On a recent trip to Whitefish, Montana to join friends for a ski vacation, we ventured into nearby Glacier National Park for two days of exploring. We then trekked north another 350 miles into British Columbia and Alberta to see Kootenay and Banff National Parks. This is the story of these three grand parks in their winter splendor.
Glacier National Park is located on the Montana/Canada border, encompassing over one million acres and more than 130 lakes. It contains portions of two rugged mountain ranges and some of the US’s remaining glaciers.
Glacier National Park has limited winter access – but that does not mar its icy splendor. We reached Apgar Village area on the park’s west side, and skied on trails along the edge of Lake McDonald (snowshoers also welcome). Longer trails take one high above the lake on its north side, allowing a view into the park’s interior.
From Apgar, we drove 10 miles east on Going to the Sun Highway, barricaded in winter at Lake McDonald Lodge (skiers and snowshoers can continue on). This grand lodge, shuttered in the winter, sits eerily abandoned. The views looking east along the lake into the park are memorable, and to have these vistas almost all to ourselves was remarkable.
Montana Hwy. 2 runs along the southern border of the park – here we found the little town of Essex and the Izaac Walton Lodge. Built by the Great Northern Railroad in 1939 to house railway workers, the lodge offers rooms, several cabooses, railway club cars and a locomotive, all converted for cozy lodging. The lodge is surrounded by cross country ski trails to take one above the park for stunning winter scenery.
Returning from Essex, we noticed a set of nine white crosses beside the highway – site of the worst highway accident in Montana history. Entering Montana, a sign at the border explains the crosses, each denoting a fatality on that stretch of highway over the years. Individual and multiple crosses are grim memorials – but, nine?
On January 21, 1984, members of the Whitefish High wrestling squad, cheerleaders and coaches were returning from a match in Browning. On this snow-choked stretch of Hwy. 2, just west of Essex, the bus collided with a gasoline tanker-truck – killing nine wrestlers, cheerleaders and coaches and injuring 18 – testimony to the treacheries of winter driving.
From Whitefish, we headed north into British Columbia and Alberta – take Glacier National Park and multiply by 100! Towering, rocky peaks extend northward for hundreds of miles. We soon were following the western edge of Kootenay National Park, with the Kootenay River framed by these jagged spires. The river churns southwestward where it joins the mighty Columbia coursing through Washington towards the Pacific.
Kootenay National Park covers 543 square miles in the Canadian Rockies, with craggy peaks ranging above 11,000 feet. Kootenay is one of the four contiguous mountain parks in the Canadian Rockies; the others are Banff National Park, east, Yoho National Park, north, and Jasper National Park, 300 miles further north.
We followed BC Highway 93, the Banff-Windermere Highway, through the park and stopped mid-park to admire Radium Hot Springs, testimony to the volcanic activity that helped form the park and remains active below the ground. With reservations in Banff, we regretted we could not explore more.
We were soon into Banff National Park, sharing a common border with Kootenay, and vast at 2560 square miles. The park was established in 1885, two years after three railroad workers discovered a cave and hot springs near the town of Banff. The original discovery site is preserved as Cave and Basin Historic Site, just across the river from downtown Banff – here we also discovered a series of cross-country ski trails leading north from the site.
Canada’s Trans-Canada Highway splits the park, and soon we were into Lake Louise headed for the lake (ringed by towers of rock and ice) and historic Chateau Lake Louise. The Canadian Pacific Railroad was instrumental in developing the national parks, building the Chateau and Banff’s even-larger Banff Springs Hotel to attract tourists.
We happened upon the lake and Chateau just 10 days after their ice-sculpting festival; a large ice house was built out on the frozen lake and ice sculptures adorned the grounds. Happily, it had remained cold since they were carved and the frigid art was holding up well. After walking on the lake and admiring the art, we retired to the Chateau’s bar, where libations further enhanced the view of the setting sun the frozen scenery.
We spent two nights and days in Banff, where the Canadian exchange rate made nice, inexpensive motels downright cheap. The town has scores of restaurants to match its motel culture, and we found the Juniper Lodge Bistro, top rated by Trip Advisor, to be sublime, with a stunning view of the mountains.
Our second day, we toured the cross-country trail from Cave and Basin through the lovely Bow River Valley, then made a quick tour of the stately Banff Springs Hotel. The historic hotel, home to royalty and diplomats through the years, exudes English-style, with High Tea served daily in its opulent setting. Nearby ski areas, including Mt. Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise offer skiing adventure for the younger set.
The morning of our departure dawned with a raging snowstorm; we were delighted to be headed down to the plains of Calgary, and left the snow behind as we headed south to Montana and Yellowstone Park.
Where to stay: In Whitefish, the Grouse Mountain Lodge (http://www.grousemountainlodge.com/) for cozy accommodations in a lodge-like setting. On the southern edge of Glacier Park, no more unique inns exist than the Izaac Walton Inn, izaakwaltoninn.com/. In Banff, we found the Red Carpet Inn by searching Kayak, nice accommodations and a great value.
For information: Glacier National Park, http://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/winter.htm; Kootenay National Park, British Columbia and Banff National Park, Alberta, go to Parks Canada website, pc.gc.ca.