Travel How-to: Road trip through Glacier National Park in the winter

road trip glacier

Here at Gadling, we’re big fans of visiting National Parks in the off-season. There are fewer crowds, less headaches and more chances to enjoy the natural aspects that made these magnificent places so spectacular to begin with. The only trouble is the weather. Generally speaking, many of the United States’ National Parks partially shut down when Old Man Winter shows up, driving away a good deal of would-be tourists and also limiting how much of the park you can see. The famed Tioga Pass through Yosemite National Park is drowned in snow from October to April, and the majority of Yellowstone‘s roadways are closed to automobiles during Wyoming’s lengthy winter. And when it comes to one of America’s true gems — Glacier National Park — the star attraction is completely off limits to even 4WD vehicles for three-quarters of the year.

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.

%Gallery-114793%During the winter months, which usually stretch from October to April depending on snowfall, only ~12.5 miles of the Going to the Sun road is open to motor vehicles. Even those are usually covered with a light layer of snow and ice, so we’d recommend a 4WD vehicle as you head in.

road trip glacier

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.

road trip glacier

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.

road trip glacier

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.

road trip glacier

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.

road trip glacier

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.

road trip glacier

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!

Bring cookie sheets – Road trip tip

Cookie sheets may seem like an odd suggestion for a road trip, but they have LOTS of uses! If you’re traveling with kids, cookie sheets make great trays for snacks or on-the-go meals — the edges help catch spills!

If you flip them over, they make a great desk for coloring, card games, and other activities that are better on a flat surface. If you have really little guys traveling with you, bring along those metallic letters and numbers. They stick to the cookie sheets, for lots of fun play.

Finally, they’re a good seat divider between arguing siblings.

[Photo: Flickr | Veganbaking.net]

Best travel tips from real travelers

Have you checked out Gadling’s 100% reader-generated feature, “100 words or less.” In “100 words or less,” YOU — the expert traveler — get to share your expert travel tips with Gadling and all our readers. Know a sure-fire way to score a cheap hotel room? Confident you know a trick to get an airline upgrade? Share it with us!

We’ve rounded up some of our favorite tips below. Enjoy.

Hotel tips
If you often leave personal items in hotel rooms, remind yourself by writing it down — but write it on a mirror with a dry erase marker instead of on a piece of paper you could easily overlook.

Today’s tech-savvy world requires a lot of equipment to stay “plugged-in.” Cell phones, laptops, and MP3 players all require power cords to recharge. Since these items don’t need to be plugged in all the time, it’s easy to forget your power cords when checking out of a hotel. Increase your chances of recovery by writing your name and contact information on a piece of masking tape and securing the tape to your power cord.

If you’re concerned about the cleanliness of your pillow, the inside of your shirt is probably cleaner (or at least more acceptable) to lie on than a suspect pillowcase. Simply turn the shirt inside-out, slide it over your pillow, and you’re good to go… to sleep.

Sleep better with these other hotel tips.


* * *

Cruise trip tips

Packing a dry erase board and markers and attaching to your cabin door accomplishes several things, including helping you to identify your room and providing an easy way for your family to communicate their whereabouts.
Take an insulated travel mug on your next cruise and it may become your favorite accessory.

If you’re cruising as part of a big group of family and friends, it’s a lot of fun to divide into teams for a scavenger hunt. Items for the hunt can be dares, found objects, and fact-finding missions.

Get a key chain necklace and put your room key on it. Wear this around your neck at all times to avoid losing it or having it stolen.

Whenever we go on a cruise, my husband and I always plan to snorkel on at least one island. On our first cruise, we went on a shore excursion that provided the snorkel, but then we got smart.

Most cruise ships today are multi-deck mini-cities carrying as many as 5,000 passengers. And, unless you’re traveling alone, you may find yourself separated from your traveling party at some point during your cruise. How to stay connected? Give each member of your group a two-way radio, all programmed to the same frequency to help keep you organized and in touch.

Visit our other cruise trip tips.


* * *

Road trip tips

To keep maps and directions safe during a trip, laminate them. For around $30, a home laminating machine will seal standard letter size pages. (Copy and print stores have the capability to laminate larger maps for a minimal fee.) Alternatively, you can use contact paper to cover paper maps. In addition to being more durable, laminated maps offer the advantage of allowing you to draw your route on the map and easily wipe it off later, if you change your mind.

To avoid hours of boredom, plan a “scenic scavenger hunt.” It’s easy. Just write down a list of 100 things you might see along the way, like landmarks, buses or bridges. The first person to complete the list wins.

Before embarking on a road trip, map out two different routes — a slower, scenic route and a shorter, faster (less scenic) route.

Motor through more road trip tips.

* * *



Dining out on vacation tips
When traveling to a foreign city, you can usually find the cheapest and best-tasting food by looking for menus that are written entirely in that city’s native language.

You’ve spent so much money on just getting to Hawaii or Florida, why pay more to sit inside a restaurant? Weather permitting, you should be outside on the grass! Or on the sand. Or at a picnic table.

Before you go out of the country, make a few wallet-sized cards that list what you can and can’t eat in the native language(s) of the country you’re visiting.

Devour more dining out on vacation tips.


* * *



Souvenir tips

T-shirts have always been my favorite travel souvenir. Many of them were sized for an eight year old and most were dreadfully stained, but I could hardly get rid of them. They were my mementos! Instead of tossing them, I cut out all the images and logos and made a travel quilt.

A great take-home and space-saving souvenir for wine lovers are corks from bottles you’ve enjoyed while traveling.

When you find yourself not knowing exactly where you’re going, ask a local to draw directions for you. Keep a store of interesting napkins or papers and a pen on hand to take advantage of the opportunity of being lost. Asking for directions might also lead you to start some great conversations and to gain a deeper insight into the locale you’re visiting.

Save some of these souvenir tips for later.

* * *



Airplane tips
During your next flight, be considerate of the passenger in front of you. When settling down into — or, getting out of — your seat, don’t grab the seat in front of you for leverage.

Sick of hearing about a stranger’s dysfunctional family or odd medical conditions? Avoid conversations all-together by doing a simple thing: wear headphones. They don’t even need to be plugged in.

Your seats are reserved. There’s no circulating air until the plane takes off, and even if you’re the first person on the plane, you’re going to be hot, you’re going to have to move, and you’re going to get elbowed — and maybe get luggage dropped on you. Also, if you’re not the first person to board, you’re going to spend 20 minutes slowly creeping down the crowded walkway. So… stay out in the relative open space of the terminal waiting area until the gate agents make the final boarding call.

Take off with these other airplane tips.

* * *



Traveling with kids tips
Buy at least one disposable camera for each child on the trip. These are inexpensive and will keep your child entertained for a long time. Tell each child that they should take pictures of things on the trip that they find interesting.

The front passenger is always the navigator when I’m traveling with my family or a group. However, I discovered that you can turn your children into junior navigators while helping them learn geography at the same time. It helps eliminate them from asking, “Are we there yet?”

Rather than lug boxes of baby necessities around, consider ordering supplies online — diapers, food, etc. — and shipping them to your destination. You’ll have more room in your car; there’ll be less to pack and unpack; and your neck won’t be so sore from hauling boxes in and out of the house.

Grow up with these other traveling with kids tips.

* * *

Packing for travel tips
Contact lens cases with screw-on lids make great travel accessories. When you want to take small quantities of hair gel, sculpting wax, eye make-up remover, an essential oil, Aloe Vera, or under-eye cream, you can’t beat contact lens cases. They’re small. They don’t leak. They can hold one week’s worth of lotion or gel in each little section.

When traveling over the holidays with gifts, never pre-wrap! Wrapped items may need to be inspected by the TSA, and that could mean they’ll be unwrapped by security before you even get to your destination.

Here’s a way to pack your smallest, but most expensive, items without losing them or space in your suitcase: find a typical pill box and place your precious metals in there. Anything from rings to necklaces will fit.

Store these additional packing tips.

* * *



International travel tips
Guidebooks are all well and good, but they rarely take you off the beaten path. Before arriving in an unfamiliar place, pick an unusual food to track down in your destination; it’s even better if you can find the same food in multiple countries.

Always carry a small calculator when you travel internationally. It will save the day when you are trying to figure out how much things cost in “real” money.

When traveling abroad, get at least a small amount of foreign currency for tips and other unexpected cash expenses before leaving the airport or crossing the border.

Explore the unknown with these other international travel tips.

* * *

To submit your own tips, sign up for a free account at Seed, filter the assignment list by the category “travel” and look for assignment requests with the words “100 words or less.” (And yes: if your tip is published, you will be paid!)

[Photos: Flickr | Fly for Fun; StrudelMonkey; StrudelMonkey]

Distracted driving rules drive you to distraction

Road trips are a staple of summer travel. You load up the car, cram in the kids and put the pedal to the metal. Well, it’s not that simple any more. The rules with which you have to contend vary from state to state, especially when it comes to distracted driving (also “known as get off your cell phone while driving”). Can you go hands free? Should you just shut up and drive? It depends on the state.

We’ve become more reliant on our cell phones, and not just for talking. Travel apps abound, and iPhones, BlackBerry devices and Androids laden with them help us communicate with each other to get local color, find hotels and cheap gas and even get from Point A to Point B without getting lost. All these tools that make travel easier could make driving safely harder, as you desperately need to monitor the Twitter public timeline while blowing down the highway at an absurd rate of speed.

Well, it turns out that keeping track of distracted driving rules from state to state, particularly if you’re on a long road trip, can lead you into distracted driving. Simply put: trying to obey the law can cause you to break it.Distracted driving laws, according to MSNBC, are far from uniform:

So far, 30 states – and some local jurisdictions, including Chicago and Phoenix – now have laws that address using cell phones or sending text messages while driving. Fines range from $20 to $150 for the first offense.

Unfortunately, the laws aren’t uniform. One state may ban handheld phone use in cars while another may allow it. Texting while driving is banned in dozens of states, but will result in a ticket in others only if you get into an accident.

Just keeping track of distracted driving laws can distract the heck out of you. So, you may want to print them out, MSNBC suggests, particularly since these laws aren’t always posted at state borders. A better idea, I think, is to e-mail or text them to yourself … which only works in states where you can use your cell phone while driving. D’oh!

Even better? Bring a copilot.

[photo by Lord Jim via Flickr]

Healthy travel: a tip list

You can never have too much travel advice, in my opinion. You can have bad travel advice, but the folks at online travel news site eTurboNews have compiled a great list of tips designed to help you keep your arteries unclogged and your spine in alignment while you fly or road-trip this summer. Nothing new or ground-breaking, but definitely worth repeating.

Part of the list is dedicated to finding more nutritious alternatives to fatty, sodium-laden airport and airline fare. Since childhood, I’ve possessed a deep phobia of airline food, so I’ve always brought my own in-flight meals. Now that tight-fisted domestic airlines are depriving passengers of even a bag of pretzels, all the more reason to hit the grocery store the day before you travel. If you frequently travel last-minute, make sure you keep a stash of healthy snacks, such as unsweetened dried fruit, granola bars, or nuts in the pantry so you can grab-and-go.

There’s good advice, too, on little things you can do to avoid tweaking your back or neck, and preventing those unsightly varicose veins. I would add that deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a much more serious, life-threatening issue on long-haul flights. Get up once an hour and take a lap around the plane, and move your legs by doing some stretches in your seat. Happy, unbloated, limber travels!

[Via shine.yahoo.com]