Whitefish in Winter

Trails of Glacier National Park
  |  Gorp.com
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Glacier National Park's McDonald Creek
Glacier National Park's McDonald Creek

Of the 700 miles of trails in Glacier National Park, many are accessible in winter to skiers, skaters, and snowshoers. Long, easy stretches of road are found at the east and west ends of Going-to-the-Sun Road, the 52-mile highway that spans the park's width. From the town of St. Mary in the east to Glacier in the west, you're treated to a wide, snow-covered road that's free of motor traffic from November to June. The historic hotel known as the Izaak Walton Lodge is perfectly situated for winter activities in and around the national park. There are only two guide services that can take guests into Glacier in the winter, and the lodge operates one of them. Its location provides easy access to many backcountry trails, as well as 30 kilometers of groomed private and Forest Service trails. Favorites include the six-mile Autumn Creek Trail near 5,216-foot Marias Pass, the 18-mile Ole Creek Trail, and, near Many Glacier, the trail to Red Rock Lake.

Rusty Wells, owner of and guide for Glacier Park Ski Tours, runs the only guide service licensed to operate overnight trips in the park. It's an unforgettable experience: Ski into a winter camp, sleep in snow shelters that you build yourself (or you can have Wells do it if you prefer), and plow fresh tracks through Marias Pass on the mile-high Continental Divide.

Day-trippers can opt for an equally scenic ski along Going-to-the-Sun Road: It's an eight-mile round-trip excursion on a relatively level, unplowed road. "I tell people when we get to the Avalanche picnic area that if you came here at noon on a summer day there would be thirty or forty cars lined on each side of the road and a constant stream of traffic," says Wells. Indeed, winter offers a contemplative solitude you don't find other times of year.

My first attempt at cross-country skiing near Marias Pass is considerably less contemplative, though not for lack of trying. After a smooth start on a flat prairie covered in fleecelike snow, the small group of skiers I'm with dips into the trees. In here the scenery is perfection: snow-dappled evergreen branches, sunlight breaking into prisms on the snow at our feet, and gentle ridges on all sides, sharp-edged against the lapis blue canopy overhead. With so much to look at, I stop paying attention to the trail. It comes with a price: I spend more time picking myself up than propelling myself forward. By the end of the morning I have a bruised tailbone, bruised ego, and I'm covered with snow.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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