Traveling by Train to Whitefish, Montana

Skip the stress of snow-covered roads and take Amtrak’s Empire Builder to this Rocky Mountain town.

By Tina Lassen

Between my career as a travel writer and my lifelong addiction to alpine skiing, I believe I’ve paid my dues in weather-delayed flights and white-knuckle winter drives through the mountains. So when I discovered that Amtrak rolled right past my Pacific Northwest home and direct to Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort, I was definitely all aboard.

What’s more, Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder schedule seems custom-made for a trip to Whitefish, an appealing mountain town in northwestern Montana about a half-hour north of Kalispell. From Seattle or Portland you can hop on the train one evening and arrive in Whitefish at daybreak. (From the east it’s a longer trip but still good timing: Board in Minneapolis–St. Paul in the evening and you roll into Whitefish roughly 24 hours later.) As long as you book your ticket ahead of time, you can pick up the train at other stops along the route too.

I found myself questioning this last fact as I sat alone in the Amtrak depot in Bingen, Washington. At 6 p.m., I began poking my head out the door, peering down the empty tracks, not at all certain that this was going to work. Then at 6:19, two minutes ahead of schedule, the rails began to hum and a spotlight pierced the drizzle. Silver cars rolled into view, slowing. Almost even before the train stopped, a door slid open directly in front of me. A porter dressed primly in a suit coat, tie and cap leaned out. “Ms. Lassen?” he said to my incredulous stare.

He scooped up my bags and escorted me onto the train. Within minutes we had clattered off eastbound into the night.

Darrell, the magical porter, was a marvel of politeness and efficiency. He stowed my skis at the end of the car and led me to my stateroom, which was roughly seven feet square and had a couch, table and wide picture window. Another door opened to reveal a tiny private bathroom complete with minuscule shower. Within a half-hour I was happily hunkered down with a glass of wine and my dinner—which Darrell delivered to me on a tray—as we slipped through the Columbia River Gorge and into darkness.

After dinner I set off to explore. Three cars forward was the train’s genial sightseeing lounge car, a public space with a café and floor-to-ceiling viewing windows. In summer this is no doubt a popular spot for checking out the scenery; given winter’s early sunsets, now it was more of a hangout for families and for couples playing cards. There was a dining car, too, and a few cars with rows of coach seats. Somewhere farther forward, beyond the baggage cars and crew cars not open to the public, I occasionally heard the engine blare its whistle.

When I returned to my stateroom, Darrell had MacGyvered the bench seats into two berths, creating a remarkably cozy bedroom. I crawled under the covers and was coaxed to sleep by the click and sway of the train.

Rap, rap, rap was the next thing I heard. It was Darrell, informing me that we’d be in Whitefish in about 45 minutes. And would I like some coffee? Out the window the high desert I’d fallen asleep to had been replaced by the Rocky Mountains and pine forest, just visible behind a gauze of tumbling snowflakes.

It promised to be a great day of skiing. Owing to the Empire Builder’s 7:30 a.m. arrival, I’d even be up at the resort in time for first tracks. But I’ll admit that a little part of me would’ve been content with sipping a second cup of coffee and watching more of the American West unfurl past my window.

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: September 2015