Last year, we described feeling like we had Glacier National Park all to ourselves during our wintry spring break trip there. Much of Glacier is closed during the winter season, providing visitors with plenty of opportunities for quiet and solitude.
With many of the summer hotspots off limits, we found quite a few off the beaten path opportunities for enjoying Glacier in winter. Here are five of the best areas we found during our winter visit to Glacier National Park!
1. Explore the Going-to-the-Sun Road on Foot: Skiing, Snowshoeing, & McDonald Falls
The first 12 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road between the West Glacier park entrance and Lake McDonald Lodge are open year-round. (The rest of the road is closed, awaiting the snowplows to open it in late spring or early summer.) The road skirts the east side of the lake, offering some great views and fishing opportunities. The lodge itself is closed, but its dock offers a nice view of the lake and surrounding mountains.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road is open only to foot traffic in winter, offering cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and hikers the chance to explore a part of the park that most summer visitors quickly drive past.
From the lodge parking lot, we hiked to McDonald Falls, a beautiful cascade tucked just below the road. A short trail leads to a bridge that provides a nice upstream view of the falls.
2. Enjoy Sunset Views Across Lake McDonald from Apgar Village & Lake McDonald Lodge
It’s not often that we face east to watch a sunset, but we spent nearly every night of our weeklong trip to Glacier doing just that to watch the changing colors on the mountains across Lake McDonald.
The dock at Lake McDonald Lodge offers a nice view, but the sunset views from Apgar Village — especially from its dock — can’t be beat. On a calm night, the reflection of the mountains on the water is spectacular. Bring a camera, warm clothes, and perhaps a warm beverage.
3. Experience Rural Montana along the Outside North Fork Road: Unique Mountain & River Views
Just as most of the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed for winter, so are the Camas and Inside North Fork Roads. But the Outside North Fork Road that skirts the park’s western border is open year-round.
The mostly gravel road follows the meandering North Fork Flathead River past a Forest Service campground to the Camas Creek entrance to the park (also closed for winter). The stretch of the Outside North Fork Road just north of the Camas bridge offers great views of the mountains before becoming paved on its way to Polebridge.
Polebridge, with its Mercantile and pub (both closed while we were there) is the gateway to the northernmost entrance on this side of the park (also closed). From here, the Inside North Fork Road and the road to Bowman Lake (great for skiers) are on-foot options.
4. Drive to the Park’s East Side: East Glacier, St. Mary, Two Medicine, & Many Glacier
East Glacier is a 57-mile drive from West Glacier, so be sure to fill the car with gas at the Cenex station in Coram — it’s the last open gas station until St. Mary (which was also closed, but did allow self-serve with a credit card)!
From East Glacier, we headed to Two Medicine on Montana 49. The road into the park was snow-covered in spots and closed at the park boundary, but it offered some easy hiking (or snowshoeing in snowier years) with gorgeous views of Lower Two Medicine Lake and the mountains beyond.
Unfortunately, Montana 49 is closed north of Two Medicine in winter, requiring a backtrack to US 2 and trip to Browning (home to a casino and Plains Indian museum on the Blackfeet reservation) to catch US 89 to head north to the St. Mary and Many Glacier areas. The St. Mary campground is open year-round, but the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed west of the campground.
The road to Many Glacier is also closed to vehicles at the park boundary, but is open to hikers (and skiers & snowshoers) — we even saw some mountain bikers! The views of the snow-capped mountains across frozen Lake Sherburne were spectacular.
All along the drive on US 89 we were treated to stellar views of the mountains, and we even spotted a moose from the bridge across the St. Mary River!
5. Wander South of the Park: Flathead and Lewis & Clark National Forests
The drive from West Glacier to East Glacier winds through the Flathead National Forest and the Middle Fork Flathead River along the park’s southern border to Essex, home of the Izaak Walton Inn, an Amtrak station, a few cabins, and skiing & snowshoe trails.
We enjoyed a snowshoe trek along the trail sandwiched between US 2 and the river before warming up with some hot chocolate and lunch at the Walton Inn.
From Essex, the road (US 2) dips into the southern tip of the park for a few miles before climbing to Marias Pass (5220 ft, 1591 m), the lowest crossing of the Continental Divide in Montana. A Lewis & Clark National Forest historical monument (open, with pit toilets!) and a Forest Service campground (Summit, closed).
We chose the snowiest day of our trip to return to the pass and we had an awesome snowshoe through the forest around the campground. Mountain views across the saddle peeked out from between the snow clouds. The snow was perfect and ours were the only footprints!
On the way back west, we stopped at the Snow Slip Inn — one of the few establishments open in the entire area — for some hot chocolate and some tasty homemade soup & fries. Yum!
Which parks have you visited during the offseason? Any good tips? Let us know in the comments. Enjoy your next offseason adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!