s spring and summer activities. And golf season is about to end in Montana.
You really shouldn’t miss it.
Forget Austin, Boulder and San Diego. Four days of golf, fishing, cruising, touring, cycling, rafting, hiking and even skiing will convince you that Montana reigns as the undisputed king of outdoor recreation. If it’s exceptional golf you crave, then this state will surprise you. Four days may not seem like a long golf vacation, but it’s all you’ll need to whet your appetite for a return visit. Here’s a quick primer on what to do while you’re there.
No one should visit this region of the country without a stop at Glacier National Park, one of American’s grandest natural treasures. But you’re here for the golf – and maybe some fishing.
Here’s what you need to know.
Travel west from Glacier National Park along a crooked stretch of Montana State Highway 2, snaking past dozens of small shacks hawking cherries, huckleberries and even furs. The green, mineral-rich waters of the Flathead River roll under a long bridge, just beyond the Great Bear Adventure (“Your Car is Your Cage”). An hour later, you’ll arrive in Montana’s golf Mecca, the Flathead Valley.
Flathead Valley and Whitefish, Montana
Montana’s best golf courses weave through the northwestern-most section of the state and bunch together smack in the middle of the Flathead Valley. Here, the 100-year-old town of Whitefish (population 5,032) is Golf Central. Nine courses are within an hour’s drive.
Whether you’re staying in the Valley for the golf or the fishing on 200-square-mile Whitefish Lake, Grouse Mountain Lodge is where most travelers choose to strike camp. Owned by Dallas attorney Buzz Kutcher, the Lodge is a rustic hotel with exposed timber beams, breathy fireplaces and a tiered, covered patio flanking the 18th hole of the area’s premier golf course, Whitefish Lake Golf Club.
Chances are good that you’ll awaken to a sun-filled sky, since the days quickly grow longer this far north of the equator. March finishes with 12 hours of sunlight and by late summer, 16 hours is the norm in the northwest.
No sense wasting time in your hotel room, so head to 3rd Street in downtown Whitefish, a couple of miles away, for breakfast with the locals at the Buffalo Café (“We close whenever it snows 12 inches.”). Seven types of huevos and house-made chorizo sausage will shake off any lingering time-travel fuzziness.
Head back to Grouse Mountain Lodge and grab your clubs. Cross the two-lane street fronting the Lodge to meet the starter at Whitefish Lake Golf Club for your first round.
Whitefish Lake has two 18s. One was built 70 years ago; the other was completed in 1994. The North Course is the elder, a par-72, 6,579-yard traditional layout with larger greens and flatter topography than its sibling South Course.
The South Course ascends drastically to more challenging terrain. Though it measures 6,551 yards and par is 71, most players find the South Course more difficult. Holes are tighter and incorporate more forced carries over water. Three of the holes weave along the banks of Lost Coon Lake, an eerie pool of water whose surface is punctured by ghostly tree stumps seemingly petrified by an ice storm a decade ago that snapped the trunk of nearly every tree bordering the lake.
This course is a blast to play. There are plenty of risk-reward and elevation changes. Snow-peaked mountains in the near distance add to the drama. In addition to a now-steady stream of golfers, eagles, ducks, geese, loons – and the occasional elk, bear and deer – visit the lake.
Big Mountain and Meadow Lake Golf
If it’s natural golf you seek – golf in a tranquil mountain bowl, a deep blue sky studded with rolling grey cumulus clouds and skyscraper pines – then 7,100-yard Big Mountain Golf Club should have a lock on your travel plans.
This 18-hole course opened 10 years ago as Northern Pines Golf Club, but was rechristened as Big Mountain. Designed by two-time U.S. Open champ Andy North, he’s proud of the challenge he’s presenting: “If I was leading the U.S. Open by one stroke going into the last five holes, it would be tough to par in.”
The first half runs along a flat valley of fescue grasses, while the second nine is hilly, forested and threads along Stillwater River. Tight fairways challenge you to leave your driver in the cart. Foothills to the west and a glacier to the east ring the valley. You’ll spend your four hours on the course staring at the sky and the distant mountains, thinking as much about hawks and eagles as golf.
Montana looks grand, expansive – cinematic – from Big Mountain Golf Club.
While Big Mountain is dramatic in its endless vistas and near total seclusion, Meadow Lake Golf Resort, a few miles north of Kalispell, is more accustomed to hosting crowds of golfers. The front nine of this 6,714-yard, par-72 design also winds along streams and through meadows.
Spectacular elevation changes and undulating greens up the ante, as the fourth hole exemplifies. Here, an elevated green greets you at the end of a short, 357-yard, par-4 framed by tall pines and distant snowy peaks.
Assistant pro Steve Stevens describes the course as a challenge for all but the best of golfers.
“There’s not a flat green out here,” he said. “If you think you have a straight putt, you need to think again. Par is a really good score on most of these holes.”
Double Arrow Resort and Missoula
As you head south toward the state’s cultural and education capital, Missoula, the 70-mile drive coasts through amazing country. Cruising down narrow back roads – where only the crackly sound of an AM radio preacher keeps you company – you then cross single-lane bridges and pass miles of lakes and pasture land. In this endless stretch of Montana, ranches and small towns link the larger cities of Kalispell and Missoula.
Once deep inside Montana’s Glacier Country, you’ll roll up to the Double Arrow Resort. The Double Arrow, a grouping of small log-cabin cottages, each private and secluded among wooded forest areas, reminds you that this is Rustic Montana – but with running water and personal niceties.
Wild game is often featured in the restaurant, a cozy room with big picture windows and a long, carved cocktail bar. The Double Arrow is the kind of place that makes you want to sip your whiskey at the dark bar and linger.
While you’ll also find horseback riding, fishing, hiking and solitude here, the real draw is golf. You’ve got to admire a man whose passion for golf compels him to build his own course, and Double Arrow’s golf pro, Ed Bezanson, did just that. At only 6,200 yards, you probably won’t touch your driver on his course.
The fairways are narrow and well groomed, but this is more of a shot-maker’s course than a thinking man’s. Several holes border streams or cross water. Tall fir trees, slow creeks and an occasional trespassing deer flank the parkland setting. This is a course you won’t mind playing every day.
About an hour south of Double Arrow (“Turn right at the Big Cow sign, then turn left at the fenced white dog”) lies Missoula, home to the University of Montana and golf equipment manufacturer Sun Mountain Sports.
Except for the innovative golf bags, outerwear and carts that spring from the minds at Sun Mountain, no golfer would mistake Missoula for Scottsdale, Orlando or even Dallas when it comes to golf. The locals spend far more time, energy and money on fishing, kayaking, hiking and cycling. But those that enjoy golf now have another course all to themselves – for a while, anyway.
Phantom Hills Golf Course is an upscale, daily fee and members’ course that anchors a new residential development in Missoula.
The course sits in a flat valley of undulating, reclaimed prairie land. The greens and fairways are maintained in top condition. High-end homes will soon encroach upon many of the fairways, an all-too-common site around most golf courses in a metropolitan area.
But the real reason to venture to Missoula has nothing to do with golf; instead, what makes Montana the “Last Great Place,” as the local saying goes, is the fishing.
A River Runs Through It
Norman Maclean popularized fly-fishing here in his novel, “A River Runs Through It.” Let’s face it: You simply can’t go to Montana without dedicating at least a day to drifting down a river, casting a rod.
Believe it or not, fishermen talk about fishing more than golfers talk about golf. Salmon flies, golden flies and a trunk full of specialized fly-fishing gear can be overwhelming.
But if teamed with the right guide, you’re guaranteed a fun time – regardless of how many fish you catch and how quickly you grasp casting.
Tall, tanned and athletic, local fishing guide Jeb Fiebelkorn has been plying the trout and salmon waters around Missoula for more than a few years. He’s part of the team at Blackfoot River Outfitters, who regularly lead golfers and fishermen on float fishing trips on the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot Rivers most days.
Trout bite like sharks in late July and early August, snapping at the grasshopper and mayfly hatches on the waters. But fishing is good here any time of year.
Float trips of up to 12 hours cost under $400 for one or two people, including lunch; shorter trips can conquer 15 miles of drifting in just a few hours and cost less.
Fiebelkorn, the fishing guide, casts a loop of line out 50 feet to an amber-green eddy below a mammoth rock near the bank. It uncurls slowly and softly, plopping a hand-tied salmon fly just in front of the nose of a brown trout.
The Blackfoot River shimmers with the reflections of the crowded trees rooted in the banks.
For now, there is no more perfect place. Golf can wait till tomorrow.