Most visitors to Montana's Glacier National Park go in the summer, when the snow has melted off Going to the Sun Road, and travelers can drive over the pass for spectacular mountain vistas. Some wait for fall, when bald eagles gather by the hundreds along McDonald Creek to feed on spawning Kokanee salmon. But those who visit the park in wintertime, when its steep, snowy peaks rise majestically above the silent drifts, see it in all its glory. And for the cross-country skier, the frosted beauty of the interior is not to be missed. In fact, in winter Glacier park is the domain of the cross-country skier, because hardly anyone else can get far in. Snow comes early to Glacier. Logan Pass, at the summit of Going to the Sun Road, is sometimes closed for the season soon after Labor Day. By November, only the lowest elevations are plowed - Going to the Sun Road on the west side along Lake McDonald, and on the east side along St. Mary Lake.
Just east of nine-mile-long Lake McDonald, the plowed road ends in a parking area. Here skiers snap on their skis, grasp their poles, and swoosh off smoothly on a four-foot base. Along McDonald Creek, half-frozen cascades gurgle and churn over the ice. Often those who come without skis can be seen tramping along the hard-packed ski tracks to Sacred Dancing Cascade, half a mile away. It's hard to believe that four feet down lies a paved road, where, come summer, vintage red tour buses will carry sightseers from one grand lodge to the next.
In winter, plenty of cross-country ski trails are easily accessible from plowed roads. The trails convey the flavor of the area and lead to breathtaking vistas of Glacier's rugged peaks. Information on ski trails is available at the Apgar Visitor's Center, open all winter.
A road at the west side of the park leads along North Fork Flathead river to the Polebridge ranger station, a tiny outpost in the wilds of Glacier. From here, skiers can follow a pleasantly rolling trail through the timber to Bowman Lake. The lake is frozen and snow-covered, and Rainbow Peak and Weasel Collar Mountain stand above it, magnificent in their solitude. Observant visitors may see tracks left by the pack of wolves that has recently returned to the area.
On the southern edge of the park, where Highway 2 climbs over the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, the Autumn Creek Trail descends 600 feet to a plowed parking area. Local skiers often leave a car there before continuing to the trailhead at Marias Pass. The trail, which leads past Three Bear Lake to spectacular mountain views, often has better snow than the rest of the park.
Cozy lodging is not far away. Just outside the southern border of the park, in the tiny town of Essex, stands the Izaak Walton Inn. Unlike the grand old lodges inside the park, it's open all year. It was built in 1939 by the Great Northern Railway. The sturdy, three-story structure caters to hikers and skiers and provides an ideal base for ski tours in the area. Its system of groomed trails is nationally rated, and Highway 2 provides easy access to park trails.
The owners, Larry and Lynda Vielleux, welcome their guests warmly and set the stage for congenial company. On winter evenings, guests play cards in the lobby, swap trail stories around the blazing hearth, and eat hearty meals in the Dining Car Restaurant.
Upstairs, the rooms hark back to a simpler time. Most are equipped with only a sink; as in many vintage inns, the bathrooms are down the hall. There's no television, and the single telephone serves the entire town of Essex. Outside, two ``helper engines'' idle night and day, ready to push freight trains over Marias Pass. Their monotonous drone has lulled many a weary skier to sleep.
The Izaak Walton Inn is a flag stop for Amtrak's Empire Builder, which crosses the northern tier of states. Frequently, travelers who prefer not to venture onto snow-packed roads board the train for a scenic ride to the inn at Essex.
When spring returns to the rest of Montana, Glacier clings to its snow. At the Izaak Walton Inn, March is one of the most popular months to visit. Skiing in shirt sleeves on five feet of snow is an experience not soon forgotten. The 20-foot snowfall at Logan Pass takes so long to melt that visitors can ski in late June. By then, the lakes again reflect the rugged peaks, and yellow avalanche lilies bloom on every patch of ground.
Northwest, Continental, Delta, and Horizon Airlines fly to Missoula and Great Falls, where there are rental cars. Delta and Horizon fly into Kalispell, as well. Amtrak's Empire Builder, which runs between Chicago and Seattle, stops at the Izaak Walton Inn. For train reservations, call Amtrak at 800-872-7245.
For information on the park, write Glacier National Park, West Glacier, MT 59936, or call park headquarters at (406) 888-5441. For information on the Izaak Walton Inn, call (406) 888-5700 or write to Vielleux, Box 653, Essex, MT 59916. Double room rates range from $35 a day on weekdays to $47 on weekends. Deluxe rooms with private bath cost $61.