“Why would you go to Montana in winter?!”, people would exclaim while giving me the once over to make sure I hadn’t fallen off my rocker. Did they know something I didn’t? It wasn’t like I was declaring I was trekking solo across the frozen Arctic Ocean in January, I was simply heading to Western Montana’s Glacier Country for some winter adventures. I really love traveling to destinations in winter because of all the fun things you can do when there’s snow and none of the crowds. And there’s plenty of things to do in Whitefish in winter from skiing to horse drawn sleigh rides. Whitefish truly has something for everyone.
Skiing and Snowboarding at Whitefish Mountain Resort
Skiing or snowboarding should probably be the most obvious of the things to do in winter in Whitefish. But many people haven’t heard of Whitefish Mountain Resort, even though it’s been around for over 60 years.
Whitefish Mountain Resort is a world-class ski resort and the second largest in Montana. It has 3,000 acres of skiable terrain, gets an annual snowfall of 300 plus inches and has 105 runs serviced by 14 lifts. Located just 65 miles from the Canadian border and easily accessible by flights to Glacier International Airport just 19 miles away or by train on Amtrak, Whitefish seems like a ski destination no-brainer.
With just a few snowboard lessons under my belt from last season, I opted for a small group snowboard lesson. With just four in my group lesson, including me, it was perfect. Snowboarding (all the falling down you do when learning to snowboard) is hard, exhausting work. With my instructor focusing on each individual student, I got a little breather in between each attempt down the kiddie hill.
As a world-class ski resort, you can expect all the amenities that should come along with that. There’s a variety of on mountain dining that includes everything from grab and go style sandwiches and chicken finger baskets at the Base Lodge to fine dining at Café Kandahar. There’s also The Bierstube, one of the best après ski bars in the country. And don’t miss out on the coffee bars; they serve up adult coffees and cocoas. My favorite was the Caribou Cocoa, a hot chocolate with butterscotch schnapps and Baileys.
Snowshoeing in Glacier National Park
Winter is a great time to get outside and while Glacier National Park may be pretty quiet in the winter, having it practically to yourself makes it that much more special. Once it starts snowing Going-to-the-Sun Road is plowed as far as Lake McDonald Lodge so vehicle access is limited, but this is the perfect time to strap on a pair of snowshoes or cross-country skis and explore West Glacier.
You can leave the bear spray at home because the grizzly bears are hibernating, but you’ll want to be prepared with winter clothes, gear and snacks. There aren’t many services available in the Park in winter, but you can stop by the Apgar Visitor Center to rent snowshoes for just $2. The snowshoes can, unfortunately, only be rented when you join the free guided snowshoe hikes at 10:30am and 2pm on Saturdays and Sundays January through March with a park ranger. Otherwise, plan to bring your own snowshoes or rent them from one of the multiple businesses that rent them out in Whitefish.
You might also want to pack a pair of binoculars. Glacier National Park is a haven for endangered species and the snow makes it easier to spot wildlife like deer, elk and Canadian lynx. The Park has the largest population of both grizzlies and lynx outside of Alaska.
My own wildlife sightings during my snowshoe hike included various species of ducks, Canadian geese and a beaver that came out for some lunch. I kept hoping for an elk or a rare lynx sighting, but all was pretty quiet in the forest.
If you do visit on the weekend in weekend, you can head to the Historic Belton Chalet just outside the Park entrance to warm up and refuel after your snowshoe hike. The lodge was built by the Great Northern Railway in 1910 and serves a Sunday brunch menu with the most impressive Bloody Mary Bar I’ve ever seen.
Christmas songs have been written about how magical it is to go riding in a one-horse open sleigh. But at Bar W Guest Ranch, it’s actually a two-horse open sleigh as Duke and Dutch gently pull the sleigh guided by two of the ranch’s cowboys or cowgirls.
Located on Spencer Lake, Bar W Guest Ranch is just minutes from the heart of Whitefish but the spectacular pine covered valley feels like it’s miles from civilization. The 45 minute sleigh ride took us around the a small part of the ranch, through the snow-dusted forest and out on to the open cattail ringed pasture. With just the sound of the horses hooves galloping on the snow, it’s easy to sit back, relax and enjoy the surrounding scenery.
Since you’re just sitting, you’ll want to dress warm with winter boots that keep your feet warm, hat, gloves and a scarf that you can wrap around your face on particularly cold days. The guest ranch also provides warm blankets for the ride and if you’re traveling with your special someone, it’s a good excuse to snuggle up close together.
After the sleigh ride, we warmed up by a roaring fire some of the most delicious hot cocoa I’ve ever had. The sleigh ride is an excellent way to take a little time off from the physical demands of skiing, skating or fat biking and just relax.
We’ve been dog sledding in Norway, Finland and Sweden. But you don’t have to fly across the pond for a dog sledding adventure. Base Camp Bigfork, just a 45 minute drive from Whitefish, offers a variety of dog sledding activities with their team of Inuit dogs.
Base Camp Bigfork‘s Day With the Dogs activity lets you get to know dogs, help harness them for the sled and take turns with your group driving the sled through the forest and Christmas tree farms surrounding the camp. When you’re not mushing through the forest, there are other activities you can do like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Or you can just relax with hot cocoa and s’mores around the campfire.
We’ve had some families ask if dog sledding is kid-friendly. I’d definitely say that the full day dog sledding adventures we’ve been on in Svalbard and Sweden aren’t. What kid really can tolerate eight or more hours in -20°F? But the Day With the Dogs can give kids from five years and up a dog sledding experience while not leaving them cold or bored.
For the more adventurous, Base Camp Bigfork does offer half day, full day or even multi-day dog sledding excursions.
Put me in a kayak and I’m like a fish in water. It just fits. But I’m not the best bicycle rider in the world; I only occasionally bike around town on my single speed lavender bike with a basket on the front.
Montanans don’t let the winter conditions stop them from hopping on a bike. Fat bikes, off-road bikes with over-sized tires that are designed for low ground pressure to allow riding on soft unstable terrain like snow, have become all the rage. When in Whitefish! I just had to give it a try.
Fat biking is a workout, especially if you had already spent the morning on a couple-mile snowshoe hike. With giant snowflakes falling, our small group set out on the trails around Whitefish Bike Retreat with some guides.
There’s something magical about the Montana forests when the pines are dusted with snow and more snow is falling. Pumping the bike pedals round and round, you forget that it’s even cold outside and just enjoy the beauty surrounding you. Or maybe it’s the slowly riding up the hills that actually warms you up…
Whitefish Bike Retreat rents the fat bikes and you can hit the trails with their experienced guides. They’re laid back, so you can ride as fast and as far as you’re comfortable with. They definitely made my first fat bike experience a great one.
Know Before You Go
My trip was provided by Glacier Country Montana in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.