Even if you’ve been on a warm-weather outing through one of Western Montana’s stunning national parks, taking a winter trip to a geographical wonder is like traveling to a different world. From the wolf packs that draw roadside crowds and geyser mists that hang on trees in Yellowstone, to the solitary snow-covered tracks and staggering mountaintops stitched across Glacier, the Big Sky state has a wealth of outdoor activities to beat the dreariest of winter doldrums.
Starting in the north, Glacier National Park boasts some of the finest cross-country skiing in the Pacific Northwest, with breathtaking mountain views guaranteed and wildlife viewing opportunities a little harder to come across – though whitetail and mule deer, elk and even the occasional lynx can be spotted by diligent observers. While most of the park’s roads are closed for the season, a few sections remain open and plowed for most of the winter, such as the 10-mile stretch from the West Glacier entrance along Lake McDonald to Lake McDonald Lodge and a shorter drive from St. Mary to St. Mary Lake on the east side (www.nps.gov/glac).
“Here at Glacier, a winter visit is a quiet, solitary type of experience,” says park spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt, adding that of the national park’s two million annual visitors, roughly 80,000 to 100,000 come in the colder months from November to April. “It’s a more rustic experience. We just don’t have the full-service amenities, so visitors can come in and recreate for the day and then go back and sit in front of a fireplace.”
Just outside the heavily wooded West Entrance, many of the full-service hotels and local businesses cater to the wintry weather with a variety of activities, including guided snowmobiling tours around the park’s perimeter (snowmobiles are not allowed within Glacier), cross-country skiing and even ice climbing. Park employees also offer guided snowshoe tours during the weekends at the West Entrance’s Apgar Visitor Center from mid-January to mid-March. “Those are a great way to learn about winter adaptation and winter living” for the natural world, Vanderbilt says.
For wildlife watchers, catching a glimpse of the park’s handful of wolf packs is possible, but they are in secluded areas, Vanderbilt explains. The Lake MacDonald Valley, on the other hand, will be the best bet for travelers, especially those looking to remain in their vehicle. Even if visitors don’t come across any animals, the snow-topped Hemlock and ancient Red Cedar trees that extend into white-as-a-sheet landscapes are impressive in their own way, she offered.
A fee is required to enter Glacier, however they are reduced during the off-season at $15 for vehicles and $10 for single entrants, such as skiers, hikers and motorcyclists, for a seven-day pass. Primitive winter camping is free in the park at Apgar Picnic Area and St. Mary Campground with a valid entrance pass, though visitors must reserve a spot seven days in advance.
For updated road and weather reports in Glacier National Park, call 406-888-7800.
Farther south along the Montana-Wyoming border, Yellowstone National Park offers ample opportunities to study its varied natural wonders as they exist under the blanket of winter. And much like the park’s northern cousin, Yellowstone is a much more isolated place when the snow starts to fall, to the tune of about 120,000 visitors during winter compared to the three million during the summer months (www.nps.gov/yell).
“The wildlife viewing for people wanting to drive is incredible,” says park spokeswoman Linda Miller, before listing a diverse inventory of Yellowstone inhabitants that includes bison, elk, bighorn sheep and bald eagles.
About wintertime in the roughly 2.2 million-acre expanse, she adds, “It’s just a whole different look, a whole different feel. There are less people, and the whole park is just covered in white; it’s just a whole different world in the wintertime.”
For a can’t-miss wildlife-viewing corridor, park employees recommend Lamar Valley in the Northeast corner of the park, a sweeping expanse home to herds of bison, antelope, elk, several packs of wolves and dozens of their faithful roadside spectators. “It’s the most heavily concentrated population of wildlife in the park,” offers Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the primary in-park concessioner for Yellowstone. The company offers accommodations, dining and activities throughout the entire park (www.travelyellowstone.com).
Yellowstone’s North, West, South and East entrances are open for limited, managed snowmobile and snowcoach travel for the winter season, while access to the park’s interior is primarily through guided snowcoach tours. However, the road linking the northern gateway town of Gardiner, Mont., with Mammoth Hot Springs and the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City, Mont., is regularly plowed and
is open to wheeled vehicle traffic all year.
For visitors seeking a more laid-back and down-to-earth experience, a snowcoach trip to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge might be the way to go. From there, guests have access to cross-country skiing, geyser trails and some of the most magnificent snowscapes on the planet, at least according to Hoeninghausen.
“As I tell folks, it’s got all the same great attractions as the summertime. The thing that makes a big difference, though, is the ice and snow – the difference in fire and ice,” he says, adding that the steam curling off the abundant geothermal vents hangs in the forests. “It definitely enhances the thermal features when it comes to the geysers. It is somewhat otherworldly when you see that.”
A fee is required to enter the park, which cost either $25 for a private, noncommercial vehicle; $20 for each snowmobile or motorcycle; or $12 for each visitor 16 and older entering by foot, bike, ski, etc. This fee provides the visitor with a 7-day entrance permit for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
For updated road and weather reports in Yellowstone National Park, call 307-344-2117.