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Visiting Marias Pass

Updated on October 15, 2016


Marias Pass was a mistical pass that only the Blackfeet Indians knew of. John F. Stevens, a surveyor working for James J. Hill, the President of the Great Northern Railway, was the first white man to lay eyes on the Pass. He stumbled into the pass in the winter of 1891, and as the lore goes was so afraid of dying from the cold that he stomped his camp fire all night to keep from freezing. He had found the lowest crossing of the Rockies. He returned east and reported his find to Hill. Hill then built the Great Northern through the pass and arrived in Seattle in 1893.

Coram Bridge

Eastbound on Coram Bridge. Coral is east of the summit. This shot was taken right off Route 2
Eastbound on Coram Bridge. Coral is east of the summit. This shot was taken right off Route 2 | Source

Train Operations

Marias Pass extends east from Whitefish over to East Glacier. It is a double track speed way for Intermodal, grain, oil and the Amtrak's Empire Builder. There are roughly 50 trains a day, including the Builder. With the oil boom in North Dakota, that has added about four to six trains per day.

The pass is a helper district with two, two unit helper sets based out of Essex Montana. They help most trains that do not have distributive power over the pass and can be seen hanging out in Essex between jobs. The slowest days seem to be Mondayes, since not all trains con trains are daily. The radio frequency is 161.250. There are track-side detectors at MP 1208.6, 1212.9 and 1236.6, that will call the wheel axle count out after the train passes.

Amtrak # 8 the eastbound Builder slowing for its stop at Essex.
Amtrak # 8 the eastbound Builder slowing for its stop at Essex. | Source

Original railroad on Marias Pass

Which was the original railroad on Marias Pass?

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Westbound at Summit

Westbound at the Summit of Marias Pass This location is actually very obtainable.
Westbound at the Summit of Marias Pass This location is actually very obtainable. | Source

Photo locations

Marias Pass is very easy to railfan, with U.S. Route 2 following the line very closely over the pass. starting from Whitefish and heading east:

Whitefish station is an Amtrak stop so the station and platform are railfan friendly. Whitefish is a crew change point, so most trains come to a halt at the station.

Columbia falls is another location that offers some good spots. There is also a short line the Misty Mountain Railroad, that operates the line to Kalispell.

Hop on Route 2 and head east, there are many opportunities to just pull of the road and grab a shot. I can't really give locations so much as some are just pull offs and others are decent set up points.

Essex is the home of the Izzak Walton Inn, the best known Inn for railfans, the dining room faces the tracks, and the porch has swings facing the small yard that the helpers congregate in.

Head 2 miles east on route 2 and you reach Java East. This spot has two great spots, the first is shooting the bridge or at the switch. Both places are reachable by car and the signal with alert to on coming traffic. It is only lit when there is a train in the block.

Farther east is the Summit, this location has a wide area so that you can keep your vehicle out of the way of your shots. Also it is wide enough as to not spook the crews, however, be aware that you are still on Railroad property.

Continuing east, Route 2 follows the line and there are a few pull offs that can be utilized, I recommend checking every crossing for traffic.

GN locomotive room with the Inn in the background.
GN locomotive room with the Inn in the background. | Source

Overnight on the Pass

There are a few places to over night, Whitefish has a few motels and is a good jumping off point with the western entrance to Glacier National Park as well as access to Amtrak. The western entrnce has a couple of lodges, but being related to the park, they are popular with vacationers and could be expensive depending on the time of year.

Essex has the Issak Walton which is popular with Railfans, hikers and, in the winter, skiers. The inn is situated within site of the mainline and Essex yard where the helper units are placed. The inn itself used to be a crew motel, so many of the rooms are smaller, however they have enlarged a number of them to make them more comfortable. The restaurant dining room has large windos facing the tracks and even has swings on the porch facing the tracks. There are a few cabooses that can be rented out, that may be fun for the kids.

Ever wanted to spend the night in a locomotive? They have one of those too, they converted a F45 freight locomotive of Santa Fe heritage and repainted in the GN big sky blue paint scheme. The inside is a very nice suite, the engine room was converted, to a bedroom, a living space with a pull out couch and a kitchen. There is a large window in the Bedroom and the living room facing the tracks. What about blowing the horn, you ask? Yes the horn and gyrating headlight still work.

The basement of the Inn has a bar, a reading/ game room, and history in pictures on the walls. it's a great place to unwind with a game of checkers or another board game with the family. oh yes there is WI FI.

The Glacier Parl Lodge built by the Great Northern to attract vacationers to the park. It is beautiful lodge grand hall with ornate early 1900s furniture. There is a gift shop and a restaurant on site. The lodge is also a great jumping off point to visiting the " going to the sun road". The lodge uses a fleet of 1950 red busses that have been a trademark for the last 60 years.

Nighttime at the Inn

The 441 at night
The 441 at night | Source

Helpful Tips

Marias Pass spans about 80 miles of route two and the BNSF high line.The pass is beautiful in all seasons and weather but you must be prepared for all eventualities . In the summer I'd recommend having some water and snacks as there aren't many watering holes on the pass.

Whitefish, west entrance, Essex, east Entrance and Browning are places for gas or food or both.

In winter, I'd say don't go in the pass without a full tank of gas, and warm clothing. Route 2 is a main route so it is maintained fairly well, but unperdictable weather be be prepared.

Amtrak #8 just after crossing the Java bridge and is entering double track at Java East.
Amtrak #8 just after crossing the Java bridge and is entering double track at Java East. | Source


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