Those who aren’t bent on barreling right down Going-to-the-Sun Road would be wise to look 30 miles southeast to the Izaak Walton Inn (406/888-5700, www.izaakwaltoninn.com) in Essex. The Izaak Walton was built by the Great Northern in 1939 to house railroad workers. (Essex was, and still is, an important railroad post; it’s where extra engines are added to help trains over Marias Pass.) It’s now popular with park visitors and has gained a cultlike standing among railroad buffs and cross-country skiers.
And well it should. The Izaak Walton is truly one of Montana’s best getaways. Amtrak’s Empire Builder stops a stone’s throw from the half-timbered hotel, and groomed ski trails run for miles. Energetic skiers can take a guided tour in the park or can drive to the unplowed Going-to-the-Sun Road or to East Glacier for a ski trip to Two Medicine Lake. Cross-country skis and snowshoes are available for rent. In summer the lodge is open to hikers, anglers (this isn’t called the Izaak Walton for nothing), and mountain bikers (bikes also for rent).
Even if you don’t have time or the inclination to head into the wilderness, the Izaak Walton has atmosphere to spare; you’ll love curling up in the lobby by the fireplace or having a drink in the friendly downstairs bar. Most guests eat at the lodge restaurant.
Rooms in the lodge all have private baths and are $137–255 during high season (June 16–Sept. 15 and Dec. 16–March 31). The Izaak Walton has also renovated some cabooses and plunked them down on a hillside across the tracks. The cabooses sleep four, have kitchenettes (which can save you some money on restaurant meals if you’re willing to schlep groceries to Essex), and cost $690 for a three-night stay. (Be sure to ask about the cancellation policy; it’s extremely strict.) None of the rooms have TVs, radios, or telephones, but there is a Finnish sauna. If you arrive via Amtrak, the Izaak Walton also has cars for rent.
For years it was impossible to stay at the Swiss-style Belton Chalet (406/888-5000 or 888/235-8665, www.beltonchalet.com, $145 and up), built in 1910 when the park opened, closed for years, and renovated and reopened in 2000. The rooms still have an old-fashioned charm, which means no TVs or phones; one modern touch is the addition of spa services, quite nice after a night on the train or a day of hiking. A three-bedroom cottage ($299) is great for larger groups. This is where early park visitors debarked from the train, and Amtrak still stops here daily. During the winter season, from early October to late May, only cottage rentals are available ($99–225).
The Great Northern Resort (406/387-5340 or 800/735-7897, $260–295) offers several chalets, each chalet containing a kitchenette, fireplace, and barbecue and two or three bedrooms. The owners also operate a white-water raft outfitting service and can arrange horseback riding and fishing trips. During spring and fall, rates drop to as low as $99; in peak summer season a three-night stay is required.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition