Every afternoon, Amtrak’s eastbound Empire Builder pulls out of Portland’s Union Station headed through the Columbia Gorge to Spokane where, in the wee hours of the morning, it hooks up to the train originating in Seattle.
From here, the route heads eastward across the Idaho Panhandle, into the Rocky Mountains of Montana, skirting the south side of Glacier National Park, and then across the vast prairies of eastern Montana, North Dakota, through Minnesota and the Twin Cities, finally arriving at its destination in Chicago.
Along the way, there are 42 intermediate stops, mostly mid-size ranching and farm towns, with one interesting exception: Essex, Montana, population 76.
There is absolutely nothing at this stop in the middle of the mountains except a brightly-lit platform and plenty of fir trees. However, a quarter mile away is the historic Izaak Walton Inn and the reason for this out-of-the-way whistle stop.
A courtesy shuttle meets the train to transport guests and baggage to this historic hostelry, named for the 17th-century British conservationist.
It was built in 1939 to house Great Northern Railway workers, and today serves as a rustic, 29-room lodge welcoming guests year-round. Its idyllic setting is about halfway between the west and east entrances of Glacier National Park on Highway 2, making it a perfect spot to headquarter while visiting the park.
In addition to the lodge rooms, there are a number of restored, repurposed cabooses outfitted with kitchens and baths, several log cabins in the woods, and a restored, luxury locomotive.
The lodge itself has changed little since it first opened, and the decor features Great Northern Railway and other train memorabilia, making it popular with railroad fans.
There’s a cozy lobby with a large, stone fireplace, and downstairs is a bar and game room. The excellent restaurant features locally-sourced foods including elk, buffalo and trout, as well as huckleberry desserts.
A hot tub and sauna add a modern touch much appreciated in winter months.
In keeping with the historical ambiance, there are no televisions, air conditioning, elevators, coffee makers or other fancy room amenities. Wi-Fi and cell service are available in the common areas of the lodge, but at a level to be expected in a remote, mountainous area.
While open year-round, the inn has become increasingly popular as a winter cross-country skiing and snow shoeing destination. Snow Country magazine chose it as one of the top 10 cross-country ski resorts in the Rockies.
With more than 20 miles of groomed trails (some lit at night), there’s something for every skill level.
Rentals of both skis and snow shoes are available at a nominal charge, as are lessons and guided tours.
Car rentals are also available at the inn. Weather permitting, a drive to the west entrance of Glacier to the town of Apgar is a must.
While the Going to the Sun Highway — the main route across the park — is closed from mid-October to mid-June (depending on snowfall), the road to Apgar is kept plowed.
Apgar’s visitor center is open on the weekends in the winter, and park rangers offer guided snow shoe walks.
The village is deserted and closed tightly with the exception of one very good gift shop, but the view of Lake McDonald with a backdrop of the park’s snow-capped peaks makes it well worth the trip.
Non-winter sports fans can cozy up with a book in front of the inn’s fireplace, enjoy a hot toddy in the bar, soak in the hot tub, or wave at all the passing trains.
It should be noted that while there are only two Amtrak trains a day, there are probably two dozen BNSF freight trains rumbling by at all times of the day and night. They don’t blast their horns, but light sleepers might need ear plugs.
Planning a winter vacation can be tricky. It is the season most influenced by weather when storms can turn airports into makeshift hotels and roads into ice skating rinks.
However, heavy locomotives can push through all but the worst blizzards and long delays are uncommon, making the train a good option for winter travel.
Learn more about this Montana destination at izaakwalton inn.com.