Like most national parks, Glacier National Park’s peak season is during the summer months. It often gets very crowded June-August which is why my favorite time to go is May or September. However, there’s also a lot to do in Glacier National Park in Winter!
Austin and I visited Glacier NP at the end of this past summer and it was still relatively crowded, but it was also pretty chilly, so the crowds had already died down a bit. We ended up LOVING this national park and will be back for more even after we move away from Montana.
Why visit Glacer National Park in Winter?
The most obvious answer to this question is less people. Most people want to visit national parks in the summer because they can see and do everything that park has to offer. Oftentimes in Winter, you can’t do everything you can in Summer because of road closures. The same is true for Glacier National Park, but there are a few unique experiences you can have in Winter that you can’t in Summer.
Since there are significantly less people in the park, Winter is also a great time to spot wildlife. Animals tend to be more active with less people, so it’s the perfect time to look out for them. Lastly, this park is beautiful just as it is, but if you add snow to the mix, it’s plain stunning. I’m a snow lover and if you are too, Glacier National Park will make the perfect Winter getaway.
What to pack for Glacier National park in winter
Glacier National Park is at a high elevation and it’s also very far north. In fact, it’s about as far north as you can get in Montana before hitting Canada. Because of that, it gets VERY cold during the winter. You’ll want to wear plenty of layers including wool base layers to keep warm. This is especially important if you plan on doing an outdoor activity like snowmobiling or a snowshoe tour (more on that below!).
At the very least, I’d suggest:
- Long sleeve base layer
- Sweater over the base layer
- Winter coat
- Scarf or face shield
- Winter hat
- Warm gloves
- Base layer pants under hiking or sweat pants
- Snow pants if it makes sense (snowmobiling, etc.)
- Warm, waterproof boots
–> Looking for cheaper options? I have a lot of great winter clothes and boots in my Poshmark closet! <–
What’s open in Glacier National Park in Winter?
The entire park is technically open, but the major hurdle to consider is that Going to the Sun Road is not plowed and is closed to vehicles. That said, you can still snow shoe or cross country ski on any of the trails starting at Apgar Village on the West side of the park or St. Mary’s Visitor’s Center on the East side of the park.
You’ll find that most of the activities below are in or start in one of these two places since it’s difficult to get to the center of the park in winter.
Here’s what I’d recommend doing in Glacer National Park in Winter:
See the Northern Lights
There are a few places in the lower 48 states of the US where you can see the Northern Lights and Glacier National Park is one of them! The best time to see them is in the winter because the nights are so long and that’s just when they come out.
I track the Aurora Forecast somewhat regularily and I’ve found that December-March is typically a good time to plan a trip to Glacier NP to hopefully see them. However, there’s never a guarantee that you will.
If you click this link and scroll down to the 27-day forecast, you’ll see a graph that looks similar to the one I’ll show below. In order to see the Northern Lights in the continental US, you want the Kp index to be 5 or above (or a red line in the graph). If you go as far north as you can on a day with a red bar, your chances of seeing the lights will be much higher.
Since a lot of Glacier National Park is closed in the winter, I’d recommend sitting outside near Lake McDonald or Apgar Villiage to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. They don’t have a schedule, so they show up when they want to. This means you may be sitting outside for quite a while. That’s why I included a packing list above for some of my favorite winter gear to keep you warm!
On weekends in Glacier National Park, park rangers lead free snowshoe tours starting at the Apgar Visitor’s Center. In the past, these have started 10:30am and 2:00pm, but I’d suggest calling ahead or getting to the visitor’s center early to confirm. Some activities have been limited for the past two years.
If you need to rent snowshoes, you can do so at the visitor’s center for a fee.
This is a great way for people of all skill levels to winter hike in Glacier National Park. If you decide to go off on your own, there are a ton of great trails in the Lake McDonald area. However, make sure you have warm gear, a first aid kit, and are avalanche-aware.
Try winter camping
We tried winter camping in the winter of 2020 and it was an incredible experience! Of course, it’s cold, but as long as you have the right clothing (see above!) and the right camping gear, you can keep warm pretty easily.
The main things you’ll need to buy or borrow are a canvas tent with a stove jack (i.e., a hole in the top for a stove chimney) and a wood burning stove. Once you get a fire going in the tent, it will be nice and toasty! I have an entire post that details what to bring and how to prepare for winter camping.
Apgar campground remains open all year and is where you’ll want to set up when you’re winter camping.
If you’re brave enough, you can also try your hand at winter backcountry camping. However, you’ll have to rely on your body heat and anything you can carry on your back (no, a woodburning stove can’t come with you) to keep you warm. This should only be done by experience backcountry campers.
Cross Country Ski on Going to the sun road
There are a lot of cross country skiing trails within Glacier National Park. Some of them start from Apgar and some start from St. Mary. If you start at Apgar, you can ski along Lake McDonald, see Lake McDonald Falls, and then continue onto Going to the Sun Road.
If you’ve ever visited Glacier National Park when Going to the Sun Road is open, you’ll know this is the busiest road within the park. So, being able to ski on it, take in the views, and likely have it to yourself is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is also a great time to look for wildlife.
You can always bring your own skis, but you can also rent them at a few places in Whitefish, MT such as Glacier Cyclery and Nordic.
Snowmobile in a nearby town
Of course, I have to mention one of my favorite winter activities even if it can’t happen inside Glacier National Park. A few places to start looking might be Swan Mountain Snowmobiling and Action Rentals.
If you’re going snowmobiling in Montana in winter, you NEED to make sure you bring warm gear like the options I listed above. I also highly recommend a fleece face shield to go under your helmet because the wind can be brutal when snowmobiling.
–> Looking to snowmobile in other parts of Montana? Check out my guide to snowmobiling in West Yellowstone, MT! <–