Breaking Trail in the Unbroken Snow Layers of Northwest Montana

Standing on the top of Desert Mountain – with snowshoes strapped to my feet – I felt a chill overwhelm my senses.  It wasn’t the subzero temperatures that triggered a watery-eyed reaction; it was a reacquaintance with the Montana I left a year ago.

The love affair continues.

I return to snowshoe among the unscathed snowy depths of the Big Sky Country.  The rich blessings of an arctic front paved its wintry brilliance before I arrived.  This was Montana’s red carpet experience: Feet of snow and the thrill of extreme wind chill.  The icy fingerprints of winter remain etched in the Glacier National Park surroundings long enough for my encounter.  There are no coincidences.

If I’ve learned anything by snowshoeing in Montana, it is to understand that I know nothing.  It is to understand that Glacier National Park is genuinely, and excitedly, unpredictable.  I can only manage to know that I snowshoe here for the experience…and I will leave with a longing to return.  I find grace the more I snowshoe among the spirit of Montana’s frozen kingdom. That is its gift.  I’m sure to not take it for granted.  But I do take advantage.

And the love affair continues.

“I long to be in the places that I see in the pictures of my dreams.  Where there’s mountains full of trees, meadows carpeted in green, silent, snowfall, clear running streams.” –LeGrande Harvey (Montana Melody)

Sweet Home, Great Northern Resort

Part of Glacier National Park’s charm is the surplus of independent businesses in West Glacier and nearby villages.  You won’t find an onslaught of commercialized brands dotting the roadways.  There are brands to be appreciated, which are formed by the hard work of small business owners in the area:  A lost art not wasted on West Glacier’s Great Northern Resort.  It’s a restful getaway.  A gem among treasures.  For a city dweller (yours truly), the Great Northern was too much of a good thing.  And that’s not always bad.

During the summer, more than two million people visit the Park.  Winter invites far fewer guests to Glacier, but that’s to the advantage of the snowshoer seeking the stillness of the wilderness.  Just off Highway 2 – near West Glacier – the Great Northern Resort is a wonderful place to call home while visiting the area.  Just look for the resort’s Red Caboose that rests near its headquarters.

Several log cabins and chalets, side by side, greet visitors with unique accommodations and the thrill of a true Montana lifestyle.  The cabins are rugged, authentic, and honor Glacier National Park’s heritage.  Even better, the resort’s off-season rates are completely affordable to the lone snowshoer (or group) on a mission to discover the essence of the Park and the Flathead National Forest.

After a short flight from Denver to Glacier International Airport, I was eager to rest and prepare for a day of snowshoeing.  My two-story cabin at the Great Northern was considered a small chalet, complete with a full kitchen, full bathroom, two queen size beds, and a comfortable living area.  The gas-powered fireplace provided enough ambient heat to warm the entire chalet.  Very welcoming.

The Great Northern is a very unpretentious destination – ready to relieve the tensions of everyday life.  I found that my cabin was fully prepared for my stay: Montana Coffee Traders coffee ready for brewing, yogurt, pumpkin seed granola mix, and fruit for my upcoming breakfasts.  Treatment like this is why I consider Montana my second home.

Owned by Nic and Victoria Lee, the resort’s breathtaking grounds can host large events, including weddings.  During the peak season, visitors can enjoy an array of activities, including whitewater rafting, fly fishing, scenic float trips, Paddle & Saddle guided tours and much more.  Aside from snowshoeing, winter invites guests to indulge in alpine skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort at Big Mountain, dog sled tours, snowmobiling and sleigh rides.

No matter the season, the National Park is always open for business – the Great Northern Resort as well.  The resort is a launching point for any great Glacier escape, romantic getaway, and general vacation for families.

Nic and Victoria are also the owners of the very unique Glacier Distilling Co.  Located in Coram, the Craft Distillery produces an array of whiskeys made from local Montana grains and bottled in the heart of Glacier Country.  Ask nicely and Nic will give you a tour (with a few sips of his latest creations).

In Montana Snowshoers Trust

In March 2010, I visited Glacier National Park for the first time on the search for what I recall as an awakening.  And it wasn’t short of exhilarating: I snowshoed parts of West Glacier and the Park’s southernmost areas.

I was awakened to some of the best backcountry snowshoeing in the world – nothing short of remote and untainted.  I was also awakened to the Park’s battles with climate change and some of the challenges that have crept into the Park’s everyday vernacular.  These problems unfortunately continue.

I return to Glacier National Park to find the snow conditions I didn’t receive a year earlier.  Coupled with sub-zero temperatures, the snow stood a consistent three feet in some locations.  Polar opposites compared to last year’s visit: The Park suffered from little snow over the 2009/2010 season, and a warming trend left a shallow ice-packed surface.

Last year, I gazed at the Middle Fork of the Flathead River’s turquoise waters – fed by glacial silt and consistent snow melt.  During my most recent visit, the river was frozen solid.  I could hear the faint sounds of ice cracking and the water moving underneath.  Winter’s splendor encases the Park in silence – part of its gift to snowshoers.

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About the author

Ryan Alford

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