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Kalispell, Montana: Winter's Jumping-off Point


By Jim Farber

"There are mountains," I was assured as my first day in Kalispell, Montana, and the Flathead Valley dawned so gray it felt like a wintry blanket had been pulled over it. I would obviously have to wait for the great peaks and the multitude of wilderness activities the region promised to reveal themselves.

Over the next three days the plan was to go snowmobiling deep into the Glacier backcountry, snowshoe on the banks of the Flathead River and bundle up for a jingle-bell ride in a two-horse open sleigh.

Dreary as it was, that first day proved ideal for indoor activities such as an illuminating (and wonderfully chatty) tour conducted by Cindy Connor, chief docent of Kalispell's most historic and beautifully maintained home -- the Conrad Mansion Museum. From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to the Hockaday Museum of Art (formerly a Carnegie library) that maintains an excellent collection of 19th-century and contemporary regional art.

By then it was time to eat, which led to DeSoto Grill, a one-time blacksmith's shop with hundreds of horseshoes hanging from the rafters to prove it. It's a cozy chow-down sort of place where the beer taps flow and the ultra-stuffed baked potato (according to the menu) is "as big as a '59 Cadillac."

Determined to find the elusive mountains, we drove up the winding road that leads to Lone Pine State Park. An icy path led to what promised to be the ultimate overlook. And there they were! The haze had lifted as the sun began to set, revealing far below the town of Kalispell and the great expanse of the valley floor ringed by miles and miles of snowcapped peaks -- the Swan Mountain Range to the south, the great towers of Glacier National Park to the north.


Benjamin Arnold grew up in Fernwald, Germany, on a farm where he and his father (Karl) raised prize-winning Clydesdale horses. Years later he met Matt Ladensack from California and the two men decided to form a partnership. They moved to Montana and established a ranch they called Clydesdale Outpost. The ranch gradually grew to include guest cabins, a spa and miles of trails. But the real stars of the ranch were the ever-growing family of amazing Clydesdales, a pair of whom stood harnessed, waiting to take us for a snowy sleigh ride around the ranch, complete with jingle bells. With Ben at the reins the ride was so rustic and peaceful that it felt like living for an hour inside a painting.

The second half of the day, however, was dominated by a very different breed of horsepower -- the high-intensity thrill of snowmobiles. Operated by Swan Mountain Snowmobiling in Columbia Falls (gateway to Glacier National Park), our tour would be a four-hour backcountry adventure that promised spectacular views on well-groomed trails that wove through forests of snowy pines and along icy running creeks.

After suiting up, signing the mandatory waver and watching an instructional video, it was time to head for the trailhead and mount up. It took a mile or so to get a feel for the throttle switch, the runners on the snow and the art of leaning into the turns. That's when the real fun began. For the next four hours the act of accelerating and guiding a snowmobile definitely required concentration, but there were numerous opportunities to slow down, stop to admire the view and savor the beauty of where we were.

While snowmobiling provided a rush and the sleigh ride was pure nostalgia, nothing provided a more in-tune relationship with Montana's winter landscape than snowshoeing. Glacier Institute provides the educational component for the Glacier National Park, and it was the institute's executive director, Anthony Nelson, who took time to lead us on a guided snowshoe hike along the banks of the Flathead River. As we walked, he often urged us to stop and observe -- whether it was to learn the names of trees, listen for birdcalls, or spot tracks left in the snow by leaping rabbits and grazing deer.


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