Would you like to visit a corner of Glacier National Park that’s not quite so crowded with tourists but has the same beautiful scenery? And wouldn’t it be fun if there was a bakery where locals and tourists compared Montana adventures over bear claws, huckleberry macaroons or gooey cinnamon rolls? You can do that in Polebridge, Montana.
You DO NOT need a Glacier National Park vehicle reservation to travel to the community of Polebridge. But if you are planning to drive to Bowman or Kintla lakes during your Polebridge visit, keep reading for vehicle permit details.
Currently, a North Fork Vehicle reservation is required at the Polebridge Entrance Station from May 26 to September 10, 2023 from 6 am to 3 pm. Get it here. Summer visitors to Polebridge should always check the Glacier National Park website for road closures or the need for entrance reservations to the North Fork area of the park.
Tips for Visiting Polebridge
Alan and I discovered Polebridge about fifteen years ago while traveling on a fall national park road trip. Standing in front of the false, red storefront at Polebridge Mercantile, we vowed to return to this off-the-beaten-path Montana community on the western fringe of Glacier National Park.
We finally did it—after moving to Montana—and have returned with tips for exploring Polebridge and the North Fork area.
Where is Polebridge, Montana?
The tiny community of Polebridge sits on the North Fork of the Flathead River about 22 miles south of the Canadian border and on the western boundary of Glacier National Park. Most visitors arrive by one of two routes.
From Highway 2 in Columbia Falls, turn north onto Nucleus Drive which becomes North Fork Road. It’s a 35-mile drive down a mostly dirt road to a right turn on Polebridge Loop.
In Glacier National Park, take Camas Road from Apgar Village (West Glacier). After 11 miles, you’ll reach North Fork Road (also known as Outside North Fork Road) at the Camas Creek entrance to Glacier. Turn right for the 25-mile drive to Polebridge, MT.
There is also an Inside North Fork Road that travels inside the park. This road can be accessed from Camas Creek or Polebridge. Due to flooding damage, it is not a thru road to Polebridge.
If you have extra time, the extremely rough Inside North Fork Road is fun to explore. The driveable sections are not always passable and prone to flooding.
While the journey’s scenic, at 20 miles-per-hour, you’ll be traveling slowly. And you won’t get to Polebridge this way.
Where to Stay in Polebridge
The challenge of visiting Polebridge, beyond the miles of dirt road to get there, is finding accommodations. There are no resorts, or hotels in Polebridge, although North Fork Hostel (not our style) is located near the Mercantile, which also rents very rustic cabins.
What’s a boomer traveler to do? Rent a cabin.
We turned to our trusty resource, Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO), to research cabins rentals near Polebridge and came up with a winner. Kintla Cabin is one of four recently built cabins at Numa Peak, a log cabin enclave about a 1.5 miles south of Polebridge Mercantile.
Boomer Travel Tip
Purchase groceries in Columbia Falls before driving to Polebridge, MT. The Merc carries a few staples if you run out of essentials.
With two bedrooms, one bath, and combination living area and kitchen, Kintla Cabin had everything we needed, including wifi internet (slow and spotty). Because the North Fork area is off the power grid, Kintla Cabin operates via solar panels, propane stove and a very efficient wood-stove, which warmed the cabin nicely on a couple of cool, rainy days during our stay. On warm days, opening the windows at night kept the cabin mostly comfortable.
A wood deck on the front of the cabin faces a beautiful view. But bring bug spray, especially in June as the mosquitoes were out in full force on our trip. We might have avoided them on a late-August or early-September visit.
Where to Eat in Polebridge, MT
Okay, if you like eating breakfast out, this is a bummer. The only two restaurants in the North Fork do not serve breakfast. However Polebridge Mercantile sells homemade pastries but they are SWEET, so go easy on them.
On our Polebridge trip, we cooked breakfast at Kintla Cabin where the meal was accompanied by a view out the large windows of the great room. Each morning, Alan and I watched the scene of mother deer hiding their babies in the tall meadow grass before going out on a day of grazing. Not a bad breakfast view in our opinion.
For dinner, Northern Lights Café and Saloon is located next to Polebridge Mercantile. You’ll find Northern Lights listed in all the guidebooks, which is why it can be a bit touristy during the crowded summer season. We’ve enjoyed several meals there.
Our newest dining discovery is Home Ranch Bottoms. Owners, Shawn and Angie Agnew, serve up barbecue and handcrafted Montana beer.
Since Shawn is originally from Texas, you know that the barbecue is authentically Texan. Sadly, Home Ranch Bottoms has gone out of business (04.02.2020).
Alan and I liked Home Ranch Bottoms so much that we ate dinner there twice. A slice of huckleberry pie is a must. And you can’t beat the local vibe.
Friday’s are rib night at Home Ranch Bottoms. Don’t miss it!
Update: Home Ranch Bottoms has new owners is open for business again. Flannery Coats and Danny Freund are long time residents of the North Fork. They’ve added music to the mix of fun and good food.
What to do in the North Fork
There are many, many visitors to Glacier National Park who drive to Polebridge just for the bear claws at the Merc. They are that famous (and that delicious).
But we are active boomer travelers. So after noshing on a tasty baked good and browsing the unique goods at Polebridge Mercantile, our preference is outdoor fun.
Exploring lesser known areas of Glacier National Park is one of the highlights of a visit to Polebridge. There is only one entrance to Glacier National Park in the North Fork and it’s located a few miles down the road from the Mercantile. As I mentioned above, you’ll need a vehicle reservation to enter.
From the Ranger Station, visitors access Bowman and Kintla Lakes. Both lakes are worth the trip for the scenery alone, but be prepared for long, bumpy dirt roads.
On this visit, Alan and I drove the 6-mile dirt road to Bowman Lake for a picnic. For the first mile or so, the road travels through fire damage. After that, deep woods take over the scenery.
I expected a grizzly to appear at every curve in the road. Unfortunately, we had no such luck.
At Bowman Lake, Alan hauled the camp chairs to the edge of the lake for a prime picnic view. We were content to eat our lunch while puffy, white clouds streaked across the sky.
Next time, we’ll hike one of the trails or hire a local guide to kayak the lake (or maybe by then we’ll have our own kayaks). If you’re a camper, Bowman Lake area offers several campgrounds as long as you don’t mind swatting mosquitoes.
Be sure to reserve a campsite early. They go quickly.
Since it rained for much of our time in Polebridge, the drive to Kintla Lake will wait for the next visit.
Boomer Travel Tip
Visiting Montana? Start your planning at our Montana Travel Planner page.
Finding fun in the Flathead National Forest
The North Fork area is also adjacent to the Glacier View Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest. Many dirt roads climb into the forest with good views, chances to see wildlife and access to hiking trails.
After consulting the Benchmark Montana Road & Recreational Atlas, we chose Hay Creek Rd (Forest Rd. 376) and Forest Rd. 909 to explore by ATV, stopping to admire wildflowers and mountain scenery.
Yes, we carried bear spray with us. It’s essential when exploring the outdoors in this part of Montana.
And one particularly rainy day, we overcame cabin fever by driving to the end of North Fork Road (about 22 miles from Polebridge). This once was a border crossing into Canada but now the border is closed. The boarded up buildings gave me a creepy feeling.
Due to my run away imagination, which pictured hidden cameras capturing our every move, Alan and I didn’t stay long. One reason for exploring this far up North Fork Rd. was to see what other rental cabins might be in the area. Although we found several, driving to dinner at Northern Lights Cafe or Ranch Homes Bottoms would be a long process.
When renting a cabin in the North Fork area, make sure that you know exactly where the cabin is located in relation to Polebridge and the Camas Creek entrance to Glacier National Park. It could be a long and bumpy ride.
Of course we could have driven back to the Camas Creek entrance to explore more of Glacier National Park. Although out trip was timed to drive Going to the Sun Road immediately after all of the winter snow had been plowed, it was not to be.
A late spring storm dumped several feet of snow in the upper reaches of the park about a week before our arrival. Of course that delayed the opening of the world-famous road.
Even though the weather wasn’t the best, Alan and I are anxious to return to one of the cabins at Numa Peak. Besides exploring Glacier National Park, it’s also a good place to rest and relax. Isn’t that what a vacation is all about?
Try this Glacier National Park 4-day itinerary
For a trip that will thrill any national park lover, especially if you enjoy staying at Glacier National Park hotels that are historic lodges, here’s a four-day itinerary that could be easily stretched into a longer trip.
- Day one: Stay at Lake McDonald Lodge on the west side of Glacier. If there’s time, hike to Avalanche Lake or enjoy the boardwalk Trail of the Cedars.
- Day two: Drive Going-to-the-Sun Road with a stop at Logan Pass to hike to the Hidden Lake Overlook before continuing to Many Glacier Hotel for two nights.
- Day three: Enjoy one of the hikes in the Many Glacier area. Grinnell Glacier or Iceberg Lake are probably the most famous, however hiking to Bullhead Lake is a moderately-easy favorite of mine that includes Redrock Falls. Boat rides are also available, which can cut down on some of the hiking mileage, but book ahead.
- Day four: Drive Chief Mountain Highway (about two hours) for a stay at Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park. Bring a passport as you’ll be crossing into Canada. Enjoy an afternoon boat ride on the lake.
Of course this isn’t nearly enough time to take advantage of the world-class hiking, kayaking and white water rafting available at Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes. Consider this a reconnaissance mission for your next boomer travel adventure to Montana.
Discover more Glacier National Park fun
If Polebridge is part of your Glacier National Park trip, here are more of our favorite things to do:
- Hike to Avalanche Lake Trail
- At Logan Pass, take the time to hike to Hidden Lake Overlook.
- Visit Many Glacier but be sure to stay at Many Glacier Hotel
- While staying at Many Glacier, enjoy the the Grinnell Lake hike (an easier option than the Grinnell Glacier trail).
- And don’t miss my favorite trail at Many Glacier: Bullhead Lake hike
Boomer Travel Tip
Have you seen Coloring Glacier National Park, Grayscale Coloring Book for Travelers? It’s the next best thing to being there!