Exploring the Great Northern Railroad and Glacier National Park

Great Northern Railroad and Glacier National Park; exciting winter exploration!

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 down 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.

The route of the venerable Great Northern Railway.


It’s 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 (established 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 national Park, as well as considerable freight traffic, including coal and oil moving from the Dakota fields for export out of the country. 

The Whitefish Amtrak Station, also home to the Stumptown Historical Museum.

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’ve stayed a number of times at the Grouse Mountain Lodge on the west edge of town, wrapped in winter by cross country ski trails, in summer by an 18 hole golf course.

Whitefish Mountain towers over the town of Whitefish, MT.

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 even by Western standards, but be forewarned that temperatures can range from a balmy 40 degrees to 25 below zero, 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 over ski for a low rate of $25/day, with good discounts for seniors 62 and up and youth; kids under six 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, US Highway 2 heads east, along the south side of the national park; plan to visit the Isaac Walton Hotel, in Essex, MT, 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, East glacier, continuing the national park’s winter majesty.

Lake McDonald, looking to the northeast, from the Apgar area on the park’s west side.

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

The Izaak Walton Hotel, a former Great Northern Railway hotel.

For a memorable experience, consider a dogsled tour or a sleigh ride. Dog Sled Adventures (406) 881-2275, located 17 miles northwests 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.

Rent this Great Northern locomotive for an overnight stay; it’s been converted with kitchen, dining and living areas, bedroom – and the cab still retains all the engineer’s operating gear!

For more informationGlacier National Parknps.gov/glac/Whitefish, MT visitation, explorewhitefish.comWhitefish Mountain Resortskiwhitefish.com.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com or follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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