You’re gonna need a bigger trunk

With no sales tax and a diverse mix of local and national retailers, Kalispell puts the glee in your next spree.

I may live in Montana, but I’m no cowboy. In my first two decades under the big sky, I never donned a pair of cowboy boots, and the closest thing to a 10-gallon hat that I ever owned was a 5-gallon bucket. Then, last summer I walked into Western Outdoors in downtown Kalispell, and all that changed.

There, lining the walls and balanced on racks, was the largest collection of cowboy hats this side of a Kenny Chesney concert. Tan hats and black hats, crisp leather hats and relaxed straw hats … And the boots! Pick a color — any color. You want flames? They’ve got flames. Caiman belly leather? No problem.

I think it was the scent that ultimately got me. That rich, intoxicating tang of oiled leather … Next thing I knew, I was walking out into the bright Montana sunlight on a clicking pair of boot heels, my eyes shielded under a low-lipped, soft leather hat that perfectly complements my doughy facial features, if I do say so myself.

Had I wanted some technical climbing boots, I could have gotten those right across the street at Rocky Mountain Outfitter. My wife, meantime, figured this was a good time to assert her desserts to a hand-knitted Icelandic wool hat from SNÖ, a Kila, Montana-based outerwear company that’s getting rave reviews for its old-world artisan designs. Boutique dresses and locally dyed scarves, hunting camo and ski pants — it’s all here in friendly downtown shops.

And that’s just what you can wear. As the retail hub for all of Northwest Montana, Kalispell boasts a range of shopping options that far outsize what you would expect for a city of less than 25,000 people.

For many shoppers, though, the most valuable discovery in Kalispell is what’s not here: Sales tax. You might find the same $350 cowboy boots that I bought someplace else — but at the register (or in your Amazon.com shopping cart) you’ll pay more.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to see trucks with Idaho or Washington license plates heading out of town laden with widescreen TVs, new skis, even bulk food.

Where to shop? Well, that depends on what you’re after.

Downtown’s Main Street is home to unique, predominantly locally owned shops where you can find distinctive gifts, made-in-Montana souvenirs, fine art and more. Kalispell Center Mall, home to more than two dozen stores including JCPenney and Herberger’s, is also right in the middle of town.

Just a few miles north on U.S. Hwy. 93, you’ll find a dense concentration of familiar retail chains including Cabela’s, Best Buy, Home Depot and Target. There you’ll also find Sportsman & Ski Haus, a locally owned outdoor gear retailer (and the place to get those great SNÖ hats).

Other busy retail areas include Highway 93 south of town and Highway 2 to the east. As with all the other attractions in this area, there’s discovery in every direction.

Granted, most people don’t think of a new bike or vacuum cleaner as a typical vacation souvenir.

But I didn’t think I would ever walk down Main Street Kalispell looking like a cowboy, either.

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