RISMEDIA, February 27, 2009- (MCT)-Leaving our house in Seattle on a Wednesday afternoon with just carry-on suitcases and a day pack stuffed with food and wine, I had a hard time grasping that without getting in a car or boarding a plane, my husband, Tom and I would be waking up the next morning in Montana’s Glacier National Park.
No worries about calling a taxi, putting liquids in plastic bags, fees for checking luggage or getting to the airport two hours ahead.
Instead, we took a city bus to Seattle’s King Street Station where our room for the night was waiting aboard the 4:45 p.m. Amtrak train ultimately bound for Chicago.
The plan: Travel 15 hours overnight to the West Glacier, Mont., train station at the park’s west entrance in the town of Belton. Arrive in the morning and spend two days cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Then take the train on Friday night 23 miles west to the town of Whitefish. Spend Friday and Saturday night there, and on Sunday, take an hour and 20-minute Horizon Air flight back to Seattle in time for work on Monday.
The budget: low, of course, and not difficult given offseason rates for cabins near Glacier park; no need for a rental car (most of the park roads are closed in winter), and a $70-a-night motel in Whitefish that came with a fireside bagel breakfast, free Wi-Fi, two double beds and cable TV.
Going by train and leaving by plane also penciled out nicely: The one-way train trip for two, including a room and meals, was $125 each. With the return airfare our transportation totaled $240 each.
“Champagne?” Chris, our sleeper-car attendant, offered as we settled into our roomette on the upper level of Amtrak’s Empire Builder. The train takes its name from Great Northern Railway executive James J. Hill, called “the empire builder” because of the development he encouraged along the rail line built in the late 1800s linking St. Paul, Minn., Minneapolis and Seattle.
We stowed our bags next to our seats, and balanced plastic stemmed glasses on a tray table. Roomettes-3’6″ x 6’6″ compartments with sliding doors-are Amtrak’s cheapest sleeping accommodations.
Two facing seats slightly wider than first-class airplane seats convert into a bed. An upper berth folds down from the wall. Showers and restrooms are down the corridor. But the perks are first-class: free help-yourself bubbly, bottled water, juice, coffee and dinner and breakfast in a dining car set with white paper tablecloths.
The route to Glacier-first north to Everett, then east through a tunnel bored under Stevens Pass, and onward through Spokane-is as mysterious in the winter darkness as it is scenic in the spring and summer.
Somewhere near Skykomish we joined a couple from Fargo, N.D., in the dining car for salad and mahi-mahi in a puttanesca sauce. Coffee and key-lime cake were served as we passed through Wenatchee.
By midnight, we were rocking and rolling our way into Spokane, and sleeping surprisingly well, insulated on the upper floor from the usual squeaks and squeals.
The train approached Whitefish by the time we awoke around 7 a.m. From the dining car, we could see the snow-covered Northern Rockies against a pink and white morning sky.
Hundreds get off at the Alpine-style Whitefish depot in the summer for hiking, river rafting and fishing; this time of the year, it’s mostly skiers and snowboarders unloading gear and heading to the slopes of the Whitefish Mountain ski resort at Big Mountain about four miles out of town.
Things were quieter 30 minutes away at the next stop, Belton, at the west entrance to Glacier National Park. There to meet us was Sally Thompson, owner of the Glacier Outdoor Center, a rafting and winter-sports resort a half-mile down the road, where we had rented a one-bedroom log cabin for the night.
Most Glacier park services, including lodges and restaurants, close in winter, and a visitor’s center opens only on weekends.
Thompson offered to make a grocery run (the nearest store is eight miles away), but we had come prepared with breakfast, lunch and dinner fixings tailored to fit into the day pack and survive the overnight train ride.
Had it been raining or bitterly cold, we would have been content relaxing in the cabin next to the gas fireplace.
But the temperatures were in the 30s, and the skies were clear, so we spent the morning skiing on the Outdoor Center’s groomed trails and the afternoon hiking in the park along a bike path skirting the Flathead River.
The next day, we hitched a ride with Thompson 10 miles inside the park to where the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road bisecting the park is closed to cars in winter.
Here we began a snowshoe hike along a 5-mile loop that took us past glacier-fed Lake McDonald backed by the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide.
We spotted moose tracks as we followed a trail through the woods, along a creek and over a horse bridge to a chain of waterfalls called the Sacred Dancing Cascade.
Thirty-seven glaciers line the landscape of Glacier National Park. “This is our back yard,” said Diana Kyle, a local resident whom we met crossing the bridge on snowshoes with her husband, John. “We come two or three times a week,” and except on Sundays when park rangers lead snowshoe hikes, “we have it mostly to ourselves.”
Among their winter discoveries: Harlequin ducks that breed in icy waters and a flock of American dippers, dark, gray birds that can see underwater and swim upstream.
Our plan for the late afternoon was to pack up, walk the half-mile back to the train depot and sample the whiskey-cured pork chops at the Belton Chalet across the street before catching the 8:30 p.m. train back to Whitefish.
Major glitch: The westbound Amtrak train starts out in Chicago at 2:15 p.m. the day before, and often arrives late when snow and ice cause delays. The 8:30 p.m. train wasn’t due in until 1 a.m.
Plan B: Locals are used to this. Shuttles will pick up in West Glacier ($50 one way), or someone will offer a lift.
Thompson offered to drive us in on her way to the bank. She suggested that we rendezvous inside the tap room at the Belton, a rambling wooden restaurant and lodge complex built by the Great Northern Railway in 1910, the same year the park opened.
Much about the area has changed in the past 99 years, but the pristine view of the mountains from the bar’s leaded-glass windows is the same.
Care to share it with locals rather than most of the 2 million tourists who visit Glacier each year? Go before summer.
If You Go:
Glacier National Park is open year-round, although road access is limited until the snowmelt, usually sometime in late May or early June. Park rangers lead free snowshoe hikes at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through March 22. Snowshoes can be rented for $2 at the Apgar Visitor Center, open weekends from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. The park-entrance fee is $15. Call 406-888-7939 to check weather. See the park’s skiing and snowshoeing Web at home.nps.gov/applications/glac/ski/xcski.htm) for trail maps.
Accommodations and restaurants inside the park are closed in winter. Just outside the entrance is the Glacier Outdoor Center, with nine modern cabins with kitchens and TVs. Prices start at $119 through May. See www.glacierraftco.com, or call 800-235-6781. The Belton Chalet, across the street from the west entrance and the train depot, has cottages. Rates start at $99. Restaurant open weekends only. See www.beltonchalet.com or call 888-235-8665.
Amtrak also stops in Essex, 25 miles east of West Glacier, where the Izaak Walton Inn has rooms, a restaurant and groomed cross-country ski trails. Rates start at $117. See www.izaakwaltoninn.com or call 406- 888-5700. Whitefish has plenty of hotels and B&Bs in all price ranges in town and near the Whitefish Mountain ski resort.
Whitefish: See www.explorewhitefish.com or call 877-862-3548.
Glacier National Park: See www.nps.gov/glac or call 406- 888-7800.
© 2009, The Seattle Times.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.