My Vacation: Train Trek to Montana
An estimated 2 million people a year visit Montana's Glacier National Park (above), with its majestic, craggy peaks crossing the U.S. border north into Canada. The vast majority of visitors to Glacier arrive between the Fourth of July and Labor Day. When my 11-year-old son and I went recently for spring break, we were practically the only ones in the park. On the day we visited, it was just us, some friends, a few other nature lovers, and three deer we saw on a walk (below).
Glacier and the nearby Flathead Valley area aren't popular destinations in late spring. Going-to-the-Sun Road, the famous highway that cuts across the 1,583-square-mile national park, is closed except for the first 10 miles. The rest is still buried under heavy snow. Downhill skiers can get in good runs on Big Mountain, just outside of the town of Whitefish, about 25 miles away. But the snow covering local cross-country skiing trails is mushy in some spots and gone in others. Snowmobile trails through smaller mountains near Glacier are packed and deep at the top, but rocky and muddy the closer you get to the bottom.
We had a good time anyway. Actually I think we fared better than the summertime hordes because we had the place to ourselves -- even if some restaurants and souvenir stands were closed for the off season. Just getting there was an adventure. For the 15-hour trip from Portland to the tiny West Glacier station, we booked a sleeper car on Amtrak -- a first for me and my son -- sat back and enjoyed the ride.
Here's my report:
Best moment: My son Aaron loves animals, dogs especially, so when I gave him options for activities on the trip, his first pick was dog sledding. We booked an outing with BaseCamp Bigfork musher Mark Schurke. He runs a team of Inuits, one of the only packs of that sled dog breed in the country. We drove six of Schurke's dozen dogs to state land outside Bigfork, about 40 miles from Glacier. Some dog sled outfits make customers ride instead of mush. Not Schurke. Aaron and I shared steering and breaking duties while Schurke tagged along on cross country skis. We spent an entire morning gliding through forest trails, stopping every so often to play with the dogs. By the end, Aaron was smitten. Here's a video Schurke took of one run:
Best tip: If you've ever been to the Ahwanhee Hotel in Yosemite or Crater Lake Lodge in Oregon, you know there's something special about staying at a historic landmark inside a national park. Glacier's no exception. The park has three historic lodges or inns, including Lake McDonald Lodge, where you can bunk in the main lodge, apartment-style buildings or cottages that line the lakeshore. Reservations, however, are hard to come by; the hotel is booked through 2012. Options outside the park include the Isaak Walton Inn (shown above), located in the tiny community of Essex, about 40 minutes from West Glacier. The inn was built in 1939 to house workers on the Great Northern Railroad and has since been registered as a National Historic Landmark. The inn's offerings include four train cabooses that have been converted into cabins. Amtrak's Empire Builder line from Portland or Seattle to Chicago goes right by, and although it's not on the official station list, the train will make a stop there if you've got a reservation.
For our trip, we picked the less posh Tamarack Lodge (above), on Hwy. 2 just outside Hungry Horse, a 10-minute drive to the park. Our cozy two-bedroom cabin was a steal -- half price for spring break vacationers -- and one of the closest lodgings to Glacier that's open during the off season.
Best meal: These days, train food is better than plane food. We boarded Amtrak in Portland late on a Sunday afternoon, and the diner car wasn't scheduled to hook up with us until hours later. So dinner came in a box. But it was a feast: cold beef tenderloin sliced over Asian noodles and salad greens in a teriyaki sesame sauce with apple cake for dessert and a split of sparkling white wine -- all included in the sleeper car ticket price. So was breakfast the next morning, my choice of asparagus quiche or bacon and eggs. The only drawback was rolling out of a cozy train berth at 6:30 a.m. to have time for breakfast before disembarking at the West Glacier station.
Don't miss: Amtrak's Empire Builder has a limited number of sleeping compartments, and they fill up fast. If you want one, book early. A few larger rooms have a private bathroom with shower; passengers with smaller berths use the sleeper car's community restrooms. The Empire Builder information page has more details. If you're headed to Glacier, check the park's official website to see what's open, and what's not. Find out more about northwest Montana on the Flathead Valley Visitor Bureau website.
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