Heading to Glacier National Park? Don’t Miss Doing a Side Trip to Polebridge, MT
The town of Polebridge, MT is about as tiny as you can get for a town located right by a major national park. That is part of the charm of Polebridge, one of my favorite destinations for foodies in Montana.
After all, Polebridge is mostly known for the historic Polebridge Mercantile, and perhaps more specifically, its famous bear claws — and we don’t mean the kind you need bear spray for!
There is so much more to this town though than just a famous general store and animal-inspired pastry.
The scenery is epic, being just a few miles from one of the more remote entrances for Glacier National Park.
And though the population of Polebridge is small with less than 100 people living there in the summer (and just a fraction of that in the winter!), it exudes a friendly atmosphere with warm hospitality to be found at its smattering of locally-owned businesses.
Where is Polebridge, MT?
Before we get into those bear claws (of the huckleberry variety) and all the other amazing things to do in and around Polebridge, let’s discuss where exactly Polebridge is in the great state of Montana.
Polebridge is located by in the Glacier Country region of Montana, just 22 miles south of the Canadian border.
A visit to Polebridge often gets lumped in with a Glacier National Park itinerary since it borders the northwestern edge of the park. The town of Polebridge is just a few minutes drive from the Polebridge Ranger Station, where you’ll find the entrance for the North Fork area of Glacier National Park.
However, the tiny town of Polebridge is not actually located within the park borders, though there’s a good chance you’ll likely drive through part of the national park to get there via North Fork Road.
This scenic road is typically less busy since it’s NOT Going-to-the-Sun road, the famous 50-mile drive that cuts through Glacier National Park to connect the west side to the east side and crosses the Continental Divide along the way.
We drove one year in late June before the Going-to-the-Sun Road opened and it was still not that crowded so it’s a really pleasant drive.
Still, expect to share the road with others during high season and don’t be in a rush, especially when looking for parking once you get to Polebridge.
Luckily, there are gorgeous views to take in along the way.
Polebridge is located near the northwest corner of the park, so if you’re going to Polebridge from the west entrance, you’ll do so via Camas Road from Glacier National Park’s Apgar Village, which then connects with North Fork Road.
Note: Getting to Apgar Village requires driving on Going-to-the-Sun Road from West Glacier so you’ll still need a vehicle permit even if you have no plans on driving the GTTSR beyond Apgar.
The other way to get to Polebridge doesn’t require a park pass. For this route you’ll head north from Columbia Falls via Hwy 486, which turns in North Fork Road.
This stretch of Highway won’t take you through Glacier National Park, but it will take you alongside some of the beautiful scenery of the North Fork of the Flathead River. From Columbia Falls, it will take roughly an hour to get to Polebridge.
Columbia Falls is also a fun town to explore! Read our guide all about the best things to do and where to stay and eat in Columbia Falls here.
What is the Drive to Polebridge From Glacier Like?
To get to Polebridge from Glacier National Park, you’ll start from Apgar Village and take Camas Road to North Forks Road until you get to Polebridge, which takes roughly an hour. You can also take Inner North Forks Road, which takes longer and has rougher road conditions.
The North Forks Road drive might not have the epic scenery of some of Glacier National Park’s other drives, but I find it so mesmerizing!
This part of Glacier National Park was ravaged by a fire in 1988. Over the past 30+ years, the forest has rebuilt itself and it’s both cool and slightly eerie to see the way the new trees are growing beneath the barren and charred trees towering above them. It’s beautiful in its own way and reminds you of the powerful forces that make up nature.
Much of the drive is by scenery like this, with some open valleys and views of creeks and rivers. After you leave Glacier National Park’s borders, you’ll drive through private property and get glimpses of ranches and landscape that looks like it belongs out of an old western — complete with the ominous “no trespassing” signs.
Things to Do and Eat in Polebridge
Once you’re in Polebridge, it’ll be pretty apparent you’re there thanks to the bright red siding of Polebridge Mercantile, where you’ll find those aforementioned bear claws.
Polebridge Mercantile has been in business since 1914 when it was built by its original owner, Bill Adair, and it has long been a beloved Montana institution.
Originally called Adair’s, the name was eventually changed to Polebridge Mercantile.
The Polebridge Mercantile has changed ownership a few times over the decades (Travel Montana Now team member, Jackie, even went to college with someone whose family owned it for a time) but its roots are still Montanan — the current owner is from Kalispell, Montana.
When you walk in, it feels like you’ve gone back to an era where small town general stores were the place to shop.
The line (there is nearly always a line during peak season) wraps around the store. While waiting in line, you’ll zigzag around numerous souvenirs, t-shirts, Montana made artisan pieces, drugstore items like shampoo and deodorant, and a little display for kids with books and stuffed animals.
The line to the food and drink counter seems to go fast since you’re so busy looking at all the other fun items in this rustic general store!
As for that food and drink, you must get the bear claw — the Polebridge Mercantile Huckleberry Bear Claw to be exact.
Fruit pastries aren’t usually my first choice of treat, but the huckleberry bear claws you’ll find at Polebridge Mercantile are in a different stratosphere of fruit pastry yumminess.
There’s kno gooey fruit chunks or overly sweet breading. Instead, the pastry part is soft and bread-like, which blends perfectly with the sweetness of the huckleberry that’s just the right consistency.
I was most definitely a fan!
My daughters got cookies and I sneaked a bite of my youngest’s sprinkle sugar cookie and can attest it was also delicious.
Polebridge Mercantile has plenty of places outside to enjoy your treats and even has a little playground area for the kids. My daughters were also enthralled with the bear statues on some of the benches.
Bathrooms are located separately on the grounds behind Polebridge Mercantile (close to where the playground is set up).
Along with the pastries, there is pizza you can order. For drinks, Polebridge Mercantile has drip coffee and espresso, plus cold bottled beverages like juice and soda.
If you want something stronger, head to the Northern Lights Saloon located right next door.
Northern Lights Saloon
The Polebridge Saloon was the original home of the Adairs, who you’ll recall from earlier were the first owners of Polebridge Mercantile.
Today, this former home is the Northern Lights Saloon where you can go for some country cuisine and a pint of beer or other drink.
The “saloon” in its name may hearken to a wild west era, but don’t worry — this place is family-friendly and welcoming. Bring the kids and settle into one of the picnic benches outside or opt for a table indoors if the weather is less than favorable.
Polebridge’s Northern Lights Saloon is surrounded by big leafy trees and of course those gorgeous Rocky Mountains. Adding to the ambiance is live music often being played during the summer months.
Home Ranch Bottoms Restaurant
Another place to get some good food while visiting Polebridge is Home Ranch Bottoms, located 4.5 miles south of Polebridge Mercantile off of North Fork Road. It has a front patio plus more picnic tables in the back, making it a great place for a cold beer after a hot hike.
The inside of Home Ranch Bottoms Restaurant has a western vibe with warm country hospitality. Live music is often being played on summer evenings.
Then there’s the food. Home Ranch Bottoms is especially known for its delectable burgers and homemade pie. Huckleberry treats and drinks are on the menu, such as huckleberry ice cream and a margarita made with the bar’s own huckleberry syrup.
Bowman Lake Near Polebridge
If you want to make the drive to Polebridge for more than just yummy pastries, then consider adding in Bowman Lake to your itinerary for the day.
Bowman Lake is often considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in Glacier National Park and its remote location along a dirt road in northwest Glacier National Park provides a pristine setting.
Reminder that you’ll need a Glacier National Park pass to access Bowman Lake. Depending on the time of year, you also may need the North Fork vehicle pass for the park (which is a separate pass from the Going-to-the-Sun Road vehicle pass.
Bowman Lake is located northwest of Polebridge Mercantile. To get there you’ll get onto Inside North Fork Road and take it to Bowman Lake Road.
Be warned that Bowman Lake Road is a dirt road full of dips and bumps and will feel like an off-roading adventure at times. If you’re in an SUV or even a cross-over you should be fine.
Smaller cars might be fine, too, but check road conditions before heading out. It’s also a good idea to arrange a post-drive check in with a friend or family member who knows where you’re headed and what time you’re planning to be back. Cell phone reception is extremely spotty or (more likely) non-existent along the road.
It’s worth the drive for the glacial beauty of the lake and mountains. Bowman Lake is also a fairly common spot to see moose. Also keep an eye out for white tailed deer and elk. Grizzly bears are also known to roam in this area.
It takes about 30 minutes to get from Polebridge to Bowman Lake.
Where to Stay in Polebridge
As you might expect, the tiny community of Polebridge doesn’t offer a ton of options for accommodations. Still, there are some really neat places to stay in Polebridge.
Polebridge Mercantile Cabins
You will find some rustic cabins right next to Polebridge Mercantile. These remote cabins let you experience the beauty of Polebridge after the crowds leave.
Staying at the cabins also provide quick access to Bowman Lake so you can visit this breathtaking lake before or after the busy time of day for the area when all the day trippers have headed back down to the Flathead Valley or the east side of the park.
North Fork Hostel
Another place to spend the night in Polebridge is at the North Fork Hostel. This is especially great for budget travelers going through the (notoriously expensive) area since there are dorm rooms available as well as private rooms. Camping on the front lawn in front the hostel is also available for a small nightly fee.
A shared kitchen is also onsite, which can help cut down on food costs. Shared bathrooms and a living room are also provided for guests (though you’ll need to bring your own towel).
Most importantly, most visitors to North Fork Hostel find it clean, cozy, and peaceful. If you’re used to hostels in Europe, you’ll likely feel at home here! The owner, Oliver, has traveled all around the world and brought inspirations from his travels to Polebridge.
Square Peg Ranch
Oliver also operates Square Peg Ranch, a cabin that can sleep up to six people. It’s located off the property of the hostel, about 3/4 mile away to the northwest.
Sqaure Peg Ranch is completely rustic with log walls and a sleeping loft you reach via ladder. There is also a main bedroom down below. Square Peg Ranch has a kitchen with a propane range while the bathroom is located in an outhouse.
This is a no-frills cabin experience, but if you want to immerse yourself in nature (there’s a minimum 4-night booking requirement), this is an amazing place to stay. From the windows, gaze out at the incredibly serene scenery, including the Livingston Range area of Glacier National Park. You’re also just a mile from the Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park.
Kintla Lake Campground
If you want a more traditional camping experience, head into the park to Kintla Lake Campground in the North Fork area of the park. You can drive to the campground (via a dirt and gravel road) where you’ll find 13 campsites that are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis.
For more ideas on where to stay while visiting the area, be sure to check out our extensive Glacier National Park Lodging Guide.
Important Note: Remember this is Grizzly Country and you never know when you might cross paths with a grizzly bear. Whether you’re hanging out by Bowman or Kintla Lake, walking to the outhouse or bathroom in the middle of the night, or hiking around the area, alway have bear spray with you where you can easily reach it.
A Few More Tips About Visiting Polebridge
Plan on getting gas before you leave West Glacier to head to Polebridge since there is no gas in Polebridge or by Bowman Lake.
There is no cell service or Wi-Fi in Polebridge. There is a landline inside of Polebridge Mercantile for emergencies so you can breathe easier knowing you’re not completely off the grid.
And don’t forget to try a huckleberry bear claw, which is on our Must-Eat Food in Montana list. Yum!