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FLATHEAD VALLEY: THE GREAT OUTDOORS HAVE NEVER LOOKED BETTER THAN IN THE ROOMY NORTHWEST CORNER OF BIG SKY COUNTRY.

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Flathead Valley is an enormous chunk of real estate in northwest Montana. Its neighborhood is impressive. Next door are Glacier National Park and a host of wilderness areas including the Bob Marshall and the Great Bear. Designated wilderness areas alone encompass millions of acres.

Glance at a map and you'll see green. National forests are a dime a dozen.Scattered throughout the valley are communities such as Bigfork and Whitefish. They are big enough to give you a good bed and a decent meal but small enough to exude a homey charm.

Flathead Lake is the heart of this scenic area. People who care about comparisons tout it as the largest natural fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi. Water sports enthusiasts think of it as a giant playground.

If you enjoy the great outdoors, you'll enjoy the Flathead and its surroundings. It's where outdoor lovers worship.

Here's an idea of what you'll find - from golf courses to Glacier Park, from hiking to kayaking - if you head north to the Flathead for your vacation.

The valley is a two-day drive from the Wasatch Front. The slow but scenic route is through Ketchum, Stanley and Salmon, Idaho, and Missoula, Mont.

Bigfork

This tiny town near the northeast corner of Flathead Lake is the valley's art, culture and culinary capital. Here you'll find the Bigfork Summer Playhouse on Electric Avenue. (Virtually everything is on Electric Avenue.) The playhouse puts on a good show by any reasonable standard and performs plays in repertory through Sept. 10. Ticket prices vary from $12 to $18 depending on the date of the performance and whether you purchase tickets in advance. This summer's season consists of "See How They Run," "Man of La Mancha," "Where's Charley?" "Babes in Arms," and "My One and Only." For a schedule write the Bigfork Summer Playhouse, Box 456, Bigfork, MT 59911, or call 1 (406) 837-4886. No refunds for tickets purchased in advance. Tickets are usually available at the box office, but your choice of seats may be limited.

Bigfork is the Park City of Montana complete with touristy boutiques and trendy art galleries. With a discerning eye you can pass up the over-priced T-shirts and ubiquitous kitchen gadgets in favor of genuine arts and crafts produced by local artisans.

You'll find some of the best food in Montana in Bigfork. A few noted chefs who fled big cities cook up a storm in the relative peace, quiet and emerging sophistication of this tiny town.

Glacier National Park

When it comes to Glacier National Park, a picture is worth a thousand words. The picture has an array of glacier-carved canyons with waterfalls cascading down sheer cliffs. A dusting of snow caps rocky peaks.

Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the most beautiful drives in the country. It traverses the park's mountainous backbone, crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, 6,680 feet above sea level. You'll never forget this vista of lofty mountains.

On the west side of the pass you have a good chance of spotting a mountain goat or a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep grazing on the hillside.

The road itself is an adventure. Opened to traffic in 1933, it cuts across a cliff called the Garden Wall as it climbs slowly toward the pass from the west.

Today's RVs have outgrown the road. Park officials limit the size of vehicles going between Avalanche campground and Sun Point to 21 feet long and 8 feet wide. A shuttle service is available for people who must leave their oversize vehicles behind.

There's plenty to see from the road. But you'll do even better if you take a hike. Even a day hike will get you to flower-filled meadows and scenic lakes. To camp overnight you must have a back-country permit.

A word of caution. Glacier Park is grizzly country. To avoid surprising a grizzly on the trail, park officials suggest you make noises to alert them that you're coming. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a bear that's aware of your presence will avoid you. "Clap or yell," suggests Amy Vanderbilt, the park's public affairs officer. "My husband and I let out loud yells or clap, especially on blind curves. You want to break the monotony of ambient sounds such as the running water of a creek or the wind blowing."

Back-country regulations were made with bears in mind. Hang your food in a pack from a line strung between two trees, out of the reach of bears. Camp in designated campgrounds. Prepare your food in the cooking area, well away from where you pitch your tent. And don't take food into your tent.

You can backpack on your own, as long as you have a permit, or you can contact Glacier Wilderness Guides, the park's backpacking concessionaire. Rates are $45 per person (four-person minimum) for a day hike including a trail lunch; $300 for four days; and $450 for six days. Prices include meals and the guide. If you rent equipment it's $10 a day extra. Backpackers who aren't familiar with how things are done in bear country or who are relatively inexperienced would be well advised to go with a guide. The food is another reason to hire a guide. It's terrific. For information call 1-800-521-RAFT.

To make reservations for accommodations within the park call 1 (406) 226-5551. Prices, double occupancy and excluding tax, range from $25 for a room without a private bath at Swift Current Motor Lodge to $124.80 at Prince of Wales Hotel on the Canadian side of the park. Campgrounds are available within the park. (For details see the Regional Calendar on T7.)

Golfing

Included in the Flathead Valley's 10 golf courses are Eagle Bend Golf Club in Bigfork (named the best course in Montana by Golf Digest) and Buffalo Hill Golf Club in Kalispell (the magazine's pick for third best in the state). To set up tee times or arrange for a golf vacation package with accommodations at motels, lodges or condominiums, call 1-800-392-9795. Packages per person per night (double occupancy) range from $40 to $144. They include one night's accommodations as well as greens fees for one 18-hole round. Some restrictions may apply.

Flathead Lake

The lake, 28 miles long and from 5 to 15 miles wide, is hardly as big as a sea, but that doesn't stop sea kayakers from laying claim to it. Glacier Sea Kayaking, based in the town of Rollins off Highway 93, offers a class called "Basic Paddling 101" as well as half-day trips and full-day trips.

They provide the equipment (the kayak, life vests, paddles, etc.) as well as serve a lunch that would please the most discerning gourmet. Don't worry about the calories. You're certain to wear them off paddling. Call 1-(406) 862-9010.

Biking

Highway 83 takes you through the Swan River Valley east of the Flathead. It is an ideal scenic drive but it's good for bicyclers, too. It's relatively flat and less frequented by cars than other roads in the area. The Mission Mountains separate the Swan River Valley from the Flathead, giving you a sense of solitude. It's a 10 on a scale of 10.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

For information

To request written information about Flathead Valley call 1 (800) 543-3105. For information about Glacier National Park, call 1 (406) 888-5441 or write Glacier National Park, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, MT 59936. For accommodations within the park call 1 (406) 226-5551. For a hiking guide within the park call 1-800-521-RAFT.