Montana’s Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, scenic, cold and uncrowded in winter!

 

 

Old Faithful Geyser erupts at dusk, to a crowd of two, my spouse and me!

 

 

Last January,  we headed to Whitefish, MT, to join a group of ski patrol friends to ski at Whitefish Mountain (formerly, Big Mountain), tour into Glacier National Park and make our way south to Yellowstone National Parks.  I suggest such a winter trip should be on the bucket list for any outdoor enthusiast!

Whether the trip is to ski, to see our national parks or to take in the majesty of the west in winter, this trip does not disappoint.  We drove, from central California, through Nevada, north into Idaho and up through western Montana.  Most of the scenery is spectacular, roads are good and a host of inexpensive motels line the stunning route!

We made Whitefish, MT on a sunny, clear but -5 degree, which got our attention (little did we know that would be the warmest day in the next five!).  Some of our group boarded the Monday 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 toured into Glacier National Park, just 28 miles to the northeast.  Temperatures had reached 13 below zero, and keeping warm was high on everyone’s list. During the winter, most of the roads in Glacier Park are not plowed, and closed to vehicular traffic. 

From the western park entrance we were able to drive 11 miles into the Park on Going to the Sun Highway, ending at the boarded-up Lake McDonald Lodge.  Here, hardy snowshoers or cross country skiers can continue east along the closed road. 

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 snow-capped mountains across the lake. 

We then headed east along the park’s southern border.  In the town of Essex is the delightful 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 cabooses and a Great Northern locomotive, all turned into cozy accommodations, with numerous ski trails leading to incredible scenery!

After our several frigid days in the Glacier Park area, it was time to head south to West Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park.  Hwy 93 takes one south along the western shore of Flathead Lake, with snowy peaks framing the lake at every vantage point.  We turned east on I-90, past Missoula to Bozeman, as my spouse checked the Weather Channel app on her iPhone, noting that West Yellowstone was forecast to reach -25 degrees by the next morning.  Brrrrrr! 

We reached West Yellowstone just before dark, and spent the night at the Stagecoach Inn.  In January, but for snowmobilers, not a lot is going on (only a handful of restaurants and motels are open), so we had pizza across from the Stagecoach, turned in fairly early and waited for the coming cold morning.

The next morning, a motel attendant noted the temperature had reached -40 degrees overnight.  Sure…he must be exaggerating!   Shortly, I went out into the sunny morning to start my car – it would barely crank – the dashboard display registered -38 degrees!  After running down my battery, I called AAA.  Awaiting their arrival, I returned to the car 15 minutes later to get my hot cup of coffee, only to discover it frozen solid!

More than an hour later, AAA was able to start my car.  We learned that the Park Service was halting all entrants into the park (via snow coach or snowmobile) until the day warmed up to -25 degrees! 

Yellowstone Park can be entered in winter via three entrances, but only by snow coach or snowmobile.  Choices are from West Yellowstone (the west entrance), Mammoth Hot Springs (north) or from Jackson Hole/Flagg Ranch (south). 

On an earlier trip, we spent three days at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, a quarter mile from Old Faithful Geyser.  It’s a four-star hotel, with 150 rooms and a cozy, full-service restaurant.  We chose the Frontier Cabin option, vintage cabins a block out back and less expensive than the nearby lodge.

We packed our cross-country skis, but used them only sparingly.  While several feet of snow was on the ground, plenty of walkers/snowshoers had packed the snow-covered miles of boardwalk so that we were able to hike the thermal basins and up to the Old Faithful overlook shod only in winter footgear.

During our stay we saw stunning Trumpeter Swans on the Firehole River and shaggy bison throughout the park, including a huge bull just 20 feet off the boardwalk on one of our walking tours (they come down to the geyser basins for warmth in winter). 

Old Faithful Geyser, only a short walk from our cabin, and the park’s many thermal features warmed our hearts during several brisk hikes – often, we would be the only observers when a geyser erupted!

We marveled at elk by the hundreds; in winter, they prefer to wander the park roads rather than wade through deep snow.  The morning of our departure, a coyote followed us out the morning we left, seeking a handout; he’ll have to await our next visit! 

How to get there: From central CA, 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 make sense if predictions of temps down to -20 or lower! 

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 (Whitefish offers other good motel choices).  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/; 406.646.7381) several times; in Yellowstone Park 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.  For snowcoach service into the park, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce can offer choices of private snowcoach providers, (406) 646.7701.  For Yellowstone’s North park entrance (Mammoth Hot Springs) and south park entrance (Flagg Ranch/Teton Park) lodging and snow coach service, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge stays, contact Zanterra, www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com, (307) 344.7901.

For additional travel destination inspiration, see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; to contact me, tviall@msn.com. 

Happy travels in the West!

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