Luxury lodging and wild river adventures with Great Northern Whitewater Raft & Resort.
By Allison Batch. Photograph provided by Great Northern Resort.
Just a mile outside of Glacier National Park, a bright red caboose emerges from pines and cottonwoods. The sight spurs visitors to stop and see what this place is all about.
The answer is, “A great time!” according to Rebecca Jorgenson, Director of Operations at Great Northern Resort. “We want everyone to be having a great time at Great Northern, and we have pretty much something for everyone.”
The red caboose is a delightful place to start. The train car is a genuine antique from the same railroad from which the resort gets its name. The Great Northern Railway helped establish Glacier National Park and brought early visitors to the area. The restored and refurbished caboose now houses the Railway Café, a great spot to grab an espresso or bite to eat on your way to the park. (Or a happy hour drink on your way back!)
While the caboose draws first-time visitors, the café is just one piece of the puzzle for this family-run resort. Great Northern offers a “complete Montana vacation experience,” from adventure trips to lodging. Brothers Lee and Byron Beers and their wives Sandi and Cathi took over the resort in 2016. The four have been learning and expanding the business ever since.
After their first summer, the Beers knew they had to divide and conquer. “We have a wedding venue, a rafting business, lodging, and a small café all in one,” Cathi explains. “We’ve learned that each of us has a knack for each of the bits that need attention.”
Cathi is in charge of the wedding venue, as well as the front desk and advertising. Her husband Byron manages the rafting and fishing trips, having worked as a raft guide himself in the ‘90s. Lee runs the café and lodge and Sandi handles the financials. Rebecca, the only year-round employee, helps Cathi with reservations and promotion.
West Glacier has always been a special place for the Beers family. Lee and Sandi moved to the area 20 years ago, wanting to start fresh away from their small hometown in New Hampshire. Byron and Cathi came to visit them often and dreamt of moving west, but it was hard to move to a small town without employment. When the opportunity arose, all four jumped at the chance to own Great Northern Resort.
The business combined activities they loved with their dream of running a small business in a tight community. “Our families owned a raft that we used every summer on the Middle Fork [of the Flathead River],” Cathi tells me. “We could only dream of owing a business that incorporated fun and rafting for a living!”
Whitewater rafting is the cornerstone of the business. Great Northern was built in 1977, a year after the Flathead River received the Wild and Scenic designation. Thanks to this protection, the river has remained clear of dams and development – and a whole lot of fun to raft down.
Great Northern offers rafting trips for all levels of excitement and experience. Different boat sizes allow whitewater rafters to customize their adventure. Rebecca explains, “A smaller boat will react to the water more significantly [than a larger raft]. The waves and hits will feel a lot bigger and it’s going to be a bumpier and more exciting ride.”
She adds, “The best thing is that, if your family is split on who’s feeling adventurous, you can send your teenaged kids in the inflatable kayak and mom can go on the larger raft. So everyone can go on the same trip and have different levels of excitement.”
If you prefer a calmer ride, the resort also offer scenic raft trips – Rebecca’s personal favorite. “You’re on genuinely one of the most beautiful rivers you’ll ever float.” The boat passes over deep pools where you can see 40 feet straight down to the bottom, and through box canyons surrounded by steep rock cliffs. Plus, the guide does the paddling for you. “It’s a great chance to do bird watching. I’ve seen moose, elk, and bears. You can swim and skip rocks. It’s a really nice time on the river.”
You can even enjoy a full gourmet meal, cooked for you by your raft guide, on the banks of Middle Fork. Great Northern has a long-time partnership with local chef Meg Lindberg, owner of Earth Angel Organics. Meg packs every meal by hand before trip – anything from premium steaks to fresh vegetables straight from her farm – and it all gets grilled up riverside. A delectable dessert is the cherry on top, then the guides pack everything up and get you back on the river. The entire set up fits under the guide’s seat on the boat.
Guided fly fishing trips are another way to experience the magic of the Middle Fork. Great Northern’s guides have been fishing this river for years, and even beginners usually get a few bites. “This really is world class fishing – our rivers are clear and pristine with amazing trout,” Rebecca illustrates. And their guides are always happy to be on the river. “They often go right back out and keep fishing and floating beyond dark!” she laughs.
For local boaters, Great Northern offers Whitewater Skills Camp to teach river safety and rescue techniques – valuable skills in an area where river recreation is part of the community’s DNA.
No matter what type of trip you choose, “our guests can expect a lot of fun and conversation!” Cathi says. “Our guides are all passionate about the area and want to share everything they know.”
“No one’s here on accident,” Rebecca adds. “The people who live here really admire the area and want to celebrate it with others.”
Off river, Great Northern provides many land-based amenities as well. There are two styles of lodging available for guests who want to stay minutes outside of Glacier National Park. Dotting the pond are Swiss-style chalets with full kitchens, private bedrooms, and fireplaces. A few hundred feet away from the chalet is a brand new 14-room lodge that opened in 2017.
Owner Lee Beers designed and built, almost singlehandedly, the new lodge over one winter. Mirroring the Swiss-style architecture found in Glacier National Park, Lee handcrafted the lodge using local wood for the custom-made archways, balconies, and doors.
The lawn includes fire pits, grills, a sand volleyball pit, horseshoes, and other yard games. Wraparound decks with lounge chairs allow guests to soak in views of the area. The rooms have air conditioning and WiFi – rare amenities in West Glacier. Guests can rent bicycles to ride into the park or grab ice cream from the village restaurant.
During the summer are “Fridays Out Front,” – a weekly event featuring live music on the porch outside of the Railway Café. Guests enjoy local pizza, craft beer, and signature cocktails, and there’s fresh squeezed lemonade and root beer on tap for the kids. “It’s a chance for everyone to gather after a long day of adventure, relax and enjoy the deck, or play games on the lawn and let the kids dance around,” says Rebecca. “It’s a great garden party every week!”
Community and family are essential to the Beers, and it’s evident in how they run their business. As a small, family-run resort, they offer a personalized level of service for guests to make their stay as comfortable as possible.
“We’re a company of employees that are considered family. We have celebrations together, we help each other, and we truly care about one another,” explains Cathi. “We aren’t just a business, churning people in and out. We’re a group of friends and family that love what we do and want to share what we have with others who visit the area.”
For more information on Great Northern Whitewater Raft & Resort, visit www.greatnorthernresort.com, or call 406-387-5340. Or, pull over at the red caboose at 12127 Highway 2 East in West Glacier – someone will be happy to show you around.
About the Author: Allison Batch is the Sustainability Programs Coordinator for Citizens for a Better Flathead.