Trip planning for Glacier National Park? Here are three step-by-step guides for Nordic skiers
Story by Clare MenzelWhile cruising the Nordic tracks by town is an easy way to get your legs moving or enjoy an afternoon on snow, sometimes you need a bigger challenge. Go rogue. Take an adventure. Make a deal with yourself or your buddies to get out into Glacier National Park more often this winter than you did during the summer season.
Connect with a mode of transportation almost as old as humanity. Your day can be slow or fast. Long or short. Relaxed or intense. It’s up to you. It’s just you and your skis out there in the woods, you and your two planks gliding over packed snow. We recommend three backcountry trips in the national park worth the sweat.
But stay safe. Many of these trails cross through known avalanche terrain. Never venture into the backcountry without the proper maps and a good guidebook (we recommend “Nordic Dreams” by local expert Stormy Good). Another must is avalanche safety training and equipment. Check in with the Flathead Avalanche Center for the daily snow report. And don’t be afraid to call it if the conditions grow sketchy – worst-case scenario is you head back out tomorrow for another beautiful day in the presence of nature.
FROM FIELDING TO WALTON
Just over a mile away from the perfect groomed trails at the Izaak Walton Inn is the terminus of a 15-kilometer backcountry trail through the national park that starts near the Fielding Picnic Area. It’s a challenging trip – expect it to take at least seven hours – so plan on making it a one way, especially when winter days are short.
So after crossing the Middle Fork on U.S. Highway 2, turn left to leave a car at the Walton Ranger Station, then continue for about 10 miles on Highway 2 until mile marker 191. Cross the bridge by Bear Creek Lodge, then turn left onto Road #1066 to Fielding. Park when you come to an open gravel clearing. A sign marks the Fielding Trail Trailhead, which sets off from the north side of the road and shortly runs into railroad tracks. When you reach the tracks, turn to your left, where there will be a fluorescent orange flagging. Ski on. The trail runs northwest past a trail sign in the woods and the patrol cabin, winding around lodgepole pines. Mount Shields will be to the south and Elk Mountain to the north. You’ll cross Ole Creek and, soon after, the Ole Creek Campground, almost five kilometers in.
Turn left when you reach a large meadow, and ski down the drainage, sticking to the north side of the river, where the summer hiking trail runs. Continue southwest for about ten more kilometers until the trail drops sharply before reaching the Walton Ranger Station.
RED EAGLE LAKE VIA ST. MARY
There are a few nordic ski options on the east side of Glacier National Park starting by St. Mary Lake. Take U.S. Highway 89 into the park, then follow signs to the 1913 Ranger Station. The 5.7-kilometer Elk Loop sets off from the ranger station along the northeastern side of the lake through open patches of aspens and conifers.
You’ll cross meadows and gently rolling hills before reaching the start of the old fire road – now called the Red Eagle Lake Trail – about 2.5 kilometers in. You can choose to continue along the loop, back to the ranger station, or press on along the same trajectory southwest to Red Eagle Lake, a 12.8-kilometer round trip. Ski over more rolling hills and open meadows until you reach the scenic bluff overlooking Red Eagle Creek.
From here, there are fantastic views of the Red Eagle Valley, Little Chief Mountain, and the other mountains that climb up from the lake. Turn back northeast and retrace your path to the Ranger Station.
SUMMIT AREA AND MARIAS PASS
The Autumn Creek Trail, a popular 9.6-kilometer trip, starts at the summit of Marias Pass. On your way to the trailhead, drop a car along U.S. Highway 2 at mile marker 193.8, where the trail comes out of the park. Cross the train tracks at Marias Pass, and start out just south of the Summit Campground on what summer hikers call the Loop Trail or Continental Divide Trail – you may have to look for a fluorescent orange flag. You’ll reach the southern heel of Three Bears Lake in one kilometer, then continue on through a forest of fir and pine. Soon you’ll reach the open meadow at the foot of the Rocky Mountain Front, where you’ll be treated to views of Glacier Park and the Badger-Two Medicine area in the Lewis and Clark Forest.
The trail hugs the edge of the front until it passes by Elk Mountain, at which point it dips down through a lodgepole and fir forest to turn back toward Highway 2, about 8 kilometers from the trailhead. Beginners might wish to turn around here and explore the open meadows in front of Elk Mountain or the Three Bears Lake area close to the trailhead.
If you continue on, however, down the steep hill, follow the trail along the open contour of the Autumn Creek drainage until you can cross back over the railroad tracks to meet Highway 2. When picking up your car at the trailhead, stop at the Summit Lodge and Mountain Steakhouse for a hearty steak dinner before heading home in the dark.