In the empty parking lot of the Apgar visitor’s center on the west side of Glacier National Park we click into our skis, stick hand warmers in our gloves, and start gliding northeast, up Going to the Sun Road, which is sitting under several feet of snow.
From July to September, Going to the Sun—the main vein of the park—is a bumper-to-bumper parking lot. Glacier sees 2.2 million visitors a year, and 90 percent of them come in the summer and the majority of them drive through the park. In the winter, when the road is shut down and covered by snow, it’s virtually empty. From Apgar you can ski 50 miles to Canada, and Waterton Lakes National Park on the other side of the border, and not see another person the entire time.
We skirt the east edge of Lake McDonald as the road starts to climb slightly. The 10-mile-long lake is frozen solid, because temperatures have been in the negatives all week, and you can see lines where shooting cracks have melted then frozen back over. At the top of the lake we trace McDonald Creek deeper into the park, and peaks like Mount Brown and Mount Jackson tower above us. They’re striated with avalanche paths. Our guide, long time local Dave Streeter from Glacier Adventure Guides, is an encyclopedia of snowpack mobility. He can point up and tell us which slopes slid when. He also tells us that some winters, when it stays cold enough for long enough, he and his old guy hockey team ski farther up the road to Avalanche Lake with stick and skates in their packs and play pond hockey.
The road climbs at a consistent mellow grade, but countless steeper backcountry lines fan out from Going to the Sun, and a lot of them are unskied. That’s primarily due to the lack of people in the park. Winter recreation is virtually untapped in Glacier, even though it holds terrain for skiing, ice climbing, snowshoeing, and more. “It’s not a huge place, it’s only 1 million acres, but it’s got vertical relief of more than 7,000 feet,” says Greg Fortin, Streeter’s boss at Glacier Adventure Guides.
Fortin says he’s not exactly sure why the park is an underused resource in winter, because you can get in year-round, but he thinks that the deep association between Glacier and Going to the Sun has something to do with it. “Maybe people think that when that’s closed the park is closed. That’s a shame,” he says. As one of two licensed winter guide services in the park, he’s trying to promote skiing and camping in the park. He’s says it’s vast, and that he’s still scoping out new areas that he’s never skied. He also says that the avalanche danger can be high in a lot of areas of the park, and the access for rescuers is often slow and indirect, so it’s important to travel safely and check the forecast.
We stay in the safety of the relatively flat road, scoping potential lines for future trips. By mid-afternoon, when the sun dips below the highest peaks and the light gets flat we turn around and ski back down the road.
Fortin says that March and April are the best times to go because the days are longer, but you can usually ski through July. In the spring, when they start plowing the road, you can bike up until you hit snow then start skiing. And even though he’s trying to pull more people into the park, every once in a while, when he sees a bighorn sheep scaling a rock face, or skis something he’s never skied before, he’s OK with the solitude, and the lack of crowds. “Of all the places in the lower 48 if you want to be out there by yourself you have a really good chance here,” he says.