The Montana Daylight runs along the historic tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Livingston, Mont. It's a chance to run some historic track, see great Western rail junctions, and some of the prettiest scenery in the West.
Where is everybody? Now I’m the only person left in the dome. The other passengers have gone below, maybe for a drink or to nap or to whine about the air conditioning, which is malfunctioning today so it has only two modes: ON (really cold) or OFF (really hot). In the coral light of late afternoon, I settle back to muse on the passing scene.
On trains the passage is the point; I never care very much where I started or where I’m headed. Propelled across the landscape in ease, I become lazy and relaxed, the book in my lap unread, the babble around me unheard.
The river riffles beside the rails; I spot a kayak camp, and a tepee in the cottonwoods. Beyond are mountains, and more mountains behind mountains; the summer sun glints on high lingering snow fields. I love these Montana ranges, and on this run we’ve seen a lot of them: the Bitterroots and Cabinets, Sapphires and Garnets, the Big Belts, Absarokas and Crazies.
Regular passenger trains no longer run on the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, completed in 1883 across the center of Montana. It was the nation’s first northern transcontinental route; it opened Montana to commerce and settlement. Towns were established along the tracks; some of them prospered into cities, and others still sit there unchanged, huddled around tiny depots.
These days the track is used by the Montana Rail Link, a busy freight line hauling northwestern coal, oil, lumber, minerals, grain, and "piggybacks" down to the junction near Billings.
In midsummer, though, there’s a tourist excursion train, the Montana Daylight, running the old NPRR rails. It’s a cushy two-day ride, 455 miles between Sandpoint, Idaho, and Livingston, Montana, with an overnight stay in a hotel in Missoula. Depending on the price they pay, passengers ride in dome cars or regular coaches. For a much higher price, they can travel in luxury lounge/bedroom cars. Most of the rolling stock, nicely refurbished, was built in the l940s and ’50s.
For eastbound passengers, the trip begins with an early-morning bus ride from Spokane, Washington, to a railroad siding in Sandpoint, Idaho, known to rail fans as "The Funnel" because of the multitude of freight trains rolling through here.
While we’re enjoying a continental breakfast, the train moves out and skirts the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, one of the nation’s deepest (1,152 feet). Outside the windows are pine trees, yellow wildflowers, and a flourish of American flags rippling from trailer homes. The train crosses the lake on the Pack River Causeway and soon we are following the Clark Fork River upstream. Near the Montana border the Cabinet Gorge Dam and others still the river into a series of slender lakes for 40 miles or so. At Paradise, the Flathead River joins the Clark Fork.
As the train crawls up a gorge where the green river slices and foams through the rock, we’re in the dining car, savoring a good lunch of gumbo soup, hearty chicken salad, and gooey apple-caramel pie. When we’re in the domes, or in the recliners below, attendants are always around, bringing drinks and pillows.
Occasionally our low-priority train is side-tracked to let the freights speed by. This tourist train has lowest priority—so, we stop often in deference to the carriers of mining, agriculture, and commerce. After St. Regis, we share the Clark Fork Valley with Interstate 90. The train rattles over trestles, rumbles in tunnels, runs through Alberton Gorge, with frothing rapids. It’s a stunning landscape of ranches, fields, and towns crouching at the feet of great mountain ranges. Much of the region is one of tentative residence—prefabs and doublewides, and even a few camper shells set up as domiciles.
Late in the afternoon, we pull onto a siding near Missoula’s old depot and head for the comforts of a hotel.
Next morning, we follow the Clark Fork—and I-90—for almost 70 miles, as far as Garrison. The ridge of the Garnet Range rises to the north. Near Gold Creek, where gold was discovered in 1852, everyone plunges toward the starboard windows. We get a quick-pass view of the marker where the "last spike" was driven on the NPRR in 1883, completing the line from St. Paul to Portland.
At Garrison we pick up the Little Blackfoot River almost to the Continental Divide. The train dives through the Mullan Tunnel and crosses the Divide over 5,902-foot Mullan Pass.
Yesterday’s dome passengers were a contemplative lot; today I’m trying a different dome, and it’s full of chatterers, mostly talking about trains, remarking on the passing "grain empties" and how many axles (54) we’ve got. One gray gent from Iowa tells me he’s spending his retirement years at the local switching yard, watching the engines come and go.
After lunch (cold strawberry soup with fresh nutmeg, quiche with tomatoes and artichokes, peach pie) we spot the twin spires of Helena Cathedral and the copper dome of the capitol. Closer to the track, pickup trucks nuzzle up to seedy bars.
That’s one thing that makes trains so interesting—they pass through the back yards of America, and often your perspective of the orderly downtowns, the shining mountains, is from the wrong side of the tracks.
And there’s the sociability of trains. The sharing of the tableaux passing by the windows, the ease of moving about, of standing in vestibules, and switching seats, all make for friendly talk.
Maybe 20 miles beyond Helena, we spot Canyon Ferry Lake, which gives pause to the Missouri River. The train crosses the river—not so wide here—near Townsend, and we follow it upstream, through its pleasant canyon. From Toston to the headwaters, we’re pretty much away from roads. We look for antelope along the flats; we spot ospreys, herons, an elk or two scrambling up the embankment.
The country opens out where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers flow together. There’s an appealing state park here at Missouri Headwaters, with a scatter of tents near where Lewis and Clark camped in 1805. From here, these mountain waters travel under the name Missouri, and are headed across the plains for St. Louis, and down to New Orleans.
I recall what Mark Twain wrote in Roughing It after passing nearby: This flowing water would "...finally, after two long months of daily and nightly harassment, excitement, enjoyment, adventure, and awful peril of parched throats, pumps and evaporation, pass the gulf and enter into its rest upon the bosom of the tropic sea, never to look upon its snow peaks again or regret them."
The tracks choose the Gallatin River and run alongside for 15 miles or so, in a valley of potato, wheat, and hay fields. Before we get to Livingston, the train drives through the Bozeman Tunnel under 5,560-foot Bozeman Pass, between the Bridger and the Absaroka ranges (where black storms are now raging, with occasional glints of sun on snow). Clark came this way on his return east in 1806.
At Livingston, we disembark near the stunning depot, built in 1902 in the Italianate style, with dramatic colonnades and emblazoned with the NPRR’s distinctive corporate emblem, the red and black yin-yang. (The same architect designed Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.) Back then, tourists from everywhere stopped in Livingston to change trains on their way to see Yellowstone National Park, 50 miles south. Teddy Roosevelt passed by many times, hunting, dreaming of great public parklands. In 1903 he gave a speech at the depot when he came to dedicate the Roosevelt Arch up at the park entrance in Gardiner. Now it’s a charming museum and cultural hall, the Livingston Depot Center, with exhibits on Rocky Mountain railroading (and this summer, on Yellowstone’s 125th anniversary).
Livingston is the end of the line for the Daylight. Passengers can climb on a bus for Bozeman or Billings for flights home, or hang out in Montana for a while.
One has seen the rivers and the mountains. Yes, one could hang out.
Spend an evening in Missoula, and you’ll probably want to return for a longer look. It’s a pleasant town of old brick and stone buildings at the confluence of the Clark Fork and the Bitterroot rivers. As a college town (University of Montana), it has good coffee, good bookstores, live music, cafes with ethnic cuisines. But it’s also a quintessential Montana town, with fly-fishing outfitters and big mountains at its doorstep.
Best way to spend a short visit: Pick up a walking tour map at your hotel and go strolling. Whatever your age, be sure to visit this jewel in riverfront Caras Park: the Carousel, handmade in the early 1990s by local volunteer carvers, the first new carousel in the U.S. in 50 years. Some 38 hand-painted horses whirl around (so fast you need the seatbelt), light bulbs flash, the band organ plays "Merry Widow Waltz."
Nearby a kiosk describes good walking trails; at least, walk across the river footbridge. It’s fun to wander downtown, poking into art galleries and shops such as "Rattlesnake Dry Goods" and "Red Pies Over Montana." For supper, there are many good choices; most in our group, in keeping with the theme of our visit, went to The Depot. You can end the evening at a free concert in the outdoor pavilion by the river. For tourist information, call the Missoula CVB at (406) 543-6623.
This article was first published in July 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.