Fifth in a series about Glacier National Park
Many Glacier Hotel
When Glacier National Park was first created in 1910, transportation in the United States was very different than it is today. Most visitors to Glacier arrived by train and explored by foot or horse, not automobile. In fact, the Great Northern Railway was one of the driving forces in creating the park in the first place. Their line already passed along what is now the southern boundary of the park, and making the area a tourist destination would be good for business. After Glacier National Park was formally established, the Great Northern didn’t just simply provide transportation there. They helped develop the park’s tourist infrastructure, including lodging. Great Northern’s subsidiary, the Glacier Park Hotel Company, opened large hotels such as the Glacier Park Hotel (Glacier Park Lodge) in East Glacier, Montana, the Prince of Wales Hotel in Canada’s neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park, and the Many Glacier Hotel inside the park at the edge of Swiftcurrent Lake.
The Many Glacier Hotel is the largest of the Glacier railroad hotels. Opened in 1915, it was designed in the style of a Swiss chalet. Large wooden beams frame the towering lobby. The views of the lake and surrounding mountains are superb, with Grinnell Point especially prominent. The hotel has multiple restaurants inside, including the flagship Ptarmigan Dining Room. Despite the elegance of the hotel’s exterior and common areas, there is a certain Spartan air to it as well. The rooms are small and no-frills by modern standards. The hotel really is a place to disconnect from the grind of daily life. There are no televisions, no cell phone reception, and it seems the lobby Wi-Fi doesn’t work reliably. While most payphones have gone the way of the dinosaur in much of the United States, the hotel’s lobby pay phones are basically the only link between guests and the outside world.
On Tuesday, August 20, 2014, Rachel and I arrived at the Many Glacier Hotel to have dinner in celebration of getting engaged earlier in the day at Iceberg Lake. We didn’t have a room reserved there. We hadn’t been able to commit to the trip to Glacier until late June, by which point the hotel and every other historic lodge in or near the park was booked solid. As a result, I’d reserved a campsite at Fish Creek. The lodges’ prime location and limited number of rooms mean that if you want to ensure that you snag a room on a particular day, you really need to book the previous year. I inquired at the front desk about whether there were any last minute cancellations, but the clerks advised there were not. Guess we’d be camping. Disappointed, we headed to the Ptarmigan Dining Room for dinner. Through the restaurant’s large picture windows, we watched another thunderstorm blown in from Swiftcurrent Lake, obscuring Grinnell Point. The meal was fairly expensive (about $46 with tip), as you’d expect based on the location. I enjoyed my chicken, although Rachel said her beef wasn’t cooked right.
It had probably been a mistake to plan to camp at Fish Creek that night, since it is on the west side of the park. We’d have a two hour drive on US-2 back to our campsite and with two thunderstorms already today, we may have ended up setting up in the rain. I stopped by the front desk again and asked if they would mind calling the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn for us to check if they had a vacancy since there was no cell reception. To our surprise, the clerk said the Many Glacier Hotel manager had just released an updated room with a lake view due to a no-show. Would we like the room for $219?
Let’s see… Camping: Saving $219, two more hours of driving, and the promise of cold showers…rain showers, that is. OR, staying in a historic hotel that I’d wanted to stay at in the first place, with no more driving, no more rain, and the prospect of only hot showers. Yeah, we’d take the room. We excitedly told the ladies at the front desk how great this was considering we had just gotten engaged. In fact, they were the very first two people to find out, since we didn’t have cell reception to tell anyone else first.
The room was on the fourth floor and had a small, modernized bathroom (although the sink was in the main room). There was a good view of the lake out the window. There was some noise from the hallway, as is frequently the case in older hotels, but nothing that interfered with sleep. The only thing I really wished they would have updated with the bathroom was the rather dim lighting. We were touched when we found that the manager had slipped a note under the door congratulating us on our engagement and giving us coupons for breakfast the next morning.
It was an enjoyable, slow evening at the hotel. We used a payphone for the first time in about 15 years, in order to tell our parents the news. We sat on chairs on the deck facing the lake to watch the sun set behind the mountains and sipped beer from one of the lounges in the lobby after it got dark. There was a show downstairs for a small fee but it was wrapping up by the time we came across it.
If dinner in the Ptarmigan Dining room was okay, the breakfast buffet was great. Other than the world class buffet at the Fairmount Chateau Lake Louise, I can’t think of the last time I had such a feast for breakfast.
The hotel is the launching point for boat tours of Swiftcurrent Lake. Unfortunately, we had to be back in West Glacier by midday for a white water rafting adventure on the Middle Fork Flathead River, so we couldn’t linger. We sadly left Many Glacier and headed back to St. Mary to pick up the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Location: 5/5, Rooms 3/5, Service 4/5, Price $$$$
Overall: Highly recommended for its prime location and historic charm, but if you’re looking for luxurious rooms you’ll probably want to look for a hotel outside the park.
Kalispell Grand Hotel
About 45 minutes outside the west entrance to the park, Kalispell is one of the gateways to Glacier and home to the closest airport with commercial service. It has a historic main street, where the beautifully restored Grand sits. The hotel does not have a parking lot, but on-street parking is free after hours. There is free in-room Wi-Fi and cell phones work there.
Built in 1912, the hotel’s rooms are small but have been modernized to a much greater extent than its contemporary, the Many Glacier Hotel. Staying outside the park will also save you a pretty penny; the room was only $124 including local taxes, and availability was much better as well. The lady at the front desk was exceedingly friendly. After we returned from dinner, she sent us up to our room with a plate of homebaked cookies hot from the oven. The complimentary continental breakfast buffet was quite good, with a rustic touch…part of the buffet was sitting on an old safe. I’m afraid I didn’t take any decent interior pictures, as I hadn’t even thought of blogging back then.
Location: 3/5, Rooms 4/5, Service 5/5, Price $
Overall: Highly recommended as long as you don’t mind the commute to the park
Izaak Walton Inn
Another of the Great Northern’s lodges, the Izaak Walton Inn was built in 1939. Built next to the Great Northern Tracks (still active as part of the BNSF rail network), its guests were originally railroad workers rather than tourists. Certainly, it was in position to house tourists when roads were built to access the south side of Glacier, but the National Park Service eventually abandoned these plans. (If you want to see the southern portion of the park, you’ll generally have to hike in.)
The Izaak Walton Inn is in the tiny town of Essex, Montana off US-2. Actually, town is probably a little generous. By virtue of its railside origin, the “town” (really the inn) has the good fortune to be a flag stop for Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the modern successor to the Great Northern’s passenger trains. I don’t really know about the transportation options once you arrive, since Essex is a bit of a drive from West Glacier or East Glacier, but it seems there are ski trails just across the tracks from the inn. Your dining choices are also limited. The hotel has a restaurant, of course. Also, back in 2007 we enjoyed a meal at the Glacier Haven Inn up the road, but the restaurant was closed during our visit in 2014. (I’m not sure if it’s permanent or it was just during our visit.)
In addition to the rather small rooms inside the inn, it’s possible for the rail buff to spend the night in a caboose or even a locomotive on the grounds outside. The common areas of the inn are chock full of railroad memorabilia and the rooms have their share as well. As a fan of mountain goats, I appreciate the Great Northern mascot, “Rocky”, which is everywhere. There’s a decent giftshop. Not far from the inn on US-2, the “Goat Lick” at the edge of Glacier’s boundaries is a popular place for mountain goats to obtain the minerals they crave, especially early in the summer.
I stayed at the inn with my family in 2007 and I considered it in 2014 before settling on the Glacier Guides Lodge instead due to its better reviews and location. In 2014, we stopped by the inn on the way to see the Goat Lick. We stopped in at the restaurant, but the lunch menu was pretty bland… it was really just sandwiches. When our server made only a half-hearted effort to wipe off our messy table after we sat down, we decided to eat elsewhere.
Location: 3/5, Rooms (2007) 3/5, Service (2007) 4/5, Price $$
Overall: I personally had a fine stay in 2007, but I recommend checking reviews online before deciding if this is the hotel for you
Glacier Guides Lodge
West Glacier, Montana
Located on a secluded road across US-2 from the West Glacier Amtrak Station, the Glacier Guides Lodge is a small and cozy motel nestled against a hill in the forest. Our hostess was wonderful. She should seriously be in a cage match with the hostess of the Kalispell Grand to settle the question of who the nicest innkeeper in Montana is. Unlike the Grand’s lady, she didn’t bake us cookies, but she offered to loan us bear spray and she was nice enough to let us use the house phone at no extra charge to let people back east know about our engagement. Our room was about $193 for the night and was originally going to be a splurge to celebrate our engagement before Rachel derailed my plans and I ended up doing it a day early…
The Glacier Guides Lodge has impressive environmental credentials. As I recall, it was built with local lumber, is furnished from estate sales, launders sheets and towels on site (instead of transporting them significant distances and wasting fuel), and uses large canisters of shampoo rather than wasteful disposable toiletries. Landscaping is done with native flowers. The two-floor common area is quite nice with a lounge and complimentary computer access upstairs (there’s also in-room Wi-Fi but cell service is spotty) and tables for meals downstairs. The complimentary breakfast which was among the best continental breakfast buffets I’ve had. Our room was spacious and comfortable. What the lodge lacks in view it makes up in coziness. The rooms have patios facing the forest. All around, the view is just trees and sky. And of course, the town of West Glacier and its park entrance is only a few minutes by car.
Location: 4/5, Rooms 5/5, Service 5/5, Price $$$
Overall: Although it can’t compete with the Many Glacier Hotel for views and location, I would rate this the best lodging I’ve stayed at in the vicinity of Glacier.