A map to skiing and snowshoeing in the park
Story and photography by Kay BjorkIclick into my skis and push off with my poles, slashing through powdery new snow that spills back into the tracks I leave behind. Trees bowing to McDonald Creek spray ice crystals that twinkle in the sun as they drift slowly to the ground. A shadow races across glistening snow, and I hear the breath-like sound of feathers cutting through cold air. I look up and spot a hawk’s silhouette against blue sky. The only sounds are songs of winter, and the fresh snow tells me that we are the first visitors this morning.
Glacier National Park is transformed during the winter as trees are wrapped in snowy cloaks, lakes disappear under ice blankets, and the roar of summer activity dwindles to a whisper. Despite the aura of peace, the park remains very much alive, revealed in the tracks left by animal residents and human visitors in this ever-changing landscape of snow.
If you look closely and take time to stop and listen, you will discover that winter in Glacier Park is a dynamic and exciting season. Snow and ice transform hour to hour with the weather. Temperature, sun exposure and wind shape and reshape the snow into graceful sculptures. Fields of hoarfrost blossoms sprout, snowy blankets are sewn with sequins and pearl buttons, and chandelier crystals drip from logs draped over creeks and lakes.
The snow’s surface is like a page in a book written by passing wildlife; on every visit, you get to read a new story. We have followed big grizzly tracks near McGee Meadow and been fascinated by the smaller animal tracks of otter and beaver along the Middle Fork Flathead River. And sometimes you’re lucky enough to see the animals that leave these tracks in the snow.
While skiing near the Lake McDonald Ranger Station, we’ve spotted a black bear on a mild December day and the flash of a mountain lion as it disappeared into the trees. On Going-to-the-Sun Road, I was first confused and then thrilled by my first sighting of a wolverine, an eccentric animal that looks part badger, part bear. On another day, we were cued to the presence of swans passing over Lake McDonald by their soft and melodic song. Almost every visit is graced by the presence of a bald eagle flying overhead or perched in a tree.
Glacier National Park is a perfect place to go winter treasure hunting. Here are a few suggestions for ski and snowshoe destinations (a few can even be done with a good pair of winter boots in the right weather conditions) in the Lake McDonald region, up the Sun Road, and in the North Fork area where winter’s riches await your discovery.
Seasonal closures of Glacier Park roads turn the unplowed roads into perfect paths with ample room for both ski and snowshoe tracks. Going-to-the-Sun Road, Inside North Fork Road, Camas Road, Fish Creek Campground roadway and the roads past Polebridge Ranger Station provide friendly terrain for skiers and snowshoers of all abilities. The trails mentioned below are on the west side of the park, but there are also great outings on the east side – at Marias Pass, Two Medicine and Saint Mary – if you want to make the drive. All mileages listed are roundtrip. Check the park website for more details.
Start at the gated road and go for .5 mile to the Quarter Circle Bridge where McDonald Creek merges with the Middle Fork Flathead River and the road makes its quarter circle. Continue on the Quarter Circle Road for another .5 mile to reach the Apgar Lookout trail. Here the grade steepens and is recommended for more advanced skiers. Beginners can turn around before the steeper grade for a shorter ski of two or three miles.
McGee Meadow Loop
Follow the same course as above but continue on the Inside North Fork Road for three miles, past a meadow and over the hillcrest, where you will see an orange marker for the McGee Meadow trail. Ski along the northern edge of the meadow until you see the Camas Road car pullout on the west side of the meadow and continue through a hilly section before merging onto Camas Road, where you can loop back to reach your car. You can also do the loop in reverse for a more strenuous workout.
To reach the Apgar Lookout and Site of the Old Ranger Station, take the first left after the West Glacier fee station and head up Quarter Circle Bridge Road. Park on the left side of the road across from the horse barn and begin at the gated road, which will lead to trail junctions for routes to Apgar Lookout and the Site of the Old Ranger Station.
Turn right before the Camas Road gate to begin this outing, passing along a seasonal road through a residential area to reach an unplowed road, which heads through the forest. Here you will find some moderate uphill and downhill until it merges with the Inside North Fork Road. Stay left of the Fish Creek Campground and continue on the road for about .2 miles where you take the McDonald Lake trail to the right of the gated road. Turn left at the first trail junction and then right shortly afterward to reach Rocky Point for beautiful views of Lake McDonald.
Upper Lake McDonald
Avalanche Picnic Area
11.6 miles roundtrip
From picnic area – 4 miles
From gate – 15.6 miles
The unplowed Going-to-the-Sun Road offers easy skiing. Avalanche Picnic Area is a popular destination, but a shorter ski still affords gorgeous views of McDonald Creek and the surrounding mountains. Avalanche Lake is another four miles roundtrip from the campground with steep, narrow sections that can be icy or skinny on snow. If you make it to the campground, at least go a little farther to view the dramatic Avalanche Creek Gorge and the possible winter bling of ice, frost and snow set against the rose-colored gorge.
Sacred Dancing Cascading Loop
Start at the gate across the unplowed Going-to-the-Sun Road near Lake McDonald Lodge where you will reach the North McDonald Road in approximately 1.8 miles. Take a left and cross the bridge over McDonald Creek and then take a trail on the right side of the road that follows the west bank of McDonald Creek to McDonald Falls. Continue for another mile to reach the Sacred Dancing Cascade. Here you can cross a footbridge over the creek and return on the road. This section of the trail is hilly and curvy and can be icy, so it’s only skiable by more experienced skiers and when there is good snowpack. This is a true treasure trove where you might find a variety of spectacular ice formations as moisture and spray build on rocks and trees alongside the creek.
Lower McDonald Creek
The trail begins south of the Lake McDonald Bridge near Apgar Village on the bike and footpath used in the summer. This is also a great area to wander off-trail to explore the forest and to ski along McDonald Creek.
The North Fork area serves up a big-screen experience with its natural meadows and panoramic views left by the 1988 fire. The iconic Polebridge Mercantile provides a fun and delicious stop with its famous baked goods, friendly people and historic 1914 building. (Winter hours January to March 28 are Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) Begin at the gate near the Polebridge Ranger Station.
At the gate, take a left and stay left at the junction. This is a flat ski to a broad natural meadow with spectacular views of the Whitefish Range to the west and the Livingston Range to the east.
Covey Meadow Loop
After the Polebridge Ranger Station gate, go right for approximately 100 yards, then turn left into the natural meadow, where you circle to the Lone Pine Prairie trail at a bluff overlooking the North Fork Flathead River.
Lone Pine Prairie to Hidden Meadow
This is a mellow ski to a natural meadow with river and mountain views through the old burn.
After the ranger station, turn left at the first junction and then right at the second junction. This hilly route has outstanding mountain views, but can be difficult when icy. You will enter a forest before reaching the great views at the foot of Bowman Lake.
Snow crystals are formed when water vapor condenses into ice while inside clouds, taking shape as the vapor freezes on the surface of a seed crystal, which is established on a small particle in the air such as a speck of dust. Each snowflake reflects the weather conditions during which it formed. Snow crystals tend to form simpler shapes when the humidity is low and more complex shapes when the humidity is high.
According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC), there are four main types of snow crystals:
• Snowflakes are single ice crystals or clusters of crystals that fall from a cloud.
• Hoarfrost are ice crystals that form on a surface when the temperature of that surface is lower than the frost point of the surrounding air, causing moisture to go directly from vapor to solid, skipping the liquid phase.
• Graupel (also called snow pellets) are snowflakes that become round, opaque pellets with sizes ranging from .1 to .2 inches in diameter. They’re formed when ice crystals fall through super-cooled cloud droplets that remain liquid even though the air is below freezing. These droplets freeze to the crystals to form graupel.
• Polycrystals are snowflakes made up of many individual ice crystals.
Snow reflects most of the light, so it appears to be white, but also can take on a bluish hue when light bounces around snow crystals and then appears back on the surface. You might have also seen snow with a pink cast in the spring or summer known as watermelon snow, caused by algae that forms on the snow.
SKI TIPS FROM GNP
• Visitors should check with rangers for weather and snow conditions before heading out in the park.
• Snowshoers and skiers are asked to sign in at trailhead registration bozes and establish separate tacks for skiers and snowshoers. CLimbers are asked to complete the voluntary climber’s registration form.
• Skiing on frozen lakes is not recommended
• Winter is a stressful time for animal life, so visitors are asked to avoid disturbing wildlife while sharing their home. Pets are not allowed on trails, unplowed roads, or in the backcountry, and snowmobiles are not permitted anywhere in Glacier National Park.
Trail details, directions and closures are posted on the Area and Closures webpage.