Winter Escape to Montana

November 19, 2016

Taking the Train to Glacier, Essex and Whitefish

By PJ Watanabe

The author hamming it up outside one of the sought-after vintage caboose cottages at Izaak Walton Inn. Photo by Rena Watanabe


Years ago I turned down a road trip through Montana with family. I thought it would be dull with repetitive scenery for 15 hours in a crammed minivan and a high potential for getting carsick.

After my wife, Rena, and I visited Essex and Whitefish Montana last winter, I realized my preconception could not have been any further from the truth.

To set the tone for our three-day escape from Seattle, we booked overnight rail travel via the Amtrak Empire Builder, with a course set for Essex, Montana. The sleeper car quarters were perfectly sized for two people and luggage, complete with its own bathroom and shower.

Breathtaking views of the Columbia River and Rocky Mountains twinkled in the twilight outside the windows of the dining car, while we delighted over a mouth-watering three-course supper. As we retired to our room, the soothing rhythm of the rail mimicked the sway of a bassinette, providing an unbelievably comfortable and deep sleep.

Let Loose in a Caboose

Nestled in Essex, bordering Glacier National Park and the Great Bear Wilderness Area, sits the Izaak Walton Inn. As the sun began to rise, we stepped off the train and were greeted with warm, outgoing, genuine courtesy from the Inn’s shuttle driver who helped with our bags and escorted us over slick black ice and gravel to the front door of the lobby.

Hearty meals at the Great Northern Brewing Company in Whitefish are known to make for happy stomachs and wallets. Photo by PJ Watanabe

We were thrilled to stay in one of the several sought-after historic caboose cottages scattered about the property. Each authentic, vintage railroad car has been upgraded with gorgeous hardwood framework and simple black iron trim. The interiors were detailed with comfort amenities such as heated tile floors, a cozy guest loft, patio deck and full kitchen with stainless appliances.

As lunch time approached, there was no reason to venture any further than the Dining Car at the Izaak Walton Inn before hitting the snowshoe trail.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner year round, menu options include world-class WAGYU beef (the U.S. equivalent to Kobe beef) burgers, and locally sourced dishes, such as the hearty Elk, Jalapeno and Buffalo Sausage Skillet, and lighter Skier Special (half of a Huckleberry Club Sandwich and cup of homemade tomato soup). Wash it down with a refreshing micro beer like the caramel-smooth, easy-drinking local favorite, “Moose Drool.”

Snowshoe rentals are conveniently located below the lobby, next to the bar and game room. We had our pick of snowshoe trails only a few paces from the lodge and across a bridge that spanned the train track.

Regardless of snowshoe experience, there are trails for every level and the Inn offers guided tours through Glacier Park that can be booked in advance at the front desk. It was easy to get caught up in the majesty of the landscape, the sounds of the forest canopy and the crisp clean air moving over our lungs while traipsing along the manicured trails.

Surfing the Magic Carpet

We hit the road early the next morning, heading 35 miles west to the mountain town of Whitefish. Izaak Walton Inn provides on-site rental cars which made for a seamless commute to Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Offering 11 different lodges we enjoyed our stay in the modest rooms of the Hibernation House which included a complimentary breakfast. For those on a budget, these accommodations provide the best value lodging when you want to splurge on the slopes, shops, downtown pubs and dining.

As a teenager I easily picked up downhill skiing but transitioning to snowboarding proved not as fluid. Fortunately, private group snowboarding lessons offered by the resort were engaging, affordable and easy to follow.

In lieu of tricky chair lifts, we loved surfing up the “Magic Carpet” moving platform to our start point. In no time we were shooting down the beginner’s course with the sparkling mountain sun glimmering off our toothy smiles and fellow first-timers as young as three cheering us on.

After a few hours we decided to rest our legs and rehydrate at the spacious ski lodge only paces from the lifts. Nestling up to a car-sized wood burning fireplace, we warmed our bodies with hot chocolate elixirs and the healthy and delicious dining variety refueled us for the second half of our day.

Bunny-Hopping Backwoods Trails

Just a 20-minute drive north of Whitefish, Winter Wonderland Sports provided a 4-hour snowmobile tour through gorgeous Flathead Valley. The owner and tour guide, Rob Milne, boasts more than 25 years of guide experience through 200 miles of mountainous backwoods trails. His company provides single or dual rider machines, helmets, snow gear, and optional on-location sled delivery.

Despite wetter than usual conditions, we climbed through patches of gravel, reaching thick blankets of compact snow and mountain loops. Our reward for reaching the top was a cache of high-energy snacks, bottled water and a roaring cast-iron fireplace in Rob’s custom-built yurt. Wooden bunks provide overnight retreat in hazardous weather.

Like playground kids on our BMX bikes, we spent the next hour “bunny-hopping,” or jumping snow mounds, through a course around the yurt’s perimeter. Occasionally I would pull off to admire delicate fox tracks, or a wisp of local moss, foreign to my eyes. And likeMother Nature’s alarm clock, the rain began to roll in, reminding us that it was time to start heading back.

That evening we descended upon downtown Whitefish to explore the local dining scene. Our tummies growled at the selection of hearty pub foods and frosty micro beers offered at The Great Northern Brewing Company. Their three story “Gravity-flow” brew house system is as much a work of art as it is functional, pumping out over 10,000 barrels per year.

Each delicious deli sandwich is accompanied by a side of house-made kettle chips and a zesty pickle, which made my stomach happy. And each of their home brews are on $15 per pitcher happy-hour special, which made my wallet happy.

The Evening Train

Before we knew it our first-time adventure to Montana had come to an end and it was time to hop the evening train back to Seattle.

Dropping off the rental car that evening was a breeze. Designated parking spaces were only a stone’s throw from the rail station with a convenient night drop box for the key.

We snuggled back into our familiar sleeper car and the train began to roll out, the bright lights of Whitefish fading into the distance.

As we reflected on our adventure we were amazed at how much we experienced in three days. While we couldn’t remember a more smooth and fun-filled winter weekend getaway, all I could think about was planning our next journey back to Montana, and a hint of regret for not visiting sooner.


Amtrak Empire Builder:
Izaak Walton Inn:
Whitefish Mountain Resort:
Winter Wonderland Sports:
Glacier National Park:

PJ has been an avid outdoor enthusiast since childhood and is a lifelong soccer player, mountain biker, survivalist, fisherman, and BSA Eagle Scout. Earning his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and specializing in Geographic Information Systems, PJ is surprisingly (and admittedly) terrible with directions.