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There's only one way to get to Whitefish in the Winter --- by Amtrak. There's a Glacier International Airport at Kallispell, but it's 35 miles away over risky roads, and flights from any Eastern airport are extremely circuitous. There is no interstate highway near Whitefish and the state roads come over high mountain passes and are not reliable. Which leaves Amtrak. And that's fine. One of our readers describes Whitefish as "a glorious train trip out and back with a little skiing sandwiched in between as a bonus." As these top two photos show, this is either the most scenic train trip in the country, or at least one of the top two or three. The passenger train is called The Empire Builder and travels what was the Great Northern Pacific trackage before it marged into the Burlington Northern. Amtrak snowplow
Maysville RR station Shown here is the Maysville Amtrak Depot, one of many in the Ohio Valley serving passengers. Whether you board at Huntington, Ashland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or one of the many northern Ohio stations, you'll ride to Chicago and then change trains. The huge deterrent to taking Amtrak is the inconvenient times. The trains leave Pittsburgh at midnight and stop at Ohio stations in the middle of the night. The Cardinal, which comes from Washington heading for Chicago, boards at Maysville at midnight and at Cincinnati and Indiana stations in the middle of the night. So, yes, these are awkward times. But we still think it's worth it.
We recommend you book a sleeping compartment. You may be boarding the train at an awkward time, but you can crawl into bed and get a good night's sleep, with the porter waking you up in time to eat Breakfast as you reach the outskirts of Chicago. Sleeping on Amtrak is great, with the gently rocking motion of the car lulling you to sleep. Sleeping compartments include private bathrooms, electric outlets and high speed wifi. Amtrak sleeper
chicago station outside Midmorning you'll reach Chicago Union Station, one of the nation's five largest, handling 120,000 passengers a day. This is a huge facility, nine city blocks long. It houses Amtrak plus the elevated railway, city, regional and Greyhound buses, and taxiis. Amtrak trains head out of here in all directions. You'll have four hours so you can wander around a few blocks of down town, but be sure to be back an hour before departure time so you can find the gate, settle into your compartment (you must book a sleeper compartment for this long leg of the trip) and be ready to enjoy the ride out of Chicago. chicago station inside
Empire Builder in Chicago One of the advantages of taking an Amtrak trip is you'll learn a lot about railroading, which Americans know far too little about. America has the poorest passenger rail service of any major nation in the world even though we were once one of its leaders. On this trip you'll learn how great train travel is, but entire states have no Amtrak service at all. At one point in our history, every small town in America had daily passenger service. The big railroads ran passenger trains for public relations; they never made a profit. But the trains carried the mail between towns and cities. The mail contract paid for the loss the railroads suffered from providing passenger service. In 1960, airline lobbyists persuaded Congress to move the mail contract from trains to airlines. Within 10 years, all those small town stations had closed.
Milwaukee Station Travelling westward on The Empire Builder, you realize just how far behind the Ohio Valley is when it comes to passenger service. The further West we go, the nicer the stations get. Milwaukee, left, and Minneapolis, right, have brand new facilities combining railroad, bus, trolley and taxi service. Stations have restaurants, gift shops and other amenities. They are in the downtown center, so you can get off a train and cross the street to a major hotel. Meanwhile, Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green, Columbus, Charleston, Evansville, etc., have no railroad passenger service at all. None. Minneapolis Station
Your sleeper compartment ticket includes three meals a day in the railroad dining car. The Porter will stop by your room and ask you to choose a time and pick your meal from the menu. When you show up at the dining car, your meal will be served as you're seated. If you're travelling alone or as a couple, you'll be seated with another couple or group to create a table of four. You'll meet fellow passengers from all over the nation and world. A railroad dining car is similar to an upscale restaurant back home. The menu is short, since they can only store so much in the train's kitchen. But each lunch and dinner will include a meat, fish, chicken, vegetarian dish, bread, soup, salad, dessert, and various beverages. If you're not in the mood for a full meal, there are burgers, sandwiches, wraps and either tacos, burritos or enchiladas. dining car
Dakota hills As your train continues across North Dakota you will get into snow, and the further you go the more wintry the landscape will become. It's beautiful to look at and photograph, but you'll realize why coming by train is the only way to get to Whitefish in Winter. You cannot drive long distances on these roads. This is why the train is so popular out here. It's the only way to get anywhere. Dakota snow
Amtrak in the Rockies It's hard to resist the scenery, but an Amtrak trip is a great time to catch up on a novel, or bring your computer and work on your latest project. You can walk from car to car the length of the train and meet other passengers. Between meals you can go to the dining room, sit at one of the tables, and play cards or board games. You could even sleep, building up your energy for the week of skiing to come. Whenever the train stops at a town, you can step off for 10-15 minutes, buy a local newspaper, check out the station and maybe even talk to the engineer. An Amtrak trip is a fine way to travel.
Amtrak lounge car Amtrak provides lounge cars (left) with stairs going up to Observation Cars. You sit in comfortable easy chairs looking out panoramic windows as the scenery rolls by. With the sun pouring in the expansive windows, the Observation cars are toasty warm, so even in bitter Winters people wear t shirts. Amtrak observation car
Just before you reach Whitefish, you'll pass through Glacier National Park. The train will climb up to the Continental Divide, passing through several snow sheds where avalanches are a danger, then drop back down the Western side. As you cross the Divide, you'll see the Isaak Walton Inn, one of Glacier's famous lodges. It's a cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and photography mecca in the Winter. Isaac Walton Inn
Whitefish RR station Youi'll pull into Whitefish after dark so the scene at left will be what you see looking out your train window at the Amtrak Station. Next morning you'll see the main street of Whitefish, at right. That's Whitefish Mountain with its ski trails in the background. Whitefish main street
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