Friends looked at me strangely when I told them I was taking Amtrak to Whitefish, Mont., for some skiing at Big Mountain and snowshoeing in Glacier National Park. Spend a night on a train when you could get there in a few hours by flying? That's the unasked question, of course.
It's a genteel way to travel and get a geography lesson at the same time. It's a wonderful way to see middle-America as the Empire Builder travels more than 1,700 miles between Chicago and Whitefish. We crossed six states and two major rivers before reaching the towering peaks of the northern Rocky Mountains. I caught Amtrak in Kalamazoo, Mich., taking it to the Windy City, where I changed trains at historic Union Station.
The Empire Builder, also known as the Ski Train during winter months, makes stops in Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and several smaller depots on the way West; numerous locations for Heartland snowsports enthusiasts to access the train.
If you book a sleeping accommodation, which I did, dining meal car service is included and the accommodation includes outlets to power laptops and cell phones. It's modern, updated, and quite cozy. An attendant, always on duty, is just a push of the call-button away. They turn down your bed at night and make it up in the morning while you eat breakfast rolling across the prairie. It's almost like traveling on an overland cruise ship with restaurants, movie theaters, game rooms, observation domes, and a lounge.
The Empire Builder follows the northern route across America first followed by the plains Indians and later paralleled by major portions of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. It passes through the hill country of Wisconsin and follows the broad Mississippi River up to Minneapolis before heading off into "big sky" country.
The first morning out we awoke to the vast plains of North Dakota, a desolate area stretching as far as the eye can see, dotted by an occasional white-shingled farmhouse. It's the land where the "antelope play and buffalo roam," which we occasionally saw from the train along with a few coyotes. As the Empire Builder crossed into Montana and rambled along the Missouri River, stops at ramshackle towns straight out of Western movie sets become more frequent. A tiny speck pierced the horizon in the far distance - our first glimpse of the Rockies and Glacier National Park.
You pass through the park near dusk. Glacial streams shine in brilliant blues and greens. Soaring peaks surround you as the train slows to a crawl inching up the mountains. It make stops in East Glacier, Essex, and Izaak Walton Inn, and West Glacier before stopping at Whitefish.
Great Northern Railroad built the Inn in 1939 to house snow removal crews. The Inn hosts cross country skiers, snowshoers, and railroad buffs during the winter.
Whitefish is one of the few communities in North America that can lay claim to massive peaks and big water. Perched on the shore of six-mile long Whitefish Lake, this small community is posed under the 7,000-foot summit of Big Mountain; just a short hop from the national park. The choices are endless for snow sports enthusiasts.
You have skiing and riding at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain, cross country skiing, snowshoe hikes, dog sledding, and snowmobiling. Nearby Glacier National Park offers numerous guided snowshoe hikes with Glacier Adventure Guides.
Whitefish Mountain Resort offers a small, upscale village at the base of Big Mountain that provides all the necessary services without overwhelming the eclectic feel of the area. It's been called one of America's great cult ski areas. It's truly a big mountain with over a 2,300-foot vertical drop. Slopes face all points of the compass and ramble across 3,000 acres of gorgeous terrain offering easy, green boulevards with a few that meander all the way from the summit, endless blue cruisers, and plenty of molar-grinding glades, chutes, and even a few 50-foot cliffs.
It's highlighted by super-sized scenery; the postcard-perfect peaks of Glacier National Park everywhere you look and sparkling snowghosts - powder-shellacked trees - that dot the top of the mountain.
Properties like Kandahar Lodge, with its award-winning Café, and the deluxe Morning Eagle Lodge provide guests with an excellent choice of upscale, slopeside lodging.
The friendly, funky town of Whitefish is just 10-minutes down the mountain and offers lots of lodging choices, theater, music, classic neighborhood bars, real stores, and a bevy of great restaurants. Try the Wasabi Sushi or Tupelo Grille. For those that like a good, comfortable B&B, go for the Good Medicine Lodge. It isn't far from the Amtrak station and has a great view of Big Mountain from its hot tub.
Consider the train instead of flying if you're thinking of taking a spring trip West for some snowsport adventures. Make the trip part of the journey. It's a fun, relaxing way to travel, and I've never met a stranger on the train. The relaxed informality of train travel breeds friendly conversation among passengers.
Whitefish Mountain Resort is offering a Spring Fling Special that's good through the end of the season. Book a two or three day Ski & Stay package, and get an extra night and an extra day of skiing for free. Book four nights and get two extra days of skiing and riding for free.
Amtrak fares for coach class range from $149 to $332 each way from the Midwest, and you don't have to pay extra for taking your ski equipment. The food is quite good, and eating in the dining car with its wrap-around windows is both a gastronomical and visual treat.