Winter’s Treasure Chest

Explore five of Northwest Montana’s prettiest winter destinations

By Kay Bjork
The sun sets on Flathead Lake as ice forms on the lake and glazes rocks along the shoreline. - Kay Bjork

Northwest Montana is famous for its unmatchable beauty in the summer, but winter offers its own kind of magic. Mother Nature starts with a bare canvas by throwing down a snow blanket to hide the melancholy of landscapes drained of color and strewn with shriveled gardens and fallen leaves. She then constantly rearranges and redecorates, refreshing the landscape with each snowfall, like a newly painted room. Intricate ice trinkets dangle from logs and rocks, while glistening sheets of ice cover lakes. Hoarfrost’s delicate petals and feathers form winter floral gardens, and the wind and sun carve new patterns into snow and ice.

Winter presents its challenges: mustering enough time, energy and desire to play in the snow after you dig yourself out of your driveway or chip ice off your windshield, for starters. But romping in snow will make you love winter more. If you don’t snowshoe, skate, ski or ice fish, just tug on your warmest boots and find a country road, a quiet wildlife refuge or a place with low snowpack and go exploring in the woods. Winter is a mysterious time, with delightful surprises around every corner, from the delicate frost that flutters on a blade of grass to the varying textures and shapes of lake ice and the snow-covered evergreens set against crystal-clear blue sky. Here are just a few of winter’s many magical wonderlands.

Glacier National Park  

The extraordinary Glacier National Park is probably the most obvious choice, at least in the summer. More than a million people visited Glacier National Park in July 2017, and if you were one of them, you might recall the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in the visitor centers. Winter offers a dramatically different park experience. There were fewer than 13,000 visitors in December last year, giving locals the opportunity to reclaim their big backyard. Many of the park roads are closed and unplowed in winter, transforming them into a playground for snowshoers and cross-country skiers.

A drive to Apgar at the head of Lake McDonald offers spectacular views of Glacier’s rugged mountains, with ranger-guided snowshoe trips offered on weekends. Also right out of Apgar are several recreation opportunities along the park’s unplowed roads. Cross McDonald Creek to take a ski up Camas Road, which is a moderate uphill followed by a moderate downhill. Fish Creek Road rolls through the trees before it breaks into views of Lake McDonald and then dips back into the trees. Going-to-the-Sun Road offers a relatively flat grade and surface on which to walk, ski or snowshoe. But don’t stop there. Explore some of the farther corners of the park for a good chance at solitude and the thrill of being the first to lay down tracks in powdery snow. 

Jump on the North Fork Road (County Road #486) north of Columbia Falls for a scenic winter trip up the North Fork Flathead River with tremendous views. One option is to ski along the unplowed Camas Road, which is located a couple of miles past the Big Creek Ranger Station at the bridge over the Flathead River. Continue on 486 to Polebridge, where open meadows offer nearly unobstructed views and an inviting area to wander on skis or showshoes. The iconic red Polebridge Mercantile is closed from November 21 through January 12 for the holidays, but it reopens on January 13 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The historic store is a great place to treat yourself to lunch from the deli or their famous bakery before or after an outing. Cross over the river and park at the Polebridge Ranger Station to begin your outing. Stay left at both road junctions, following along a nearly flat road to reach Big Prairie, with its dramatic backdrop of snow-covered mountains and clear views offering opportunities to spot wildlife such as eagle, coyote, deer and elk. Head right at the gate and then left for a three-mile loop around Covey Meadow, or continue on to Lone Pine Prairie. A six-mile ski to Bowman Lake is an option for more ambitious and seasoned skiers.

Marias Pass     

Marias Pass feels like the top of the world, or perhaps out of this world, with Glacier Park views on the left side of the highway (if you are coming from the Flathead Valley) and the sweeping white snowfields below Flattop Mountain on the right side. Located on U.S. Highway 2, the pass reaches 5,215 feet elevation at the Continental Divide. The trail on the Glacier National Park side will take skiers over the railroad tracks and into the park, through the forest near Autumn Creek, before breaking out into a more open ski below Elk Mountain. The trail has steeper portions and crosses avalanche paths, so is more suitable for experienced recreationists. The ski offers the option of a one-way trek if you leave a car at a pullout on Highway 2 at mile marker 193.8 at the other end of the trail. On the east side, you can ski or snowshoe the broad unplowed road or wander in the open slopes left by the 2006 Skyland fire. Weather can be unpredictable at the pass, with clouds and fog racing over the mountain and winds whipping loose snow into snow cornices, drifts and silver snags.

Flathead Lake 

Flathead Lake boat launches and recreation areas are nearly deserted during winter, even though the lake is very much alive with dynamic beauty. Flathead Lake hasn’t frozen completely over since 2008, but large sections often freeze over in quiet bays and along the north shore. Visit a boat launch to observe fascinating ice formations or a winter storm’s white caps and dramatic skies. Wayfarers State Park in Bigfork also has a trail system where you can take a walk when there isn’t a lot of snow.

Along the east shore, from north to south, are the Somers Bay Boat Launch, Volunteer Park in Lakeside and West Shore State Park, which is known for its rocky outcrops where you can enjoy beautiful views of the lake in winter, take a walk or snowshoe on the trails, depending on the snowpack.

Take a walk, ski or snowshoe into the North Shore Wildlife Management Area, where you can find plenty of wildlife and occasionally ice-skating opportunities on Flathead Lake. Waves, wind and snowfall are constantly altering this landscape, making it a place of discovery each time you visit.

Blacktail Mountain Area

When the rest of the valley is buried in fog, the high country is often drenched in sunshine, including Blacktail Mountain, where the Blacktail Mountain Nordic ski trails take you above the fog. Great snow and views of Flathead Lake, as well as the surrounding mountain ranges, make it worth the drive up this winding mountain road. If you have snow bunnies in your group, they can have lunch at Muley’s on the top floor of Blacktail Mountain Ski Resort and enjoy stunning views of the mountains and skiers while you’re exploring the Nordic trails.

The nonprofit North Shore Nordic Club grooms over 15 miles of trails on Blacktail Mountain, December through March, in a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service’s Swan Lake Ranger District. The main parking lot lies a short distance off Blacktail Mountain Road at 4,800 feet. There are several loops of varying lengths and difficulty that also lead to additional trails that are not groomed but are sometimes tracked by skiers or snowshoers. Visit northshorenordic.org for a detailed trail map and current conditions.

Swan Valley

A drive down the lovely snow belt of the Swan Valley is like taking a trip into a Christmas card. The scenic Highway 83 tunnels through a corridor of evergreen trees, sprinkled by cabins cradled in marshmallow snow mounds amidst the majestic Swan and Mission mountains.

The heaps of snow that make the Swan Valley so inviting also make it more difficult to find access to this winter wonderland. Right in the little village of Swan Lake is a boat launch that can offer a view up the lake or a place to set off on skis or snowshoes, or to go ice fishing when the lake has frozen thick enough to be safe. (If you are not savvy to safe ice, it’s better to stay on land or talk to someone who is qualified to verify ice safety.) Three miles south of the Swan Lake village is Porcupine Creek Road, popular with snowmobilers but also a fun place to ski up the road crossing Swan River. Continue up the hill and take a right onto Forest Service Road 9803 (2.2 miles after leaving Highway 83), and the continue for another 1.5 miles to reach the Mission Lookout, which is part of the USFS cabin rental program late spring to early fall but unoccupied in winter.

Look for a plowed-out area along Highway 83 for an excursion launch pad. Even though there is plenty of public land, there are also tracts of private land. Holland Lake is an especially magical Swan Valley destination that is tucked dramatically against mountains and dominated by public shoreline. Park at a recreation area or pull off the road to ski an unplowed portion of road to the trailhead, where you can ski to the lake or stay on the trail to reach Holland Falls. The 1.5-mile trail to Holland Falls is a moderate climb best suited for snowshoes or boots with good traction because of the rocky and narrow aspect of the trail. You will gain enough elevation for good views of Holland Lake and the Mission Mountains, and during a cold spell the falls appear to be frozen in time, transformed into an ice sculpture.

Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the winter edition for free on newsstands across the valley, or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.