Make no mistake about it, Whitefish will always be a ski town. Located in the remote wilds of northwest Montana, the mountain packs in 300 inches of snow spread across 3,000 acres of mostly tree skiing (read: powder stashes galore). But locals know their bragging rights are valid year-round, because Whitefish is also a world-class watersports destination.
"You can reach something like 35 lakes within 45 minutes from Whitefish," says Sonny Schierl, owner and founder of Paddlefish Sports. "There are jewels in every direction."
Whitefish's epic bodies of water range from icy blue lakes ringed by the rugged Rocky Mountains at nearby Glacier National Park, to the thundering whitewater of the Flathead River's Middle and North forks. The Whitefish River runs right through town, and the pristine 3,300-acre Whitefish Lake abuts it.
Schierl, who relocated from Wisconsin in 2005, counts himself among residents and small business owners who were lured to Whitefish by the snow, but soon realized the water was just as good, if not better. He started stand-up paddleboarding to rehab arm and shoulder injuries from a car accident, got hooked, traveled to Puget Sound to earn his SUP Instruction Certification, and opened Paddlefish in 2012.
In the shop's first year, Schierl sold out of every paddleboard he had in stock. He's since partnered with local experts to offer SUP yoga, SUP and SIP sessions that end at the Boat Club on the lake (or sometimes at Sweet Peaks Ice Cream in town), and SUP fitness workouts. He's also currently working on his own line of boards designed and manufactured entirely in Montana. "The stoke here is incredible," he says.
Schierl's guide to the best places to play in and around Whitefish this summer:
Fresh Tracks Coffee House: "Start with local coffee from the Montana Coffee Traders at Fresh Tracks, which just so happens to be located in the back of Paddlefish Sports. They make a great breakfast burrito with handmade tortillas. And Glacier Ginger Brew is made here in the kitchen. It's addicting."
Whitefish Lake: "Put in at City Beach near downtown Whitefish and paddle left along the shoreline and into the channel. From there, it's a really mellow three-mile float that's home to eagles, ducks, geese, beaver, and otter. It's a great place to learn to SUP."
Flathead Lake: "This is the big lake you see when you fly out. It's just south of town and it's huge. There are all these islands to paddle around. The largest is a state park with a herd of wild horses."
Glacier National Park: "For something really epic, go paddling in Glacier National Park — Bowman Lake, Lake McDonald, Kintla. You can pretty much go any time, any day, it doesn't matter, its always amazing."
Glacier Distilling: "Stop at the distillery on the way back to Whitefish from Glacier. The liquors they made last year, like Little Cottonwood, are fantastic. Take home a bottle of Mule Kick. It's great with pineapple juice or mix a shot of it with Clamato for the best Blood Mary ever."
Hungry Horse Reservoir: "Hungry Horse is located between the towns of Columbia Falls and Coram. Really nice for camping."
Flathead River (Middle Fork and North Fork): "Both of these offer exquisite whitewater and really scenic river adventures. I recommend Great Northern Rafting. Carl runs the rescue school and they're just a really professional outfitter."
Whitefish Trail: "If you're into mountain biking or trail running, the Whitefish Trail is amazing."
Great Northern Brewing Company: "Hands-down the favorite local tavern. There are always great people in here and delicious beer. I love their Good Medicine Imperial Red Ale.
Wasabi Sushi Bar and Ginger Grill: "Best spot for dinner. They do everything well and are really creative with their sushi rolls."