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Whitefish, MT : Travel Guide

Downtown Whitefish, Montana
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Whitefish is one of the fastest growing cities in Montana and is, at least in my own opinion, still one of the nicest. Whitefish itself is quite small – with just a couple of blocks making up the downtown. The winter population of Whitefish hangs around 6500 people or so. However, during the summer, the population of Whitefish soars – aided by the mass influx of tourists and people who have built fancy “trophy homes” in various places around town.

Its very scenic setting and close proximity to Glacier National Park have fueled the explosive growth seen in Whitefish over the years. And, if this wasn’t enough, Whitefish itself plays host to the second largest ski area in Montana – Whitefish Mountain Resort (formerly Big Mountain Ski Area). Until recently, Whitefish Mountain was a pretty relaxed and subdued ski area. But, changes over the years have converted this once local ski area into a destination ski resort (with emphasis on RESORT) – bringing in new people from nationwide (read a Review of Whitefish Mountain).

For better or worse, Whitefish seems destined to become the next big “destination” spot for tourists in Montana, trailing behind such places as Big Sky and West Yellowstone. While the Great Recession and the bursting of the local property bubble has slowed down the transformation of Whitefish from a sleepy town to a full-blown destination resort town, the combination of scenic setting and proximity to mountain activities almost guarantees that growth in Whitefish will continue in the years ahead.

Depot Park in Whitefish
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The dramatic changes seen in Whitefish over the past decade are not necessarily bad, although many long-time locals are less than pleased about it. On the negative side of the ledger, the cost of living in Whitefish has soared with this mass influx of people and the building of mansions and other trophy homes. Although the Great Recession slowed down the explosive growth in building seen earlier in the 2000’s, it’s almost certain that building will soon flourish again in Whitefish. Additionally, as is commonly seen in other resort destinations, little of the building would be considered affordable. As such, similar to other resort towns, Whitefish presents many challenges to those who live and work in town. That said, it Whitefish isn’t nearly as expensive as many popular resort destinations are, such as Jackson Hole, Vail, Big Sky or Aspen.

Yet, like all changes, much of what has transpired in this once relatively sleepy town have been for the good. Much of the credit for these changes can be laid on the shoulders of the downtown business people and the City Council – who actually did something unique in the US today by doing some planning on how to manage the growth. The City Council also initiated a resort tax (current at 2%). This Whitefish resort tax, which is of course meant to pick the pockets of the tourists passing through (as it taxes food, hotel rooms and other touristy things) has been plowed back into the town in the form of new and greatly improved roads, new and expanded parks and reduced property taxes for homeowners.

As such, Whitefish has avoided some of the pitfalls that have plagued many other booming resort towns. Although traffic can be intense at times (a bypass around town is LONG overdue), by and large, a trip into Whitefish is generally pleasant, always scenic and usually enjoyed. While costs (such as food and gas) in Whitefish are higher than is found just down the road in Kalispell, the costs are not really that much higher – and nothing like what is seen in most resort towns.

Next Page : History of Whitefish, Montana

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