Early in this century, the Great Northern Railway began marketing Montana’s Glacier National Park as the “Switzerland of America.” Chalets were built throughout the park to house tourists who travelled by train to this stunningly beautiful ice-carved terrain of mountains, valleys, glaciers, waterfalls and trees.
Although some of the railway chalets and hotels no longer exist, there are several historic properties that have been restored to their glory days and provide a glimpse of an era in time when trains opened up the Wild West.
If you are a railway fan, there is no better spot to revel in the glory days of rail travel than the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana. In fact, you probably shouldn’t stay at the Izaak Walton Inn if you don’t like trains.
From the wooden porch swing on the back deck of this historic railroad lodge, you can still watch trains coming and going. And if you are sitting outside when the Amtrak Train rolls in, you must wave to the passengers onboard – it’s a tradition.
Listed on the US National Register of Historic places, the Izaak Walton Inn was built in 1939 by the Great Northern Railroad to accommodate train crews who worked in helper service and snow removal on the line over Morias pass.
The summit of the pass is the highest point on the entire rail line and is located about 26-km east of Essex.
Even with today’s powerful diesel engines, helper engines are still sometimes needed to get long freights over the hill, so Essex remains an active helper and snow removal station.
Not surprisingly, the lodge has becomed an ideal spot for rail fans.
It is the main lodge that has the most history, but on a very recent visit I had the chance to stay in the ultimate rail accommodation — a green caboose converted to a hotel room.
Perched on a hill overlooking the lodge and the rails, the family caboose had a full kitchen and table, a bathroom with a small shower, a large master bedroom and a loft to house a couple of kids — or one travel writer.
The only thing missing was a television and a phone, which I saw as a positive thing.
Having no TV forces you to get outside and be active, and there are some pretty amazing things to see and do outside the lodge, which sits just on the edge of Glacier National Park.
We took in a white water rafting experience in West Glacier, hiked on trails near the hotel, stopped to photograph beautiful waterfalls and see the abundant wildlife, and just spent time relaxing in the lodge itself, which is decorated with historic railway memorabilia.
We were so busy that we never even missed technology and so exhausted at the end of the day that we never even heard the trains passing by in the night.
We ended our stay at the Izaak Walton with a brisk morning hike to a swinging bridge and a hot breakfast in the dining room, which is decorated to look like an old-fashioned railway dining car.
I have to admit; after the weekend adventure, I was enamoured with trains. It would be perfect if you could catch the train back home to Canada, but most people settle for the Going to the Sun Road, which is also a pretty spectacular ride.
If you go:
l The Izaak Walton Inn is located in Essex, Montana on the edge of Glacier National Park about midway between the East and West entrances to the park. It will take between four and five-hours to drive from Calgary to Essex.
l Rooms at the Izaak Walton start at $147 USD per night for a lodge room during the peak summer season. A family cabin that sleeps up to six people will cost $230 USD per night (minimum 2-night stay) and a caboose cottage will cost $230 per night (minimum 3-night stay). Packages including meals are also available. The restaurant onsite is excellent.
l If you are a light sleeper, the sound of trains passing by in the night could be a problem. You will get less train noise with a room that is further away from the tracks. Rooms at the front of the inn or family cabins further away from the tracks tend to be quieter. Caboose rooms are located directly above the tracks where you are likely to experience the most train noise.
l There are many excellent hiking trails in and around Essex – some maintained by the Inn and some maintained by Glacier National Park Service, as the inn sits near the edge of the national park. We enjoyed the Old Creek Trail with its swinging bridge. Also, be sure to check out “Goat Lick,” located about 5-km from the lodge, for great pictures of mountain goats perched on the side of a steep ravine.
l Does the name Izaak Walton ring a bell? The inn was named after Sir Izaak Walton, a 16th century English author and sportsmen who wrote the famous book about fly fishing: The Compleat Angler. Born August 9, 1593 in Stafford, England, Sir Izaak has been the unofficial patron saint of fishermen for more than 400 years. A local resident who lived in the area in the early days of the railroad is presumed to have named the inn after Sir Izaak.
l There are a number of great fly-fishing rivers and streams flowing through this area and nearby Glacier National Park. While there is no license required to fish in the park, you must have a free permit from the ranger station. Outside the park, you’ll need a Montana state fishing license.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.