Winter drapes the craggy landscape of Glacier National Park in stark beauty. Snow crowns the peaks, and natural ice sculptures line creeks. To see Glacier in winter, travelers experience a quieter mood with crisp air and hoar-frosted evergreens.
When visiting Glacier in winter, you must take a different tack than summer visits. For one thing, most roads and all lodging inside the park closes. But outside the park, the ski town of Whitefish serves as the launch point for winter explorations. Located in northern Flathead Valley, Montana, the town packs with hotels, lodges, B&Bs, restaurants, rental gear, and shops. A 35-minute drive links the town with the west entrance of Glacier National Park.
For those who prefer lodging at a ski area, Whitefish Mountain Resort has condos, townhouses, and mountain homes. Staying here will add 10 minutes or so to your drive to Glacier.
For added festivities in Whitefish, plan your excursion to coincide with Winter Carnival. The weekend highlight features a homespun parade that draws in crowds to downtown.
In summer, a nonstop line of cars parades up Going-to-the-Sun Road. But you won’t see that in winter. Instead, cross-country skiers and snowshoers travel the Sun Road. From Lake McDonald Lodge, which is closed during winter, the gated road becomes a quiet snow-buried path. Only wildlife tracks interrupt the snowshoe and ski trails.
In less than two miles, the road reaches McDonald Creek where overlooks allow for taking in several frozen waterfalls. The creek cuts between jagged peaks rising thousands of feet on both sides. Most of the route is free of avalanche paths for about six miles up to Avalanche Creek.
Before heading to the park, rent gear in Whitefish. Also, pack snacks, water, and lunch as no services are available.
For guided trips, visitors have two options. Glacier Adventure Guides lead trips by reservation. Or on weekends, rangers guide snowshoe trips in Apgar to look for animal tracks.
Above Whitefish, Whitefish Mountain Resort has the ski and scenic goods. Voluminous snow flanks ski runs from the summit of Big Mountain. Even non-skiers enjoy seeing the rime-crusted firs called snowghosts. On clear days, Glacier in winter dazzles. Its jagged peaks spread across the horizon extending into Canada.
For skiers, the resort has rentals, lessons, and restaurants. For sightseers, bundle up for a foot passenger ride on the chairlift to the summit to eat lunch and see the view. After skiing or sightseeing, join the locals for thirst quenching at the Bierstube before heading back to town.
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At the southern tip of Glacier, Izaak Walton Inn maintains a cross-country ski center with groomed trails for skate or classic skiing. The drive from Whitefish to the ski center takes about one hour on a mountain highway that follows the southern perimeter of Glacier. You’ll get views of rugged peaks, including the spire of St. Nicholas.
At the center, rolling Nordic ski trails wind through the forest and along Essex Creek. Some trails include viewpoints of peaks in Glacier Park. Rental gear is available, and snowshoers can follow one trail.
Diehard downhill skiers and snowboarders will most likely want to return to Whitefish Mountain Resort. For a second day, explore more runs tucked on the fringes.
For an additional day of touring Glacier in winter, head to Apgar for scenic cross-country skiing or snowshoeing to Rocky Point. When snow permits, you can even ski along the beach of Lake McDonald.
For cross-country skiing in Whitefish, choose between two different Glacier Nordic Club trail systems. Daily, in both locations, groomers smooth the trails for skate skiers, and classic tracks are set frequently.
For other fun winter adventures, opt for different methods of winter travel. Fly along a trail at the “speed of dog” with Dog Sled Adventures. Or catch snippets of Glacier’s peaks on a guided snowmobile tour of the Whitefish or Flathead Range with Swan Mountain Snowmobile Tours.
Glacier in winter may be one of the best seasons. It’s meant for being outdoors.