On most of my wilderness trips I’ve needed a car to get to trailheads. So the idea of boarding a train in downtown Seattle and waking up in some of the nation’s most spectacular wilderness seemed like a dream.
But it became reality this summer when my boyfriend and I took an overnight Amtrak train from Seattle to Montana’s Glacier National Park for a backpacking trip. It’s a way to go that can be useful for anyone who wants to explore the park — by rugged backpacking, day hikes or coach tours.
Our 50-mile, five-day backpacking trek took us through some of the park’s most-popular spots: the dramatic Highline Trail, Swiftcurrent Pass, the Ptarmigan Tunnel and the breathtaking, more remote lakes of the park’s northeastern corner. Along the way, we rambled past countless waterfalls and glaciers, survived a dramatic lightning and hailstorm, and even crossed paths with a grizzly — from a comfortable distance.
Doing such a quintessential Glacier backpacking trip without your own car is entirely possible, but there are some logistical challenges. Now’s the time to plan for next summer.
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From the East Glacier, Mont., train station just outside the park, the privately owned Glacier Park Inc. shuttle system makes several runs a day to destinations and trailheads along Going to the Sun Road, the park’s spectacular, high-country thoroughfare. The one-way shuttle cost ranges from $15 to $60, depending on how far you’re going.
Passengers can also get off the train at West Glacier, which is about an hour closer (on the west side of the park) and a few dollars cheaper. Shuttle options are more limited from West Glacier, however. The park service-owned shuttle is free, but Amtrak passengers must either take a private taxi or walk 2½ miles from the West Glacier station to Apgar Village, the shuttle’s westernmost pickup point.
Despite some inconveniences, traveling by train was a major highlight of our trip.
The journey began very quickly. Fifteen or so minutes after leaving our apartment for Seattle’s King Street Station, we were in a line to board the Empire Builder train to West Glacier. A half-hour later, we were on our way.
We had 16 hours aboard the train to transition from the hustle and bustle of the city to the peace and quiet of our wilderness adventure.
Long-distance Amtrak trains such as the Empire Builder have several seating and sleeping options for passengers. We had a large cache of Amtrak credit-card points and opted to use a good chunk of them to get an onboard bedroom, which comes furnished with an extra-wide bench seat that folds into a double bed, a second chair that faces the opposite direction, and a private bathroom, shower and sink. Smaller, cheaper roomettes with a shared bathroom also are available (as are larger family rooms).
During the first couple hours of the trip, I used my phone to snap photos and check my work email. But, by the time we lost cell reception near the massive tunnel that runs under Washington’s Stevens Pass, I was ready to leave technology behind and just enjoy the scenery.
One of the best parts about traveling by train is gaining a fresh perspective on familiar sights. I’ve driven across Stevens Pass countless times to hike, ski and climb, but this trip was different. Rather than brushing past Skykomish on U.S. 2 on the approach to the pass, we went through the heart of the historic town, past folks watering their lawns and rafters drifting down the river. We watched a sunset burn bright red through wildfire smoke near Leavenworth and enjoyed dinner with fellow passengers in the dining car as the Cascades gave way to the dry lands of Eastern Washington.
Sure, going most places by train (Glacier included) takes more time than flying, or even driving. But without having to worry about traffic or where to stop for the night, I was able to sit back and observe how our state transitions from evergreen forest and rivers to apple orchards and desert — and mentally prepare for five days on Montana trails.
Caitlin Moran is a community-engagement editor at The Seattle Times.