Ann Arbor to Glacier, car-free

Sam’s post on desiring an option for getting to and around Yellowstone National Park without private cars (uh, six months ago!) reminded me how much I take for granted in my favorite destination further north, Glacier National Park. Even without my personal advantage of having family in the area, Glacier is a relatively friendly park for visiting carless from Michigan, thanks to Amtrak and the in-park hiker shuttles.

Recently, I’ve had two other friends ask my advice on the train option to Glacier, so it’s apparently time I wrote it up.  Here goes.

Ann Arbor to Glacier by Amtrak

The basic westbound route is to board the Amtrak Wolverine line in Ann Arbor in the morning (7:20am as of July 2019), enjoy a 3-4 hour layover in Chicago, and then board the Empire Builder for an overnight-and-next-day trip, arriving in East Glacier around 7pm or West Glacier around 9pm (Mountain time) about 40 hours after boarding in A2.

Headed east, board the Empire Builder in West Glacier around 8am or in East Glacier around 9:45am, arriving in Chicago at 4pm. In theory, this would give you time to catch the evening Wolverine home at 5:50pm, but, since the oil shale boom, freight congestion across the Great Plains causes frequent enough delays that Amtrak won’t let you book that same day connection anymore.  They’ll try to book you a late-night bus connection home: that option is…unpleasant. Plan a night in Chicago and catch the Wolverine home the next day, in you can.

If you’re on a budget, the coach accommodations are the absolute cheapest way to get to Glacier, about $400/adult round-trip in the peak months. (Kids are cheaper: a family of four is about $1300 r/t.) You’ll want to bring a solid supply of PB&Js and other snacks, though, because the lounge car microwave food isn’t great, and the dining car can get pricey for three meals a day.  I will emphasize that cross-country Amtrak coach seating is infinitely more comfortable than economy-class flights, or even coach on the Wolverine to Chicago–it’s more like the Wolverine’s business class seating.

The sleeper accommodations are more spendy, and more comfortable, and include all meals served in the dining car in the price of the room. As of this writing, a family of four will cost about $3,500 r/t in July.  (I’ve never actually paid for sleeper accommodations–I use credit card points.) For sleeper travel, you’ll need to book 6-8 months in advance to make sure there’s a space available on your schedule.

Amtrak to Lodgings

Within the Park, you can stay at one of the historic hotels in the park, if you’re looking for the full “golden age of rail” experience–several of these were built by the Great Northern Railway pre-World War I as part of their plan to boost ridership through that era’s version of ecotourism. There are also newer hotels outside the park entrances, and campgrounds throughout.

On the east side, the East Glacier train station is essentially at the foot of Glacier Park Lodge’s lawn. East Glacier has a number of other hotel options too, making a first or last night’s stay easy–but it’s a fair bit outside the national park proper and removed from camping and hiking areas. A private shuttle connects East Glacier to the Two Medicine Lake area and St. Mary–the main eastern entrance to the park, about 30 miles north–for a fee. Another private shuttle connects St. Mary to the Many Glacier valley, one of the most popular hiking areas in the park.  Both St. Mary and Many have hotels and campgrounds.

The West Glacier train station is across the street from the Belton Chalet–the Great Northern-built hotel at that end–about a half mile walk into West Glacier Village, and a 3-mile trek or private shuttle ride into the Apgar area, with hotels and camping at the foot of Lake McDonald.  (Before you plan to walk this on your arrival, keep in mind the thing I said about the 9pm scheduled Amtrak arrival always being optimistic.)

If you’re not committed to the fully car-free trip, you can have a rental car waiting for you in West Glacier–the rental agencies located by Flathead County Airport (FCA), about half an hour to the west, will drop one off at the train station ahead of your arrival.

Cost/Carbon Comparison

By comparison, flying to Glacier (DTW->FCA) costs about $600/person, or $2,400 for a family of four, with one stop (either MSP or SLC). Driving round-trip at the IRS rate of 57.5 cents/mile is going to run $2,300, and take about 3 full driving days in each direction.

From a carbon emissions perspective, the EPA’s listing of carbon emissions factors suggests Amtrak doesn’t really offer that much benefit–per passenger-mile, long-distance rail produces about the same emissions as medium-haul flights. Driving alone will produce over twice the emissions, but if you stick your family of four in your mini-van for the cross-country trip, driving is the lowest-emission option.

So, if you’re headed to Glacier on your own, or with one other person, Amtrak’s coach is going to be your cheapest option, and have similar carbon footprint to flying. For a family of four, driving is going to be cheaper and lower carbon, and offer more opportunity to stop at various attractions along the way, but at the round-trip cost of spending almost a week of your waking life watching the pavement go by.

If you are headed to Glacier, though, especially with few enough people to make driving more expensive, I’d recommend considering the train trip anyways: it makes the travel much more a part of the experience than flying for the middle-class traveler. And, if you want to go fully car-free–relying on hiking, the shuttle system, and hitchhiking to get around within the park–the train is the only option that makes this really feasible.

About Me

Michigander, parent of twins, urban planner, role-playing game nerd.


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