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 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.
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.
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.
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.