Izaak Walton Inn lives up to its reputation

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, October 10, 2017

In a view from the footbridge over the tracks, a BNSF train passes the Izaak Walton Inn. Kevin P. Keefe photo
What makes a great railfan hotel? It seems to me the criteria should be pretty simple. After checking off things like creature comforts, cleanliness, and good food — the basics about which there should be little debate — you’re basically left with one question: are there lots of trains, and are they easily seen, felt, and heard?

I can think of a lot of places that basically qualify. One of my favorites is La Posada, the beautiful Fred Harvey remake in Winslow, Ariz., hard by the BNSF Transcon, where an endless stream of intermodal trains are the perfect accompaniment to a four-star meal in the dining room. Then there’s the simpler experience of the Station Inn in Cresson, Pa., with its broad front porch offering a front-row seat on Norfolk Southern action across the PRR’s old Pittsburgh Division.

A new one on my radar is the Elkhorn Inn & Theater, in Kimball, W.Va., adjacent to the NS Pocahontas Division and housed in the 1922 Empire Coal & Coke Company clubhouse, a striking brick edifice I’d passed dozens of times chasing trains along U.S. 52. This place looks like a must-see.

Railroad artifacts abound at the Inn. Kevin P. Keefe photo
But now I have a new number one on my list: the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Mont., near the east entrance of Glacier National Park and hard by BNSF’s busy ex-Great Northern main line. What a wonderful place to unwind, to explore nature, to feel the heritage of the old GN, and, of course, to experience plenty of mainline action.

The Izaak Walton is old hat to a lot of readers, I’m sure, but it remained elusive for me until a couple of weeks ago when my wife Alison and I worked it into a long trip aboard Amtrak No. 7, the Empire Builder. We included a three-day, three night stopover at the Inn.

A little history: The hotel was built in 1939 by private interests, in cooperation with the GN, when there were plans to open a new entrance to the national park at Essex. World War II disrupted that idea, so the hotel reverted to serving railroad crews at the helper terminal at Essex, as well as tourists. BNSF still has a small track maintenance base adjacent to the hotel, but distributed power on most trains has obviated the need for the helper terminal.

The lobby of the Inn offers a cozy retreat if the weather is cold or wet. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Today, the hotel is owned by Brian and Mary Kelly, who moved to Montana from Chicago in 2003 and now run several local Montana businesses.

We found the Izaak Walton to be delightfully cozy and comfortable. We stayed in the main lodge, which also includes the main dining room (where the food is terrific), a bar and recreation room in the basement, a sauna and hot tub, and, perhaps best of all in warm weather, a spacious veranda with a panoramic view of BNSF’s main line.

Great Northern touches are apparent throughout the lodge, including in our comfortable “Empire Builder” room, one of the standard accommodations. The walls of the building are covered in GN and other railroad memorabilia, including vintage travel posters, publicity pictures of various iterations of the Builder and Oriental Limited, old menus and timetables, and a Rocky the Goat motif that extends to wrought iron railings that grace the exterior. James J. Hill himself would enjoy this place.

There’s more outside. Just east of the main lodge is a former Santa Fe F45 locomotive carbody, now numbered GN “441,” painted in the 1967 Big Sky Blue livery and outfitted as a luxury cabin. Scattered around the property are several cabooses, some wood and some steel, which have been converted to lodging, some described as luxury, plus a number of wooden family cabins.

GN Rocky the Goat emblems decorate the railing of the porch, which gives a grandstand view of the BNSF main line. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Most of the cabooses are perched on a hillside overlooking the BNSF tracks, opposite the lodge, accessible via an imposing steel footbridge. Always mindful of railfans, the lodge has equipped the chain-link security fence with perfectly placed camera portholes. 

You could spend all your time right at the lodge and, with some good books, have a wonderful visit. But one of the reasons you stay at the Izaak Walton is to enjoy the railroad, the national park, or both. And the Inn makes that easy, with rental cars available at the hotel.

From the Izaak Walton you have easy access to the entire Glacier region via U.S. 2, just a mile down the road from Essex. The train-watching is unsurpassed, whether you head east for 5,231-foot Marias Pass or the spectacular Two Medicine River Bridge, or west toward Whitefish, a delightful ski town with its wonderful 1927 GN depot and small BNSF yard and crew-change point.

It’s just an educated guess, but I estimate we saw upwards of 25 trains per day go past the lodge, a healthy mix of stack trains to and from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, unit grain trains, a few merchandise and auto-rack movements, and, surprisingly, a fair number of unit crude oil trains from the Bakken region in North Dakota.

You might read the occasional complaint about train noise on Trip Advisor or some other travel website (what do people expect from a trackside hotel?), but to be honest I found the trains to be incredibly quiet. The use of distributed power on seemingly every train has reduced the slogging roar of trains climbing east toward Marias Pass, and everything moves through Essex quickly. Nor, it seems, is there a grade crossing nearby. I rarely heard any whistling of any kind.

Besides, train noise isn’t something I’d ever complain about. If anything, there wasn’t enough.

Finally, a word about traveling to Essex via the Empire Builder: it couldn’t be easier. Both trains 7 and 8 make regular stops at Essex, which sports a small but substantial platform operated jointly by BNSF and Amtrak and equipped with platform heaters. The station is barely a half-mile from the lodge, and the Izaak Walton sends a courtesy shuttle to meet every train.

Having arrived on 7 after a delightful ride from Milwaukee, we got to the point over our stay where we looked forward to the passage of the Builder every morning and evening, like a visit from an old friend. At the end of our visit, as train 7 eased up to the Essex platform to take us on to the next leg of our trip, we vowed to come back here as soon as possible.

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