Finding adventure and tranquility in the national park.
They named it Glacier National Park for a reason. Skewering the clear blue sky along the U.S.-Canadian border in Northwest Montana, the mountains of the picturesque park typically get buried in so much winter powder that many of them remain white capped year-round.
Most vacationers come to Glacier in summertime. But ask around and you’ll find plenty of locals who firmly believe that the time to experience the park is in the deep of winter. After the Going-to-the-Sun Road closes to automobile traffic in autumn, Mother Nature soon transforms it into one of the finest cross-country ski and snowshoe areas found anywhere in North America. Hemmed on both sides by towering crags, the swish of your skis blending with the babble of McDonald Creek showcases Glacier in its most peaceful and glorious state. Other trails offer equally awesome forays into the park.
Here are a few of the best ways to experience Glacier in winter:
Glacier may be famed for its towering crags, but you’ll find plenty of flat land and velvety snow to explore here too. One of the most popular out-and-back routes is the lower Going-to-the-Sun Road, which can be accessed from both the west and east side of the park. The Autumn Creek Trail, accessible from Highway 2 at Marias Pass, is a scenic and mostly downhill loop; you’ll just need to hitch a ride (or park an extra car) where the trail returns to the highway. Just north of Polebridge, the Inside North Fork Road and the Pacific NW Trail are both exhilarating and scenic options.
Check this link for maps of popular ski trails. You can rent all the equipment you need at Sportsman & Ski Haus in Kalispell.
For ambitious snowshoers, pretty much all of Glacier is an option. Beginners might better enjoy a hike along the lower Going-to-the-Sun Road, or one of the guided snowshoe walks that take place on Saturdays and Sundays from early January through mid-March. The two-hour walks depart from the Apgar Visitor Center at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. The hikes are family friendly and appropriate for children age six and older. Snowshoe rentals are available at the Apgar Visitor Center or at sporting goods stores in Kalispell. For more information visit this link.
Alpine skiing / snowboarding
The park is also a dream come true for backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Towering over Lake McDonald, Mount Brown offers amazing, open slopes and stunning views. Same goes for Elk Mountain and other peaks along the Middle Fork of the Flathead. On the east side of the park, Mount Henry is a great option. You likely will have to earn your starting view with an uphill hike, but the powder-perfect run down will make it all worthwhile. Check the latest avalanche conditions at this link before heading out.
Many of Glacier’s shallow lakes and ponds freeze solid before the first snow falls. If you can time a visit right, you’ll find vast, clear expanses of ice at spots like Avalanche Lake, the North Fork ponds southeast of Polebridge, Lower Two Medicine Lake and others. Later in winter you can usually even skate on parts of Lake McDonald. Make sure to bring an ice axe and rope, and never skate alone.
Winter is probably the best season to see plentiful wildlife in Glacier (with the obvious exception of bears and other hibernating or subnivean creatures). Grab your binoculars and head to the Belton Hills area near West Glacier, where you’re likely to catch sight of elk — often in large numbers — without even leaving your car. And you don’t have to snowshoe or ski far up the St. Mary Valley or Many Glacier Road to see diverse critters galore.
What you can’t do: It’s worth mentioning that a few popular winter activities aren’t allowed in Glacier National Park. Snowmobiles are not allowed anywhere in the park. Heli-skiing, cat skiing and dogsledding are also not allowed. And, as indicated above, most of the park’s roads are closed to motorized vehicles of any kind.
Come prepared: Few park facilities are open this time of year (limited services can be found in West Glacier, Polebridge and other small communities that flank the park). Ample food and water, extra dry clothes and proper emergency supplies should be with you at all times; download the Glacier trip planner at this link and review other winter safety resources before visiting. Be prepared for sudden weather changes; let friends know where you plan to go and when you plan to return.
Outside the park: Spectacular scenery and epic winter-sport terrain don’t abruptly stop at Glacier’s borders. With two area ski resorts and endless powder-piled wilderness in every direction, the Flathead Valley is a winter recreationist’s dream come true.
In the middle of it all is Kalispell, offering visitors a relaxed vibe, affordable accommodations and lots of fine and casual dining options. Tally it all up, and this is one lifetime memory that won’t cost you your life’s savings.
Special thanks to Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association for his suggestions for this article.