Local’s Guide to Visiting Glacier National Park and Glacier Country in the Winter
If you’re finding yourself by Glacier National Park in the winter months, you no doubt want to check out this beloved National Park in Montana.
However, you’re probably wondering…what can you do in Glacier National Park in the winter? You may already be aware that the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road will be closed (if not, spoiler alert! Most of that road is only open for a few months each year, usually from mid-June to mid-September, but all depends on the snow), but wondering if all roads are closed. And what about Glacier’s hiking trails in the winter?
As Montanans who love the winter month activities just as much as those we can do the rest of the year, we are excited to share how to spend your time when visiting Glacier National Park in the winter.
We’ll also discuss things to do in Glacier Country, the Montana region where Glacier National Park is located, and which is home to so many incredible things to do as well.
What’s Open in Glacier National Park in the Winter?
The first thought on most people’s minds when planning a winter trip to Glacier is a big question:
To discuss that, it may actually be easier to talk about what’s closed first.
First off, none of the lodges located in the park are open in the winter. Unless you’re camping (more on that below) you’ll have to stay outside the park. Luckily, there are plenty of options nearby that are open year-round and are just a short drive from Glacier.
A few favorites include:
Isaak Newton Lodge in Essex: Cozy lodge, cool train car accommodations, nordic ski trails, and located right in between Glacier’s two entrances: the lodge is roughly a 30-minute drive from both entrances.
Whitefish Lake Lodge in Whitefish: Cozy rooms, lake and mountain views, and 40 minutes from the West Entrance of Glacier. Also provides easy access up the mountain to Whitefish Resort for some downhill skiing.
Cedar Creek Lodge in Columbia Falls: This is a National Parks Service lodge, but since Cedar Creek Lodge isn’t located in the park, it’s open year-round. It has cozy rooms and is located just 20 minutes from the West Entrance.
The lodges being closed also mean the restaurants located within these lodges are closed, so be sure to bring ample food to eat for your day in the park.
Even in West Glacier, the little village located right outside the west entrance to the park, you’ll find that most restaurants and hotels are closed in the winter. So come prepared with food, or be ready to drive to Whitefish or Columbia Falls for lunch or dinner.
As mentioned earlier, the Going-to-the-Sun road that stretches from the west entrance of the park to the east entrance will be closed, except for the small part near Apgar Village. Depending on conditions and if it’s earlier/later in the winter season, the part of the road to the Avalanche Lake trailhead may also be open.
For most of the winter, though, the only maintained roads (i.e. plowed and drivable) are the 11 miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road between Apgar Village and Lake McDonald Lodge, the roads within Apgar Village, and the mile and half from the east entrance to St. Mary Campground.
Most importantly, remember that all of this can change on a day-to-day basis depending on snowfall and road conditions.
So that leads us with our short list of what’s open in the winter in Glacier National Park: Apgar Visitor Center (on weekends), St. Mary Campground, and Apgar Campground.
Winter Activities in Glacier National Park
So now you’re probably wondering: in the parts of Glacier National Park that are open, what are the best activities to do there in the winter? Here’s our top picks, plus a note on where else you can do it in Glacier Country outside the park if conditions prevent you from doing it in Glacier National Park.
Snowshoeing in Glacier National Park
Snowshoeing is like hiking…but more fun (in my opinion anyway!). If you fall over, you get to fall over in snow! And Glacier National Park is a prime place to do it.
To stay safe and make sure you don’t get lost or find yourself in the path of an avalanche, it’s best to go with a guide unless you’re experienced snowshoeing in backcountry mountain terrain.
Winter Activities Tip: Bring probing poles and an Avalanche Transceiver to mitigate your risk of finding yourself stuck in deep snow or in an avalanche. A camp shovel is also wise to bring.
A fun way to do this is on a ranger-led snowshoeing hikes that leave from Apgar Visitor Center around the Apgar area of the park; these are 2-hour tours typically offered on weekends during the winter season and are free. You can even rent snowshoes from the Visitor Center.
Other Options for Snowshoeing in Glacier Country: Check out the Toni Matt and East Route trails at Whitefish Mountain Resort, both of which are open to snowshoers.
Nordic Skiing in Glacier National Park
When the Going-to-the-Sun road is closed to traffic in the winter, one way to explore it farther is to do some Nordic skiing, also referred to as cross-country skiing. This is a magical way to explore the park and the Going-to-the-Sun road. Snow blankets the park in a soft cocoon of quiet and the lack of crowds will have you feeling more at peace in nature than the busy summer months when the road is often bumper to bumper traffic.
Most people don’t go farther than the Avalanche Lake Trail, though some do continue up the mountain on Going-to-the-Sun Road, which eventually leads to Logan Pass. Keep in mind that crossing the pass is recommended only for extremely experienced skiers who have knowledge of nordic skiing in the backcountry and are avalanche-aware.
Beyond Going-to-the-Sun road are many other options for cross country skiing in Glacier National Park. Take the ski trail up to Polebridge, where you can reward yourself with huckleberry bear claw from Polebridge Mercantile.
The National Park Service keeps a detailed list of trail options with links of where to check for closures and avalanche alerts plus a list of safety precautions here.
Other Options for Nordic Skiing Near Glacier National Park: Glacier Nordic Center in Whitefish and the cross-country skiing trails at Isaak Walton Inn in Essex.
Winter Camping in Glacier National Park
If you’re planning on doing an overnight snowshoeing or cross country skiing trip, say while going from Lake McDonald Lodge to Logan Pass, you’ll need a backcountry permit. You have to get your backcountry camping permit in person up to 24 hours in advance of your camping trip at the Apgar Backcountry Permit Center, which is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (hours are subject to change so double check before your trip). The permits are free in winter (November 1 through April 30).
Backcountry camping in winter is not for the faint of heart and requires ample preparation and knowledge of mountain weather and snow conditions. If you’re an experienced cold-weather camper, then backcountry camping in Glacier National Park in the winter can provide you with a frosty fairytale setting that you won’t have to share with strangers.
There are 65 different campsites for backcountry camping around the park and you’ll need a permit that you keep with you during your winter backpacking adventures in Glacier. You can find out more about rules and regulations for the backcountry of Glacier National Park here.
Backcountry camping isn’t for everyone — even those who do like to camp in winter! If that sounds like you, then you’ll be happy to hear there are two campgrounds open in Glacier National Park in the winter. Near the east entrance is St. Mary Campground and near the west entrance is Apgar Campground.
St. Mary Campground near the East Entrance is open to campers in winter and during that time it is free to camp there (though you’ll still need a national park pass). Sites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is no water or toilets at St. Mary Campground in the winter.
Apgar Campground is also open for winter camping and is free, though it is mostly just RV or auto camping in the winter. However, Loop B in the campground has some tent sites available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Loop B has a vaulted toilet, but no water.
Other Winter Fun to Have in Glacier Country
Now for a few other favorite things to do beyond the park when you’re visiting Glacier Country in the winter.
Find some romance or delight the kids with a winter activity in Glacier Country that feels right out of a fairy tale: a snowy sleigh ride.
To book a winter sleigh ride during your trip, your best bet is to reach out to a nearby dude ranch and see if they offer sleigh rides for non-staying guests (or of course, you could always opt to stay at a dude ranch in Montana!). Two options near Glacier National Park for winter sleigh rides are Bar W and Cripple Creek Horse Ranch.
Missoula also usually has sleigh rides through the downtown area during the winter holidays; in the past these have been provided by the Resort at Paws Up, which also offers sleigh rides on its property.
When looking into snowmobiling in Glacier country, you’ll likely see something about “sledding the burn.” This doesn’t mean snowmobiling so powerfully that your muscles burn, it actually refers to an area of the forest that burned down during Montana’s wildfire season; in this case, the Rice Ridge and Alice Creek fires. You can “Sled the Burn” in Seeley Lake, Ovando, and Lincoln where you’ll find over 600 miles of groomed snowmobile trails going through the Seeley Swan and Blackfoot valleys that get typically get over 300 inches of snow each year. This area is also open to backcountry sled skiing.
For a guided snowmobiling adventure, check out Swan Mountain Snowmobiling in Columbia Falls.
Mountain biking isn’t just for the warm weather months, but it looks a bit different in winter in Glacier Country. Instead of zipping down dirt mountain trails, you’ll ride along groomed snow-covered trails.
Fat bikes have extra thick tires that can handle the slush and powder of the snow much better than regular bike tires can.
Fat bike rental companies are located in Missoula, Kalispell, and Whitefish. Once you have your bike, a great place to ride it around is the Whitefish Bike Retreat Lodge and Campground located just outside of Whitefish, Montana. The Whitefish Bike Retreat Lodge has a number of trails, including ones that connect to the popular Whitefish Trail.
You won’t find a much more exciting — and adorable — winter activity in Glacier Country than dog sledding.
Base Camp Bigfork is a popular outfitter company located near Flathead Lake that offers guided dog sledding tours and even the chance to learn how to mush your own team. For an in-depth dog sledding you’ll never forget, opt for one of the overnight winter camping by dog sled excursions.
If you feel the need for some snowy speed, switch up your Nordic skis for some downhill skis (or a snowboard) and head to Whitefish Mountain for some epic Montana skiing. You’ll have gorgeous winter views of Glacier Country and can see all the way to the mountain peaks of Glacier National Park from the top of some runs.
Love fishing even in the cold winter months? Try ice fishing in Flathead Lake, but stick to the shallower bays; Flathead Lake is so deep the whole lake doesn’t usually completely freeze over. Whitefish Lake is another great option for ice fishing.
And remember — even in winter, you’ll need a fishing license.
Winter Weather in Glacier National Park
Now for the next question on everyone’s mind after “what’s open?” and “what is there to do?” And that is…
What is the weather like in winter in Glacier National Park?
In a word? Cold.
Ok, make that two words: Really cold.
But dress like a local and you’ll be just fine. How do locals dress? Here’s what you’ll want with you:
- Wool Underlayers: I like the Icebreaker brand — warm, 100% wool, but doesn’t itch me like other wool products do.
- Weatherproof Coat: By weatherproof I mean windproof, waterproof, and keeps you warm into the single digits (and negative digits). No, your fancy down jacket won’t necessarily cut it — make sure the outer layer will stay dry. If you want to enjoy your time in Montana in the winter it’s worthy investing in a legit winter coat. —> I have this coat and love it!
- Warm Socks: Wool socks plus extra ones to stick into your daypack. Keep those feet warm!
- Waterproof Daypack: Speaking of daypacks, bring one that’s tailored for winter like this one.
- Face Shield: You’ll want this if you’re there on a windy day.
- Thick, Warm Hat: I like the ones with fleece inside so they’re not itchy, like this one.
- Snowpants: And if you don’t want snow going up your back if you’re prone to falling while skiing or snowshoeing, get one with stirrups or a ski belt like this one.
If you’re going out into the backcountry of Glacier National Park, bring extra layers of clothes. Wet clothes can be dangerous.
And remember — weather conditions and the temperature can change quickly and drastically in Glacier National Park. It’s not unheard of for wind and snow storms to happen suddenly, or for the temperature to drop from 40 degrees to below zero in just a few hours.
Be prepared and you’ll have a fun, memorable time right in the midst of all that winter beauty Glacier National Park has to offer.