Alone in the Cathedral
While the summer months buzz with excited hikers, the first snows of winter bring a calmness to Glacier National Park perfect for those looking to strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis.
Hearing nothing but the crunch of our shoes, my boyfriend Andy and I took off for a couple days into Glacier’s backcountry. We decided to make the 16+ mile round trip to Avalanche Lake and its snow-crusted mountains and icy waters.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road to the Avalanche picnic area is relatively flat with gorgeous views of the south side of Lake McDonald, the North Fork of the Flathead, and the surrounding mountains. The road was still plowed, so we strapped our snowshoes to our packs and quickly hiked the 6 road miles to the deserted Avalanche camping area.
Leaving the gear, we continued the rest of the way to the lake on snowshoe. A few crunchy miles of powder later and the evergreens opened up to the frozen cathedral of Avalanche Lake, rugged peaks stretching to meet the clouds and iced-over waterfalls from nearby Sperry Glacier.
I’ve hiked this trail in the summer, when the shores are covered with eager tourists snapping photos. But this time we were the only ones taking in the view, our snowshoes cutting the first (human) tracks.
Back at camp, we set up under one of the massive cedars with only our own voices breaking the silent night. The Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed for winter at Lake McDonald Lodge, and there was a good two feet of snow on the trail — we didn’t see a single person for two days.
But we weren’t alone.
When people think of Glacier, they think bears. While the park protects the core of one of the largest remaining grizzly bear populations in the Lower 48, in winter these animals are deep in hibernation. Their absence gives visitors an opportunity to watch for many other creatures that make up Glacier’s diverse ecosystem.
Birds and chipmunks chattered in the trees, and we stopped to examine deer, snowshoe hare, and even a cougar tracks. With fresh powder covering road and trail, winter makes it easy to track wildlife.
Any time spent snowshoeing in the forest, lake shores, or even on the park road turns up evidence of wildlife passing through — and maybe a glimpse of the animals themselves. We were lucky enough to catch a young whitetail buck in the forest and a bald eagle gliding over Lake McDonald.
The cold and wind of the high country winter offer challenges greater than most animals (including humans) can cope with. While the park’s mountain goats and pikas stick to their high-alpine stomping grounds, the majority of animals that remain active in winter migrate to lower elevations for easier access to food and more protection from the elements. Your best bet to catch a glimpse of winter wildlife is by exploring the lowlands.
But no matter where your snowshoe trek takes you in the park, expect silence, solitude, and wildlife that only a winter wildland like Glacier can bring. Whether going for a quick day-hike to McDonald Falls, snow-camping at Avalanche Lake, or dropping down to Two Medicine, Glacier is one of the most spectacular winter destinations in the Lower 48.
Recommended Places to Explore
Apgar and West Glacier: Easily accessible from points west, West Glacier offers scenic lookouts and forested routes as well as guided snowshoe treks January through March. The Apgar Visitor Center also rents snowshoes.
Lake McDonald and Avalanche: Gentle terrain, ample snow, and easy access to wonderful winter scenery make this the most popular skiing and snowshoeing area in the park.
Marias Pass: The area surrounding the summit of Marias Pass, locally called Summit, is another popular spot for snowshoeing and skiing. Conditions can get windy, but the snow is usually good here even when it’s not in other areas.
North Fork: A little off the beaten path, the meadows and lakes of North Fork provide breathtaking views of the North Fork of the Flathead, the Whitefish Range to the west, and the Livingston Range to the east.
St. Mary: Snowshoe across rolling terrain to a scenic bluff overlooking Red Eagle Creek to take in the great views of the mountains along St. Mary Lake and Red Eagle Valley. Or explore the aspen, meadows, and mixed conifer stands in the hills east of the lake.
Two Medicine: The Two Medicine Road provides easy access to rewarding snowshoeing and skiing when snow conditions are good. Accumulation is strongly influenced by wind, so check conditions before you go.
What to Bring
Snowshoes: While some of the trails are hikeable with a good pair of boots, snowshoes are crucial to reach the highlights of the park.
Winter boots and warm socks: Waterproof and insulated boots with a good pair of wool socks will make your outing much more pleasant.
Layers: Weather in the park changes rapidly. We went from bundled in our down coats, to raingear, to stripping down to our capilene when breaking trail to the lake. Bring more than you think you need.
Food: Whether you’re camping or just heading out for the day, you’ll be burning calories. We chowed down on hot couscous and curried lentils for dinner and annihilated our bag of trail mix and dark chocolate.
Libations: Bring water. It’s easy to get dehydrated in the winter when you’re cold, so make sure to drink lots of water throughout the day. I also enjoy packing something a bit stronger to take the chill off a cold winter night. My favorite — brewed tea with honey and whiskey. Cheers!
Common sense: Snowshoeing is a spectacular adventure, but variable weather and unstable snowpack can make your hike treacherous. Check in with the ranger and sign in at the trailhead before you set out, and stay aware of changing conditions as you’re exploring.
Once you’re out of the woods and ready for a break, check out Montana Resorts: Treating Yourself Right in Big Sky Country.
And before your trip, get acquainted with Matador’s Montana destination experts, who are happy to take your questions about the region.