Consider Glacier National Park for Your Next Winter Vacation
When most people consider taking a vacation to Glacier National Park, they usually don’t make their plans for the wintertime. And although most people do recognize the fact that Glacier National Park is a snowy, winter wonderland in the winter months, the sad truth is that Glacier National Park is not often the first destination that comes to mind when planning out a mid-winter vacation. However, if you are looking for a place to vacation to this winter that is fun, unique, and a little atypical, then Glacier National Park might be just what you are looking for.
Winter Conditions in the Park
Most years, the snow begins to pile up in late October and November in Glacier National Park, and by early to mid December there can easily be several feet of snow covering the roads, chalets, hiking trails and backcountry. Navigating the park in the wintertime is not for the faint of heart… you will not be traversing the park in a heated tour bus, and don’t think you will be doing it in your heated four-wheel drive Escalade either. Nearly all of the roads are closed to vehicle traffic during the winter months, because the snow is just too deep and trying to maintain them and keep them plowed is both dangerous and futile. Other than a short stretch of highway on either end of the Going to the Sun road, all roads inside the park are closed down, gated up and covered in white. There is a short portion of the Going to the Sun road at either end of the park that is plowed and maintained, (the longest of which is an 11-mile stretch of road on the western side of the park that parallels the shores of Lake McDonald for several miles and then ends abruptly with a locked gate and a giant snowdrift just passed the turn off to Lake McDonald Lodge.) For a more comprehensive list of road status, and road closures throughout the park, you can visit the current road status page of the National Park Service website by going to: http://home.nps.gov/applications/glac/roadstatus/roadstatus.cfm.
Most of the time if you want to experience the beauty of the snow covered backcountry in Glacier National Park during the winter, you will have to do it on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Experiencing the beautiful backcountry of Glacier National Park covered in a blanket of snow is truly a magical experience. However, you should always take extreme precaution and use wisdom when navigating the park in the winter. There are many serious and potentially fatal risks inside the park in the wintertime that you should be aware of and cautious of, including avalanches, hypothermia and wildlife just to name a few. Stay tuned for our next article “Staying Safe During Winter in Glacier National Park” for a more thorough break down of what you need to know to avoid the dangers of winter inside the park.
Snowshoeing and Skiing Inside Glacier National Park
A great way to explore Glacier in the wintertime is to strap on your snowshoes and join in on a ranger-led, narrative tour through the park. These exciting and interesting two-hour snowshoe walks, allow you to get an intimate look at Glacier Park in the beauty of it’s winter dress. Along the way your ranger-guide will share many fascinating facts and stories about the park and it’s history with you, and you will get to search for signs of wildlife and other flora and fauna that call the park their home. These snowshoe walks are held on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the winter. More information can be found by calling 406-888-7800.
Skiing in the Park
Probably the most popular way to explore the park during the winter is on cross-country skis. There is ample opportunities for cross-country skiing throughout the park. Some of the more popular options for cross country skiing in Glacier National Park include:
Upper Lake McDonald Area
The Upper Lake McDonald area is one of the most popular skiing and snowshoeing areas within the park. This area generally provides ample snow, a more gentle mix of terrain, and easy access from the parks west gate. Getting here is easy. Once you enter the park through the West Glacier entrance, you will drive up the Going to Sun road for approximately 8 miles along the shores of Lake McDonald until you reach the Avalanche campground area where the road will be blocked off by a gate.
There are three primary ski and snowshoeing options in this area, Avalanche Picnic Area, Sacred Dancing Cascade and McDonald Falls.
Avalanche Picnic Area
The Avalanche Picnic Area is an 11.5-mile round-trip route that leads up the Going to the Sun road to the Avalanche picnic area. This route offers easy skiing and some amazing views of McDonald Creek and the rugged mountains surrounding the McDonald Valley. Longer trips up Going to the Sun road are possible from this point, but if you choose to continue on make sure that you are adequately prepared for the journey, and/or that you have ample time to complete the journey before sunset.
The McDonald’s Falls route is a 4 mile round-trip option that takes you up an unplowed road for approximately 1.8 miles, where you will cross a bridge that leads over McDonald Creek, offering some amazing views up the river. After taking in the beauty for a while you will return down the same path back to where you started from.
Sacred Dancing Cascade
Sacred Dancing Cascade is a 5.3 mile round trip. For the start of the journey you will follow the same route as the McDonald Falls option, but just as you cross the bridge you will turn right and ski upstream approximately 1 mile on the western bank of the stream. From there you will cross over the footbridge to the other side of the creek and follow an unplowed road back to the Lake McDonald lodge.
Another popular area of the park for skiing and snowshoeing during the winter is the Polebridge area. There are many gravel unplowed roads in this area of the park that provide great options for skiers and snowshoers.
Some of the more popular options in this area include Big Prairie, Covey Meadows, Bowman Lake and Lone Pine Prairie.
Big Prairie is a 4-mile round-trip that is mostly level and fairly easy terrain. The route starts from the ranger station and leads back through the backcountry that burned in a wildfire back in 1988. Your destination will be a large picture-perfect natural meadow that is surrounded by spectacular mountain views as well as views of the north fork of the Flathead River. From here you will return back across the same route that brought you here until you reach the ranger station one again.
Covey Meadows is a 3-mile loop that begins at the Polebridge Ranger Station. From here you head south for about 100 yards and then turn left into a large natural meadow. A large loop trail leads you around the meadow and overlooks the North Fork of the Flathead River for part of the trip. This trail is a great choice for a family outing, as it is easy enough for small children to handle, and interesting enough that it will keep their attention.
To access the Bowman Lake route you head out north from the Polebridge Ranger Station until you reach the first junction. Here you will make a left turn and then continue down the trail until you reach another junction. Turn right at this second junction, and your journey will continue over some hilly terrain with some spectacular views, made possible by the reduced forest canopy (a result of the 1988 fire that burned through the area). Your trip comes to a picture-perfect conclusion at the foot of Bowman Lake where you will be treated to some outstanding views of the peaks of Glacier National Park, and stunning Bowman Lake.
Lone Pine Prairie
This trip is a 6-mile round trip journey through some truly incredible scenery. Make a right as you leave the Polebridge Ranger station and head south. You will continue along the trail, passing over several small hills until you reach a natural meadow. Along the way you will be privy to some incredible views of the river and the mountain peaks of Glacier Park and the Whitefish Range.
Marias Pass is located at the top of the continental divide. This area is a popular spot for both skiers and snowmobilers.
Autumn Creek Trail
One of the more popular trails in the area is the Autumn Creek Trail, a 6-mile trail that starts right at the summit of Marias Pass and wanders back into Glacier National Park. The first part of the trail passes by Three Bear Lake. There are several open areas in this section that are fun for beginner skiers and snowshoers to explore. If you are a more experienced skier, and you are looking for some more adventure, head on down the trail and you will soon enter the trees. Watch for orange markers that will help mark the trail. Turn left at the first junction and you will eventually reach an open area at the base of Elk Mountain. The views you will find in this open area are magnificent. You will want to use caution when passing through this area however, as the risk for avalanches is much greater throughout this region. The trail eventually leads you by the Autumn Creek drainage and finally back to the highway near mile marker 193.8.
Two Medicine Road in the Two Medicine valley is another popular spot in the park to go cross-country skiing. You will park your car and start skiing where the plowed part of the road ends. This is usually about 4 miles north of East Glacier. There are several destination options along this route, and you can choose which one is best for you based on your time, skill level, endurance and ability. Many people will just ski in as far as the park boundary. Skiing to the park boundary is about a 6 mile round trip that offers beautiful views overlooking Lower Two Medicine Lake. If you have a little more time to spare and you are looking for a little bit more of a challenge, you could head a few miles further down the road to Running Eagle Falls ( approximately a 10-mile trip.) The really adventurous folks will make the whole trip into Two Medicine Lake, which is beautiful and well worth the time and effort. But don’t attempt this unless you know that you have plenty of time to make the round trip before sundown. Also, make sure that you are physically prepared for a strenuous trip. The full 16-mile round trip into Two Medicine is a relatively difficult undertaking and it is quite hilly and will require some diligent effort.
Bever Pond Loop
One of the most popular cross-country trails in the St. Mary region is the Beaver Pond Loop an easy 3-mile loop through the aspen and conifer trees, with a nice mix of terrain from rolling rills to open meadows. The trail starts near the 1913 Ranger Station, which is located just a short distance inside the park from the east ’saint mary’ entrance.
Red Eagle Trail
The other popular trail is the Red Eagle Lake Trail. This is an 8-mile round trip that will take you trough rolling hills and a mix of trees and meadows to a beautiful scenic bluff overlooking Red Eagle Creek. This lovely trip offers stunning views of the peaks of Glacier National Park, and the picturesque St. Mary Lake.
Apgar / West Glacier Area
One of the most visited areas of the park in summer time or winter, is the West Glacier / Apgar Village area, and Lake McDonald.
There are several nice ski trails in this area as well, ranging from short easy trips of just a couple miles round trip, to some rather strenuous 10 – 12 mile trips with more demanding terrain and elevation gain.
Lower McDonald Creek
A great option for beginning skiers, families, or just those looking to take it easier, is the trail along Lake McDonald Creek. The trail begins at the McDonald Creek Bridge and runs roughly parallel to McDonald Creek, allowing you to ski through the forest with some occasional, optional side trips down along the creek.
McGee Meadow Loop
This loop is a long and rather strenuous option, but it is wonderfully rewarding and enjoyable. The route begins near the road closure along Camas Road. You will take the right fork of the road from here and begin skiing past the houses until the road turns to a trail. Before long this trail will join with the road to Fish Creek Campground and the Inside North Fork Road. As you continue your journey, the road will transition into a narrow gravel road that begins to climb in elevation. You will continue this moderate climb for about 3 miles until you reach the first meadow. From here you will push on over the crest of the hill where you will find an orange marker that marks the trail to McGee Meadow. Once you reach McGee Meadow, you will want to stay along the northern edge of the meadow until you see the car pullout along Camas Road in the distance to the west. Once you are back on the snow-covered Camas Road, you will have to conquer a few more uphill sections before you begin the long final decent back to the road closure where your journey started.
The trail to Apgar Lookout is a fairly steep trail that gains a fair amount of elevation for a distance of roughly 5 miles leading to Apgar Lookout. The views are amazing along the trail and certainly there are jaw-dropping panoramas from the lookout itself, but this trip is not for the faint of heart, and skins may be required if conditions are icy. The entire round trip is approximately 10.5 miles. To reach the trailhead you will turn west off the main road (that leads from West Glacier up to Apgar Village and Going to the Sun road) onto the road leading to the horse barn. Park your vehicle at the plowed area in front of the horse barn and follow the left fork of the unplowed road across the Quarter Circle Bridge. Once you cross over the bridge take the right fork of the road for approximately a half mile until you reach the Apgar Lookout trailhead.
The ski trails and loops mentioned above are just a small sampling of the winter cross-country and snowshoeing opportunities that are available to you inside Glacier National Park in the wintertime. And don’t forget, not far from the west entrance of Glacier National Park is the Whitefish Mountain Resort offering some of the best downhill skiing in the entire northwest, so you can visit the area and enjoy both cross-country skiing and downhill skiing at the same time, what a deal!