Updated: Apr 23
One of the things I most enjoy about hosting guests in our Red Barn vacation rental is helping folks discover a bit of Montana from a local's perspective. It's always good to get the inside scoop. One of our favorite local spots is Polebridge and the North Fork area of Glacier National Park. We used to brag this was the undiscovered, less-crowded section of Glacier, but I would be lying if I said that these days. Still, the place holds a special charm and is far less developed than West Glacier.
To find it - head up Nucleus Ave. in Columbia Falls. If you plan to try fly fishing, stop into Lary's Fly Shop first. Once you come to the T and the old train (fun fact Station 8 used to sit here but was moved off the tracks when Whitefish became the official stop in the Flathead Valley). Turn right onto the North Fork road, turn on some old time country music and settle in - you've got a scenic hour-long drive. It's only 35 miles or so, but the pavement ends not long after the turn off to Blankenship bridge - where the North Fork and the Middle Fork of the Flathead River converge and a popular boat launch and take out). There have been a number of wild fires in this area in in the past 15 years, so you'll see thick new forests rising up and sweeping views of the river valley. There will be some dust and a few pot holes, but I promise - it is worth the trek.
The Polebridge Mercantile has been the heart of the North Fork community in remote Northwest Montana for over 100 years. The “Merc” continues to serve as a general store, bakery, and base camp. Swing open the screen door and you feel a bit like you've just stepped into a living piece of history. Just above the stock of condiments and trendy souvenir t-shirts you'll find a museum of antique relics. An antique elk mount presides over the bakery counter. The place has a vibe to it which is hard to explain, but certainly sticks with you.
It is one of the anchors of the North Fork experience and an essential stop for anyone visiting the west side of Glacier National Park. The current owner, Will Hammerquist, bought Elaina's first 4H market hog at the fair; it helped that she built a Lego replica of the historic building which won Grand Champion Lego Project the same year. Her version is now on display at the Merc alongside a pic of her eight-year-old grin and the aforementioned pig. When we delivered a thank you gift, we got a private tour of the Merc and bakery. If we weren't die-hard fans of the Polebridge Merc beforehand, that really sealed the deal. Will's wife, Catarina, and their crew bake hundreds of cookies, cinnamon rolls, and of course their famed huckleberry bear claws, every summer day. So let's recap: remote, epic mountains and a pristine protected river AND fresh baked goods with a little wild west history thrown in for good measure. If we called it heaven on earth, well now you understand why it's one of our favorite local spots.
Right next to the Merc, you'll find the Northern Lights Saloon. If you are looking for a taste of local Montana, hang out here on a summer night. This is also a great spot to stay up late for a glimpse at the namesake Northern Lights. You really are just a winding dirt road away from the northern border with Canada.
Not far from the saloon and bakery, is a nice little nature trail along the North Fork of the Flathead River. It's tag line - "standing on this trail, you are closer to a grizzly bear than you are to a Starbucks." If that isn't a modern definition of wild and free, I'm not sure what is.
Bowman Lake competes heartily for one of our family's favorite spots in Glacier National Park. A decade ago, I called it the undiscovered corner of the Park and while West Glacier was throbbing with tourists, we could slip up to Bowman Lake for weekend solitude. But like I said: Word got out. Even still, there are few places which feel so completely remote but which are really a small jaunt from your car. Tent camping is pretty fun at Bowman too and once I made the girls and Casey paddle the length of the lake in kayaks. No easy feat for any of us, but the girls are getting used to their mom's "adventures." Thankfully, there were Huckleberry bear claws waiting for us when we paddled back across the lake.
Photos - from my cousin Justin Kauffman (he's an amazing adventure photographer) and the Polebridge Merch Facebook page.