Hikes and beers in Kalispell will take you to far, northwest Montana. It would be fair to call it “almost Canada”. Kalispell sits in the broad, Flathead River Valley between Glacier National Park 30 miles to the north and Flathead Lake a few miles to the south. Flathead Lake at 192 square miles is the largest natural freshwater lake in the western United States – just a bit larger than Lake Tahoe. The name Kalispell is a Salish Indian word meaning “flat land above the lake”.
Although a small town of about 20,000, Kalispell is the primary trade community in this part of Montana and has been since its founding in the late 1800’s. The history is tied to the Great Northern Transcontinental Railroad that stopped on its way between Minnesota and the west coast. Some of that right-of-way is now the Great Northern Historical Trail, a multi-purpose rail-trail extending for 22 miles between Flathead Lake, Kalispell, and the community of Kila. The older neighborhoods of Kalispell are quite attractive and the downtown features an extensive collection of well preserved old buildings. The town was built as a prominent
Beers in the Kalispell Area
Kalispell was home to a brewery named Kalispell Malting and Brewing Company as early as 1894. It was founded by German immigrant brothers Charles and Henry Lindlahr and featured Gern-style brews. The brewery sounds like it was a major operation that did its own grain malting, kept horses for their wagon and sleigh beer distribution operation, kept hogs that consumed the spent grains, maintained homes for some of the workers, and operated an establishment called Brewery Saloon that served nickel beers (those were the good old days – at least in terms of beer prices).
The brewery survived Prohibition by making and selling near beer, soda, and other products. The operation was purchased by the Pabst family near the turn of the century but returned to local ownership following Prohibition until its demise in 1955. Some of the brewery’s buildings still stand.
Fast forward to 2014 for the return of commercial brewing to the area. Kalispell Brewing Company operates their 10 BBL system and an attractive taproom in a historic downtown building on Main Street that once housed a blacksmith shop and then later a car dealership. They have a German-style brewing bent offering a Pilsener and a Dunkel as mainstays but also feature an IPA and a Stout in their line-up.
Nearby Bias Brewing offers what I’d call a bit edgier, experimental line-up from their 7 BBL system. An interesting idea I saw there for beer hiking is their “Backcountry Growler” – an inexpensive plastic bag 64 oz. container that folds flat and weighs nothing when not in use. Sunrift Beer Company is several blocks from the center and operates a 10 BBL brewery that is ale-focused. Sacred Waters Brewing Company is a few miles north of town along the Highway 2 sprawl reaching out toward the regional airport. This woman-owned brewery concentrates on ales and has a number of IPA variations in its line-up.
Flathead Lake Brewing on the lake in Big Fork is a 30 BBL brewery in a re-purposed bowling alley building with a lake view. It was a nice lunch stop after the Swan River hike. They have adopted a strong focus on sustainability practices in their facility and operations. Tamarack Brewing Company is also along Flathead Lake, at Lakeside on the west shoreline. It is the oldest of the area’s breweries dating to 2007. They have also opened a newer operation in Missoula. The Lakeside taproom has a beautiful terrace along a forested stream.
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Swan River Hike
Swan River Hike is a popular route following a retired roadbed east out of the town of Big Fork, several miles south of Kalispell. The first third follows the rushing white water of Swan River’s “wildmile,” known for its drop of over 100 feet (30 m) producing extremely difficult Class V+ whitewater. Proceeding upstream the river widens into a picturesque lake.
Formerly called the Sweatinghouse River, there is some dispute as to how it became the Swan. Some say it is named for Trumpeter Swans that used to be common in Montana and wintered in the area while others say it was named for Emmett Swan, an early white settler in the area. Either way, I guess it sounds more idyllic than Sweatinghouse.
Notch Hike Loop
What I have dubbed the Notch Hike Loop is a forested route up to a lookout in Herron Park – a county park just a few miles from Kalispell. The wildflowers were out everywhere as the trail climbed a hillside.
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