The park and the train

Posted by Justin Franz
on Monday, June 24, 2019

The Empire Builder near Essex, Montana. Photo by Justin Franz.
This past weekend, Glacier National Park opened its iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road for the summer. The 50-mile highway passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Northwest, through tunnels and over cascading waterfalls. 

Unsurprisingly, it was also jammed with traffic within hours of opening. On Sunday afternoon, park officials reported “bumper to bumper traffic” along an 8-mile stretch of the road and people looking for a parking spot at the Continential Divide either had to give up or commit to driving around in circles until another car left. In recent years, Glacier has become one of America’s most popular National Parks with 2.9 million people visiting in 2018, the second-busiest year in its 109-year history. Speaking from experience, if you want to take in some of Glacier Park’s scenery, be prepared to get up early or spend a lot of time waiting in your car. 

But there is still at least one way to skip the crowd and take in the scenery from the comfort of a moving vehicle: by train. 

People wait for passengers at East Glacier Park. Photo by Justin Franz.
Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder still rolls along the southern edge of Glacier National Park on its way from Chicago to Portland and Seattle, just like it did when the train premiered 90 years ago this month. A few weeks ago, on the eve of the anniversary, my wife and I experienced the joys of Glacier Park from the comfort of the lounge car. While finding a parking spot in Glacier can feel like a near-impossible task, finding a window seat on the train was easy. From the train we could see distant peaks, the wild and scenic Middle Fork of the Flathead River, and even a black bear. 

In many ways, Glacier Park owes its existence to the railroad. In the early 1900s, Congress had tried and failed on multiple occasions to turn the 1 million acres of mountainous territory south of the Canadian border into a park. It wasn’t until Great Northern Railway President Louis W. Hill got involved and twisted some arms in Washington D.C. that Congress was able to pass legislation creating the park in 1910. Afterwards, the railroad built hotels and chalets in the park to encourage people to take GN trains to Glacier and “See America First.”

“There is no National Park more closely tied to a railroad as Glacier National Park is tied to the Great Northern,” said retired railroader and passenger train advocate Mark Meyer. “Glacier wouldn’t be Glacier without the Great Northern.”

The view from the rear end of a passenger train near Glacier National Park. Photo by Justin Franz
Today, the GN’s legendary mountain goat herald has been replaced with the BNSF Railway swoosh, but there’s still plenty of the GN legacy to be found in Northwest Montana. The hotels and chalets the railroad built a century ago are still sheltering guests. The red touring buses that the GN’s park subsidiary purchased decades ago are still roaring up the Sun Road. And the GN’s premier train, the Empire Builder, still rolls along the park’s southern boundary every day. 

Glacier wouldn’t be Glacier without it.

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