|Montana's Glacier Park,
acres of wildlife
and nature -
photos by Gordon Gregory.
Wintering in Montana: Glacier National Park and Whitefish
By Max Hartshorne, GoNOMAD Editor
We all need a break here in the frigid Northeast; it has been so cold this winter. Gazing out on the ice-covered piles of snow, I contemplated a
winter escape. I decided that Montana was just the place to make
winter more bearable.
Yes it is true that temperatures out in Big Sky Country are hardly the
stuff of tropical breezes and mojitos. But why not just face winter head on, and enjoy what nature provides us in these chilly months? So we
embarked on our winter adventure in Glacier Country, determined
to make the very best of a hard and long New England winter by
departing for more mountainous climes.
On to Montana
A February trip to Montana began in Whitefish, a cosmopolitan little burg of about 5,000 located in the state's northwest.
Montana is immense, the fourth largest state in the U.S. , but just cracked one million souls last year. Plenty of room to move around, I thought, as the plane circled a foggy Kalispel airport…fog had once again delayed our landing in the small regional jet.
Above Whitefish is the huge Glacier National Park (more than one million acres), where grizzly bear, moose and elk live among 63 varieties of wild mammals.
While most of the roads in this World Heritage Site are closed off during the winter, this provides miles and miles of tracks for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Visitors are not plentiful here in the dead of winter, so the muffled hush of the snow covered woods was especially enticing and serene. On the roof you could see that already more than four feet of snow had fallen here… whereas normally they expect about 252 feet a season.
Covered sidewalks in Whitefish
Whitefish has the classic western covered sidewalks and the main drag is perpendicular to 7000-foot Big Mountain , the local ski resort. The trails are illuminated at night and one restaurant, Wasabi, at 419 Main St. , places a telescope in a picture window so patrons can watch skiers winding their way down the slopes. You orient yourself in Whitefish to these slopes at the end of Main Street .
Our accommodations in Whitefish were at the Grouse Mountain Lodge, just a mile or so out of the main part of town, it was comfortable and relaxed to get us in the western spirit. Stuffed moose, elk, bear and mountain goat hung from the walls, and like most of the hotels we stayed in, there was a whirlpool as well as a fire pit where guests can gather around the flames for hot chocolate and conversation. The fire pit is a common feature of Montana hotels, the glowing embers encourage conversation among guests.
Our winter sports marathon began with downhill skiing at Big Mountain. This resort was formed by locals back in the '40s and boasts a 2500 foot vertical drop. The top is often foggy, but thank goodness the all-night snow groomers eliminate moguls and the western climate provides plenty of powdery snow. Ice is not a factor here, thankfully, so turns are easily carved into the snow and you don't hear that dreaded sound of edges on ice.
The view from three quarters of the way down the mountain is magical….Whitefish lies in the center of an enormous lightly-populated flat plateau and far in the distance another ski area, Blacktail Mountain , is visible. The snowy white peaks of other distant ranges frame the scene.
|Snowcycles are a radical way
to get down the slopes.
We sampled a new sport at Big Mountain that is not for the faint hearted--K2 Snow cycles. These low banana type bikes have skis where wheels should be. On our feet were small skis and we carved our way down the mountain turning our bikes back and forth. It is quite a rush but the real challenge is getting off the lift holding your ski cycle without falling.
Big Mountain Attitude
Big Mountain offers typically western amenities and attitudes. Few of the skiers bother to put down the chairlift's foot and hand rail, brazenly dangling skis off the edge. Boarders of all ages careen down the slopes mixing amiably with the traditional skiers. Lift lines on this trip were non-existent. The resort runs a program for handicapped skiers that allows them to slide down the mountain with an instructor in tow, providing that wonderful skiing rush in spite of any physical limits they might have.
Big Mountain also offers a free chairlift for townspeople and for beginners who want to learn to ski. This chair also takes the experienced skiers up to the bigger lift but gives back to their community. Big Mountain Ambassadors in special red jackets ski the trails and offer tours, assistance and general friendliness to first timers.
Dining in Whitefish
We enjoyed several memorable meals in this hip ski town, beginning with Tupelo on Main St. Sequestered into a cozy large corner booth, we enjoyed a huge selection of delicious appetizers and hearty Cajun entrees including duck breast with white beans and grilled portabellas.
This popular downtown eatery is among many that have opened to serve a growing population of tourists and locals who've flocked here from larger cities as LA or Denver.
Our stay at the Grouse Mountain Lodge included plenty of time in front of their big fireplace where five-foot logs burn throughout the day and night. Montana 's charming locals go out of their way to address strangers and make them feel genuinely welcomed. Even gas station attendants want to know where you're from and how you like Montana .
A good spot for breakfast before the slopes is Buffalo Café in Whitefish, where the huevos rancheros had just the right amount of heat and the bagel selection was vast.
Western Lore and Cowboy Songs
One evening we returned to Big Mountain for a special Western treat. Two teams of Clydesdales were hitched up to big sleighs and we took a short ride through the starry darkness to the cowboy hut. There a chuck wagon was doling out hot cider, delicious pot roast and potatoes, and to our surprise, a tasty vegan Portobello mushroom soup.
A group of about 50 men, women and young'uns enjoyed this big feed and then cowboy singer Gene Gordner took the stage. His voice was sweet and clear and he played just about every cowboy song anyone could think of, from Jimmy Rogers to Gene Autry and some of his own songs as well. He mixed in salty tales about cowboy life in a warm and funny patter. It was a mellow and enjoyable evening. The sleigh ride, dinner and show cost $52 for adults, $39 for children (5 – 12) and $19 for tots.
Wasabi, a four year fixture on the Whitefish dining scene, offered memorable sushi and other Japanese treats. A sushi bar with a demonstation mirror provided diners with a look at the food preparation. One dish of shrimp tempura and guacamole came with towering accoutrements, a striking and tasty selection. Wasabit offers a perfect menu for knoshing.
Then we went upstairs for desserts. And to the aforementioned telescope and a chat with Chef Scott Nagel, who with his wife Kerri left San Antonio to head North to Whitefish and start Wasabi/419 four years ago. He said more and more people are discovering the area and the dining is getting better and better. 419 offers raw oysters, decadent desserts and a fine wine list, all in an elegant yet laid back setting.
Glacier National Park
Our winter adventure had many more twists and turns to come, and our next excursion was to Glacier National Park where we met up with Glacier Institute Naturalist RJ Devitt.
Outfitted with snowshoes rented from Sportsman in Whitefish, we plunged down a trail following our guide as he identified snowshoe hare, pine marten, and best of all, wolf tracks in the snow. The park is not used nearly as much in the winter months, so we had it nearly to ourselves. We came to the end of the trail on Going to the Sun Road at a gorgeous lake with a picture perfect scene of mountains reflecting on St. Mary Lake , and ate our sack lunches.
The sun was shining during our time in Glacier, so the ice was beginning to form on the cross country ski trails. A few of us braved a ski but conditions were not favorable and some of us took tumbles. Others enjoyed a soak in the whirlpool or a quick nap in our rooms.
Meeting the Mushers
What would a winter sports trip be without dog mushers. We met up with Pamela Barker, a local veterinarian who runs Nite Flite, a team of about 14 dogs and two sleds. The dogs are carefully tethered to the sled, (one false move, they slip off the chain, and they run off far, far away, very difficult to retrieve), and are yipping and yapping like crazy waiting to be hitched. The dogs' adrenaline is pulsing as they pant, wimper and bark in anticipation of the ride. They just want to run, run, run and pull that sled, and the few dogs that have to stay behind are whining in pain.
Pam puts me in the sled with a padded chair, and pulls off the brake in the ice. The sled takes off in the glinting Montana sun, down a snowmobile track at about 17-20 miles an hour. Inches from the snow, this IS fast, and the dogs are relentless in their running. Not stopping or pausing at all, focused on the trail ahead and on Pam's commands. Her feet are on the two rails at the end of the sled, between them is a brake that with weight would slow down this wooden careening sled. We get into a groove with the dogs merrily pulling us and later I took a try and the sled tumbled over on its side! After that I left the driving to Pam lest the sled take off without us. You can hire this team for special events or to take a ride. Niteflite@montanasky.us
We drove southeast to Seeley Lake for more outdoor activities. This time it was to Seeley Lake Fun Center, where we rented snowmobiles to go up into the mountains.
Snowmobiles have long been the bane of environmentalists, so we asked the owner of the sled shop, Troy Berndt, his view on the new cleaner 4-stroke versus older, dirtier two-stroke sleds. "Well, the tourists like the four-strokes, they are much quieter and don't smoke up at all. But you can't really climb steep hills with fours, so the local folks still prefer the twos."
The discussion had come up since Yellowstone National Park has just re-allowed a limited number of the cleaner four-stroke machines into the Park. There was a big difference between the two and four-stroke models, one belched out blue smoke and the others spewed no discernable odor. Zipping along at about forty to fifty miles per hour is a great way to get to the top of a mountain. At the top we were treated to one of the most impressive mountain views we'd seen on the trip, two whitened crags and the Flathead Valley to the left.
Missoula is a renaissance city of about 100,000, with clean streets, views of surrounding hills and even a hand carved carousel. This effort, lauded by the chamber as an excellent example of community spirit, brought together 95 different groups and resulted in a historical place for kids to enjoy the fun on the ride and in a dragon themed playground.
The carousel goes back to when street car lines needed an attraction to bring riders back on weekends. Hence in the early 1900s, there were thousands of hand carved carousels around the U.S. This one was hand carved by a local man and many volunteers who devoted themselves to the task and the town rallied around the project. carrousel.com
Missoula is a liberal oasis in this otherwise conservative state. Just last month, in Darby Montana, some citizens were organizing a fight against the teaching of evolution in the local schools. Others were fighting this folly with scientific fact.
Another fun stop in Missoula is the River Rock Candy Emporium, where Mika L. Yoshida and Victoria Harris have opened a high end candy and chocolate boutique. They feature many deluxe and rare chocolates from Japan, chile peppered chocolates and soon will include cappuccinos and espressos to sip while you nibble these fancy sweets. (216 W. Main St. 406-728-0176)
The local library in Missoula is a great place to check email and browse the local papers. The city also has the Bayern brewery where fine German lagers are available. We dined in their solarium on some tasty roast chicken salads, and enjoyed the rare glimpse of Montana winter sunshine. Missoula is definitely worth spending some time exploring--the University of Montana brings many young people and cultural events to the city.
We enjoyed dinner at the Bridge whose downstairs theater screens foreign films. Another shopping highlight is Rockin' Rudy's where an eclectic assortment of vintage clothes and accessories can be found.
Montana sounds even more pretty in the summer, when the tourist season is in full bloom. But this experienced traveler in search of a winter trip, can attest to its awesome winter beauty and wide choices of fun things to do.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Montana