For over 70 years, the Hilltop Hitching Post has been a savory source of community spirit

FOOD&DRINK STORY BY DILLON TABISH | PHOTOGRAPHY BY LIDO VIZZUTTI

At the top of the hill west of Kalispell, where the urban valley starts to climb into the soaring heights of the Rocky Mountains, sits the Hilltop Hitching Post, a community mainstay in the wilds of Marion. Like a good cocktail, it blends a mixture of contrasts – the friendly atmosphere of a family diner, the rugged personality of an Old West saloon and the vibrant spirit of a communal gathering place. One day it’s hosting a wedding; the next day a memorial service. Family reunions are frequent and often unplanned. It’s the central source of neighborhood news, and at one time was the only source of gasoline in a 15-mile radius.

“It’s just kind of the community center,” says Jane Dutcher, owner of the bar and restaurant off U.S. Highway 2.

“We’re all like family,” adds Shauna Stickney, Dutcher’s daughter and general manager of the popular establishment. “I was thinking of that yesterday. I hadn’t seen Buck for a few days, and our bartender who’s been here for over 20 years called to see where he’s at and if he was doing all right. Our customers are like our family. We all keep an eye on everybody.”

For Dutcher and Stickney, the Hitching Post is a home away from home. Nearly 30 years ago, Dutcher and her late husband purchased the classic one-room tavern in the heart of Marion. While juggling all the jobs that come with running a bar and restaurant, Dutcher raised a family. Stickney spent most of her youth at the Hitching Post. Her mother tried to get out of the business several times and has sold and repurchased the Post four times. Her latest purchase was two years ago after the former owner from California decided to part ways with the restaurant, which was renamed The Marion Grille for four years. To save the town’s beloved community center, Dutcher and Stickney stepped up.

“This is not my idea of a retirement,” Dutcher says with a smile. “But there’s a lot of history here.”

The original Hilltop Hitching Post, named after the locale where cowboys once tied up their horses, was built in 1942 while the Libby Dam was being constructed 60 miles up the road.

“There were a lot of men commuting back and forth from Kalispell. This is often where they’d stop,” Dutcher says.

Back then, Marion was even more remote than today, with barely a few hundred residents who enjoyed the solitary, picturesque scenery on the outskirts of the bustling valley. The landscape is lush in amenities, including 17 pristine lakes in a 50-mile radius, including Little Bitterroot Lake, and the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge, an idyllic section of public land open to abundant wildlife viewing and hunting.

Hilltop Hitching Post

The Hilltop Hitching Post – formerly the Marion Grille – is seen on U.S. Highway 2.

It’s not a coincidence that the main thoroughfare in Marion, besides the highway, is named Pleasant Valley Road.

“There’s a lot to do and not many people know that. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad,” Dutcher says.

The secret got out.

Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Marion more than doubled, from 416 to 886 residents, according to U.S. census data.

“We used to be able to drive to town and never meet a car,” Dutcher says. “During winter you never left (Marion) until the plow went through.”

Now it’s not uncommon to meet new neighbors who have bought land around the lakes or in the wooded forest lots. Tourists frequently flock through the small community, in search of the well-known fishing opportunities or other outdoor pursuits. A few more establishments have popped up in town now, including the six-room Hilltop Motel and a general store.

Of course, a main attraction is the Hitching Post.

Hilltop Hitching Post

Huckleberry cheesecake is seen at the Hilltop Hitching Post.

The expansive space has grown considerably from its humble origins. There’s enough room now for a large restaurant section, a traditional bar with a pool table and the outdoors patio where live music and community events are frequent. The patio was built with large timbers from the former Lang Creek Brewery.

The diner’s menu is lined with savory items: chicken wings, sandwiches, fried pickles and the ever-popular burgers, of which there are nearly a dozen unique varieties. The local favorite, though, is the prime rib dinner, which takes place every Friday and Saturday. As the menu warns, “Better Hurry, So Good We Always Run Out.”

For a newcomer who stumbled into town on a Friday or Saturday night, walking into the Hitching Post might seem like arriving at one big family dinner.

The Hilltop Hitching Post is located at 8225 U.S. Highway 2 West in Marion. Call 854-2442.