I’m getting out of the car after a gorgeous drive winding through hillsides ablaze with golden larches. We’ve just arrived in Whitefish, Montana, a nature lover’s resort town with delightfully quaint buildings tucked into a picturesque mountain setting. The larches are the reason we planned a family trip for precisely this time of year — and they do not disappoint. Unlike most leafy trees that change color in the fall, these unique trees are conifers. They blend in with the blue-green pines until early October, when they burst into yellow with the autumn chill and light up the hills like flames. The show lasts for a few spectacular weeks, before they drop their needles for winter. It’s the most incredible display of fall colors I’ve ever seen, in part because it’s so unusual and unexpected.
Mom-Tested, Family-Approved: Try a Long Weekend in Whitefish
Montana locals say fall is the “secret season,” and the larches aren’t the only reason why. Fall is the refreshing breather between the busy summer rush and the winter ski season. The weather is reliably sunny, daytime temperatures are in the comfortable mid-60s (perfect for spending time outdoors), and the area is blissfully relaxed, uncrowded, and peaceful. Fewer tourists also mean off-season deals at the best hotels.
We’re thrilled to find that one of the coveted condos is still available at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake. We walk in, and my jaw drops as I get a first look at our two-story, top-level corner condo. We run from room to room, exclaiming with glee. There are four (!!!) balconies with panoramic views of Whitefish Lake. Surrounding the placid waters are hillsides lit up with more golden larches. The hotel’s private beach stretches along the lake edge and honking geese fly overhead. I inhale a deep breath of the crisp fall air and feel my stresses melt away.
Our home for the weekend also has a tall stone fireplace, a giant elk head on the wall (yep, we’re in Montana), plush leather Chesterfield furniture, a gourmet kitchen with granite countertops, two luxurious master suites, plus another bedroom and bathroom for the kids. I can’t imagine a more ideal setup for two families with young kids — which is exactly what we are.
My husband and I are meeting our friends here in Whitefish. Between us, we have four kids under four, so we’re taking this opportunity to let our kids explore their natural surroundings and foster a love for nature while they’re still young. We’ve planned a long weekend of outdoorsy adventures, scrumptious food, and cozy relaxation, with plenty of kid-friendly activities built in.
Where to Stay in Whitefish, Montana
The Lodge at Whitefish Lake
When you have young kids, you need to plan some downtime for naps, so a comfortable hotel can really elevate your experience. The Lodge at Whitefish Lake is a cozy, luxurious retreat that’s perched right at the edge of Whitefish Lake, so you’ll enjoy views of the colorful hillsides reflected in the quiet water and private beachfront access for relaxing morning walks.
The indoor pool has waterfalls cascading into it (which our kids loved), and a hot tub right next to it (which I loved). There’s also an outdoor hot tub by the lake, and a seasonal lakeside pool. Boat Club, the hotel’s restaurant, has won awards for its delicious regional flavors. It serves up Montana twists on classic favorites, like huckleberry pancakes for breakfast or grilled elk tenderloin with wild mushroom frites for dinner. I appreciate the option of fine dining on-site; there’s a much higher chance of your kids staying happy through the whole meal if they don’t have to get loaded in the car first.
Besides the rooms in the lodge, you can rent condos and luxury homes with multiple bedrooms, which I highly recommend if traveling with multiple families. Having the freedom to dive into adult conversations with our friends once the kids were in bed was one of the highlights of our trip, something we would have missed out on if we didn’t have a common space to hang out in.
Sky full of stars
At night, be sure to step out on your balcony and take in the night sky. Since there aren’t many lights around, the stars are spectacularly clear—a treat for kids who live in a bigger city.
Day One: Explore downtown Whitefish
Downtown Whitefish is charming and postcard-perfect with buildings that look like they’re straight out of a western movie set and the snow-capped Rocky Mountains looming behind. We start our morning at Montana Coffee Traders, where we savor freshly roasted coffee and made-from-scratch baked goods. I thoroughly enjoy my spicy Mayan mocha, and my friend describes his Americano as “surprisingly smooth.” Besides the coffee and treats, you can also shop for Montana-made gifts for friends and family back home — or yourself! If you buy a mug, you get a free drink in it.
Where are the toys?
There are toys for kids to play with in the back of the seating area, and the bathroom has a changing table in case your baby needs a diaper pit stop.
Whitefish River Trail
Fueled up, we’re ready for a walk, so we load the kids in strollers and head to the Whitefish River Trail. Just a few blocks from downtown, it’s an easy, paved trail that meanders along the peaceful Whitefish River. Ducks float in the exceptionally clear water and colorful fall trees line the banks. We end by Baker Park, a large playground where our kids have fun on the slides and burn off some energy.
Now back to our condo at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake, it’s time for lunch and naps. We’ve heard good things about Piggyback BBQ, so we pick up some take-out on the way. The pit-smoked brisket is delicious, and the coleslaw is unexpectedly tangy with vinegar and chopped up pickles. While the kids sleep, we play games, chat, and admire the lake view.
Who wants to join?
I highly recommend taking a vacation with friends who have children around the same age as yours. Your kids have playmates which adds to their fun, and the adults can have uninterrupted conversation while the little ones are asleep. It’s also wonderful to be on the same page about scheduling around naps, bedtime, and activities that little legs and attention spans can handle.
Exploring the Hotel
After our kids wake up, we explore the hotel grounds. We walk along the beach, moving at the pace of a toddler: stopping to skip rocks, toss fallen leaves in the air, and admire the pumpkins lining the steps to the hotel lobby.
The inside of the lodge is cozy and warm. There’s a stone fireplace with a fire flickering inside, candlesticks along the mantel, and a giant moose head above. Five-tiered chandeliers hang over comfy leather club chairs and richly colored rugs. A stuffed grizzly greets entrants, paws raised. The kids are impressed. There’s even a coffee bar with espresso drinks, pastries, and to-go lunches. A skybridge crosses from the main lodge to the indoor pool, which, to our surprise, we have entirely to ourselves (another perk of off-season travel). Our kids have a blast splashing and swimming, and the adults take turns relaxing in the nearby hot tub.
Feeling refreshed, we head out to explore downtown Whitefish some more. Imagination Station is an old-fashioned toy store with classic toys and games for all ages. Sprouts Baby Boutique carries adorably hip clothing, stuffed animals, and trendy baby gear. The time flies and we’re already checking the time for our dinner reservation.
Dinner and Dessert
We’re eating at Tupelo Grille, which specializes in innovative twists on Southern comfort food. I’m craving soup, so I order the gumbo, which is flavorful, but my husband’s chicken and dumplings with buttermilk-fried jidori chicken, sage dumplings, and an amazing rosemary tomato cream sauce steals the show. (What’s that over there, dear husband? Oh, just a made-up distraction so I can steal a few more bites.)
Don't miss out!
Reservations for Tupelo Grille are a must. They have a great horseshoe booth that’s perfect for keeping the kids corralled, and their kids’ menus have coloring pages on the back with pictures of moose, fish, and other Montana wildlife.
For dessert, we treat ourselves to ice cream at Sweet Peaks, an old-fashioned ice cream shop with vintage fridge doors hanging on the wall. While the kids dig through the basket of alphabet magnets to spell out their names, we taste samples of their creative flavors. Made from Montana dairy and other local ingredients, every flavor is deliciously creamy.
I love Western Cider Peach (sweet cream swirled with a house made whiskey peach cider and local peach jam), Honey Cinnamon (made with honey from an apiary outside of Missoula), and Coconut Date Shake (coconut ice cream infused with dates and sprinkled with toasted coconut flakes and date pieces). You also can’t go wrong with Huckleberry (made with real wild huckleberries picked fresh in the mountains nearby).
On this visit, an employee suggests a secret flavor for the kids: Magical Narwhal (blackberry swirl dusted generously with colorful sprinkles). How anyone can make a quick decision is beyond me.
Day Two: Take a day trip to Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park — over a million acres of craggy peaks, alpine lakes, and unspoiled nature — is a 40-minute drive from Whitefish, an easy day trip that we can’t resist. But first, we need coffee and breakfast. We find both at Urban Hearth, a cozy hipster bakery that’s on the way in Columbia Falls. They also sell sandwiches and pastries to-go so can we save them for later in the day.
Glacier is spectacular in the fall. Golden larches and aspens line the road. Blue mountains rise up from clear mountain lakes. After about 10 minutes of driving past the entrance, we even find powdery white snow on the ground. Count our kids entranced.
Because of the early snow, Going-to-the-Sun Road (the main highway that bisects the park east to west) is closed past the Avalanche Creek area, so we park there and take a hike on Trail of the Cedars. It’s a short and easy loop that passes through a forest of ancient red cedars to Avalanche Gorge, a narrow chasm with a creek tumbling through it. The gorge is quite pretty, but the real highlight for our kids is the snow; they throw it, they dance around in it, and (not having developed better judgment yet), they eat it.
On the way back, we take the road by Apgar and park at a turnout overlooking Lake McDonald. A 10-mile long lake in a glacier-carved valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains and more golden larches, it’s a beautiful spot to pull out those to-go sandwiches and enjoy a lakeside picnic. And we have this little slice of heaven all to ourselves.
Trail of the Cedars is fairly flat and very easy for even the littlest hikers to traverse. The majority of it is a raised boardwalk that’s wheelchair accessible, so you could even use a stroller if you want to.
Back to Whitefish
Then, we head back to the lodge. I’m ready for a hot, relaxing shower, and so is the rest of our group. Luckily, we have three walk-in showers in our condo so no one has to wait long. After our big morning, it feels good to just hang out in the condo for awhile. The kids build a blanket fort, I sink into the comfy leather sofa, and my husband brews some coffee for an afternoon pick-me-up.
Soon enough, we’re hungry again. I’m excited about tonight’s dinner plans: a cozy Italian restaurant with rave reviews online. When we arrive at Ciao Mambo, the tantalizing smell of garlic wafts out the door — a good sign. Also winding out the door is a line of people waiting to be seated. I’m relieved that we made reservations.
We’re seated at a booth with a paper tablecloth and crayons for the kids to draw. The atmosphere is warm, casual, and friendly, with the lights down low, contemporary music turned up, and comforting bursts of loud conversation and laughter. (I always like loud restaurants with kids; I don’t have to worry about them making the most noise!)
From the basket of free bread, which comes piping hot with fresh garlic on top, to my creamy pasta loaded with chicken, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes, my tastebuds are invigorated. The kids’ linguini with marinara is only $5 and the portion is surprisingly large — enough for three of them to share and still have leftovers.
We’re tempted to get dessert, but the kids are getting tired of sitting in a restaurant, so we decide to skip it. We’re regretting that decision when we serendipitously pass by Abruzzo (an upscale Italian restaurant run by the same people as Tupelo Grille). Since we’re still craving dessert and we loved our food at Tupelo, we decide to get some sweets to go.
We send the guys in to retrieve some tiramisu and cannoli. Both are rich and scrumptious, but I especially love the cannoli. The taste brings me back to the trip we took to the Italian Riviera a few years ago: a sweet crispy shell piped full of fresh ricotta, chocolate, orange, and pistachio. We take the dessert back to our condo, where we pop a bottle of champagne and share our bounty while gazing at the stars from our balcony. Good company, fresh air, the clear night sky, and a sweet taste lingering on my tongue — I carefully tuck this vivid moment into my mental photo album, as the cold drives us back inside where a crackling fire waits to warm us up.
Seeking alone time?
Whitefish’s Health Club and Aquatic Center (called the WAVE) is open to the public and has a professional daycare that allows for drop-in babysitting. This might be a good option if you want a date night somewhere fancier like Abruzzo or if you want to book a spa service at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake.
More Ideas For Things To Do in Whitefish on your Long Family Weekend:
- Stroll through Whitefish Farmer’s Market (every Tuesday through late September), and sample local produce.
- Eat huckleberry pie at Loula’s Cafe — a local favorite that’s famous for their baked-from-scratch pies.
- Take a scenic lift ride from Whitefish Mountain Resort (summer season lasts till the end of September). Enjoy views of Whitefish Lake, the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park. At the top, eat lunch at Summit House, Montana’s only mountaintop restaurant.
- Ride on the Alpine Slide, a one-third mile sled ride down dips, around banked turns, under bridges, and through a tunnel while controlling speed with a hand brake (kids under two feet tall are free with an adult).
- Taste “Mountain Mexican” food at Pescado Blanco (Spanish for Whitefish). I recommend the carnitas tacos.
- Treat yourself to a fancy pastry at Fleur Bakeshop, a cute French-style bakery.
- Plan your visit during Great Northwest Oktoberfest, where there’s live music, bratwurst, and kegs flowing with beer from Germany and Whitefish’s own Great Northern Brewing Co. Entertaining contests include keg hurling, stein holding, log sawing, and kid’s chicken dance. Children under 12 are free, and adult admission is only $5 for a full day.
- Hike or mountain bike the Whitefish Trail: 42 miles of flowy singletrack that winds through forests and streams, with great views of Whitefish Lake. The Lion Mountain trailhead is an easy three-mile family loop, and the Swift Creek trailhead is also great for families (it goes through an old growth forest and is very pretty).