Photograph by Jonathan Irish
Izaak Walton Inn, Essex
The Izaak Walton Inn is known as Glacier National Park’s “inn between.” Built bordering the park in 1939, the hotel was intended to house Great Northern Railroad personnel as well as park visitors who would enter Glacier through an Essex gateway located between East and West Glacier. The railroad arrived in Essex, but the new park entrance never did. As a result, the Izaak Walton isn’t in prime tourist territory, giving the inn a local, low-key vibe. “This place is different from the other lodges,” says manager David W. Gatton, “in that it’s not just for the summer visitors but [also] for the park and those who live here.” Most of the 54 guest rooms are in the main lodge, but the place to stay is in one of nine retrofitted rail cars. Options range from woodsy caboose cabins to luxurious locomotives like the Great Northern 441, meticulously restored with a 400-year-old reclaimed oak floor; birch, cedar, and cottonwood wall accents; and a native Montana argillite stone fireplace. “I was not a rail fan before working here,” admits Gatton. “That being said, staying a night in an old train car can bring out the kid in anyone. It is a one-of-a-kind experience.”
The Lodge at Diamond Cross, Birney
Explore one of Montana’s lesser known landscapes by staying at The Lodge at Diamond Cross, a 100,000-acre working cattle ranch, guest ranch, and hunting lodge in the lightly populated southeastern corner of the state. “This area is one of the most beautiful places in Montana that not many people know about,” says lodge manager Laurie Hosford. The surrounding Tongue River Valley includes a rushing river (about 150 yards from the lodge), deep shale canyons, thick brush, tall pines, and high-country grasslands. If you’re looking for an authentic, immersive experience in all things cowboy, this is the place. Stay in the rustic main lodge and take daily trail rides, or rough it in high country “cow camp” cabins used by the Diamond Cross wranglers. In addition to riding and swapping trail tales around a campfire, there’s ample opportunity to hike, trap shoot, fish, and tour nearby historic battle sites, including Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, site of Custer’s last stand.
Northern Hotel, Billings
When the original Northern Hotel opened in 1904, guest rooms rented for as little as $1.50 a day. Those rates are long gone, as is the building, which was destroyed by fire in 1940. The current Northern building was constructed on the original site in 1942 and meticulously restored in 2013 by Billings-born brothers Chris and Mike Nelson. Their efforts helped the hotel earn a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as a Montana Preservation Alliance award for outstanding commercial renovation. “A ‘glamorous showcase’ is the perfect description of the quality workmanship throughout the building,” says frequent guest and Billings mayor Thomas Hanel. The Northern’s 160 luxurious guest rooms are styled with understated Western details, such as prairie landscape murals and horse photos. Modern in-room amenities include Wi-Fi, USB ports, plush robes, and some unexpected options, such as aquariums. While the restoration of the Northern preserves a piece of Billings’s past, it also offered the Nelson brothers the chance to celebrate their own history. The hotel’s upscale TEN restaurant honors their father, Thomas Edgar Nelson, and the casual Bernie’s Diner is named after their mother.
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