Posted by: bkivey | 25 September 2012

Glacier National Park Pt. 1

I’ve been on vacation the last few days. The post title tells you where. This year seven-day weeks have been pretty much the norm, so I was desperate for some time off. My birthday was this last weekend, so I thought I’d do something fun, and a bit unusual. Getting out of town was a given. My other criteria were:

  • Someplace I could take the train. I like trains.
  • A place I hadn’t been to, that was less than a day’s train travel.
  • The wilder, and less populated, the better.

Well, there’s Glacier National Park, hard by the Canadian border in the northwest corner of Montana, and I’d been hearing for years that Going-to-the-Sun highway is one of the most spectacular drives in the country, if not the world. SOLD!

After due diligence, I decided that Whitefish, MT would be a good base, as the train stops in town, and it’s not too far from the park. Rental cars and hotel rooms were also reasonably priced. Not inexpensive: reasonable. Destination decided, reservations made, tickets bought: I was ready to go.

21 September 2012

The published Amtrak schedule for the Empire Builder Train 28 called for a 1645 departure, with arrival in Whitefish at 0730 the next day. The schedule also noted that this train had an on-time arrival rate of 13%. Hmmm. We did leave right on time at 1645.

For those unfamiliar with train travel, this is how you board: walk into terminal, show ticket to agent, get boarding pass, get on train. No TSA, no security lines, liberal carry-on limitations, and none of this ‘arrive one hour ahead of schedule’ BS. Once aboard, there are wide, roomy seats, no seat belts, ample luggage space, and plenty of seats to choose from. I’m sure Amtrak would like higher load factors, but at present, on this particular train, you’re pretty much going to have two seats to yourself. Seats that are spaced twice as far apart as airline seats, seats that recline and have leg and foot rests. Seats that come with complimentary pillows.

There are also four bathrooms per car, a vanity area, and access to the lounge car. The lounge car has  floor-to-ceiling windows, a number of seats along the windows, and several booths with tables. There’s what Amtrak calls a ‘bistro’ on the lower level, selling food and drink. Prices are comparable to airline food and beverages. No complimentary peanuts, though.

Leaving Portland, you travel through a rail yard, and through the industrial part of the city, before crossing the Willamette river, where you can see the St. Johns bridge.

A little further on, you cross the Columbia River, and can see the houseboats.

After stopping in Vancouver, WA, the train parallels the Columbia river on the north (Washington) side. The Columbia River Gorge is one of the most scenic places in the country, but on this overcast day, there weren’t a lot of photo ops, and it’s hard to tell when an obstruction is going to go whipping by the window to get in the shot.

I did get an image of where the landscape makes the transition from forest to semi-arid high plateau . This is the point where the marine layer over Portland disappears.

Across from Hood River, OR, there were several sail and kite borders in action. The rough river surface is common this time of year, as the  3 – 5 knot westerly current in the river is ruffled by the 15 – 20 knot westerly winds blowing through the Gorge.

I was impressed with the quality of the track. The train hustles right along, and the smooth track makes for a nice ride. The BNSF moves a lot of freight over this route, so the track is well-maintained.

The train pulls into Spokane, WA, at around midnight so the Seattle section can be joined to the Portland section for the run east to Chicago. The layover is 1 1/2 hours, so there’s time to get off and wander around. The downtown bar scene in Spokane is only a few blocks from the station. If you’re a twenty-something, this is for you. If you’re a little older, not so much. There is a 7-11 about eight blocks from the station, so I went over to grab something to eat and drink. After Spokane, it’s six hours to Whitefish, with only two stops, so plenty of time to try and sleep.

Whitefish is 435 miles from Portland as the crow flies, or about 600 miles if the crow is driving, or (presumably) taking the train. The train arrived exactly on time, making the door-to-door time 16 1/2 hours. I took public transit from my home to the train station, so I only had to walk a total of about 300 feet.

22 September 2012

The Whitefish train station is the second-largest building in town, surpassed (and not by much) only by the Whitefish Middle School, a block down the street. There’s a museum on the first floor, and some outdoor displays, including a ‘bruck’; a combination truck and bus built in 1951 and run by the Great Northern to transport passengers to and from the county seat at Kalispell.

There’s also an NW3 (early diesel switcher) displayed on the other side of the building.


Looking south from the train station down Spokane St. This is one of three main streets in town, and they’re all about the same size. You’re looking at one of three traffic lights in town, and those are helpfully marked on the visitor information displays in the downtown areas. The middle school is on the left. That’s my rental chariot on the near right.


I’d checked on eateries before leaving home, and knew that there was a restaurant about three blocks away. I ate breakfast there while waiting for the car. The agent was kind enough to let me have the car early, but that still left considerable time until hotel check-in. There just isn’t much to do in a town of 6500 early on a Saturday.

I did spy this modified fire hydrant, causing me to wonder just how much snow they got.

I drove up to the ski resort outside town, just for something to do. The resort is unremarkable, but the rocks by the side of the road were and unusual blue color, and seem to make up most of the mountains in the area. I took a piece home with me: I hope Montana doesn’t mind.

I decided to check out Kalispell, as it was only 15 miles down the road. I was pleased to see that the speed limit was 70 mph; a limit you won’t find anywhere in Oregon. Mind you, this wasn’t a limited access road. I was to find that 70 is pretty much the de facto speed limit in the state. I never went near an Interstate, but two-lane country road, or four-lane highway, 70 was the speed limit. It was easy to get used to.

Whitefish doesn’t allow chain stores in downtown, so those are all relegated to the strip south of town on US93. Kalispell is chain store central, with an explosion of commerce along US93 north of town. Wikipedia informs that the town grew by 20% between 2000 and  2010, and it looks it. I drove downtown, where the county courthouse is located smack in the middle of town in a traffic circle.

The courthouse is architecturally interesting, but around back is an even more interesting sight. There’s a collection of stone monuments representing the great documents of the Western world.

There’s the Magna Cart, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Preamble to the Constitution, and Bill of Rights. But wait, what’s that 3rd from the left? Why, it’s the Ten Commandments! And it’s on public property! Oh, the horror! Surely many victim groups must be oppressed by this, but are too afraid to come forward. What they need is for some carpetbagger to air their grievances to the white-majority oppressors of Flathead County.

Honestly, if the people of the town and county are OK with this, it’s no-one else’s business. I can think of far worse things to be placed on public property. I suspect that any agitator would find themselves in an unhealthy situation.

It was just after 1300 when I got back to Whitefish. I cajoled the front desk clerk into letting me take a shower and change, with the promise that I’d go into town and hang out at a bar and watch football so they could clean the room. I watched some football, ate lunch, and went back to the hotel for a nap. Back into town for some more beer, football, and food. Thus ended the first day in Whitefish.


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