We pull into the Izaak Walton Inn and see the iconic yellow hotel sitting on the edge of the railroad tracks. In the middle of nowhere. Or the middle of everywhere—it depends how you look at it.
The Izaak Walton Inn is in the woods off Montana’s Route 2. It’s halfway between West Glacier and East Glacier on the southern border of Glacier National Park. It was established years ago as a train depot, but one wonders how enough people were getting off the train here to justify this big hotel. We are sure glad they did.
From the hotel check in, it’s a bit of a hike over a huge bridge to get to the red caboose. Better planners will bring cash to tip the staff in winter-ready golf carts to carry their luggage. We huffed duffle bags, snowshoes, and coolers over the tracks and up the hill to our caboose.
I knew our kids would be thrilled to be spending a night in the red caboose, but I didn’t realize how excited my husband and I would be. It’s really cool. The boys immediately tucked into their beds in the cupola (and then repeatedly jumped off).
Then it was off to the ski and snowshoe trails that leave right from the caboose door.
Snow has been sparse in Montana this year. While the east coast gets pummeled, we are begging for every flake we can get. But on the groomed trails, there was snow! We ran, skipped, and jumped our way through the trees, across Essex Creek, dodging snowballs as we went.
Lichen grows everywhere here. Northwestern Montana is more like the Pacific Northwest than the dry, sagebrushy Montana we call home. We walked below hair-like lichen dripping from trees, and in places it littered the trail. I’m a bit of a lichen-nerd (yes, there is such a thing), and couldn’t get enough of the algae-fungi combination.
But, you can’t snowshoe among the lichen forever. We left the snowshoes at the caboose and headed for the tavern in the hotel. Beer for my husband and I, and a game of National Park Monopoly for the family. Fancy dinners are served in the Dining Car, but with a full kitchen waiting for us in the caboose, we opted for tomato soup and grilled cheese.
If we had more time, we would have loved taking a guided snowshoe tour into the backcountry. The guides promise highlights including, “crossing Ole Creek on a suspension bridge and climbing to views of Essex and the peaks of the Flathead Range.”
There is so much to see and explore in the area, and we got but a glimpse of it. Somehow we need to wrangle another, longer trip to explore the spectacular backcountry.
Earlier that day we stopped at Glacier National Park for snowshoeing and lake gazing. The visitor center at Apgar Village is open on weekends, and the ranger on duty recommended a walk up the Going to the Sun Road. We drove the nine miles to Lake McDonald Lodge (closed for the season) and the end of the plowed road. From there we strapped on snowshoes and walked up the road.
The Going to the Sun Road is not the best snowshoeing destination, in fact a lot of people were just walking on the packed trail, but it is a great location. We walked until we got into the sun and ogled the big, snowy mountains that Glacier is famous for.
The Sperry Chalet Trail also starts from the Lake McDonald parking lot, so we peeked up the trail a bit. It’s a mellow climb through cedars and other conifers, eventually leading to the Sperry Chalet, a backcountry lodge open in the summer. It’s 6.7 miles to the Chalet, but walking even a mile or two up the trail is lovely and a good way to get away from the crowds on the Going to the Sun Road.
After playing around in the snow, we wandered over to Lake McDonald at Apgar Village. Hot cocoas in hand, we walked along the lakeshore. Across the lake, mountains rise seemingly right from the water. If ever there was a perfect backdrop for a family photo, this was it. The boys laid on the dock checking out the pinks and red rocks on the lake bottom.
There are other launching points to explore Glacier, but again, we ran out of time. Our next winter road trip to this area will definitely be longer. In fact, I’m ready to spend a whole winter here.