When visiting Glacier National Park in the dead of winter, it’s hard to believe it’s the same area that’s bustling with tourists in the summer.
Traffic jams are replaced with snow-covered roads. Camera-toting tourists are sparse, and the stores and restaurants that attract the summer crowds are boarded up and drifted in. Not a single hotel in the park is open.
However, Glacier never closes, and those willing to venture into the park in the winter will find an experience completely different from a summer visit.
“If you haven’t been to Glacier in the winter, you’re missing out because it’s so special,” said park spokeswoman Denise Germann.
April Carr of Shelby, Montana, visits Glacier almost every weekend year round.
Glacier, of course, is spectacular any time of year, but there’s something special about winter.
“My favorite time is winter,” Carr said. “You’re out there really in solitude, and it’s just gorgeous.”
Carr rarely sees other groups, and when she does, they’re usually not headed to the same place as her group.
“That’s the beauty of going up there versus going to a (ski) resort,” she said.
SOLITUDE AND ANIMALS
Carr likes to cross-country ski and backcountry ski in Glacier. She also occasionally snowshoes there.
Snowshoeing and skiing are popular activities in Glacier in the winter.
“There’s snowshoeing and cross-country skiing throughout the park,” Germann said.
Nearly all the roads inside Glacier close in the winter and turn into destinations for recreationists instead. Hiking trails also offer great snowshoeing and skiing opportunities.
Winter can be a great time to see wildlife in the parks or to spot their tracks.
Park intern Rachel Zott leads snowshoe hikes on the weekends and works with school groups during the week. She often sees beavers during the hike, as well as ducks.
“We always see golden eyes and buffleheads,” she said.
Recently a group saw an otter eating a fish.
Carr almost always sees tracks, including lynx and mountain lion, on her Glacier outings.
Once, she spotted a wolf near Marias Pass.
“That was just wild,” she said.
Her ski group came upon a goat kill with wolf tracks around it and continued farther before stopping for lunch. After they got their skis off, they heard a strange noise. Looking behind them, they saw a howling wolf.
“He was just loud and big,” Carr said. “We got our skis on really quickly and took off.”
For the truly hardy, camping is an option in Glacier in the winter.
Auto camping is available at the Apgar Picnic Area and St. Mary Campground.
“It’s primitive camping,” Germann said.
There’s no running water or other services at the campgrounds in the winter. However, camping in the winter is free, and people do take advantage of it, although not in the same numbers as in the summer.
“They don’t fill up by any means,” Germann said of the two open campgrounds.
Backcountry camping is also free in the winter, although a permit is required.
Brian McKeon, supervisor of Glacier’s backcountry permit office, estimates that Glacier issues about 40 permits each winter. In the summer, they issue several thousand.
“If you went during the week, you’d probably be the only person in the backcountry in the whole park,” McKeon said.
On the weekend, you might be sharing the million-acre park with one other camping group.
Campers can apply for winter camping permits up to seven days in advance.
“We can do it over the phone,” McKeon said.
Permit applicants are required to watch a video online that covers safety and what to expect when camping in the winter.
Backcountry camping attracts skiers and ice climbers, as well as people who really don’t know what they’re getting themselves into, McKeon said.
McKeon often talks people out of camping in the winter when it’s clear they are inexperienced.
A winter camping trip is no small undertaking.
“In the summer there are dangers, but in the wintertime there’s a lot more to think about,” he said.
Camping in the summer is much more forgiving. In the winter, if you get wet or cold it can be a very dangerous situation.
“You just don’t have the luxury of daylight and time,” McKeon said. “On every permit, I put a warning for severe weather. In the winter, the weather changes so rapidly.”
Visitors who aren’t camping also need to be prepared for changing weather.
“Come prepared,” Germann said.
Food, water, extra layers and good footwear are all important.
Visitors also need to be aware of avalanche danger in the park.
A winter trip to Glacier requires more planning than in the summer. It also requires a little more self-sufficiency since services are very limited.
However, it can be an incredible experience.
“It is a spectacular winter wonderland,” Germann said. “It is just beautiful. The stillness is inspiring.”