Assuming we have the freedom to travel again this summer, there may be one silver lining to reduced travel demand: it may be easier to get a reservation at iconic national park hotels like Glacier Park Lodge.
This is one property that hasn’t had to send out closure announcements: They don’t open for the season until June anyway. They just pushed it back a few weeks this year to June 24.
Glacier Park Lodge is just outside the namesake national park, in East Glacier. It dates back to 1913 when the Great Northern Railroad first started bringing passengers here. There’s still an Amtrak station where you can get off for the night and then continue onward to the west coast after touring the park. Ideally though, you come in your own vehicle and spend some time because this is a huge park, extending from Montana up through Canada. I only spent a couple days in the area but want to return later to do more hiking in some more remote sections.
As with most lodges that sprung up during that period, the builders had plenty of wood to work with and there are giant tree trucks used as support columns and beams. Some of the 60 giant column timbers were at least 600 years old and had to come in two at a time on railway flatcars and then mule trains. These fir and cedar columns weigh up to 15 tons each and are part of the reason it took a crew of 100 men 18 months to build the two original main buildings.
Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth coming in for a drink or meal and sitting in the lobby for a while to take it all in after a day in Glacier National Park. It’s got everything you’d expect: mounted animal heads, a gigantic fireplace, huge circular iron hanging light fixtures, and a ceiling several stories up that’s criss-crossed with lots of polished wood. Skylights at the top keep it from looking too dark in the daytime.
This park lodge is actually located on Blackfeet Indian Reservation land, so a few Native American touches greet you when you arrive, like a couple of teepees and totem poles. The rest of the architecture is more reminiscent of a sprawling Swiss chalet, however. There are 162 rooms here and it’s only open from June through the third week of September, so it’s buzzing with up to 500 guests every day. (After that, the Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park is usually already closed due to snow!)
There’s plenty of land in this area and free parking galore, so it doesn’t feel at all cramped. A large lawn and gardens area is alive with colorful flowers and it extends from the lobby almost all the way to the train station a few hundred yards away. There’s a sizable swimming pool on site which has a view to the mountains. You’ll also find a volleyball net and a playground.
Inside there is a giant gift shop, a coffee cart in the morning, and two main dining and drinking outlets.
The Great Northern Dining room is equipped to move people through quickly in the morning so they can get on to their park excursions, with efficient service and a well-stocked buffet. They’re closed for lunch and then the place becomes a much more elegant affair at dinner. You can order local trout, bison ribs, or other dishes created from ingredients sourced locally, as well as items from further afield such as Alaskan salmon. The servers are friendly and full of advice, plus the desserts are especially well-done.
Empire Lounge and Cafe is the bar area with games on the TV, locally roasted coffee, and some Montana craft brews. There are wines from nearby Washington and Oregon. It also is the open outlet for lunch, serving some standard comfort food and salads plus Elk braut hoagie, bison burgers, or fish & chips with an IPA beer batter.
This is not a hotel you choose for its luxurious rooms. Expectations weren’t as high 100+ years ago as they are now, so by modern standards they can seem a bit cramped and basic. The main lodge ones were built in 1913, then the annex ones in 1916 to meet demand.
The lodge rooms don’t have TVs or USB outlet arrays and the baths with combo tubs can be a bit cramped, though the beds are comfy with warm blankets and there is WiFi if you really need it. Our room had a wood Craftsman style desk, hardwood floors, an armchair, and some prints with Native American scenes.
Assume you’re not going to be spending much time in your room anyway except to sleep and shower. It would be a shame. There are plenty of nice sitting areas scattered all around the property, including some outside, so most other guests were saw were playing cards, reading a book, or chatting by the fireplace in the public areas. There’s plenty to do on the grounds and you can even check out a board game for the family to play together.
Some rooms have a shared balcony and the ones at the back of the building have a mountain view, the higher the better. For more space, upgrade to a “mini suite” or a family room with three beds.
Since we’ve posted this new review, we redirected one our contributor Jamie Rhein posted during the lodge’s 100th birthday celebration. At that time the company invited past employees to come for a reunion of sorts and her husband was one of them.
During one summer of his college days, my husband worked in the lodge’s laundry where he washed, dried and folded sheets with other college age folks. Surrounded by washers, driers and piles of white fabric, they became close friends. Another friend drove one of Glacier National Park’s iconic Red Bus Tour buses, and another worked in guest relations.
Jamie and her family spent more time there than my one night so they went on a horseback ride, played shuffleboard, and hit some balls around at the 9-hole pitch n’ putt golf area. There’s also a proper 9-hole golf course to play if you’re hanging around for a while.
The lodge runs regular programs for guests, from ranger talks to a “Native American Speaks” program to the depressing “Goodbye to the Glaciers” session on the negative effects of climate change. There are junior ranger programs, Native American games, hikes, and walking tours.
As with most of the grand lodges built in the western U.S. parks during the railroad’s heyday, you stay here to feel a taste of history and experience one of those “They don’t build them like that anymore” structures up close for a time. Glacier Park Lodge is not the kind of place where you look at the room photos and decide whether its worth it, or read the Yelp reviews to see if the restaurant will meet your expectations. You’re paying for the memories during what will probably be an epic vacation.
Rates start at $149 in especially cramped “value rooms” but the normal ones start at $209 and can hit $548 in peak weekend periods. In normal times, Glacier Park Lodge is booked up well in advance with train passengers, tour groups, and individuals who have been planning their vacation for a long time. So the Glacier Park Collection company that owns and operates the lodge now doesn’t need to pay a commission to any of the online travel agencies for business. You need to book direct at their website, though you can see what other guests had to say on TripAdvisor.
If you find it’s full here, the website has links to other properties in their collection, including Belton Chalet we reviewed that’s on the other side of the national park.
Review and photos by editor Tim Leffel who was hosted one night at the lodge while researching a Glacier Country article for another publication.