Solitude on the ski trails at Essex

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  • A BNSF train chugs past the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex on Feb. 22. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    David Christensen, of Port Townsend, Washington, snowshoes on Starlight Trail at the Izaak Walton Inn on Feb. 22. (Mackenzie Reiss photos/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Ken Johnson, of Essex, cross-country skis along the trail network at the Izaak Walton Inn on Feb. 22. Johnson said he regularly skis the trails and has breakfast at the inn’s restaurant every week.

  • A BNSF train chugs past the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex on Feb. 22. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    David Christensen, of Port Townsend, Washington, snowshoes on Starlight Trail at the Izaak Walton Inn on Feb. 22. (Mackenzie Reiss photos/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Ken Johnson, of Essex, cross-country skis along the trail network at the Izaak Walton Inn on Feb. 22. Johnson said he regularly skis the trails and has breakfast at the inn’s restaurant every week.

David Christensen crunches along the Starlight Trail on a set of snowshoes, using poles to help propel himself forward. He’s one of a handful of hikers and cross-country skiers on the trails, and although the temperature is a brisk 4 degrees, he’s treated to intermittent blasts of sunlight and blissful solitude.

“I’m a nature boy and we don’t get winters like this in Port Townsend, [Washington].” Christensen said. “This is so beautiful.”

The trail is one of 11 groomed pathways on the Izaak Walton Inn campus that offers 28 kilometers of recreation to snowshoers, cross-country skiers and — new this year — fat bikes with their extra-wide tires designed to claw across the snow. The trails wind through the forested area across the tracks from the hotel, providing users a scenic and peaceful environment as they glide past behemoth trees, over bridges and alongside creeks.

The trails have fluctuated slightly in size over the years, mostly due to permitting, but are currently at their largest, said Holly DuMay, director of sales and marketing at the Izaak Walton Inn. The network of trails serves as an integral attraction for guests to the remote mountain getaway.

The Izaak Walton Inn is one of the central appeals of Essex, a town adjacent to Glacier National Park, that boasted just 76 residents as of the 2016 Census. The inn was built to house rail workers on the Great Northern Railroad, but was also intended to function as a resort for Glacier Park.

An additional entrance to the park was proposed between the east and west gateways, near where the inn was situated. However, World War II delayed construction of the proposed entry, and by the time the war was over, interest in building a road to the area had dissipated, leaving the inn between the two entrances and earning it the nickname “the Inn Between.”

The inn cost $40,000 to build and was constructed in 1939 by the Addison Miller Company, which struck a deal with the railroad to operate the hotel on railroad property for 12 years, culminating in 1951. When the contract expired, the inn changed hands a number of times before it was purchased by current owners, Brian and Mary Kelly in 2006.

Much of the hotel has remained the same over the years, although a major renovation took place in 1995, when bathrooms were added to each individual room.

Visitors can rent cross-country skis, snowshoes or fat bikes from the inn’s rental shop, manned by veteran skier, trail groomer and “glorified bellman,” Greg “Gumby” Garcelon.

“It’s great for the body, it’s way better than running because there’s no impact,” he said of cross-country skiing. “It’s like cycling or swimming — if you have bad knees, you can still cross-country ski.”

The inn’s network of trails are open from mid-Decemer to late March and run along the Essex Creek drainage. There are two major loops on each side of the waterway and smaller routes below it, ranging in difficulty from mostly flat and straight beginner terrain to hilly and windy advanced trails.

The hotel also grooms two public roads: Essex Road, a popular beginner’s spot, and Dickey Creek Road, that are open to multi-use traffic, including fat bikes. The fat bikes have dedicated lanes on the trails so as not to disrupt the grooming for cross-country skiers.

“The coolest spots are probably closest to Essex Creek because the creek is pretty and we have a couple of bridges that cross the creek,” Garcelon said.

For beginners, Garcelon recommends the wide thoroughfare that is Essex Road, or Starlight Loop for a shorter jaunt. Starlight, the inner loop in the trail network, is also illuminated until 11 p.m. for night skiing.

Daily equipment rentals start at $20 for cross-country skis and $15 for snowshoes. Lessons are also available at the Inn for an additional fee. For more information, visit www.izaakwaltoninn.com.

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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