Each summer about 2 million people pass through Montana's spectacular Glacier National Park, many hiking and many just motoring through the Rocky Mountains on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
In winter, however, the park is a much quieter place, especially on the eastern side, farther from population centers. Yet the scenery is every bit as grand. Shrill winds whip plumes of snow off craggy peaks, and the landscape of trees, lakes, and trails below sparkles invitingly in its winter coat.
On this winter day, five of us - two couples and a guide - slowly glide on cross-country skis through an awe-inspiring scene. We meet only one other visitor on our half-day journey. Breathtaking views, ever-changing weather conditions, a picnic lunch in warm sunshine, nuggets of geological and historical lore from the guide, and the sight of an elk make the experience memorable.
Vacations on the trail
For my wife and me, this adventure was the high point in a new kind of cross-country skiing experience - a whole vacation devoted to the sport. Like many occasional Nordic skiers, we had experienced the activity in one-day installments: Driving to a local mountain or snow-covered field, strapping on skis, getting back home in time to see a movie.
As it happens, our five-day trip here was part of a trend.
Resort destinations, offering a distinctly different experience from downhill ski resorts, are the fastest-growing aspect of Nordic skiing in America, says Jim Chase, managing editor of Cross-Country Skier magazine.
``The most appealing thing about cross-country has always been to be out in nature,'' in contrast to crowds and humming chair lifts at downhill resorts, Mr. Chase says. So if people pay to go on downhill vacations, why not offer similar options to Nordic fans? That is exactly what lavish lodges and rustic inns are doing from the Northwest to New England.
Roughly 2 percent of Americans dabble in the sport, with the number somewhat dependent on winter snow conditions. Unlike many downhill resorts, cross-country destinations can't manufacture their own snow when there is a shortage.
While the number of participants hasn't been rising fast, Chase says people are going upscale, buying better equipment, and going places for family vacations rather than just day outings. Many resorts take special pride in their fine cuisine. ``It's a different consumer than it was in the early '80s,'' Chase says.
Still, cost is an advantage, as trail passes, unlike downhill lift tickets, are often complimentary at resorts.
Our destination, the Izaak Walton Inn, is not among the fanciest in the cross-country resort category: no Jacuzzis or swimming pool. But it does have a nice variety of accommodations and activities, a friendly staff, satisfying food, and, most important, a gorgeous location on the outskirts of Glacier.
The inn, for decades a rest-stop for railway workers along the Great Northern line, makes the most of its heritage. Place mats in the dining room relate bits of train history, and the menu offers sandwiches called Brakeman, Engineer, Flatcar, and Hobo.
Rooms range from $92 a night (for two) in the enormous, wood-paneled main building to $142 for a caboose cottage just across the tracks. (Passing trains occasionally fill the air with rumbling and whistles at night, but this was not particularly bothersome.) Many people arrive by train, as we did after an overnight Amtrak trip from Seattle. You can also drive, or fly into Kalispell and rent a car.
Access to a car is useful for people who want the freedom to explore the area. Our tour of the east side of Glacier Park was included as part of a ski package, but we also rented a car one day to tour the park's west entrance on our own. There we enjoyed skiing near beautiful Lake McDonald, though with more people around us.
Lots of great skiing lies right out the back door of the Walton, too, including 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) of groomed trails that make skiing a breeze. Choices include gentle climbs up canyons, past streams and waterfalls, or going through warmer flats with wonderful views. The inn has rental equipment, offers lessons, and can prepare sack lunches.
When the skiing day is done, the lodge has a roaring fire, Ping-Pong downstairs, and excellent food such as its grilled-trout dinner. Local huckleberries flavor jam, desserts, and a dinner chicken special.
Brian Miller, who organizes the outings to Glacier, is one of the inn's major assets. He's an experienced outdoorsman who hiked the Continental Divide from Mexico to Canada one recent summer. (If you go, don't miss his slide show of the adventure.) Mr. Miller is free-spirited, practicing Telemark turns on the glacier outing. But he also is soft-spoken and careful not to push anyone too hard.
This winter, as the Izaak Walton and other Western ski areas report abundant snow, I wouldn't mind going back for more kicking and gliding on sunlit trails.