Montana’s history is intricately connected to rail travel. The introduction of rail lines to the state allowed folks to travel more freely, found new towns, and transport materials drawn from mines more quickly and efficiently. Especially during the gold rush, rail travel and freight lines became necessary for its new inhabitants; it’s likely Montana would not be near as populated today if not for the introduction of comprehensive rail travel.
While passenger rail in Montana has declined considerably from its heyday, there are still a few scenic train rides in the state available to tourists. If you’re a train enthusiast planning a trip to Montana, you should consider taking a ride on one of these historic train lines.
The passenger rail lines that are still in operation within the state of Montana are:
1. Rail Museums in Montana
Before you head out on one of Montana’s scenic train rides, you may want to visit one of its rail museums. There are a handful across the state, and each offers different insights into the history of rail transportation and travel within Montana.
Built in 1902 to act as a hub for rail travel into Yellowstone, the Livingston Depot is now a museum and community center. It was designed by the same architects who created New York City’s Grand Central Station, and though it doesn’t serve as a working train station today, it’s an awesome reminder of Montana’s history.
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Though it was originally built as a passenger train station for the Milwaukie Railroad, today it’s a museum that tells a significant part of the history of Harlowton. There’s a variety of exhibits here, but maybe the most intriguing is the collection of vintage rail engines.
Passenger Trains in Montana
Though Montana has an intricate railroad system, the majority of the lines that are still in use today are used for freight. Though passenger rail is limited in the state, there is a growing push to bring back intercity rail travel to Southern Montana, thus connecting it to the north and maybe eventually into Wyoming.
In the meantime, there are a handful of scenic train routes in Montana that you can take today. Here’s an outline of the available passenger rail services in Montana.
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This 56-mile round-trip dinner train passes through the picturesque mountains and valleys of Central Montana. The train travels down a historic route, passing across two trellises and through a half-mile-long tunnel. And it’s not uncommon to see wildlife: eagles, antelope, hawks, and deer all call this wild part of the world home.
While you’re enjoying the Central Montana sunset, you’ll get to relax and enjoy a hearty prime rib dinner and maybe a nice wine pairing if you’d like. The Chew Choo operates on a former Milwaukie Railroad line beginning just north of Lewistown to Denton, and back.
Though this little rail line is only a mile and a half long, it’s an entertaining and educational way to travel from Virginia City to Nevada City.
Installed in 1964 as a sort of ad-hoc transportation system between the two towns, the Alder Gulch Short Line is today far more safe, secure, and reliable than many of its earlier iterations.
Though it’s now more of an experience than a legitimate form of transportation, it’s nonetheless a fun activity when you’re visiting the region.
One of the most famous, picturesque train rides in the entire United States, the Empire Builder line connects Chicago with Seattle. Along the way, it passes through Montana’s unmatched landscape including a leg directly through Glacier National Park.
If you’ve always wanted to see Glacier during the winter but feared the frigid temperatures, booking a train trip through it is a lovely – and considerably warmer – way to get a taste of the park when it’s sparkling and white.
You can either book the entire trip and travel all the way from the midwest to the Puget Sound, or you can opt for a shorter version, even one that merely begins in East Glacier and ends in Whitefish or vice versa.
In total, there are 12 train stops along the Empire Builder’s route through Montana. Of them, there are a few that are popular with tourists for a stopover.
The small town of Havre, the seat of Hill County in north-central Montana, is home to the oldest bar in the state. Though no one is sure exactly how long it’s been around, Palace Bar is well over a hundred years and has a committed following of locals and tourists alike.
Nearby is a quirky tourist attraction called Havre Beneath the Streets, which commemorates the 1904 Havre fire in a series of exhibits and an underground tour.
The East Glacier Station is, as the name might lead you to believe, near the eastern entrance to Glacier National Park. It’s perfectly located if you’re planning a stay at the Glacier Park Lodge, a historic hotel in the region famous for its incredible timbered lobby. The Amtrak station is less than a half a mile away from the lodge, and they offer a shuttle for guests.
Across the park, the West Glacier Train Station is just south of Lake McDonald and the middle fork of the Flathead River, so it’s easy to embark on many water excursions from here. The Glacier Raft Company can easily arrange everything for you, including gear, guides, and transportation.
The region is famous for its whitewater rafting, but if you’re looking for something a bit more temperate, you can opt for a boat trip on the lake instead.
And finally, the busiest train stop in Montana is in the town of Whitefish. This bustling town west of Glacier National Park is a prime destination all on its own, and conveniently, the train station is right downtown and within walking distance of many of the most popular hotels.
Fans of the outdoors, the arts, sports, and dining will all feel right at home in Whitefish, and the Empire Builder is the most iconic way to travel there.
Helpful Items for Train Rides in Montana
Even on just a short train ride, there are some items that you may not have thought to pack that can make your journey more enjoyable. Whether you’re riding the 15 minutes to Nevada City or three days to Seattle, take a look at these items that can enhance your experience on a scenic train ride.
12×42 HD Binoculars
A pair of binoculars can greatly increase your chances of seeing wildlife from the comfort of the train, especially birds. This pair combines with your phone, to display a magnified version of your surroundings onto your device so everyone in your group can enjoy it.
Nikon D5600 DSLR Camera Kit
Owning a camera beyond the one on your phone is a fantastic investment for travelers of all types. A proper DSLR camera, beyond the fact that they can be fitted with incredible lenses, offers the ability to use super-fast shutter speeds to cut down on blurring when you’re shooting from a moving train.
American Tourister Moonlight Hardside Expandable Luggage
If you’re headed out on the Empire Builder, you’re going to want to bring a sturdy piece of luggage that’s easy to access on the fly. Unlike a plane voyage, you’re going to want to get things in and out of your luggage frequently, so you should opt for a sturdy, lie-flat rolling carry-on.
Coleman Xtreme 5 Cooler
If you’ve booked your own private cabin on Amtrak, you’re more than welcome to bring your own food and drink, including booze. If you don’t want to be limited to the options in the dining car, you can haul all of your snacks, beer, and wine in a cooler to keep it fresh over the sometimes days-long journey.
Murder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie’s classic novel is set on one of the most famous trains in the world: the Orient Express, which once connected Paris to Istanbul. It’s the perfect read to tuck into your travel bag to pass the time on your journey.