Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake in winter, cold and uncrowded! Part I of III installments

We were headed to Whitefish, MT, to join an old group of ski patrol friends to ski at Whitefish Mountain (formerly, Big Mountain), tour into Glacier National Park, then make our way south to Yellowstone and Teton National Park.  We met up on Super Bowl Sunday and the 15 of us hung out in beautiful Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, as the Seattle Seahawks dismantled the Denver Broncos.

Whitefish Mountain Ski Area (formerly Big Mountain), towers over Whitefish, MT

The view along Lake McDonald in Glacier Park, on Going to the Sun Road

The Izaac Walton Inn, above, on the southern edge of Glacier Park; and one of numerous cabooses for overnight stays at the Izaac Walton Inn - what kid would not love it!

The lobby of the Izaac Walton Inn is a cozy place to relax after a day of showshoeing or skiing, a nice restaurant adjoins the lobby

The -13 on our car's dashboard readout was to foreshadow even colder temperatures to follow!

Monday in Whitefish dawned sunny and clear, though the -5 degrees got our attention (little did we know that would be the warmest day in the next five!).  Most of the group boarded the morning shuttle to Whitefish Mountain, while my spouse and I slept in, then grabbed our cross-country skis and did a few laps on the cross country ski track, right outside our cozy lodge.

The next day, five of us decided to tour into Glacier National Park, just 28 miles to the northeast.  By now, it had reached 13 below zero, and keeping warm was high on everyone’s list.  The ski area was only running chairlifts out of the wind, and most skiers were not braving the slopes.

During the winter, most of the roads in Glacier Park are not plowed, and closed to vehicular traffic.  We drove to Apgar Village, the western park entrance, and were able to drive 11 miles into the Park on Going to the Sun Highway where the road was closed at the boarded-up Lake McDonald Lodge.  Here, hardy snowshoers or cross country skiers can continue east along the closed road.  On the park’s east side, only 1.5 miles of road are kept open during the winter.

The tour along the southern shore of Lake McDonald offers simply stunning views.  We stood on the shore of the lake, with a wind-chill down to about -25, and listened to the slapping of white caps breaking on the shore, framed by the rugged mountains across the lake.  We admired the Lake McDonald Lodge, and made solemn promises to return again next summer!

We then retraced our steps back to Highway 2, and headed east along the park’s southern border.  In the town of Essex is the Izaac Walton Inn, a unique year-round resort that caters to skiers and snowshoers in the winter.  The old inn is a Great Northern Railway hotel with inviting rooms, and it is surrounded by renovated railway club cars, numerous cabooses and a Great Northern locomotive, all turned into cozy accommodations.  Your kids will love the chance to sleep in a caboose!  The Izaac Walton has numerous ski trails leading to incredible scenery!

Coming later in the week: What -38 degrees looks like in West Yellowstone, and, the most unforgettable visit to Yellowstone Park’s Old Faithful Snow Lodge!

Glacier National Park facts: The park is located in Montana, on the border of Canada, and encompasses 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.  The Going to the Sun Road has been described by many as the most beautiful drive in the US!

How to get there: We took the scenic route from California, 1100 miles from Stockton to Whitefish, MT.  We headed east on Interstate 80, then north on Hwy 95 through western Idaho, then Hwy 12 over Lolo Pass, north on Hwy 93 through Missoula and past beautiful Flathead Lake to Whitefish.  Hwy 2 east from Whitefish will take you to Glacier National Park.

What to take: Binoculars and camera, of course, lots of winter clothing, and skis or showshoes if you are into that.  And, chains for your vehicle, even if you have a 4-wheel drive; jumper cables also might be wise if you see predictions of temps down to -20 or lower!  We managed to avoid heavy snows, until our return to California when we had to chain up to get over Donner Pass on Interstate 80.

Where to stay: In Whitefish, the Grouse Mountain Lodge (http://www.grousemountainlodge.com/) is a superior choice for cozy and classy accommodations in a lodge-like setting.  On the southern edge of Glacier Park, no more unique inns exist than the Izaac Walton Inn (http://www.izaakwaltoninn.com/).  In West Yellowstone, we have enjoyed the Stagecoach Inn (http://yellowstoneinn.com/) several times; in Yellowstone Park itself, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the only winter choice (http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/).

For more information on Glacier National Park: (406) 888-7800, http://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/winter.htm.

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