WINTER DOESN'T MEAN THAT ROAD TRIP SEASON IS OVER; it just means you have to take a little extra time on the road. And isn’t that the point? Last February, I ventured into Western Montana to cross-country ski and soak in hot springs with my husband, Henry, and our two boys, Anders, 8, and Finn, 6. Along the way we checked in on a sled dog race, gazed through the ice on a frozen lake, and drank multiple cups of hot cocoa.
As a work-at-home, homeschooling mom, I spend a lot of time with my kids, but getting Henry into the mix while we explore new places adds to our family bonding. In movies, road trips are portrayed as stressful and unenjoyable, but for us, it’s just the opposite. Without work, a messy house and other obligations weighing us down, we just get to have fun with each other and soak in Montana’s great outdoors.
Our first stop is Seeley Lake to catch the start of Race to the Sky. The racecourses are 300 and 100 miles long, and wind through the Swan Mountains at the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Normally the race starts in Lincoln and ends at Seeley Lake, but since there isn’t much snow it was rerouted to start and end at Seeley Lake.
At the trailhead, the parking lot is full of excited dogs, mushers making last minute preparations, sleds and onlookers. We pet as many of the dogs as we can and wish the teams well before they queue up at the starting line. As it grows dark, the sleds and their dog teams take off one by one into the night. With the dog teams off and running, we hit the road too, heading to Columbia Falls for a good night’s rest.
The next day we visit Glacier National Park in its snowy splendor. The glacially-scoured peaks are striped with snow, accenting the bands of sedimentary layers. The U-shaped valleys hold just enough powder for skiing.
The Going to the Sun Road is a popular destination in every season. Lots of people are cross-country skiing and snowshoeing up the mellow, lower portion of the road that starts at the Lake McDonald Lodge. The snow glistens in the sun as we kick and glide uphill. After a short tour we take a gander at Lake McDonald from Apgar Village with congratulatory cups of hot cocoa in our hands.
On the southern boundary of Glacier National Park, the Izaak Walton Inn is a historic and perfectly situated hotel. There are rooms in the lodge, but the real fun is in the renovated cabooses. The cupola beds, the full kitchen, the amazing view and proximity to ski trails delight all four of us.
Short days and long nights mean an after-dark start for excited sled dogs at the Race to the Sky.
From our caboose we strap on skis and tour part of the 20 miles of groomed trails. The trails wind through trees dripping with lichen and cross little streams with occasional views into Glacier National Park.
Built adjacent to the train tracks in 1939, the Izaak Walton Inn originally housed railroad workers. It was also meant to serve as a gateway for a proposed entrance to Glacier National Park about halfway between East Glacier and West Glacier, but the park entrance was never built. Instead there is a huge hotel in the middle of nowhere. Lucky for us, the “Inn Between” is set among millions of acres of wilderness and open year-round as an outdoor basecamp.
When we’re not skiing or hanging in our caboose, we cross the tracks to the Inn bar. The kids play Monopoly with mugs of hot cocoa, while the adults sip craft brews and plan our next day of skiing.
After another ski in the morning, we drive back to Seeley Lake. The 91-mile stretch of road between Big Fork and the town of Seeley Lake is commonly known as the Seeley-Swan Highway and is an archetypical road trip route that winds past Swan Lake, follows the Swan River, then passes Lake Alva and Lake Inez.
We stop at Seeley Lake (the lake, not the town) and walk out on its frozen surface. In early winter, the ice is like glass, and people skate from end to end of the 1,025-acre, 125-foot deep, glacial lake. By the time we get there in February, it is bumpy and dissected by cracks — perfect for walking and sliding in boots.
Kids and adults have a blast in the caboose cabins at the Izaak Walton Inn.
Further down the road at the Double Arrow Lodge, Henry takes the boys to the pool while I swing around the golf course ski trails. The Mission Mountains rise in the west and the Swan Mountains in the east. We meet up at the Seasons Restaurant inside the Western-style lodge for classic country cuisine, craft beers, and of course, hot cocoa for the kids.
The nearby Seeley Lake Nordic Ski Trail system is like a mellow rollercoaster. Its over 11 miles of groomed trails are best described as undulating. We have been told that it is one of the best-kept secrets of Nordic skiing in Montana, and thanks to its location between two mountain ranges, it has more consistent snow than neighboring valleys. We aren’t disappointed. Even in a dry year there is plenty of well-groomed snow, and the skiing is a blast.
Anders and I tour a long loop that rolls up and down through the forest. We chat about skiing, “Star Wars,” and how we would design the perfect motorhome for the really long road trips we dream of. Henry and Finn take a short loop and hang out in the warming hut (actually a cute yurt) connecting over Clif Bars and dried fruit. After our ski, Finn and I walk over to the road and catch the last returning musher in the Race to the Sky. The dogs still look energetic, but the human is ready for some sleep.
Our next stop is Quinn’s Hot Springs, northwest of Missoula. Here the Clark Fork River is pinched between the road and the railroad tracks with canyon walls rising behind each. Since there isn’t enough snow to ski, we hike on the Cascade Falls Trail. About 1.5 miles up Iron Mountain we come to the falls — more of a creek running steeply downhill — but the view of the Clark Fork winding through the valley makes the trek worthwhile.
We spend the afternoon in the hot springs. There are six pools flowing into each other, each one hotter than the one next to it. There’s also a cold pool filled with river water, but I avoid that one in favor of sipping a cold beer in a warm pool.
Seven days after leaving Livingston with a cargo box full of skis and winter wear, we return to our howling cat and warm house. On the drive home we discuss all the other places we wish we had the time to stop and play. We all agree that a winter road trip will be our new tradition.
Anders and Finn check out what’s beneath the surface of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.
Hit the Road
There are many other places to ski and soak on a winter road trip, but we couldn’t play at all of them. Here are a few
other must-see destinations in Montana ...
Nestled at the top of Homestake Pass between Butte and Whitehall, Homestake Lodge features 23 miles of superbly groomed trails for classic and skate skiing. Over 6 miles of the trail are dog friendly. Information: (406) 585-8052, homestakelodge.com
Fairmont Hot Springs
Indoor and outdoor pools of varying temperatures, and a 350-foot enclosed waterslide make this a favorite among kids. Located between Butte and Anaconda.Information: (800) 332-3272, fairmontmontana.com
Mount Haggin Nordic Ski Area
Mount Haggin features nearly 18 miles of groomed ski trails (6 miles for skate skiing, and all of the trails with the exception of the Spire Loop groomed for classic skiing). Ski trails can also be used to access backcountry skiing along the Continental Divide. Find it 11 miles south of Highway 1, near Anaconda. Information: milehighnordic.org
Bigfork Community Nordic Center and Blacktail Nordic Trails
The North Shore Nordic Club grooms 4 miles of trails at the Bigfork Community Nordic Center and nearly 27 miles at Blacktail Nordic Trails.
Symes Hot Springs
Located in the town of Hot Springs and at the foot of the Cabinet Mountains, Symes boasts three pools at temperatures of around 107, 101 and 95 degrees. Information: (800) 305-3106, symeshotsprings.com