The sun clips a mountain ridge, washing the winter wonderland in a buttery yellow as the morning Amtrak train makes its way to Essex.
The train chugs along the tracks, its belly swaying subtly back and forth, full of mostly sleeping passengers. The observation car is a different story: the curved panes of glass provide a source of free entertainment for travelers who huddle in groups to gush over the scenery as they glide past. The views of steam billowing off the Flathead River, and thick forested hillsides are interrupted from time to time by a passing train or a momentary dip into a mountain tunnel.
As the Amtrak Empire Builder winds its way through canyons and riverbeds, signs of civilization peek out from the foliage — the now defunct aluminum plant; a bare-bones gas station and semi-trucks racing down the highway. They’re all reminders that yes, we’re still in the 21st Century, despite the feel of being in another era, unique to rail travel.
But as soon as these traces of modern times appear, they’re gone again, and the train careens into more remote terrain, where every curve brings the promise of an animal sighting or yet another sparkling vista.
The trip is a scenic one — and also a short one.
Thirty-six minutes until the train arrives in Essex, a conductor says as the Amtrak pulls away from a brief stop in West Glacier.
Before arriving, the train sails through a series of short tunnels, sucked briefly into the blackness and then thrust out into the still brightening morning. In just over an hour’s time, the Empire Builder comes to a halt in Essex, just 300 yards from the historic Izaak Walton Inn.
Disembarking passengers ready themselves for the outside world, packing up belongings and donning layers to combat the scant few degrees above zero that await them outdoors.
Four women amble down the narrow stairwell to the base of the car, packs on, eager to explore the network of cross-country ski trails adjacent to the hotel.
“We all go up [to Essex], have breakfast and go ski for a while. It’s just a beautiful ride — it’s a way for us to spend time together,” said Erin Harding, of Whitefish. “The time in the morning is right for us to get up there and go skiing, and my husband is coming to pick us up so we don’t have to be there until midnight.”
Although midnight was far off from the return train’s scheduled departure, Harding actually turned out to be quite right. The 7:41 p.m. train back to Whitefish was delayed a staggering four hours on Thursday, Feb. 22.
A few stranded travelers whittled away the hours with a book in front of the hotel lobby fireplace, while one woman opted to purchase a swimsuit and a take a dip in the hotel’s hot tub. Other options for making lemonade out of lemons included dining at the Dining Car restaurant, visiting the bar area downstairs or perhaps a night ski on the Starlight Trail, which remains lit until 11 p.m.
The train is certainly a peaceful way to travel, but not always the most reliable. Railbound day-trippers should be prepared for delays or arrange a ride home if possible — or consider an overnight stay at one of the inn’s 33 rooms, renovated cabooses or cabin accommodations.
When the train does run on time, the schedule allows for a full day of adventure at a reasonable rate, without the hassle of navigating winter roads. A roundtrip ticket for basic coach seating runs less than $30 from Whitefish to Essex. Tickets may be purchased at www.amtrak.com or at the depot in Whitefish.
Trains depart from the Whitefish Amtrak Station, located at 500 Depot St., and arrive in Essex, a short walk or complimentary shuttle ride from the hotel.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.