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Amtrak Travel Journal: exploring Glacier National Park in Fall

Toot toot!  We’re having a fall trip to Montana via Amtrak to explore Glacier National Park!  It’s pretty awesome and here’s how it’s rolling:  check back often for updates on our activities, cool stories, beautiful pictures and more!  If you have suggestion for what we should do in any of our stops, let us know and we’ll try to work them in.  Thanks for following along!

Starting in King Street Station in downtown Seattle, we’re riding on the Empire Builder.  This train route was the original one connecting St Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington.  This route is also the only one in the US to have a stop in a National Park:  Glacier National Park.  Since the Empire Builder route is so cool and historic, it’s actually a part of Amtrak’s Trails & Rails program.  Trails & Rails is available in cooperation with the National Park Service.  For the Empire Builder line, the program includes some nifty education from Park Rangers at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Site in Pioneer Square (Seattle).  Unfortunately for us we’re doing our trip just after the last Trails & Rails program of the year, but next time…

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From starting in King Street Station to the constantly changing scenery, the Amtrak family experience is pretty cool.  The kids totally dig the train, and as Oliver said “It’s like a moving hotel!”  The service has been great so far and for being a family who’s traveling all the time, this is going to be a totally new type of experience!

Highlights from Amtrak’s Empire Builder

The kids really loved our family cabin on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.  Their favorite part being looking back and forth between our windows.  We didn’t see any bear or moose during this leg of the trip, but we did see an enormous sea lion as we headed north along the Puget Sound and then countless beautiful rivers and mountains until it got dark.

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Dining on the Empire Builder was so simple and delicious.  Since we’re true PNW guys, through and through, of course there was salmon and potatoes.  We also enjoyed flat iron steak, roasted chicken with red pepper sauce and a really great pecan tart… because fall.  Breakfast was also good with a very simple menu making it easy to get in and out and hop off the train quickly when we arrived at the West Glacier train station.

Favorite aspect of Amtrak leg 1:  our attendant, Rodgie, was awesome.  He was hilarious, informative, helpful, the kids loved his little ditties he’d hum and sing.  He made the trip extra fun.  And when it was time to depart he was ON IT making sure that we we staged and ready to roll since our departure station was such a short stop.  Thank you Rodgie!

Exploring Glacier National Park and Glacier MT

We’ve been to Glacier National Park before with the kids and without, and each time it’s been a totally new experience.  This time, we’re visiting Glacier MT in the fall.  Colors are changing, the wildlife is prepping for winter and rutting, the rivers are calm enough to float with kids…  There is so much adventure awaiting us when we depart the Amtrak Empire Builder at the West Glacier, Montana train station.

Scroll down for updates as we have adventures!!!

The current plan for exploring Glacier MT is as follows:

Arrive in West Glacier and head to Columbia Falls for exploring supplies aka groceries

First visiting to Glacier National Park at Lake McDonald and Apgar Village – great nature walks with kids!

Check out Crown of the Continent Discovery Center (you know we love our kid-focus museums)

Exploring Polebridge, Northfork and Bowman Lake in Glacier NP – we’ve never been to either, love new experiences!

East Glacier, St Mary Lake and Logan Pass – the kids are ACHING to see mountain goats –UPDATE: Going to the Sun Road closed

Floating the oh-so-colorful Flathead River with Glacier Guides

Total cowboy experience at the Bar W Guest Ranch

Exploring Whitefish, MT and doing the Montana version of Oktoberfest

…and then we head home… But it’s back onto Amtrak’s Empire Builder and our awesome family cabin, so it’s all good!

During our week in Glacier County, Montana we’ll be staying at the Glacier Guides Lodge in West Glacier.  While most guests come and stay in the hotel portion of the Glacier Guides Lodge, we’ll be occupying the Glacier Guides Guest House.  It’ll be great to have space for the kids to unwind, for us dads to do our work (we can travel so much cuz we can bring our work), and to have our own kitchen. Since we’re visiting Glacier National Park in the off season many local spots have closed until spring, so we’ll be doing a lot of our own cooking and packing lunches.

Something else that’s great about staying with Glacier Guides Lodge is that they have any and all equipment we’ll need for exploring with kids!  We’re using their hiking packs, they’re getting us onto the river, they’re our go-to experts for all things Glacier NP and Rocky Mountain fun.  It’s going to be awesome!

UPDATE:  we have arrived at the Glacier Guides Guest House and it’s perfect for our family.  We have tons of space to unwind and relax, as well as work space since this is an active trip.  Our kitchen has everything we need (now that we went and got groceries) and the house is furnished with more comfy couches, recliners and rocking chairs than you can shake a stick at.  We also have lots of our own outdoor space, from a deck and patio to yard space.  Loving it all!

As you can see we’re going to have a jam packed week full of fun, nature, food, and fall colors.  Be sure to follow along on Instagram as we share stories and images daily.  Watch for moose and squirrel sightings… or moose and mountain goats, watch for hiking tips, and wish us luck as we drive Going to the Sun Road in autumn.  This is sure to be an adventure!

Exploring the West Glacier area

We arrived in West Glacier, Montana around 8:20 am and when we stepped off the Amtrak Empire Builder our rental car was DIRECTLY  IN FRONT OF US.  It couldn’t have been more perfect.  Once our luggage was loaded we looked up and saw the sign for Glacier Guides Lodge.  Right there!  Perfect!

After a run to Columbia Falls (20 minutes away) we did a little exploring outside of Glacier National Park.  FYI:  Columbia Falls is apparently the land of playgrounds, and if you drive through with kids, be prepared to stop and one of them.  It was 37 and sleeting so we couldn’t, and that was complete torture for the dudes.

Our first stop was at the Hungry Horse Dam and Lion Lake.  Both were beautiful with the moodiest weather.  We had snow, rain, fog, sun…  Lion Lake was perfect still with lots of picnic spots around it.  We were hoping to spot some wildlife but didn’t.  Pretty Anyways.

Next up was the Crown of the Continent Discovery Center.  We learned about the formation of the Rocky Mountain, the watershed of the Glacier National Park area, and snapped a selfie with a mountain goat.  We always love our educational stops so this was good.  Unfortunately since it’s the off-season we couldn’t get any huckleberry ice cream.  Next time…

And then there was a stop for the dads that was actually awesome for everybody.  Glacier Distilling is located just outside of West Glacier and it was a great addition to our itinerary.  We always look for family friendly wine tasting and such, so this was a new and unusual experience.  The kids loved watching the guys working with barrels, bubbling brew and pressure washers.  They had bottomless pretzels and mocktails to round out their experience.  We dads did whiskey and spirit flights and they were delicious.  It was great to try a variety of high quality spirits that were also truly unusual.  Botique distilleries may be our new fav thing.  We left with a bottle of Bad Rock Rye and Huckleberry Gin.

Exploring Glacier National Park in Fall

First up:  obligatory National Park entrance sign pic!

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Our first stop in Glacier National Park was Apgar and Lake McDonald.  We got to bring in our completed Junior Ranger packet and take the pledge as well as get to down low on road conditions around the park.  The rangers were awesome and helped up reshape a bit of our itinerary to access the open areas (and maybe see moose!).

After checking in we headed out on a nature walk through the forest around Apgar and through Apgar Village to Lake McDonald.  We’d told the kids that it’s one of the prettiest lakes around with the most colorful rocks.  Well, the rocks were colorful for sure, but the lake was socked in with fog and smoke (still smoldering a bit).  it was still gorgeous and a great first afternoon in Glacier National Park!

Lewis and Clark and Flathead National Forests

OMG.  You know that we’re addicted to road trips, well, we found a way to add that to our Amtrak experience.  Even though we’re based in West Glacier after getting off our Amtrak train, we’ve explored more of Glacier County and east.  Today we drove through the Lewis and Clark National Forest and it was stunning!  It’s a seemingly untouched paradise in the Rocky Mountains.  As we continued, we started crossing through the Flathead National Forest and it was just as awesome. Highway 2 winds along the Flathead River creating a good deal of the bored between the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park.  One of the prettiest drives we’ve taken, and the Empire Builder goes this route too!

We tried to stop at every picnic area and pull off available through both the Flathead and Lewis and Clark National Forest and we were so glad we did.  Our two favorite stops were Cascadilla Flat River Access on the north side of Highway 2 and where Bear Creek meets the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.  You cannot imagine up a prettier spot than these two stops.

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Stopping in East Glacier

Even though most of the town of East Glacier is closed down for the winter we still enjoyed a stop here… to play in the snow!  The Glacier Park Lodge is a favorite stop for us when we visit Glacier National Park and since it wasn’t open for warming up and enjoying the vintage feeling, we took advantage of the expansive lawns to build snowmen and be wild.  Actually, just the kids did that.  We dads stood to the side and appreciated their lack of sensitivity to the cold.  Other times we’ve done puzzles in the Lodge or played cards, but this was kinda more fun.  And then the views driving north from East Glacier were incomparable.

And we saw a bear on the side of the road.  He was eating and didn’t care about us at all.  #WinterIsComing.

Two Medicine in Glacier National Park

We didn’t get to visit the Two Medicine area of Glacier National Park last time we came through, so today was a treat!  We started at Running Eagle Falls just inside the Two Medicine entrance. Being only .3 miles to the falls from the road it was super easy with kids.  The falls are gorgeous, but then the fact that they’re set in front of towering mountains AND are flowing out of a cave… OMG.  Amazing sight!

After Running Eagle Falls we headed to Two Medicine Lake.  It’s very similar to Swiftcurrent Lake in the Many Glacier area of the park, but with fewer people.  We did the South Lake trail as we’d been told about two moose ponds where hikers often spy moose and bears enjoying their beautiful surroundings.  We didn’t see any moose or even the beavers that built the awesome beaver lodge we came across, but it was a great hike and really beautiful!

And then as we were leaving the Two Medicine area, we decided to check out the campground, you know, for future camping trips.  BOOM!!!  We came across a flock of bighorn sheep making their way through the Two Medicine Valley and out of the fresh snow.  The kids were totally wowed.

Glacier National Park is so much fun with kids!

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The St Mary Valley of Glacier National Park

We’ve been looking forward to getting back to Logan Pass, the center of Glacier National Park, since we were there eleven years ago… and that didn’t happen on this trip.  Due to the unexpected winter storm that rolled through this week followed by a thaw and freeze, the Going to the Sun Road that spans the valleys and cliffsides of the Park was closed. Sad face.

But all was not lost!!!  We did the 1913 Ranger Station trail along the south side of St Mary Lake.  It was beautiful.  Look!!

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And a few other shots…


We made the most of it by hiking at St Mary Lake and visiting Two Dog Flats and Rising Sun on the east side of Glacier National Park.  We enjoyed some time trekking through the snow looking for animal tracks and enjoying incredible views, and then we went and relaxed.  We saw a black bear on the hillside next to us and then skipped rocks at the Rising Sun boat launch on St Mary Lake.  Perfect backup plan!

Backslope Brewing in Columbia Falls, Montana

Since most of West Glacier is closed for the season we went to the nearby town of Columbia Falls for dinner.  Since we always try to seek out local goodness, including breweries, we happened into Backslope Brewing on Highway 2 in Columbia Falls.  From the get-go we were totally happy since they had a kids play area with some pretty awesome magnetic building toys.  The beers were great too.  What really made this brewery stand out against the many we’ve visited this summer was that they offered their own interesting menu options.  For kids it wasn’t just mac and cheese. OMG.  Us dads both got the fried chicken sandwich because it sounded too good, with their own slaw and everything.  It was totally awesome after a day of hiking.

Polebridge and Western Glacier National Park

We headed out early today to get up to the Polebridge area of Glacier National Park.  We just had to stop at Lake McDonald again because we knew it was going to be still and beautiful and BOOM!  We were so right!  Even more gorgeous in the morning.

Then we headed up to Polebridge.  Driving through Glacier National Park and then the Flathead National Forest and then back into the Park, Polebridge is a ways out there.  We passed many meadows, willow groves, the North Fork of the Flathead River and more.  It was breathtaking and the fall colors were off the hook.  We stopped into the tiny settlement of Polebridge to get some cookies and bread and discovered that if we had been there a week or two earlier there would’ve been a really cool old west saloon to hang out at too.

From there we continued onto Bowman Lake.  Ummm, when your kids just want to talk about how awesome the road is, you know it’s a crazy drive.  Yeah, even though Bowman Lake was only 6 miles in on the dirt road, it had some epic views and even more epic potholes.  Once there though the sight was incredible.  This is one of those spots that we hesitate to share because it’s immaculate and untouched and we don’t want to contribute to tourists flooding in, but since it is so remote, it’s okay to share.

Bowman lake was perfect.  It was still and the Rockies reflected flawlessly across the water.  And there was nobody around.  We did a short hike along the south shore of the lake and could’ve kept going forever.  Next time we’ll do the full hike which continues onto Quartz Lake and more.  So pretty and I’m so glad we had such perfect weather.

Rafting the Flathead River with Glacier Guides Montana Raft

To be honest, even though we go kayaking all the time and the kids are pros at it, I was a little worried that they’d freak out on a raft.  Just the opposite; what was I thinking?  They had the best time today as we did a scenic float down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River with Glacier Guides Montana Raft.  Starting in West Glacier and heading around bend after bend, we got the chance to take in the fall colors with only the sound of the river… and kids talking non-stop.

Our guide, KT, was great and so patient with the kids.  She was sure to point out some of the cool nature we were floating through and even had a cool story about a moonshine lady from the early railroad days that used to boat across the Flathead River to sell moonshine to the railroad workers as they completed the line.  We didn’t see a ton of wildlife on this rafting trip, as the summer’s forest fires prompted a lot of the creatures to seek shelter in safer spots, but we did spy a bald eagle sitting just above us before we floated through the canyon.  Overall, not a bad day.  Who am I kidding, I could spend everyday on the water and never tire of it.  Beautiful place to raft though!

Keep checking back for updates and don’t forget to follow along on Instagram!