Even though the calendar will tell you that spring begins on March 21, anyone who has lived in the Flathead Valley for even one winter knows that the sassy spring season is unpredictable and elusive. The first day of spring temperatures have varied by a whopping 78 degrees according to Intellicast.com records for Kalispell — the record high for March 21 was 68 degrees in 1999, and the record low was negative 10, set in 1913.
Spring’s first appearance might even come in the dead of winter. Pretty postcard snow at Christmas can be drenched by rain in January, followed by more cold weather and snow. A March thaw is more sincere, but we all know the saying, “comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion,” or vice versa. Still, spring has usually sprung by April, revealed in budding trees and the greening of fields and farms. But don’t put away your snow boots (or skis) yet. It’s not unusual to see daffodils’ bright, yellow hopefulness flattened by an April snowstorm.
So if we’ve learned one thing in the Flathead Valley, it’s that spring is not one thing. As a result, we learn to stay active outside while waiting for a more reliable summer season. (Okay, it has snowed in July.) From skiing to hiking to boating to yard work, where there is a will, there is a way to enjoy the outdoors during the hodgepodge of spring weather, because it’s also a time when the air seems clearer, snowcapped mountains seem taller and the grass really is greener.
Spring skiing has its own unique appeal, with a firm base allowing for efficient travel and easy cruising. A late snowstorm might even offer a powder day. Timing is everything. Spring snow can go from powdery or icy in the morning to mash-potato sloppy in the afternoon. For those who relish an extended snow season, here are a few ways to slide all the way into summer.
The Ski Areas
Skiing uphill has become a popular option at Whitefish Mountain Resort after it closes for the ski season. The only approved route for off-season uphill and downhill traffic is the East Route, open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (There are no uphill or downhill route restrictions before 8 a.m. and after 4 p.m., before and after the ski season.) The Blacktail cross-country ski trails can offer late-season skiing when snowpack lasts into April, although trails are only groomed through March 31, weather permitting.
The Jewel Basin Hiking Area parking lot typically isn’t snow free until late June, but meanwhile you can ski or snowmobile up the road. More experienced skiers and boarders equipped with avalanche training and equipment prefer the exciting backside, but more moderate skiers can enjoy a ski up the road and a traverse across the bowl above the parking area where trails are invisible, covered in many feet of snow.
The cross-country ski season is normally longer in the Swan Valley but usually involves searching for an open road that leads to snow, suited for the adventurer who finds enjoyment in the process. Roads leading to pubic lands won’t be chopped up by vehicle travel and can provide a moderate ski. The Lindbergh Lake area normally gets a lot of snow and has snowmobile tracks that keep the snow around a little longer. An old wildfire burn or logged area with a mellow slope can provide great open terrain where you can climb up for the reward of a ski down. Be prepared to pack your skis because the best snow is often accessed off roads that are impassable where snow lingers in shady areas.
Back on the Trail
Late snow might not be as appealing to hikers anxious to get back on the trail. Look for low-lying trailheads and southern exposures for early-season hikes, and be prepared for intermittent snow, overflowing creeks and wet conditions as spring runoff encroaches on trails. Also expect downfall that won’t be removed until trail crews begin maintenance in late spring.
If you gain elevation, you will start out in spring and then perhaps reenter winter. The stark contrast of a hillside bursting with wildflowers and rushing streams amidst lingering snow in the high country makes it a both challenging and exhilarating outing. Here are a few hikes along trails that start at the valley floor.
Close to town
Hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders can all use the Whitefish Trail and Foys to Blacktail Trail, each offering access to miles of low-lying trails.
The Lion-Palisade Falls crosses Lion Creek and meanders through an old logging site until it reaches the U.S. Forest Service boundary and the mystique of a cedar forest draped in ferns and lichen. Continue to a steeper portion near the creek, which has been clogged with avalanche debris some years, to reach a level spot looking across to the Mission Range and providing a nice place for lunch.
Bond Creek Trail, south of the village of Swan Lake, leads up to a small but pretty waterfall right next to the trail. The trail continues to Bond and Trinkus Lakes, but expect to find snow on this portion of the trail until June.
Glacier National Park
Glacier Apgar Lookout, Lake McDonald West Shore trail, Avalanche Lake Trail, Fish Lake and Johns Lake are a few hikes that begin at the valley floor and continue on a mild grade that might keep you out of the snow.
Up the North Fork and across from the Camas Road intersection you will find the Glacier View Trail, which travels up the ridge through an old burn. The relatively steep trail also gets lots of sun, so it’s usually free of snow until you get to the top. Take care on steep, snowy slopes and take a snow-free route when possible. Two shorter hikes, to Covey Meadow or Hidden Meadow, start at the Polebridge Ranger Station. Logging Creek, Bowman Lake and Kintla Lake all offer trails that follow the north side of each of the lakes.
Spring Thaw & High Water
Visit a waterfall
Spring is a great time to visit area falls fed by spring snowmelt. Right at the valley floor in Glacier Park are McDonald Falls and the falls in Avalanche Gorge. Downstream of Libby is Kootenai Falls, one of the largest free-falling waterfalls in the Northwest U.S. Head down the Swan Valley to Bond and Holland Falls, found along low-lying Forest Service trails.
Walk the Wild Mile
Take a walk on the Swan River Nature Trail from the village on the west end or start near the bridge on Swan River Road. The level trail lies on an old road above Swan River, which is flat and glassy until the spillway, where it explodes into the famous whitewater that attracts kayakers and spectators to the annual Bigfork Whitewater Festival held on Memorial Day Weekend.
Get back out on the lake
There is something special about that first paddle stroke after a long winter or launching your motorboat after it has been in winter storage and finding solitude before the busy summer season.
Ice break-up on lakes and rivers
Keep an eye on local waterways to capture the fascinating break-up of ice as it fractures into slabs that are pushed into mounds along the shoreline or bob down fast-flowing streams.
Fishing season is open year-round on lakes but opens for certain western Montana rivers and streams on the third Saturday of May, which is May 19 this year.
Wildlife’s Wily Ways
Spring is a dynamic time for wildlife, with migratory birds returning, mating season for smaller creatures, birthing for larger mammals and the emergence of hibernating animals. Be on the lookout for elk roaming the valley, the tracks and appearance of bears, new wildlife offspring, and the fascinating mating rituals of birds and even of your neighborhood squirrels.
Sandhill cranes have a particularly beautiful dance that occurs year-round but peaks during mating season, culminating with a call they sing in unison. While walking in the woods, you have probably heard the drumming of a ruffed grouse when it flaps cupped wings against its chest — even if you haven’t spotted the male bird hiding in bushes or grass. Eagles, which often mate for life, lock talons and spiral into a spectacular free-fall dive called cartwheeling during mating. Talk about falling for someone.
Wildlife and waterfowl refuges are always a great place to catch these displays. But it’s not like turning on your favorite television show — be patient, sit back and wait for it to happen. Here are a few good places to observe our feathered friends as well as other wildlife: Owen Sowerwine Natural Area located on the eastern outskirts of Kalispell, the West Valley area, Church Slough on Lower Valley Road, and at the viewing platform in Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, south of the village of Swan Lake.
Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the spring edition for free on newsstands across the valley.
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