Seven Days in Montana’s Beer Country

Staff Writer
How beer brought me to Big Sky country, and why it will again
Wild Goose Island, Montana
Courtesy of Donnie Sexton/Montana Office of Tourism

Wild Goose Island, Montana

It's may seem unlikely, but when considered carefully makes perfect sense — what do you want to do while you're fly fishing with friends? Drink beer. Rafting on mild rapids? Drink beer. Hiking among grizzlies and moose? Definitely gotta have a beer. In the backdrop of bison-filled grassy plains, snow-capped mountains, rolling streams, and wide-open roads, beer is as quintessentially Montana as the 1992 coming-of-age film A River Runs Through It (sans Brad Pitt).

With 28 breweries, the Treasure State is home to the nation's second highest number of microbreweries per capita. That probably has something to do with the fact that Montanans consume the second highest amount of beer per capita at 30 gallons annually. More than a third of the state's microbreweries line the highways from Glacier National Park, near the Canadian border, to Missoula, a funky college town. But Montana microbrews are rare in the rest of the country — only a few breweries distribute out-of-state and some only sell onsite.

That's okay with Montanans, but it wasn't okay with me. I flew there to see firsthand just how obsessed Montanans were with beer and how original it is (in my humble, outsider opinion). I set out on the three hour stretch of highway between the two points, hitting several breweries and points of interest along the way. What I found was, well, treasure. Here's how to make the best use of a warm-weather, western Montana beer and adventure mission in a week:

Day One:

Fly into Kalispell International Airport, near the western entrance of Glacier National Park, before noon and rent a car. Stay at the Bar W Guest Ranch in Whitefish, which offers opportunities to experience life as a rancher. Get acquainted with the horse you'll be riding for a couple of days. Grab a six-pack of Great Northern Brewing Company's Going to the Sun IPA from a convenience store on the way; the ranch doesn't serve alcohol. Schedule archery for the evening with a professional instructor (before cracking that beer, of course).

Day Two:

Take an early trail ride with a Bar W wrangler in the morning. Head to the Great Northern Brewing Company, about five minutes away in downtown Whitefish, for lunch and the classic Black Star Double Hopped Golden Lager. If you're lucky, you can try the seasonal Wild Huckleberry Wheat, which sells out fast and is brewed with handpicked huckleberries from a nearby hillside. In the early fall, limited edition Frog Hop Pale Ale becomes available, brewed with handpicked hops from a local farm. (Photo: iStock/segray)

Head to the West Glacier park entrance in the early afternoon, about 30 minutes away. Be sure to check that the famous Going-to-the-Sun road is open, which spans 50 miles through the park's interior and offers the best turquoise lake and snowcapped mountain vistas. Don't be surprised to see bears and moose. (Bring bear spray.) By 7:30 p.m., you'll be ready for a hearty dinner at Buffalo Cafe or Mambo Italiano in Whitefish, but you’ll want to luxuriate that evening with your six-pack in the hot tub.