On the Rails: Explore Glacier National Park by Train
One hundred years ago, Glacier National Park looked much like it does today.
The jagged peaks of the Rockies scratched northern Montana’s big sky, while metallic-sheened lakes displayed the mountains in inverse.
Reliving the History of Glacier National Park by Train
Today, Glacier National Park draws thousands of visitors with more than 1,000 kilometers of hiking trails and countless spectacular photo opportunities. But the immense glaciers found throughout the park are the main draw.
Travelers couldn’t experience this scenery until the late 1800s, when railroad tycoon James J. Hill began laying down track for the Great Northern Railway between Chicago, Illinois, and Seattle, Washington, by way of northern Montana. Hill wasn’t a fool; he recognized the need to share the natural beauty of Glacier National Park with the world.
The train was the only way to reach Glacier National Park through the first half of the 20th century. Today, it’s still one of the most historically authentic and environmentally friendly ways to travel to the destination. Amtrak’s Empire Builder line — which follows Hill’s original route — relies on low-carbon fuel to keep the engines on the route chugging. You’ll arrive at historic train stations and stay at hotels and chalets first built by Hill back in the early 1900s.
Observation car on an Amtrak train
Seeing the USA by Train
Amtrak’s Empire Builder train route runs from Chicago to Seattle. Along the way, it travels through Glacier National Park in Montana.
“Coming from Chicago, you travel across North Dakota, which is relatively flat,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari, who has ridden the train multiple times. “There comes a moment as you hit Montana when the mountains suddenly jump out at you. I like being able to see both the amber waves of grain and the purple mountains’ majesty.”
During the high season (mid-May through October), passengers are often treated to educational lectures by National Park Service staff on everything from local wildlife to the ventures of famed explorers Lewis and Clark.
But most important, Magliari stresses, is that riding the train eliminates visitors’ need to keep their eyes on the road so they can focus on what’s really important: the park’s beauty.
“People need to see the glaciers while there are still glaciers to see,” he said.
Train journeys allow passengers to focus on the scenery
Amtrak’s Glacier National Park journeys last anywhere from four to 16 days, and many include meals and admission to local attractions. Here’s what an 11-day vacation package would look like:
Days 1 and 2: The voyage starts in Chicago: Before you hop aboard the Empire Builder, you’ll have a day or two to experience the Windy City. Spend some time at the Museum of Science and Industry, which houses several exhibits pertaining to the evolution of railroads in the USA. On the evening of the second day, you’ll end your time in Chicago with a meal at one of the city’s most popular restaurants.
Days 3 and 4: On the morning of the third day, the train leaves Chicago for Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The Twin Cities makes a nice introduction to a vacation anchored by outdoor adventure. The state known as "the Land of 10,000 Lakes" offers plenty of opportunities to boat, as well as numerous beaches and waterfront paths. At the end of the fourth day, you’ll hop back aboard the train for the overnight trek across North Dakota and much of Montana.
Days 5 – 8: When you wake on the morning of the fifth day, take a peek out the window: The train will be pulling into one of Glacier National Park’s two historic train stations. You’ll have several days to explore Glacier: You can hop aboard the shuttle for a trip along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, or you can take a cruise on one of the park’s glimmering lakes. You can book these and other guided activities when you make reservations for your Amtrak journey or set out and explore on your own. You’ll spend three nights in one of the park’s lodging options, which vary in price and level of luxury. At the end of the eighth day of the journey, you’ll jump back aboard the train for the overnight trip to Seattle.
Days 9 – 11: Day nine will begin with your arrival in Seattle. The Emerald City is Washington state’s jewel on the Pacific and the original end point of the Great Northern Railway. Your vacation packages covers a two-day hop-on, hop-off tour and admission to such popular attractions as the Space Needle and Chihuly’s Garden and Glass Museum.
The morning of your last day leaves you free to do as you please. If you have extra time and want to explore more of the great outdoors, you can venture to Mount Rainier National Park or Olympic National Park, both of which are only about two hours from the city.
All aboard for an adventure through Glacier National Park
More experiences nearby