Why Glacier Park Lodge Was The Showpiece For The Great Northern Railway

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Glacier Park Lodge View from the Amtrak Station and Highway Entrance.

Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, Montana, was designed to be the showpiece for the Great Northern Railway. It was the first hotel built to entice guests to explore Glacier National Park and was the first stop at the beginning of most tours, and the end as well. After opening its doors in 1913, the hotel is a testament to the visions of James and his son, Louis Hill.

The lodge, which celebrated its 110th anniversary a few days before our arrival, is a National Historic Landmark. Pursuit manages Glacier Park Lodge and hosted my husband and me, but all opinions are mine.

History of Glacier Park Lodge

 Glacier Park Lodge was originally named “Glacier Park Hotel,” and was known familiarly as the “Entrance hotel” or “Entrance.” (Source: A Historical Handbook for the Employees of GLACIER PARK LODGE by the Glacier Park Foundation May 2016)

Significant renovations to the hotel in the late 1950s included renaming the hotel to “Glacier Park Lodge.” A swimming pool was built outside near the chalet in the back, which allowed for closing the original plunge pool in the hotel basement. In 2022, the outdoor pool was filled in because it was leaking badly.

How the Lodge was Built

Also known as the “Big Tree Lodge,” the lobby boasts a forest of massive Douglas fir timbers up to three feet in diameter and more than 40 feet tall. These giant logs were shipped in by train (by the Great Northern Railway, of course!) from the Pacific Northwest. The outside logs are Western red cedars, also from the Pacific Northwest. The logs were about 800 years old when harvested.

Take a Hotel Tour

On a hotel tour, we learned that the bark remains on the logs throughout the property. That was achieved by harvesting the logs during late winter before the sap rose. It acted like glue to maintain the bark and preserve the logs.

The chalet in the back was the first building finished during the construction of Glacier Park Hotel. The Great Northern Wing, referred to simply as the Annex, where we stayed, was completed almost a year after the main lodge.

Glacier Park Lodge Lobby and Great Northern Dining Room.
Glacier Park Lodge Lobby and Great Northern Dining Room. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

The lobby is impressive because it is 200 feet long and 100 feet wide with 60-foot ceilings. On one end of the lobby is the Great Northern Dining Room, and on the other end is the massive fireplace with theater seating and a crackling fire throughout the day and evening. Leather couches and rustic tables are enhanced with antique furniture, mounted animal heads, and chandeliers.

The wide entryway leads to the concierge desk and massive lobby, where check-in is easy, and signs alert you to scheduled tour departure locations.

The lodge’s history is evident throughout the building, with vintage artifacts and photographs on display.

She Buys Travel Tip: The artwork on the walls in the Annex are more accurate depictions of Blackfeet tribal members, rather than the artwork on the walls in the main lodge. They maintain the lodge as it was during the time it was built for authenticity.

The Great Northern Railway

 James J. Hill, the Great Northern Railway owner, built a transcontinental railroad along the northern border of the United States. Beginning in St. Paul, Minnesota, and ending in Seattle, Washington, the man with a vision created revenue as he laid track by building branch lines to bring homesteaders, cattle, grain, timber, and ore from their farms to his railroad. He achieved distribution to the markets on the East and West Coasts. East Coast wealth expanded to the rugged West.

Hill and his son, Louis, cultivated the Glacier National Park experience with hotels, chalets, and touring routes. Louis lobbied Congress to designate Glacier Park a national park, which Congress did in 1910. Construction began to provide lodges for travelers coming on the railroad.

History of the Land

The land on which Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier Park was built belonged to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Louis Hill bought 160 acres of Blackfeet land after Congress granted him negotiating rights in 1912.

The Blackfeet Indian Memorial, a scenic roadside stop along Highway 89, features metal sculptures of a Blackfeet Indian and lodges that dot the landscape near Babb. Signs along the path describe the surrounding mountains, the Blackfeet lodges, lands, and the naming of St. Mary’s Lakes. This memorial, which is close to the lodge, is worth your time to visit.

1969 Checker Airbus welcomes guests to the Big Tree Lodge at Glacier Park Lodge.
1969 Checker Airbus welcomes guests to the Big Tree Lodge. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Today’s Rail Service

 Glacier Park Lodge was, and still is, within walking distance of the train station. The historic 1969 Checker Airbus, parked in front of the hotel, fetches passengers from the train station and brings them to the lodge. With a maximum speed of 15 mph, this vehicle is more for show than tell. But it beats dragging your luggage up the hill to the hotel.

Today, Amtrak operates the Empire Builder with daily trains stopping at the East Glacier Amtrak station. The waiting room’s posted hours are from 9:00 am to noon and 5:30 to 8:30 pm.

Glacier Park Lodges

 Within five years, Louis Hill created Glacier Park Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, and nine chalet groups (Two Medicine, Cut Bank, St. Mary, Going-to-the-Sun, Gunsight Lake, Sperry, Granite Park, Many Glacier, and Belton). Swiss alpine chalet designs heavily inspired all. Hill also built the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton, Canada. It is surrounded by Waterton-Glacier National Peace Park on the border with Montana.

All Glacier National Park Lodges

  • Cedar Creek Lodge at Columbia Falls, Montana, a western gateway to Glacier National Park, and 18 miles from West Glacier
  • Lake MacDonald Lodge overlooking Lake MacDonald, near West Glacier and Whitefish, Montana
  • Many Glacier Hotel overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake on the east side of the Park, nestled between Lake Josephine and Lake Sherburne
  • Rising Sun Motor Inn & Cabins on the east side of the Park in St. Mary Village, near the St. Mary Visitor’s Center and Going-to-the-Sun road.
  • Swiftcurrent Motor Inn & Cabins is located near Swiftcurrent Trailhead on the east side of the Park between Fishercap Lake and Swiftcurrent Lake.
  • Apgar Village Lodge & Cabins is located on the south shore of Lake MacDonald.

She Buys Travel Tip: During the summer, Glacier National Park instituted ticketed entry for the Going-to-Sun Road corridor. While not required for the St. Mary entrance on the date we arrived, we were required to purchase a permit to drive to the Lake MacDonald area. With nine miles of rugged road repair, it was a challenging journey.

History of Glacier National Park

Established by Congress in 1910 and managed by the National Park Service, Glacier National Park preserves rugged and breathtaking landscapes, wild natural places, and wildlife. Established in 1932, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a World Heritage Site, spans the northern Rocky Mountains at the border of Canada and Montana.

History of the Red Bus Tours

Many iconic red buses, symbolic of Glacier National Park, have been in service since the 1930s. The Red Buses have an oak frame, not metal, to support their bodies. Special features of the buses include outside doors opposite each row of seats and a roll-back top providing unobstructed sightseeing. Of course, the top is closed during inclement weather, like when we were there.

Women were discouraged from riding in front of the Red Bus during the early years because they distracted the male drivers. The first female Red Bus driver in Glacier was in the early 1980s.

More Interesting Facts About the Red Bus

  • Nicknamed “The Rubies of the Rockies”.
  • The Red Bus color comes from the Ripe Mountain Ash Berry in the Park.
  • First authorized motor transportation utility in any National Park.
  • It runs on gasoline and propane, which is 93% cleaner.
  • The Red Buses transport about 60,000 passengers through the Park per year.
Guest Room in the Great Northern Wing (Annex) of Glacier Park Lodge.
Guest Room in the Great Northern Wing (Annex). Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Accommodations at Glacier Park Lodge

The lodge offers several types of accommodations.

The Main Lodge

Located above the lobby, the main lodge offers mountain or garden-view rooms with one or two queen beds. Value rooms in the Main Lodge offer double beds and limited views. Main Lodge rooms that are family-friendly offer an open floor plan with at least three beds, a sitting room and a mountain or garden view.

The Golf House

 The two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a full kitchen accommodates up to eight people on the nine-hole Glacier Park Lodge Golf Course.

The Tippet Cottage

If you’re looking for something cozy, consider this cottage with a double bed in a private room, a separate living room, and a full kitchen.

The Great Northern Wing (Annex)

Added to the hotel one year after it opened, the annex offers slightly larger rooms than in the Main Lodge. The rooms feature hardwood floors, and some have shared balconies. Our Annex room was spacious, with two queen beds, a desk and a side chair. The small private bathroom with a tiny sink and shower included toiletries.

Note that since Glacier Park Lodge is a National Historic Landmark, it has some areas that may not meet modern ADA accessibility standards.

Amenities at Glacier Park Lodge

While there is no TV or air conditioning in the guest rooms at Glacier Park Lodge, you can enjoy spectacular mountain views and fresh Montana air. In addition, these amenities are available:

  • On-site dining in the Great Northern Dining Room
  • Native American Trading Post and Country Corner (Gift Shop)
  • Interpretive Hotel Tour
  • Bell Service
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi
  • Car rentals are available at Reception to explore the surrounding area

She Buys Travel Tip: We took the Historical Walking Tour led by a bellman who shared interesting facts about the construction of the building, the legend of the Rocky Mountain goat falling through the roof and is now memorialized in a glass cabinet in the lobby (it’s also in the Great Northern Railway logo), and how the Douglas fir logs were harvested.

WiFi Tips

WiFi in the Annex has different access than that in the Main Lodge. Be sure to get the correct server and password at the Front Desk at check-in.

Red Wine Demi Poutine, a Canadian traditional dish, at Glacier Park Lodge.
Red Wine Demi Poutine, a Canadian traditional dish. Photo credit: Julie Diebolt Price

Dining at Glacier Park Lodge

The Great Northern Dining Room is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They do not take reservations and breakfast is served buffet style.

The Empire Lounge serves lunch and dinner in a casual atmosphere. The bar also has a television. The menu includes burgers, salads, sandwiches and appetizers.

The Espresso Bar serves coffee, tea, hot chocolate and more from its lobby alcove.

She Buys Travel Tip: The Espresso Bar is busy in the morning, with a wait of up to 15 minutes or more in line. Allow extra time if you have scheduled a tour.

Planning Your Trip To Glacier Park Lodge

Glacier Park Lodge is open from May to October. On our mid-June visit, cool temps greeted us with rain and sun. Be prepared with layered clothing and rain gear to stay comfortable and dry.

The lodge fills up quickly during the peak season in summer, so it’s a good idea to book your accommodations and activities early.

With all the outdoor activities available, bring sturdy hiking boots, a hat, sunscreen and a backpack for your adventures.

Julie Diebolt Price is an award-winning professional photographer, educator, author, and travel writer. She writes about two things – photography and travel (along with a little food and beverage). Julie educates and mentors aspiring photographers. As a journalist who loves to travel, she creates memorable experiences and shares them with words and pictures.
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