America’s love affair with the motor car is a relatively recent
phenomenon. One hundred years ago, wealthy tourists searching for an antidote
to the stresses of city living travelled around primarily by train, courtesy of
a rapidly expanding rail network.
Stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the country’s multi-million
dollar, cross-continental railroad system trail-blazed its way through a
stirring assemblage of spectacular scenery and subtly ignited a healthy
interest in the “great outdoors”. One of its iconic stops was the 1,350sqkm Glacier National Park in
Notoriously difficult to access at the time of its inception in 1910,
Glacier owed much of its early success to the Great Northern Railway, a
pioneering line conceived and constructed by industrialist James J Hill -- aka
the “Empire Builder” -- in the 1890s. Hill envisaged the park’s rugged alpine
scenery as a “Little Switzerland” and, understanding its value as a tourist
destination, he authorized the construction of two historic train stations and
a handful of rustic hotels on its southern perimeter. The gamble paid off.
Glacier was quickly inundated with visitors whose vacation dollars went a long
way to helping Hill pay back his hefty business loans in an era when most
railroad companies were going bust.
Despite the subsequent rise of the motor car, Amtrak still runs a daily
train (named the Empire Builder in Hill’s honour)
along the Great Northern’s original 2,206-mile route between Chicago and
Seattle, stopping at both East Glacier Park and West Glacier stations on the
Equipped with a restaurant car, reclining business class seats, sleeping
“roomettes” and a seemingly never-ending supply of magnificent scenery, the
Empire Builder harks back to the golden years of 19th-century train travel -- but without the inflated prices. Instead, it has become
one of America’s great travel bargains. The 550-mile, 14.5 hour journey from
Seattle to West Glacier costs less than $100 in a comfortable superliner seat,
or around $200 in a two-berth sleeper. From Chicago (31 hours), the prices are
After a couple of days spent chugging through the landscapes of the Old
West, the well-worn travel adage about the journey being as important as the
destination starts to sound a lot less trite.
The trip from the west begins in Seattle at 4:40 pm with a complimentary
glass of champagne, sipped while you enjoy the watery vista of Puget Sound with
the snowy volcanic dome of Mount Rainier winking in the background.
By dinner at 7 pm you are crossing Washington State’s Cascade Mountains
via the longest rail tunnel in the United States at 12.5km long, and by the
time your purser has made up your bunk, you are in Idaho amid the Rockies. The
panoramic observation car opens just in time to enjoy sunrise over the rugged
peaks of western Montana as you tuck into a hearty breakfast.
Located at the park’s western entrance, historic West Glacier station has
changed little since the days when train loads of pasty-faced city dwellers
were met by horses to be transported to a handful of backcountry hotels and
By the 1930s, the horses had been replaced by cars with the completion
of the aptly named Going-to-the-Sun Road, a heart-in-your-mouth rollercoaster that
climbs past cascading waterfalls and gaping cliffs up to the continental divide
at 6,646ft-high Logan Pass.
Plagued by increasing numbers of cars, maintenance on the
Going-to-the-Sun Road had become a perennial headache by the 2000s. With the
highway listed as a national historic landmark, road-widening was not an
option. Instead, in the summer of 2007, Glacier’s park officials introduced a
free summer shuttle service between the nexus points of Apgar in the west and
St Mary in the east, an 80km journey. Linking various campgrounds, trailheads,
lodges and viewpoints, these super-efficient buses run visitors to 15
destinations along the park’s arterial road, leaving every 15 to 30 minutes. If
you have arrived by train and are staying in a hotel in West Glacier, hiring a
car is no longer a necessity.
Shuttle stops include the intentionally rustic Lake
McDonald Lodge, dating from 1913; the busy National Park Visitors Centre
that stands atop Logan Pass; and enough trailheads to satisfy the appetite of
the most steely-legged hiker.
But, most of all, the park and its shuttle buses allow access to
hundreds of square miles of Eden-like wilderness, a vast backcountry replete
with grizzly bears, bighorn sheep and sharp Gothic mountains. It is a landscape
that remains virtually unaltered since the days when Blackfeet Native Americans
roamed Glacier’s forest-filled slopes; remote, but comfortingly accessible
thanks, in part, to James J Hill and his empire-building railway.
The article 'Glacier National Park by train' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.