Winter in Glacier National Park

We’ve had the pleasure of visiting Glacier many times in the summer, but our mid-December trip was the first time we’ve seen it transformed into a winter wonderland. We didn’t think Glacier could be prettier until we saw it covered in snow. And the best part? Almost no one was in the park but us. There’s a lot to love about visiting Glacier in the wintertime, but because the Park Service closes most of the roads and services, there’s a lot you need to know as you plan your trip.

Glacier National Park sign

Glacier is open 365 days a year, but once the snow starts falling, the roads start closing. Going-to-the-Sun Road is open on the west side for eleven miles up to the Lake McDonald Lodge parking area, and on the east side for a mile and a half from Highway 89 to St. Mary Campground. The park entrances at Two Medicine and Many Glacier are closed. The roads in the Apgar Village area in West Glacier are maintained, but when we were there in mid-December, all the shops and eateries were closed. The Apgar Visitor Center is only open on the weekends.

What this means for winter visitors is that since the usual scenic drives are not open, the only way to see much of the park is on foot. (Although Highway 2 that runs along the southern border of the park is maintained, and the 55-mile drive from West Glacier to East Glacier Park Village is a beautiful drive.) Winter park activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and hiking on the many trails throughout the park, including the closed section of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Snowmobiles are not allowed in the park. If you’ve never tried snowshoeing, the Apgar Visitor Center offers 2-hour ranger-led snowshoe hikes with snowshoe rentals available, weather permitting on weekends in January-March. The Glacier NPS website provides a list of snowshoe and cross-country skiing trails in various areas of the park.

Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park
Matt and Karen at Avalanche Lake

During our mid-December visit, Going-to-the-Sun Road was still open to the Avalanche Campground, so we were able to park at the trailhead and hike the Trail of the Cedars, continuing up to Avalanche Lake. The snow wasn’t so deep that we needed our snowshoes, but we were glad we had our gaiters, which kept the snow out of our boots, and the microspikes we were wearing kept us from falling on our butts on the icy sections. In the summer, Avalanche Lake is one of the most popular destinations in the park, but we saw only two other hikers on the 5.7-mile, roundtrip hike. When we finished, we stopped by McDonald Falls to check out the new bridge and take photos, followed by a stop at Lake McDonald Lodge. It was surreal to see this usually crowded place completely deserted as we wandered down to the dock to check out the views of the lake.

Trail of Cedars in Glacier National Park
Matt hiking the Trail of Cedars on our way up to Avalanche Lake
Zip's Cabin in Flathead National Forest
Our little cabin in the woods: Zip’s Cabin in Flathead National Forest

Lodging options are limited in the winter. All the park lodges are closed, but along Highway 2, the Historic Tamarack Lodge, the cottages at the Belton Chalet, and the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex are all open. The nearby towns of Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls have hotel and motel rooms available year-round. We rented a 2-bedroom Forest Service cabin east of Essex in Flathead National Forest. About a dozen Forest Service cabins are available to rent in the Glacier area. Many of them are former guard stations built in the 1920s and 30s, so they’re pretty rustic; most don’t have running water or bathrooms. If you can get used to having to trek through the snow to an outhouse in the middle of the night, you just might love staying in one of these historical structures, like we did. Cabins can be reserved up to six months in advance at www.recreation.gov.

Matt snowshoeing close to the Continental Divide Trail just south of Highway 2.

We spent four full days in the Glacier area, and we wish we had planned to stay longer. One day we explored the charming town of Whitefish, with a stay in our favorite hotel, the Firebrand. If you’re a skier, this is the home base of Whitefish Mountain resort, offering some of the best downhill skiing in the state. We also spent a day snowshoeing on the Continental Divide Trail in Lewis and Clark National Forest, accessing the trail at Marias Pass along Highway 2. From this parking lot you can hike north on the trail for 110 miles through the park, or south into the national forest. (The Continental Divide Trail spans 3100 miles between Mexico and Canada.) Directly off Highway 2 between West and East Glacier are dozens of trails (with parking spots) to explore.

When you’re packing up for a winter day in the park or the national forest, it’s important to be prepared since it’s likely that all services will be closed and cell reception spotty. Make sure you have plenty of food, water, a change of warm, dry clothes, chains for your tires, and a full tank of gas. Download any maps you’ll need ahead of time. And most importantly, enjoy the spectacular scenery and the solitude of this magical season in the park.

Belton Bridge in Glacier National Park
View to the east from Belton Bridge.

20 Replies to “Winter in Glacier National Park”

  1. Oh man……..we have never been to Glacier and had always thought we would go. In late summer. But after seeing and reading this post, we may just need to go in the winter. Couldn’t love this post more.

    1. Thank you Kathy! We highly recommend a winter visit! Although you must see the spectacular Many Glacier area sometime, and it’s closed in the winter. So maybe two trips??

  2. Sounds to me like it was a great trip to take, can’t wait to read about it in another one of your books which you are so famous for writting!

    1. Thanks so much Scott! We’ll be writing about this trip and last December’s trip to a Forest Service cabin just outside of Yellowstone in Dear Bob and Sue Season 4.

  3. My wife (also Karen) and I just finished listening to your fourth book together. We are experienced travelers and novice level hikers. Your adventures are amazing. It seems that when you conquer something that you are ready to try something just a bit more difficult on your next trip. We look forward to your upcoming podcast and would love to see you speak somewhere, perhaps at a National Park facility. Again, thanks for a thrilling book.

    1. What a nice thing to say, Gary! Thank you for the kind words! We got such a late start in life traveling to the parks, hiking and camping, that we feel we need to push ourselves to do these things while we still can. And often, as you’ve heard on the audiobook, we just barely make it, or in some cases like the Chilkoot Trail we don’t make it at all! We’ll be talking about some of these adventures on the podcast series.

  4. Loved reading about your visit to our neck of the woods! We live between Kalispell and Whitefish. You captured the wonder of the park beautifully, and good for you for trekking in to stunning Avalanche Lake. My husband and I have really enjoyed reading about your adventures so keep those boots on the trails and keep writing! Merry Christmas!

  5. Thanks for your posts and beautiful pictures–can’t wait to try and go to a NP in the winter, not really something I thought about trying before. I love all of your books and refer to them before we venture to a particular park–lots of practical advice in them, as well as all of the hiking info. I’m looking forward to your podcast as well as more posts of places to explore. Very inspiring and enjoyable.

  6. Enjoyed the winter pictures of Glacier National Park. It’s such a beautiful place. Haven’t been in 30 years but are heading that way at the first weeks of September. Love reading about the hikes you take and places you stay. They give us many ideas as we travel to the same areas you have been too. Merry Christmas.

    1. Thank you so much, Lisa! September is a great time to visit Glacier- the crowds are gone and the weather is usually still good! Merry Christmas to you too!

  7. Your photos are gorgeous! I am only an armchair hiker, but I have read and enjoyed all of your books and your email posts. Thank you for sharing your life and our national parks with those of us who are not quite as active.

  8. My favorite park is Glacier. My husband and I visited in 2010 and were awed by the beauty of that park. After reading your first book, I hope to visit more of these national treasures, especially the ones I had no idea existed. Thanks for sharing your adventures and photos.

  9. Hi!
    I just read your post since we are going to the park on Saturday all the way from Mexico and have 3 days to explore. This is the first time we go to Glacier and are very excited about it. To tell you the truth, we were a bit afraid of not being able to enjoy much because of the closures, but after reading your post I am very very happy.
    I would really appreciate if you could spare more details on the trails you can cover (for example the Continental Divided Trail and how to get there from Marys pass). Plus any additional advice for us.

    Thank you very much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Matt and Karen, PO Box 417, Woodinville, WA, 98072, http://www.mattandkaren.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact