On the road: Exploring the Great Northern Railroad and Glacier National Park


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Our Montana explorations allowed for visits to the lovely ski town of Whitefish, Montana, Glacier National Park and winter vistas second to none.

I’ve long been a railroad buff, from the days in the 1950s when my late Uncle Bill used to take my cousin, Bill Jr., and me to the railroad tracks in Akron, Ohio, to see the last of the steam engines come chugging into town from points east and west.

On a recent trip to Montana, I had the chance to explore sections of the old Great Northern Railway, linking Minneapolis to Seattle with the northern-most transcontinental route. Operating from 1889 to 1970 when it was merged into the current Burlington Northern system, the Great Northern was the creation of 19th-century rail entrepreneur James J. Hill and was the only privately funded (no federal funds used at all) transcontinental railroad in the country.

Its best known engineer was John F. Stevens, serving from 1889 to 1903, famed for his exploration of Marias Pass on the edge of the future Glacier National Park, determining its practicality for a railway route. He also discovered Stevens Pass over the Cascade Mountains and went on to be the chief engineer for the Panama Canal. The GN went on to advocate for and help establish Glacier National Park in 1910, in part to benefit its rail traffic.

Exploration also allowed visits to the lovely ski town of Whitefish, Montana, Glacier National Park and winter vistas second to none. We started our rail exploration at the Whitefish Amtrak station, still serving passenger traffic to the town and the park, as well as considerable freight traffic, including coal and oil moving from the Dakota fields for export out of the country.

Inside the Amtrak station is the noteworthy Stumptown Historical Museum, with displays touting the history of the town, the Great Northern, as well as highlighting Native American tribes in the area. An interesting display notes how the swastika symbol was used in Native American art but was abandoned by many tribes when Hitler popularized its use in the 1930s. Outside, book-ending the station is an old great northern locomotive, and the somewhat-famous “bruck”, a combination bus/freight hauler built by Kenworth which the GN used hauling passengers and freight between Kalispell and Whitefish between 1951 and 1970.

Whitefish, a quintessential western town expanding quickly due to ski, golf and Glacier Park tourism, offers a host of lodging opportunities. We have stayed a number of times at the Grouse Mountain Lodge on the west edge of town, wrapped in winter by cross country ski trails and in summer by an 18-hole golf course.

The town offers scores of upscale, trendy and down-to-earth dining options. Our favorites include the Whitefish Lake Lodge (featuring a beautiful 82-year-old log building), Abruzzo Italian Kitchen, Tupelo’s Grill and the Craggy Range Brewpub. Recently voted North America’s third-most popular ski town by readers of Skiing magazine, Whitefish boasts shops, galleries and bars, many offering live entertainment.

Whitefish Mountain Resort, just north, offers 3,000 acres, 105 marked trails, almost 2,500 vertical feet and vast bowl and tree skiing. It’s a huge ski area by any standard, but be forewarned that temperatures can range from a balmy 40 degrees to minus-25 degrees, so come prepared for any kind of weather.

Ski magazine continually rates Whitefish Mountain Resort in the top 20 in the country, high in service, friendly staff, kids’ programs and value. A huge benefit — seniors 70 and older ski for $25 a day; seniors 62 and over and youth also get low rates, and kids younger than 6 ski free. It’s the only resort I know in the west that offers such an option for senior skiers.

Paralleling the great northern route, Highway 2 heads east along the south side of the national park, and plan to visit the Isaac Walton Hotel in Essex, Montana, an inviting stop for a meal or lodging. An old Great Northern Railway hotel, comfortable lodging is offered in the old lodge as well as a number of refurbished cabooses, club cars and a locomotive engine. The inn is surrounded by cross country ski trails, a true winter wonderland. Just miles to the east is Marias Pass, pioneered by the railroad, and just beyond is East Glacier Park Village, continuing the national park’s winter majesty.

Cross country skiing options abound. At the Izaak Walton Inn, a network of cross country trails abound, including several into the national park. On the Whitefish Lake Golf Course, 15 kilometers of trails are laid out, including 4 kilometers lighted for night skiing. A variety of other trails lie just outside town, as well as in nearby Glacier Park. For those wanting to try snowmobiling, a number of local companies cater to that activity.

Winter visitors to Glacier National Park can drive 11 miles into the park from West Glacier to Lake McDonald Lodge on Going to the Sun Highway. The road closes there in winter, but cross-country skiers or snowshoers continue along McDonald Creek for a true winter experience. Or, choose the North Fork Road, along the park’s western boundary, all the way to Polebridge. Other cross country trails head up the north side of Lake McDonald.

For a memorable experience, consider a dogsled tour or a sleigh ride. Dog Sled Adventures (406-881-2275), located 20 miles north of Whitefish in Olney, offers nearly 100 Alaskan huskies to pull sleds, catering daily to couples, families or groups. Winter horse-drawn sleigh rides are offered at Bar W Guest Ranch (406-863-9099), just 4 miles west of Whitefish on Highway 93. For those seeking a winter experience in Yellowstone National Park, it’s about eight hours south of Whitefish.

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