Montana’s gem offers different rewards during the season of stillness.
Regardless of how you feel about sharing Old Faithful with thousands of other spectators on a summer day, we all can agree that “America’s best idea” has been a smashing success. Anyone who has visited a national park recently — more than 327,500,000 of us did in 2019 — knows that the parks are more popular than ever.
One surefire way to avoid crowds is to visit the parks in winter. I do, and I recommend it.
Glacier National Park consists of 1,583 square miles of wilderness in Montana's Rocky Mountains. From June through August, the park welcomes more than 2 million visitors, but from December through February, that number dips to around 40,000, with the smallest crowds in February. I’ve long enjoyed visiting other national parks during the offseason, but a recent trip to Glacier was my first time experiencing it in winter.
Determined to spend time there in relative solitude, I rent a Subaru Outback to make the 140-mile drive from Missoula on Highways 93 and 35, passing through the scenic Mission Valley. On this unseasonably warm February day, Glacier National Park greets me with an unusual sight for this time of year: a mostly clear sky. From the west entrance, I head for Lake McDonald. Stretching 10 miles long and nearly 500 feet deep, it’s the largest lake in the park.
Surprisingly, the lake isn’t frozen, and the water magnifies the magenta and blue-green rocks under the crystal-clear surface. Across Lake McDonald, the clouds part to reveal the peaks in the Lewis Range, covered in a blanket of fresh snow. Though Glacier is the country’s 10th most-visited national park, only four people share this postcard-worthy spot on a dock with me. They take some selfies before moving on, leaving me alone at one of the park’s most popular stops.