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Travel How-to: Road trip through Glacier National Park in the winter
With the Going to the Sun road shut down, is there even a reason to travel to northwest Montana to give this majestic place a look? Without a doubt, yes. It's true that Glacier, even in her 101st year as a National Park, is most open to exploration in the regrettably short summer season, but there are massive benefits to going in the winter. For one, hardly anyone else is there. You'll be lucky to see a dozen others exploring the park on a given winter day, giving you ample opportunity to get lost inside this truly gigantic place. But there's something else that few people consider when pondering a visit to Glacier in the winter: Highway 2. Read on to hear our secrets on making the most of an off-season visit to Montana's largest National Park.
From the West Glacier entrance ($15 vehicle entry fee required), around 11.5 miles are cleared, taking you from the Visitor's Center to McDonald Lodge. This route tiptoes around the shoreline of Lake McDonald, the Park's largest lake at ~10 miles long and ~1.5 miles wide. Thus, you'll find various opportunities to park your vehicle and walk out to the shoreline, with just you, a vast range of mountains and a few lingering clouds to photograph.
If you visit on a particularly hazy day (not tough to find in the winter), you'll usually see loads of grey in the sky. If the clouds hang right, you'll have friends believing that your shots across the lake are actually of Iceland or somewhere far more exotic than America's Treasure State. With the snow covered banks, the setting creates a perfect opportunity to tinker with your metering techniques -- snowy landscapes are one of the few places where spot metering is actually preferred, and with no crowds pushing you around, you'll have plenty of time to adjust your settings to get the perfect vibe and tone from your shots.
About three-quarters of the way to McDonald Lodge, there's a spectacular view from the lake's shoreline. It's roughly halfway between each end of the lake, presenting a golden opportunity to utilize your compact camera's Panorama mode. Below is a shot that was quickly composed using the inbuilt Panorama mode on Casio's Exilim EX-H20G. It's obviously not the high-quality stuff you'd see out of a properly arranged DSLR, but considering that this took about ten seconds to generate, it's not a bad way to remember just how vast this lake really is. If you're serious about panoramic shots, we'd recommend bringing along a GigaPan Epic robot, which you can mount your camera on and program to swivel around in a set interval to capture a very high-resolution, high-quality panoramic shot.
Once you circle out and head back out of the same entrance you came in on, the real fun begins. If you continue on Highway 2 East, you'll be heading towards East Glacier -- the other side of the park. What most tourist fail to realize is that this road actually runs through the southern part of the park, and there's no fee required here. If you pack snowshoes, you'll have an unlimited amount of options for stopping and exploring the wilderness around you, and it goes without saying that the views of the surrounding mountains are a photographer's dream. Highway 2 is rarely "clear" in the winter, so we'd recommend a 4WD vehicle and slowed speeds while traveling. It's a solid 1.5 hour drive from West to East Glacier, but ever inch of it is jaw-dropping.
Think you've now seen all there is to see of Glacier National Park in the winter? Not so! Once you reach Browning, MT, you'll want to head north and turn left onto Starr School Rd. This will divert you over to Highway 89 North towards the Alberta border, giving you an incredible view of Glacier's towering peaks from a distance. It's an angle that you simply won't get while driving through the heart of the park on Highway 2, and the snow covered summits provide even more reason to keep your shutter going. The drive northward to Alberta remains gorgeous, and we'd recommend driving on up if you have your passport handy.
Even the National Park's website won't tell you of the surrounding highways to traverse if you're interested in seeing as much of Glacier National Park in the winter as possible, but now that you've got the roads you need to travel, what's stopping you from renting a 4WD and seeing the other side of this stunning place? Be sure to pack along your camera and brush up on the basics -- snowy mountains definitely present unique challenges when shooting, but they also provide the perfect opportunity to finally try out that 'Manual' mode you've been trying to ignore. And if you've got a geotagging dongle or a GPS-enabled compact camera? Make sure to document your trip with locations that correspond to the stops your make along the way!