You Can See America's Most Stunning Sights By Purchasing a Single Amtrak Ticket

On a trip to Montana’s Glacier National Park — via the Empire Builder, one of the country’s most beloved long-distance train routes — discover the grandeur of the rapidly changing Western wilderness.
April 10, 2018

A little while ago college friends rented a house in Montana for the summer and invited my family and me to visit. In an e-mail containing information on nearby airports they wrote, "The train is also an option." Amtrak has a line that goes from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, terminating in either Portland or Seattle. It passes through Glacier National Park, a few hours away from the house. There's a train station on the eastern edge of the park.

I wasn't sure I had ever seen a real glacier. In Iceland once, maybe? My doubt suggests how present I was for the experience. This would certainly be my first sober-ish glacier. Plus I love trains. Over the past four or five years I've been taking the train back and forth between my home in North Carolina and New York City. I get a sleeper. The cost is less than a last-minute plane ticket. I board at Rocky Mount, a country station, around 2 a.m., then immediately lie down and read myself to sleep. An hour before I reach New York, they wake me up to let me know breakfast is ready. I sit over my coffee and eggs and watch the fields and old brick buildings of northern New Jersey go by, and it could be any decade of the past 150 years.

Amtrak's name for the Chicago-to-Pacific-Northwest line is the Empire Builder. When I looked it up on the Web, I found a Reuters headline that read: "To see why Amtrak is bleeding money, hop aboard its rumbling Midwestern ‘Empire Builder' train." That suggested a skeeviness that appealed to me. If it's retro travel you're after, you have to maintain a taste for skeeviness. But the accompanying article turned out to be about how the line, which began operating in 1929 as part of the Great Northern Railway, is losing money despite increased ridership. In this way, the Empire Builder is an emblem of the fading fortunes of American rail travel. An important early line connecting the Midwest to the West, it tracks part of the Lewis and Clark Trail. In its heyday, it represented American, well, empire — not to mention the idea that there was no better way of viewing the country than from the comfort of a rail car. It's worth noting that the current administration has proposed discontinuing Amtrak's long-distance routes, including the Empire Builder. For this storied journey, the end of the line could be near.

As we got ready to board in Chicago's Union Station, the first thing I noticed was the Mennonites. Loads of them. They gathered together, easily a dozen families, or possibly one very large extended family. These were Old Order Mennonites who wore the plain homespun clothes of an 18th-century Central European farmer — blues and blacks and whites, hats and bonnets. They had calm, friendly expressions. I found myself studying their faces and translucent eyes. My rude staring did not keep me from hissing at my two daughters whenever I caught them looking. A crucial part of parenthood is being okay with hypocrisy.

Amtrak calls the compartment we had the Family Bedroom. Its design is truly ingenious. It's the size of a closet but it fit the four of us comfortably, or at least comfortably enough that we actually slept. Two of the four beds come down from the walls, above the other two, like the flaps of a cardboard box. During the day you can push them up and use the bottom two as couches. Card table, window. I won't lie: it was tight. After a few days you would start to lose your mind. But for a few days? Much fun.

The train has two levels, like a double-decker bus. On top are the observation and dining areas. Two of us were generally up there while the other two were in our compartment, making the close quarters more doable. Invariably we passed Mennonites on the narrow staircases. They were exceptionally polite about staircase etiquette, backing up so the other person could pass. And quiet. At dinner, for instance, their tables were so silent that I felt the need to control my voice, so that I wouldn't ruin their dinners with my godless yakking.

But it wasn't hard to keep the talk down. I mean, the scenario was quite dramatic. I was sitting there having a not-disgusting steak and a not-disgusting bottle of wine, as the train blasted through the prairie at high speed. Through the windows I could see the American sky opening up, the horizon receding. My chest heaved. We had put on nice clothes for the meal. I looked around — others had done the same. Everybody was smiling. We were all invested in the experience of this train ride, which has something to do with a certain vision of America. I tried not to analyze it, knowing it would go poof on inspection.

From left: Lake Josephine, one of the many glacially carved lakes in Glacier National Park; the park's Swiftcurrent Glacier, as seen from a hiking trail.
Christopher Simpson

The train goes more than 2,200 miles, northwest through Minneapolis and Fargo, North Dakota, then west over the glacial plain, into and across Montana. An epic journey, but the land is not all pretty. On that first evening, the train stopped somewhere in southern Minnesota for a smoke break. I asked the woman from Amtrak who was in charge of our car about the Mennonites. Were there always so many? Not always this many, she said, but there were often a lot. They were ideal passengers. The same could not be said, she lamented, for some of the fracking miners who rode the train to and from the fields in the north.

And who were the Mennonites? I asked her. Why did they ride this train all the time? I don't know why I cared so much.

She said they had communities all along the line. Maybe they'd settled in these areas to be close to the train's path? She wasn't sure. The Mennonites are a communal people. Getting together, having reunions, is crucial. If a family in a far-flung community wants to build a house or has just welcomed a baby and is about to baptize it, their extended relations in other towns come and stay for weeks or a month. It wasn't that they were expected to or that they were exceptionally generous. It was a rhythm in their way of life.

As promised, there was a train station called East Glacier Park at the edge of the park, about 40 miles south of the Canadian border. We disembarked. Directly in front of us, surrounded by an expansive green lawn, stood Glacier Park Lodge, where we would spend the night. It hinted at a cozy relationship between corporate interests and the state. In fact, Glacier's very existence is due in no small part to the efforts of the Great Northern Railway, which built up the original tourist infrastructure and lobbied the government to establish the national park. But I don't mean "cozy" in a bad way. The idea of a major passenger train taking you straight into a national park and letting you out there and not trying to sell you anything — I didn't know we did that in America.

There weren't many people climbing off with us. From childhood I have associated national parks with crowds and, consequently, unpleasantness. But unlike at Yellowstone or Yosemite, Glacier's attendance rates are quite low. We were there for five days in summer and we hardly waited in a line.

Family fun aside, we had come to see glaciers. The next day we rented a car at a counter in the general store and drove an hour north. We checked in to St. Mary Lodge and a little while later took a boat trip on St. Mary Lake. The wooden boat was something like 100 years old. The captain was a cute, young kid, with curly blond hair like a surfer. He knew his stuff, though. He started talking about the hills around us. It was surprising how many were visibly scarred by something: fires, blight, insects. Some of it was the natural cycle of forests, he said, but much was new and worrisome. We could see the evidence, yet enough undamaged vistas remained that he could give a tour of nature's beauty. This gave me a sense of America's vastness, but also its fragility.

Soon, the captain said, we would come in sight of a real glacier, Sexton Glacier. It would be visible on a mountainside. He told us a little about what glaciers are. There were snowfields all through the mountains around us. I had sort of assumed we'd been seeing glaciers the whole time. But, as the captain explained, there are real and technical differences between a giant snowfield on a mountain and a bona fide glacier. A glacier forms when snow turns to ice through a process of seasonal deposition and compaction. As new layers of snow mount, the lower layers change into a dense, tightly packed ice called firn. After many decades, the firn fuses into a glacier, which then starts to spread outward like a liquid. It moves slowly, over eons, but as invincibly as a tidal wave. Glaciers don't just come and go, in other words. They are part of the earth's long seasons, the ones that last hundreds, or hundreds of thousands, of years.

"It's estimated," the captain said, "that the glaciers in Glacier National Park will all be gone by about 2030."

Murmuring stopped. Everyone sat there stunned. As in, about 15 years from now?

"That's what the scientists say," the captain said.

I looked at my daughters, the backs of their heads next to each other above the back rest in front of us. This was probably the only time they would see glaciers in their own country. It is deeply strange, to be living in the time when all of this becomes real. Even writing this, I want to tell myself to cheer up and not put it so starkly, but the facts are stark. In the 19th century there were more than 100 glaciers in the park. Today there are 25. It is happening fast.

"2030?" came out of someone's mouth, equal parts incredulity and concern.

"I know," the young captain said.

We sailed around a curve in the lake, and the glacier came into view. "This is Sexton Glacier," the captain said. We all turned and saw. It was not an especially large glacier, but a thrill ran through us anyhow. We were spotting a white whale. It shone in the blue air.

There is an interesting upside to the retreat of the glaciers, if the end of the world can be said to possess an upside. The melting ice both reveals artifacts and allows archaeologists to reach dig sites that were once impenetrable. One thing they are learning is that prehistoric people spent more time at high elevations than had been assumed. The Interdisciplinary Climate Change Expedition from Central Wyoming College has discovered that 11,000 years ago people made camps on glaciers in the Rockies. The evidence includes buffalo jumps, arrowheads, and spear points. "There wasn't much to draw people up here in terms of hunting or gathering or foraging," lead archaeologist Todd Guenther told NPR. "And it appears that people were coming up here to see the glaciers. You know, to see where the water comes from. Where does the water spirit originate?"

I noticed that every time the captain asked for questions, my five-year-old daughter, Jane, would thrust up her hand. But he never called on her. There were plenty of adults with their hands up, and she was small. I knew it was making her mad. She's a little copper-haired gymnast, and full of fire. Finally I leaned forward and whispered over her shoulder, "What is it you want to ask?" She looked back and spoke to me in her whisper, which is oddly close to our standard conversational volume. "You see that cloud up there?" she said, pointing through the window at a giant billowy white cloud perched on a mountain peak. I nodded. "Do you see the way that mountain is just sticking into the cloud?"

"Yes," I said. "Isn't that amazing?"

"But is it normal?" she said. Of course, she had never seen such a thing. We are from beach country. The mountains are so tall they stick into the clouds? It was wonderful to see it through her eyes. It so often is, with children. Mine have made me like vacations, which in the past more often caused me to long for death.

I told her I thought it was probably normal, but that she would have to ask the captain.

The boat got all the way to our destination — a waterfall — and she had still not been called on. I watched her jump down from her bench with her jaw set in an underbite. She meant business. She ran forward to catch him before the others could. From the back of the boat I could see her looking straight up into his eyes, gesticulating like her mother does. He had the kind of expression they invented the word bemused for.

A few minutes later when I rejoined Jane on land, I asked her what the captain's answer had been.

"He said ‘Yes'!" she said. And looked at me like, Can you believe that?

The friends we had gone to visit were staying in Paradise Valley. It looked like a place you would call Paradise Valley. Huge, green, fertile. We ate pizza at an outdoor hippie joint and drank local beers and the children behaved, and I kept looking at the sky. The West!

The next day everyone went rock climbing, but I stayed behind. It doesn't take me many days on the road to feel ragged and disassociated, even when I'm happy. I wanted to read and work and recover myself. Nobody looked super-bummed when I said I wasn't coming. I'm not the first guy you pick for your rock-climbing team.

Two hours later I woke with a start. The sound that had woken me didn't stop. Instead it got louder. It seemed like the world was suddenly continuous thunder. I ran to the little balcony porch and saw a hailstorm of tremendous intensity. The stones were the size of shooter marbles, and there were so many that they clumped together as they fell. The ground turned white. I grabbed my phone, to shoot a video for everyone else. Then it hit me that this same hail could be falling on them too. I pictured Maria, my eldest, who'd been unexpectedly excited to climb that morning (she often shies away from sports, preferring her journal or phone), now dangling from a rope on an exposed cliff, screaming, pelted by hail. And then I looked up and saw two vibrantly glowing rainbows, one inside the other, so bright and perfect that you could follow them with your eye from one end to the other. It seemed that they should signal the end of the hailstorm, but instead the hailstorm roared and the rainbows blazed simultaneously, ice and fire. I wanted to shout, "Is this normal?"

When the others came back, they said that they had indeed almost been caught in the hailstorm, but got off the rock in time. Everyone got home safe, from the rock-climbing and the train trip west, and my children can tell their children that when they were young, they saw an American glacier.

How to Take the Train to Glacier National Park

Getting There

Glacier National Park is accessible by Amtrak's 2,206-mile Empire Builder route, which travels between Chicago and Seattle or Portland, Oregon. A range of cabin options includes compact but comfortable family bedrooms that sleep up to four. The dining area serves such satisfying dishes as mussels in white wine and steak béarnaise. one-way sleeper car suites from $260.

The Park

Occupying more than 1 million acres in the northwestern corner of Montana, Glacier National Park is a paradise of mountain lakes, secluded campgrounds, and 745 miles of hiking trails. Disembark the train between April and October at East Glacier Park Village, the gateway town to the park's eastern edge; the rest of the year, the train stops at Browning, a short drive away. high-season entrance fees from $15.

Lodges

Three-story tree trunks surround the lobby of Glacier Park Lodge (doubles from $159). Built in 1913, the hotel is charming and well-maintained. An hour north is St. Mary Lodge & Resort (doubles from $119). In addition to the busy, friendly Great Bear Lodge — which has a first-class restaurant — the property just introduced 10 "tiny homes."

Activities

Glacier Park Boat Company has been sailing the area's many glacial lakes since 1938. Its tour of St. Mary Lake takes passengers around much-photographed Wild Goose Island while showing off the panorama of surrounding peaks. Tack on a guided hike to nearby Baring Falls free of charge. adult fares from $27.50.