Just because summer is over doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Glacier National Park. A couple of the more popular Glacier National Park Winter Activities are cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. For those after a more challenging Glacier Park winter activity, mountain climbing may be for you. Whatever activity you like, and whether you decide on a day trip or an extended back country experience, there’s plenty to do and see. To make it possible for every adventurer to have a wonderful experience, cross-country skiers and snowshoers are instructed to maintain separate tracks.
Cross-Country Skiing Glacier National Park
Cross-Country Skiing is a great way to see Glacier National Park in the Winter. Most of the roads are closed during the winter and become ready made trails for cross-country skiing. As you venture along these trails, you’ll have access to spectacular scenery and some uncrowded recreational opportunities. Please take into account your skiing ability and check with rangers for Glacier National Park Winter Weather and Snow conditions.
Severe weather, lack of snow, winter rains, or melting conditions can quickly alter the difficulty of any cross-country ski trail. Most ski trails are not marked so a topographic map is very helpful. When you plan to travel on less popular trails, plan to break trail and register at the trailhead registration boxes.
Skiing on frozen lakes is very dangerous and not recommended. Avoid hypothermia by drinking liquids, staying dry, carrying survival gear, wearing layers of clothing, and snacking frequently. Be alert to symptoms of drowsiness and confusion. Avoid areas prone to avalanches.
Human contact with wildlife only adds stress to their already difficult winters so please avoid them when possible, and be aware that you are in bear and mountain lion country.
Upper Lake McDonald Area
McDonald Falls Trail
Skiing the Going-To-The-Sun Road is the most popular ski trail in the Park. It begins at the Lake McDonald Lodge parking area where the first 12 miles is an easy, gradual incline. The first scenic stop is a short 1.8 miles up the Going-To-The-Sun Road to McDonald Falls. Turn left off the Road and ski a short distance to the bridge over McDonald Creek for the best view of McDonald Falls.
Sacred Dancing Cascades Trail
To access the Sacred Dancing Cascades on McDonald Creek, turn right just after you cross the bridge below McDonald Falls. Ski upstream for one mile along the west bank of McDonald Creek and cross the foot bridge over the Creek for your best view. You can return to the Going-To-The-Sun Road by climbing up the trail on the east side of McDonald Creek to a parking area. The round trip distance when viewing both these falls is 5.3 miles.
Avalanche Picnic Area Trail
If you want a little longer day trip, you can continue up the Going-To-The-Sun Road to the Avalanche Picnic Area. The route to here offers easy skiing and good views of McDonald Creek and the mountains surrounding the McDonald Creek Valley. Avalanche Picnic Area is a good destination for beginning skiers looking for a longer day trip. It’s a very doable day trip with a round trip distance of 11.6 miles
Avalanche Lake Trail
You can extend this day trip by continuing into Avalanche Lake. When planning a trip into Avalanche Lake, take into consideration the snow conditions will vary under the trees and the Trail of the Cedars is generally not good for skiing due to the heavy tree canopy. Avalanche Lake is a popular destination with some steep narrow sections that can be difficult to ski up or down, especially when icy. It is recommended you consider your skiing ability before deciding to take this trip. The trip into Avalanche Lake will add another 5 miles onto to your round trip distance.
Longer overnight ski trips further up the Going-To-The-Sun Road will provide you with a unique experience of a Glacier National Park Winter. The views you receive from the Road will be very different from the summer views. From the parking area at Lake McDonald Lodge, it is approximate 25 miles to Logan Pass. As you reach the higher elevations, several areas are susceptible to avalanches so please check with the Flathead Avalanche Center for current avalanche conditions. A free backcountry camping permit is required for backcountry winter camping in Glacier Park. They can be obtained over the phone up to seven days in advance, or in person at the Headquarters Building Monday through Friday, or at Apgar Visitor Center on weekends.
Lower Lake McDonald Area
McDonald Creek Trail
The lower Lake McDonald area offers access to some fairly easy trails near the foot of the Lake. The Lower McDonald Creek trail is a short 2-3 mile trail, it starts just south of the McDonald Creek Bridge near Apgar and travels through gentle forested terrain along McDonald Creek to the Quarter Circle Bridge. You can also start this trail at the Quarter Circle Bridge. This is a good area to explore on your own.
Rocky Point Trail
The 6-mile round trip into Rocky Point is another fun Glacier Park winter trail. After you enter the park, turn left at the intersection with the Going-To-The-Sun Road. At the road closure gate, take the right fork in the road past the houses until it turns into a trail. The trail will join the Fish Creek Campground Road. Bear left, past the campground for about a ¼ mile where you will turn right onto the McDonald Lake Trail. At the first junction turn left, travel a short distance and turn right. The forest will clear as you near Rocky Point and you will get stunning views of the Lake McDonald Valley.
McGee Meadow Trail
If you’re looking for a long day trip in this area, you can do the McGee Meadow trail. The first part of this trail is the same as the Rocky Point Trail but instead of turning right onto the McDonald Lake Trail, you will continue up the narrow climbing road. It’s about 3 miles from this point to the first meadow. Continue up over the crest of the hill to the orange marker identifying the trail to McGee Meadow. Ski along the northern edge of McGee Meadow until you see the car pullout next to the Camas Road. Climb up to the Camas Road, and take a left, descending as you ski back to the road closure gate. This trail is 11.5 miles long. If you want to make this a more strenuous day adventure, you can ski this trail in reverse, climbing the Camas Road hill to the McGee Meadow parking area and return, passing Fish Creek Campground.
Apgar Lookout Trail
A more strenuous ski trip is the 10.5 mile round trip trail to Apgar Lookout. This trail starts at the road closure gate by the Apgar horse corrals. The first left after entering Glacier National Park will take you to the plowed parking area next to the barn. Ski past the road closure gate, across the Quarter Circle Bridge, and take the right at the fork. After traveling .5 miles you will reach the Apgar Lookout trailhead. It will start out easy but will steepen quickly, switching back and forth until you reach the Apgar Lookout. The views of the McDonald Lake Valley are stunning. Because of the steepness of this trail, it is not recommended for beginners, especially in icy conditions.
Old Flathead Ranger Station Trail
A little less challenging trail but still a longer day trip in this area is the Old Flathead Ranger Station Trail. You will start this trail like the Apgar Lookout Trail except you will take the left at the fork past the Quarter Circle Bridge rather than the right. The next section of the trail takes you along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and will provide nice views of both the McDonald Valley and the Middle Fork River. You will have a gradual climb until you reach the bluff overlooking the confluence of the North Fork and Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The ranger station was burned in the 2003 Robert Fire. This trail is a nice 10-mile round trip adventure.
North Fork Area
Big Prairie Trail/Kintla Lake Trail
The Big Prairie Trail is an easy 4-mile round trip trail, mostly level from the Polebridge Glacier Park Entrance. Turn left onto Glacier Route 7 just after you leave the Polebridge Ranger Station and it will travel through the 1988 Red Bench Fire burn area to a large natural meadow. Once you get to the meadow, you can explore and enjoy views of the Whitefish Range, the Livingston Range, and the North Fork of the Flathead River.
You can extend this trip, turning it into a backcountry camping trip, by continuing on Glacier Route 7 through Big Prairie for another 13 miles, passing through Round Prairie, and up to Kintla Lake, which is one of those beautiful, remote, aquamarine Glacier Park finger lakes located between Starvation Ridge and Parke Ridge. There is a campground at the foot of Kintla Lake. Please check with Glacier Park Headquarter to see if you’ll need a back country camping permit for this trip. The total round trip distance to Kintla Lake is 30 miles.
Bowman Lake Trail
The Bowman Lake Trail is a nice 12-mile round trip day trail with much of it through the 1988 Red Bench Fire burn area. After leaving the Polebridge Ranger Station, turn left onto Glacier Route 7 and take the first right onto the Bowman Lake Road. This road has many hills and could be difficult in icy conditions. Because you travel through a burn area, you will get some very nice views of the surrounding mountains. When you reach the foot of Bowman Lake, you will get spectacular views of Bowman Lake, Square Peak, Rainbow Peak, and Numa Peak. There is a campground at the foot of Bowman Peak so you can turn this into an overnight trip. Bowman Lake is also one of those beautiful, remote, aquamarine Glacier Park finger lakes, located between Numa Ridge and Cerulean Ridge.
Covey Meadow Loop/Lone Pine Prairie Trail
This is an easy 3-mile loop trail through Covey Meadow. After leaving the Polebridge Ranger Station, turn right onto Glacier Route 7 for 100 yards then left into the natural meadow. After it circles around the meadow, it intersects with Glacier Route 7 where you can take a left and continue down to Hidden Meadow Trail and/or Lone Pine Prairie. The trip to Hidden Meadow and/or Lone Pine Prairie will add 3-4 miles to this day trip. This is a great day adventure for families.
Snowshoeing Glacier National Park
Snowshoeing Glacier Park is great winter exercise. Breaking a snowshoe trail is analogous to climbing stairs, and even though you have snowshoes on, you can sink into the snow depending on the snow conditions. Unlike cross-country skiing, snowshoeing is very easy to learn. Some people think it will be difficult with those very wide “shoes” on their feet, but once you strap them on you barely notice they are any wider than your regular footwear.
Any of the trails we described above for cross-country skiing can also be used for snowshoeing. The one thing to remember with snowshoeing, your travel time will be much slower than on cross-country skis. It is fairly easy to cover 10-15 miles a day on cross-country skis but with snowshoes you will want to select a trail that is 3-5 miles long for a day trip.
If you would like to take a snowshoe trip and learn about winter in Glacier National Park, every weekend there are ranger led snowshoe walks. Just meet at the Apgar Visitor Center, either 10:30 am during the week or 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday, and join a ranger and others for a snowshoe trek in the Apgar area. On this guided tour, you’ll look for signs of wildlife, learn about plants and animals, and enjoy some winter solitude. Snowshoes are available for rent at the Apgar Visitor Center if you don’t own a pair.
Mountain Climbing Glacier National Park
Mountain climbing can be especially challenging in Glacier National Park’s winter weather. Besides the dangers of snow and ice covered slopes, the chance of an avalanche is possible. Climbing the frozen waterfalls in Glacier Park are very exciting but also very technically demanding. Never climb alone, and always stay close to your climbing group.
Climbers should complete the Voluntary Climber’s Registration form available at ranger stations, Park Headquarters, or the Apgar Visitor Center. Upon returning from you climbing adventure, please check back in at any ranger station. Search parties will not be dispatched just because a party does not check back in.
Be aware of potential avalanche dangers, we advise you check with the Flathead Avalanche Center to obtain up to date avalanche conditions.
There are many other areas of Glacier National Park where you can cross-country ski and snowshoe. Here at Smoky Bear Ranch, we are passionate and knowledgeable about Glacier National Park winter Activities, making us a natural choice to help plan your Glacier National Park Winter Vacation.
An informed skier/snowshoer/climber is a safe skier/snowshoer/climber. Take the time to know the inherent risks of recreating in the mountains during the winter months and plan your trip wisely.