Traveling by train has been a popular mode of transportation for years in Europe and Canada and is gaining in popularity in the U.S. That’s great news to us here in Western Montana’s Glacier Country, especially as one of the most scenic segments of Amtrak’s Empire Builder travels through the northwestern corner of Montana. Tour operators can create itineraries where their clients can choose to travel the entire route of the Empire Builder, with flexible stops along the way to see what nearby towns have to offer. Or they can have clients travel sections of the route, then bus or rent a car for the remainder of their itinerary. No matter which option is chosen one thing is for sure: Montana by rail is an easy way to travel.
Running from Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Illinois, Amtrak’s Empire Builder travels through the northern tier of Montana with stops in seven of Western Montana’s communities, including Libby, Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex, East Glacier Park, Browning and Cut Bank.
Libby is the first stop in Western Montana and is located at the base of the breathtaking Cabinet Mountain Range and along the winding Kootenai River where travelers will find the largest undammed falls in the state and the backdrop to famous films including “The River Wild” and most recently “The Revenant.”
The next stop is Whitefish–Western Montana’s most authentic mountain town and home to Whitefish Mountain Resort. Known for its world-class skiing in the winter, Whitefish Mountain Resort also offers fun-filled adventures in the summer including mountain biking, an Aerial Adventure Park, an alpine slide and Walk in the Tree Tops. Plus, your clients will see some of the most breathtaking views of the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park from the top of Big Mountain. Downtown Whitefish boasts gourmet restaurants and boutique shopping along the quaint main street, Central Avenue. Unique lodging options abound in Whitefish from a 4-star hotel, to mountainside lodges and bed-and-breakfasts.
A popular stop to disembark is West Glacier, due to its close location to the west entrance to Glacier National Park. The train depot sits across the street from the Belton Chalet, the first lodge built by the Great Northern Railroad at Glacier National Park. Opened in 1910, the Belton Chalet has been fully restored and is one of the most charming accommodations in West Glacier. Plus, their on-site dining room serves gourmet meals made with local Montana ingredients.
Leaving West Glacier, the train travels east along the southern boundary of Glacier National Park as it passes jaw-dropping scenery out every window. The next town is Essex and features the Izaak Walton Inn. Once a railroad bunkhouse, the Izaak is now a historic inn that sits trackside and has lodge rooms, as well as train cabooses and a luxury locomotive that have been converted into adorable lodging options. The Izaak Walton Inn is quite popular with international visitors, cross-country skiers and snowshoeing enthusiast, as well as train historians. Essex is noted as a “flag stop” on the Empire Builder route and will stop if ticketed passengers are getting on or off at the Inn.
Once the train passes Essex it crests the Continental Divide at Marias Pass and then continues east to its next stop at East Glacier Park. Across from the station is Glacier Park Lodge, an impressive lodge made of timbers that are estimated to be 600 years old. The lodge was originally built by the Great Northern Railway to promote train travel and attract visitors to the region. The East Glacier Park station is open mid-spring through mid-fall.
The next stop is Browning, the headquarters of the Blackfeet Indian Nation. A stop in Browning gives travelers easy access to The Blackfeet Heritage Museum and Museum of the Plains Indians both offering great information on the history and culture of the Blackfeet. Keep in mind that the Amtrak station in Browning is open from mid-fall to early spring (typically October – April).
The last stop in Western Montana’s Glacier Country on Amtrak’s Empire Builder is the town of Cut Bank. The town started as a Great Northern Railway camp with workers who were there to build a train trestle over Cut Bank Creek. Today, it boast abundant outdoor opportunities including fishing, guest ranches, birding, hiking and incredible views of the Rocky Mountain Front.
A few things to note about the Empire Builder and train travel:
- The scenery is spectacular during every season and the train runs year-round.
- From April to September Amtrak welcomes volunteers from the National Park Service, Trails & Rails program to offer educational information from the observation car.
- Each coach seat provides reclining options and a leg rest with a free pillow.
- Sleeping accommodations range from roomettes to full bedrooms with private baths.
- Some train travel can be up to half the price of a plane ticket to get to the same destination.
- Amtrak often gives discounts to children, military, students, seniors and AAA members.
- The train is eco-friendly and more energy efficient with less emissions than cars or planes.