Ready to shed the suit, unloosen the tie, and live out a western vacation fantasy along the lines of City Slickers, with a few pleasurable rounds in place of a dusty cattle drive? There is perhaps no better place in the nation for home-on-the-range hospitality, exceptional value, and genuine mountain splendor than Montana's Flathead Valley. Enclosed by more than a million acres of federal wilderness, the valley's collection of public courses -- nine facilities, including a 36-hole complex and three 27-hole layouts -- are all within 45 minutes of one another.
They are among the least heralded and most breathtaking courses in the American West. Two of the courses are routed along the shores of Flathead Lake, the largest and cleanest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Others are carved from birches and pines and crossed or flanked by rivers. Fairways serve up sweeping views of the Mission and Swan mountain ranges. On the northern horizon is Glacier National Park, an alpine trophy case of toothy spires, massive glaciers, and more than 200 lakes. Wildlife is rampant in these parts: Eagles and osprey soar overhead, herds of migratory elk roam freely. Hardened urbanites and driven workaholics can't help but chill out in this exalted environment.
Don't let the nearby glaciers give you the wrong idea about the weather. Despite its proximity to the Continental Divide to the east, the Flathead Valley is favorably influenced by Pacific Northwest weather patterns, with a mild flow of air from the west moderating the climate. The average high temperature around the lake is 82 degrees in summer.
Unlike other Rocky Mountain destinations, there is no huffing and puffing in the Flathead Valley. At an average elevation of 2,300 feet, walking is the way to go at most of the valley's courses. Best of all, green fees have not spiraled upward in these parts as they have throughout the nation. The valley's top-rated track, Eagle Bend, tops out at $59. Most of the courses promote a peak-season green fee of $30 to $45, a tremendous bargain. And because the region's layouts are located at the western extremity of the Mountain Time zone, the twilight rate -- ordinarily designed to permit nine but rarely 18 holes -- is the deal of deals. During the height of summer in northwest Montana, it remains light until 10:30 p.m., permitting a full 18 after dinner.
Why Now? Because Montana is hot. Celebrities, Wall Street tycoons (Charles Schwab), and media barons (Ted Turner) have acquired "ranches" throughout the state in the past few years. Hollywood loves the place. A River Runs Through It sparked tremendous interest in a territory Lewis and Clark raved about 200 years ago. Who knows how much longer it will stay pristine?
When to Go. Flathead Valley courses are open from mid-April through October, but prime time is late June through mid-September. Spring and fall are less crowded and slightly less expensive, but the weather can get iffy by mid-October.