Sunday, August 23, 2009

Family Vacation to Glacier National Park by Train

As I previously mentioned, this last Christmas my wife gave me as a Christmas gift the freedom to plan a family train trip for 2009. The trip I planned: take the Empire Builder train from Seattle to Glacier National Park, 2 nights at the historic Glacier National Park lodge, and then return home by train.

I left work early on a Wednesday afternoon to catch a 4:45 p.m. train. My wife met me at the train station with my daughters. We boarded our train to find a very nice family bedroom on the train, our sleeping car attendant Donna greeted us with personal bottles of sparkling wine for my wife and I and sparkling cider for my daughters. Although our family bedroom was not big, it was far larger than anything we had ever shared on a plane or car. While we were at Dinner Donna changed our room from seats to beds. The room was made up of two kid sized bunks, and two adult sized bunks with a larger bottom bunk that was kind of like a small full sized bed. My oldest daughter slept on the top bunk with my younger daughter on the bottom. The top bunk had a strap that kept my daughter from falling out of the bed.

Unfortunately the train did not get the Sightseer lounge car until we met with the train from Portland in Spokane (around midnight), so after we finished dinner in the dining car there wasn't much to do other than hang out in our car. We let the girls got to watch about half a movie on my laptop before going to bed, then my wife and I went to the empty room next to ours and shared a bottle of wine we had brought from home. When I woke up the next morning I was in something of a daze, I wasn't certain what time it was with the time zone change, and for a while I was somewhat worried we had missed our stop and were zooming though Eastern Montana. Donna assured me we hadn't even reached Whitefish Montana yet, so we headed up for breakfast as the train made its Whitefish stop.

From Whitefish Montana it was another two hours of slowly snaking our way though the scenic Southern border of Glacier National Park before we reached our destination of East Glacier Park Village. From the train station it was about a 200 yard walk to the Glacier National Park Lodge where we stayed. I hauled our luggage to the lodge then hiked back to the other side of the train tracks to pick up our rental car.

With our own set of wheels, we headed north to Many Glacier Lodge for lunch. After giving the girls a chance to run around and play in Swift Current Lake (which Many Glacier Lodge sits on the shore of) we headed back to the lodge at East Glacier park. On the way back we saw a number of cars parked on the side of the road with their passengers all out with cameras and one park ranger vehicle with a nervous looking ranger, in Glacier National Park this can mean only one thing: BEAR! So being typical tourists I quickly stopped the car, told my wife and daughters not to get out of the car, then jumped out of the car with my camera. The bear was mostly oblivious to us as it feasted on huckleberries. The ranger, who I now noticed was carrying a shotgun was clearly VERY nervous as he tried to control little old ladies trying to wander across the street to get a better view, and cars stopping mere feet from the bear trying to get a closer picture. I decided that there was a fair chance that the ranger might fire off a shot just to scare off the bear, and I didn't want to deal with two little girls crying from a loud shot gun blast, so I decided it was time to continue back to our lodge.

Back at Glacier National Park Lodge we were finally able to check into our room. The room was basic and rustic; no phone, no TV, no internet, but we did have access to our 3rd floor balcony looking out towards the park. Based on the fact that I spent $175 a night to stay in that room, I have to admit I was a little disappointed the room wasn't a bit nicer, but then again, we didn't come for the room.

The next morning we got a quick continental breakfast with plans to drive up to Logan's Pass. Since it was a vacation I let my girls eat fruit loops for breakfast. With a friends story of getting to Logan's pass and finding the parking lot full I drove as fast as I could safely drive on the windy highway 49. Turns out this was a big mistake. My youngest daughter started whining in the back seat and wouldn't stop. By the time my wife figured out what the problem was my daughter had emptied the contents of her stomach all over the rental car. At that point I was convinced the day was a loss, but my wife cleaned up the mess, and insisted we continue on. A quick stop in the town of St. Mary to get my youngest daughter all new clothing and we were back on our way.

We had no problem finding parking at Logan's pass, and took the girls on an amazing 3 mile hike. My oldest daughter hiked the entire trail on her own, and my youngest daughter spent about 2/3rds of the hike on either my shoulders or my wife's. As we reached the highpoint on the hike mountain goats started appearing from every direction. As three mountain goats walked past me with my youngest daughter on my shoulders I pulled out my camera and told my daughter, "Look there's the 3 billy goats gruff". From my shoulders my daughter started banging my head and shouting "Dat my book daddy! Dat my book!". A little further along the trail and we saw a pair of big horn sheep. They were a bit more skittish of people, but we were still able to get close enough to get some great photos. As we continued on the trail we found a couple of big horn sheep. The big horn sheep were not as interested in getting close to the hikers as the mountain goats were, but they did get close enough for me to get a few great pictures.

For our final day in Glacier National Park we had decided to take it easy and rather than drive to some far corner of the park we went for a Red Bus tour. The bus took us to Two Medicine lake where we took a 45 minute boat trip across the lake and back. Then the bus took us to Running Eagle Falls (a.k.a. Trick Falls), and finally returned us home. We hung out around the lodge and the town of East Glacier before our train trip home.

I look forward to the next opportunity I can visit the park, either on my own or with my family. I feel like we didn't even begin to scratch the surface of what this park has to offer!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Planning a Family Train Trip

I’m preparing for the last family trip of summer. It will be a short trip, but I am really looking forward to it. Last Christmas my wife gave me a train trip as a Christmas gift. My wife knows that I love to travel by train, so she told me I could plan a family train trip for sometime in 2009.

Here is the trip I planned: We leave on Wednesday afternoon from Seattle on the Amtrak Empire Builder route (Seattle to Chicago). The next morning we wake up in Montana and get off the train in East Glacier Park. We spend two nights at the historic Glacier National Park Lodge. Then return home by train, leaving East Glacier Park on Saturday afternoon and getting back to Seattle Sunday morning.

On the train, our family of 4 will be sharing what Amtrak calls a family bedroom. It has two large bunks for adults and two small bunks for the kids.

The goal in planning the trip was to make it long enough so that it was a true adventure, but keep it short enough so that we didn't all go stir crazy on the train. Before my wife and I had kids we took the Coast Starlight from LA to Seattle; that's a 36 hour train trip, a little bit much for my kids first real train trip. Traveling out of Seattle you only have 2 major train train routes: The Coast Starlight and the Empire builder. The scenery on the Coast Starlight is amazing South of Portland Oregon, but much of Washington doesn't ofter much in see. However the scenery on the Empire Builder is incredible from the moment you leave the station.

On the Empire builder you leave Seattle, cross the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, then head up to Everett Washington along the waterfront. In Everett the train turns East and heads into the Cascade mountains. Through most of Eastern Washington an Idaho it is night. Morning comes just as you are about to head into the Rocky mountains skirting the Southern border of Glacier National Park. Arriving at East Glacier Park late in the morning and right in front of the Glacier National Park Lodge!

We'll bring plenty of snacks and probably a laptop with us for the girls to watch movies on the train if they want. However there will be no wifi, and probably no cell service though much of Glacier National Park. Although there are numerous shuttles and buses to get you around the park, we chose to rent a car in East Glacier to give us a little more freedom to get around and be able to stay on track with my youngest daughters nap times.

I have described our planned vacation to anyone who would listen, and everyone has given me the same response, "Sounds like so much fun, but I am going to be very curious to hear how it goes". This could be an incredible adventure, or trapped in a train with two stir crazy little girls who can't sleep on a train.

Several years ago, before my youngest daughter was born, my wife, older daughter, and I did a short train trip from Seattle to Portland (a little over 3 hours). We stayed the night in Portland and returned the next day. The thing that made that train trip so great was that my daughter and I could get up and walk around and explore the train, we look out the windows at the scenery going by, or go get a snack whenever we wanted. And the seats on the train were plenty big enough for us to stretch out for a nap. When you are travelling by car or plane you stuck in your seat, you eat only when you are served or when you stop. When you travel by pane you have to deal with the craziness of getting though security and having to show up 2 hours early (20 minutes is fine for the train). The downside to train travel in the USA is that it is often more expensive than flying or driving and takes longer to get to your destination than flying (and often takes longer than driving). However when you travel by train, the trip is part of the joy of the vacation!

Sometime next week I hope to have a report on how the trip when.