Skis and snowshoes are the order of the day for six months of the year in northwest Montana's Glacier Country. In Glacier National Park, snow clings to high-country passes until late July, and you can only drive most of the scenic 55-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road from early June to mid-October. Still, the park is open year 'round, and hikers usually find its 730 miles of trails passable by mid-June.
Whatever the time of the year, the park offers breathtaking scenery--jagged mountains and hanging valleys sculpted by glacial ice, towering cliffs, 300-foot waterfalls, and clear, ice-blue lakes begging to be fished. The park's heavily wooded 1.2 million acres are home to elk, moose, black and grizzly bear, and wolves. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats leap from crag to crag, and, during the summer, white-tail and mule deer graze on a carpet of wildflowers.
Going-to-the-Sun Road spans the width of the Park and crosses the Continental Divide at 6646-foot-high Logan Pass. The two-lane road is paved, but due to its steep, narrow nature, vehicles are restricted to 21 feet in length and a maximum width of eight feet, including mirrors. The road ends at Saint Mary along the eastern edge of the Park, where the shockingly flat, tan expanse of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, established in 1851, stretches before you.
Highway 89 North to Chief Mountain International Highway (17) will take you across the border into Canada and the upper portion of a park that bridges two nations. Established in 1895, the 203-square-mile Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, and Glacier, circa 1910, became the International Peace Park in 1932.
If the Sun Road is closed, take Highway 2 to Browning from the West Glacier entrance to the Park. The road runs alongside Amtrak rails, and the train still stops before the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. Built for the Great Northern Railway train crews in 1939, the historic Inn is a year 'round resort. Whether guests come for whitewater rafting in the summer or crosscountry skiing in winter, they eat in the Dining Car Restaurant and sleep in a cozy room or a standalone caboose.
Within Glacier Park itself, accommodations range from many-room lodges and hotels to motels, rustic cabins, and campsites with and without facilities. Most places are closed from October to May, except for a primitive campground at Apgar near the park's west entrance. Winter campers find the experience peaceful and challenging. Beginning in late November, back-country camping regulations take effect. Weather is unpredictable, and skiers in particular must beware of avalanches and hypothermia.
Off-season visitors who prefer amenities often choose nearby towns as a base. For campers, there's a KOA three miles south of Whitefish on Highway 93 and an in-town RV park with tent sites, both open all year. Skaters can perform figure-eights at the Olympic-size Mountain Trails Ice Skating Center in Whitefish or take a walking tour enlivened with intriguing tidbits of town history. Although the Big Mountain Resort (www.bigmtn.com) has a few "no-snow" activities such as mountain biking and hikes, it's better known for its winter sports. Snow tubing, snowboarding, and snowcat skiing join downhill and Nordic skiing on the slopes.
Skiing down a mountainside with wind in your face may be fun, but it's hardly unique. What better way to end a snow-laden holiday than a once-in-a-lifetime travel at the "Speed of Dog"? Just minutes from Whitefish on Highway 93 is Dog Sled Adventures (406/881-2275; www.dogsledadventuresmontana.com). Wrapped in a cocoon of elk fur and pulled by a bevy of eager, tail-wagging dogs, you're off on an exhilarating 12-mile-loop ride through the Stillwater State Forest. Cookies and hot chocolate are a warm-up treat at trail's end.
Be Advised: The information presented in this column is, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend you call the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting.
Editor's Note: Mud or snow on your windshield give you chills? Four-wheeling your weekends away? Got a good story to tell about it? Send us all the gear-popping seatbelt-tightening dust-kicking details in 500 words or less, along with your best photos (color slides, preferably), and we'll pay $300. Send to Truck Trend, c/o "On the Road," 6420 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048. We'll publish your adventures.
From Whitefish: Take (Highway 93) S.R. 40 through Columbia Falls to U.S. Highway 2. Take U.S. Highway 2 to the East or West Glacier entrance to Glacier National Park.
From I-90: Exit S.R. 200 to S.R. 83 North to Columbia Falls and Highway 2. Enter the Park at the East or West Glacier entrance.