Did you know Amtrak still delivers easy access to one of America’s most spectacular national parks? Its Empire Builder route enters the southern fringe of Montana’s Glacier National Park, providing riders in picture-window observation cars with spectacular views and up to four stations.
Why take a train to the park? Trains reveal views most travelers miss. Cityscapes, ranch lands, backyards and town squares are on display outside Amtrak picture windows. Daily American life unfolds here in engaging simplicity. Trains also deliver a far more relaxing experience than air travel — from stress-free boarding, to often times free Wi-Fi — and relaxation is a great way to begin or end a vacation
Amtrak Stations serving Glacier Park
Amtrak’s East Glacier station is open from April-October. Glacier Park Lodge and several other hotels are a short walk from the station.
Amtrak also stops at Essex, where a platform sits a short walk from Izaak Walton Inn. Hikers stay at the Inn and have access several nearby park trailheads. Trains only call at this “flagstop” when passengers appear on the platform.
The West Glacier station sits at the western terminus of the iconic Going to the Sun Road, and about 2 miles from the Apgar Visitor Center within the national park. There are no facilities here for buying tickets or making travel arrangements — but the stop is within 2 miles of several small hotels.
Amtrak’s full-service Whitefish, Montana station is about 27 miles from Apgar, the western hub of shuttle transportation within the park. Whitefish serves about 57,000 Amtrak passengers per year, more than double the combined traffic of all other Glacier stops. Visitors find a wealth of outfitters, dining and shopping.
Depending upon weather and traffic conditions, the one-way drive from Whitefish to Apgar takes about 40 minutes. Unlike East Glacier, the Whitefish station remains open all year and provides access to the nearby Whitefish Mountain.
Many travelers begin their Empire Builder treks to Glacier in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis or Chicago. Read on for information on traveling to Glacier National Park from each of the above cities.
Seattle to Glacier
Seattle passengers cover 579 miles over 14 hours between King Street Station in downtown Seattle and Whitefish. Eastbound Seattle trains leave at 4:41 p.m., connecting overnight in Spokane with eastbound Empire Builder trains from Portland. Visitors from Portland and Seattle arrive at Whitefish about 7:30 a.m. The train also passes West Glacier at 8:11 a.m. and East Glacier at 9:44 a.m.
Seattle passengers have daily options for returning home in the early evening, arriving in Seattle at 10:25 a.m. the next day.
Portland to Glacier
Portland passengers depart Union Station at 4:45 p.m. and arrive nearly 14 hours and 529 miles later in Whitefish. The Portland route includes a scenic voyage through the Columbia River Gorge.
Returning from Glacier Park, Portland passengers board in early evening and arrive home at 10:10 a.m. the next day.
Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul to Glacier
The Empire Builder departs Union Station daily in downtown Chicago at 2:15 p.m., proceeding through Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Dells and along the Mississippi River shoreline to St. Paul/Minneapolis. The Chicago-Whitefish trip is 31 hours and 1626 miles.
Passengers embarking in the Twin Cities can go to sleep shortly after boarding, as the train arrives about 10:45 p.m. Their trip to Whitefish takes 23 hours and covers roughly 1200 miles. The prairie scenery in North Dakota and eastern Montana is peaceful if not spectacular. The train passes a wide expanse of the Missouri River and the Williston oil fields. Travelers can stretch their legs on platforms at Minot and Havre stations.
Around 6:45 p.m. on that second night, the train arrives at East Glacier and then makes its way through a winding, scenic section of railroad that is inside the boundaries of Glacier National Park. Stake out a seat in the domed observation cars well in advance of this two-hour segment, as space fills quickly. The westbound Empire Builder arrives at Whitefish just before 9 p.m.
Going home, Chicago and Minneapolis passengers board early morning trains and arrive home the next day: Minneapolis at 8 a.m. and Chicago at 3:55 p.m.
Sometimes, Amtrak trains stop to allow freight trains right of way, because of this late arrivals are common.
Cost Compared to Airfare
Fares for Amtrak and air travel vary greatly by season. Those looking for smaller investments of time and money will prefer air.
But coach seats on Amtrak sometimes are cheaper than on an airline. One example: a search for late-August from Chicago to Whitefish round trip on Amtrak (coach) was $286, while the cheapest roundtrip airfare from nearby Kalispell was $336.
Roomettes, Amtrak’s sleeper accommodations, typically house one or two people, although a few “family bedroom” suites will sleep two adults and two children. Some include private toilets.
Most roomettes include two seats and a table by day. Seats fold into a lower bed at night. An overhead bunk folds down from the ceiling, with bathroom and shower facilities down the hall. Roomette rates include full-course meals in the dining car.
Sleeper accommodations vary in price according to season, trip length and facilities offered. Expect to pay between $400-$1200 for a roomette between Chicago and Whitefish, $300-$800 from Minneapolis, and $200-$500 from Portland or Seattle.
Note that a couple traveling together only pays one accommodation charge. For example, a single round trip roomette passenger could pay $862 for Chicago-Whitefish, but a couple would pay $1,216.
Unlike airlines, free baggage allotments on Amtrak include two carry-on bags and two checked pieces.
Each Amtrak stop offers ground transportation options, but Whitefish connections are easiest. Three major car rental companies have offices near the station. A car rental office is within a short walk of the East Glacier platform. Izaak Walton Inn at Essex operates a small car rental operation for guests.
Whitefish Shuttle offers daily service between Whitefish hotels or bike rental shops and the park. The roundtrip rate is $75/person.
There are two shuttle operations within Glacier Park. One operates through a private vendor for a fee, while the other is a free shuttle from the park service that connects points of interest. Check availability for these seasonal services.
The park service operates eight lodges and two backcountry chalets. These accommodations tend to fill up months in advance, especially during the summer season so be sure to reserve far enough in advance.Whitefish also has plenty of hotels, lodges and B&B accommodations. Some inns also provide transportation to-and-from the Amtrak station.