Glacier National Park is nature at its most spectacular at any time of year, from its glacier-clad mountain peaks to its pristine lakes, wild nature from grizzly bears and bighorn sheep to majestic elks, and the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road traversing the park.
But for those truly seeking a respite from the park’s crowds, Glacier National Park in winter is an appealing alternative.
I have visited Glacier for a marvelous week of hiking and exploration during the summer but was intrigued to learn what it would be like to visit during the quiet winter months, what activities could be enjoyed, and what would be open for more intrepid travelers venturing to the park at that time of year.
For winter sports lovers, Glacier offers a gorgeous setting for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking. The snow lays a blanket of white over the landscape and provides a tranquil environment to get out in nature and just get away from it all.
Preparing for a Winter Visit
Despite the snowy beauty, a winter visit to Glacier will require special planning as the cold and snowy conditions can be unforgiving for the unprepared, plus there are closures of park facilities throughout the winter months to take into consideration.
There’s a joke that the seasons in Glacier are June, July, August, and Winter. While that may be stretching it a bit, it is true that summer can be brief, snows can arrive early, and winters can be long. Average temperatures during the traditional winter months range from highs of 27-32 degrees and lows of 14-17 degrees. Snows can arrive in September and last until May or June.
Climate conditions vary from one side of the park to the other since it straddles the Continental Divide, and the level of snowfall can be dramatically different. Weather conditions can change quickly with wind and snowstorms causing the temperature to drop dramatically in a few hours.
Winter Gear—what to wear and pack
Be prepared for the cold weather and have the right gear for any outdoor activity you may be planning. Here’s a checklist of what to bring to ensure you’re set for whatever winter weather you face on the ground in Glacier.
- Waterproof winter parka
- Insulated thermal underwear and shirts
- Insulated socks
- Snow pants
- Warm hat
- Face shield
- Insulated, waterproof gloves (you may also want to wear a pair of touchscreen-friendly gloves underneath)
- Snow boots
- Polarized sunglasses
- Waterproof daypack (to carry water, snacks, bags to carry out trash, toilet paper, sunscreen, lip protection, flashlight, maps, first aid kit)
- Crampons (traction cleats for walking on snow and ice)
- Dry bags to protect gear
- Walking sticks or trekking poles
What Park Facilities are Open in Winter?
The entry fee to visit Glacier in winter is less than in other seasons. The cost per auto is $25, or $15 per individual. The winter rate is in effect from November 1st through April 30th and provides for a 7-day permit for a private vehicle.
Most of Going-to-the-Sun Road shuts down during the winter owing to snow buildup and icy road conditions along its highest elevation stretches through Logan Pass. For most of the winter, the only drivable roads are the 11 miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road between Apgar Village and Lake McDonald Lodge, the Apgar Village roads, and the mile and a half from the Park’s east entrance to St. Mary Campground.
Of the three Park visitor centers, only Apgar on the west side is open during the winter but is available only on weekends. However, restrooms and drinking water are available at the Apgar Visitor Center year-round. St. Mary and Logan Pass Centers are closed during the winter season.
Only St. Mary and Apgar campgrounds remain open during winter for those who have the gear for cold-weather camping. Sites at St. Mary Campground near the East Entrance are free in winter and available on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is no water or toilets in the winter.
Apgar Campground is also open in winter, mostly for RV or auto camping. Loop B in the campground has some tent sites available on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is a vaulted toilet, but no water.
Where to Stay and Eat
Outdoor camping in winter is for the hardy to be sure and is only available with very limited services available if any. Stock up on supplies and food at towns like Columbia Falls outside the park. Backcountry camping is the most rustic option and only for experienced cold-weather campers and will require a backcountry permit (free in winter). You can get this in person up to 24 hours in advance of your trip at the Apgar Backcountry Permit Center.
Hotels near the Park
None of the Glacier Park hotels are open during the winter months, so those seeking more warmth and creature comforts will need to venture beyond the park for lodging. The closest options outside Glacier’s boundaries are along Montana Rt. 2, the southern perimeter of the park.
Here you will find several attractive options to sleep that is still very close to your planned daytime activities within the park.
Isaak Newton Lodge: stay in historic train car accommodations with fine dining, located between Glacier’s two entrances, roughly a 30-minute drive from either entrance.
Whitefish Lake Lodge in Whitefish: lake and mountain views 40 minutes from the West Entrance of Glacier.
Cedar Creek Lodge in Columbia Falls: This is a National Parks Service lodge, but it’s outside the park, it’s open year-round, and is located 20 minutes from the West Entrance.
The closure of all Glacier Park hotels in winter means that there are no restaurants or food services available either during this time of year.
You’ll need to search out restaurants at hotels outside the park or independent eateries in nearby towns and cities like Whitefish, Columbia Falls, or Kalispell. And be sure to stock up on snacks that you can pack in with you during your outdoor activities in the park!
For those prepared for the cold, there is beautiful scenery, a lack of crowds, and lots of outdoor activities to take advantage of.
One of the most enjoyable winter activities is snowshoeing. With a pair of snowshoes, you can navigate the wintry landscape and not sink down into the surrounding snow!
Normally there are ranger-led, two-hour snowshoe tours along McDonald Creek originating from the Apgar Visitor Center on weekends between January and March. But due to Covid-19, these guided tours are not being held this winter.
Since many of the roads are closed during the winter, this opens up great opportunities for snowshoeing on parts of the Going to the Sun Road near Lake McDonald Lodge. The Apgar Village has a variety of trails available. For a short 3-mile excursion, explore the Lower McDonald Creek Trail.
Cross-country skiing is a great winter workout, all the while passing extraordinary winter landscapes and mountain vistas within the park.
Once many of the roads close for the winter, they also become attractive cross-country ski trails! Skiing the Going-to-the-Sun Road is itself the most popular trail in the park. Other popular areas for skiing are found in the Lake McDonald and Apgar sections. Some of the best options for cross-country ski trails include:
- McDonald Falls Trail
- Avalanche Picnic Area Trail
- McDonald Creek Trail
- Rocky Point Trail
There are trails that will be open during the winter but be prepared for snow-covered paths that may be icy. In addition to snow boots, you may want to apply crampons to the bottom of your footwear to get a better grip on the ground surface.
Several recommended hikes start from around Apgar, including the Apgar Lookout, Fish Creek to Apgar, and Lake McDonald West Shore hikes, all of which are mostly level and well suited for enjoying the winter weather.
Although bears will normally be hibernating during the winter months, don’t neglect to bring bear spray on your outdoor adventures just in case! But there will still be plenty of active wildlife to potentially see, including bighorn sheep, elk, deer, snowshoe hares, moose, chipmunks, beaver, and more.
Go for a Scenic Drive
The section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road between the West Entrance and the Lake McDonald Lodge remains open year-round winds along the scenic and picturesque shore of Lake McDonald for about 10 miles and provides great winter scenery!
The beauty of the mountains and lakes is only be enhanced by the snow on the peaks and covering the trees. This can mean getting some great photographs during your winter vacation!
But be prepared to pack the extra equipment you need for cold-weather photography. Bring a battery pack to charge your camera, and extra camera batteries since the cold can cause the battery charge to ebb much more quickly.
With the lack of crowds, you can take some amazing pictures of Glacier’s gorgeous scenery. Be sure to visit Lake McDonald to get beautiful shots of the mountains reflected on the water’s surface.
Although this activity occurs outside of the Park’s boundaries, this is such a fun winter activity that I couldn’t leave it out. Dog Sled Adventures in Montana offers tours by dog sled, mushing across the wintry landscape behind a team of eager dogs.
They are located just outside the western flank of the park and have 130 huskies trained to pull the sleds through the awesome Montana scenery. Tours last about an hour and a half and depart three times daily, from December through March. The tour cost is $150 for adults, $75 for children 11 and under.
Winter Sports Tours
Sometimes it’s better to err on the side of caution and join in on a group activity to maximize your enjoyment of the winter wonderland of Glacier but under the supervision of local pros who are knowledgeable of the local conditions and what winter weather precautions to take.
Glacier Adventure Guides runs a variety of tours, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and winter camping trips.
Visiting Glacier in winter is a magical way to see the park and the Going-to-the-Sun Road under less crowded conditions when you can have large swaths of the park to yourself. The snow creates a hushed environment that lets you commune with nature and let the stress go as you get out into the winter wonderland on your snowshoes or cross-country skis or camp under the stars on a frosty winter night.