Published May/June 2006

Traveling to Legendary National Parks on a storied train made a memorable trip laced with luxury.
By Cynthia Kagan Frohlichstein

About 120 passengers gathered at Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel for orientation before boarding buses to the American Orient Express (AOE) for a seven-day train trip through the Great Northwest. Stops at Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks, plus Helena, Mont., and Jackson Hole, Wyo., were a dream itinerary.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone was magical. The in-depth enjoyment was directly the product of the absolute best tour guide I’ve ever had, Scott Carsley. With great humor and infinite knowledge, Scott shared his enthusiasm.

The long bus ride from the train to the park’s gateway near West Yellowstone flew by as Scott infused wit into recounting Yellowstone’s history and data about our country’s first national park. He wrapped his knowledge in a blanket of love.

A massive volcanic eruption about 640,000 years ago (long before recorded history) spewed volcanic ash covering huge portions of the country. It created a caldera (craterlike basin) 30 miles wide by 45 miles long. Yellowstone remains one of the world’s largest active volcanoes evidenced by many geothermal features such as Old Faithful.

Early reports from trappers and traders met with skepticism. It was hard to fathom outlandish stories about waterfalls that spouted steam upwards into the air and witchlike cauldrons of boiling mud. Expeditions were sent to investigate “the place where hell bubbles up.”

Geologist Ferdinand Hayden’s group in 1871 included artist Thomas Moran and photographer William H. Jackson. They captured the awesome beauty with watercolors and photography. This spurred President Ulysses Grant to sign Yellowstone National Park into existence in 1872.

We sat on narrow wooden benches shoulder to shoulder with thousands of visitors waiting for the eruption of Yellowstone’s famous Old Faithful geyser. Watching the geyser’s explosive spurt of steaming water high into the air gave me those familiar chills I get observing one of the world’s natural wonders.

The only downside of Yellowstone was not spending more time there. Scott advised coming in the fall when it’s less crowded or in winter to navigate the terrain in a snowcoach.

Although we could only explore a small section of the 2.2 million-acre park, Scott escorted us on a very personal tour. We got up close to some thermal features at West Thumb Geyser Basin. The vivid variety of colors of water and wildflowers mixed with the rhythmical sounds of bubbling water to create a memorable, almost spiritual musical canvas.

Grand Teton National Park

After Yellowstone, we spent the night at rustic Jackson Lake Lodge inside Grand Teton National Park, where after only one night on the train, we appreciated sleeping in bigger beds and having more space.

The lodge offered incredible views of the Teton Range. The reverential gothic cluster of peaks–the Cathedral Group–jutting into the cloudless sky and reflections of the imposing Tetons in surrounding lakes captured a permanent place in my memory’s photo album.

However, the Grand Teton guide knew facts but lacked communication skills. I felt clueless, out-of-touch, with the glorious mountains. There were plenty of photo opportunities, but no personal connection to the majestic mountains. Even at a stopover visiting the historic log Church of the Transfiguration and the replica of historic Menor’s Ferry used to take early settlers across the Snake River, we were on our own, reading signs. If on-board lecturer Brown University Geology Professor Peter Gromet hadn’t given his enlightening lecture about the Cathedral Group, it might have been a wasted day.

Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Back in 1953, the first of four arches made from elk antlers were built to mark the four corners of Jackson Hole’s Town Square. Visitors to the square will find fine-art galleries, restaurants, boutiques and T-shirt shops.

It’s a Wild West-infused, somewhat touristy town. Visitors can hop atop a hired stagecoach for a ride. It’s the place to find Western-influenced goodies from belts and cowboy hats to elk antlers and saddles. Prices were high in this area where billionaires have replaced millionaires.
We skipped the train’s scheduled tour to the National Museum of Wildlife Art to have more time to meander. Passengers who did both said they felt rushed.

We didn’t get to stay for the staged shoot-out between outlaws and justice officers. The exciting re-enactments take place at 6:15 p.m. during the summer on the Town Square.

But the scenic views and wide-open spaces create a mystique that accounts for Jackson being a favored playground for some of the wealthiest travelers.

Helena, Mont.

Sometimes when you least expect it, you find yourself on a marvelous tour. So it was with the Gates of the Mountain boat tour, located about 20 miles north of Helena. Guide Tim Crawford made this 105-minute cruise unforgettable. In a deep, cultivated baritone voice, he brought the area to life. He related that Meriwether Lewis wrote about “towering rock formations that seemed to block passage only to open like gentle gates as the expedition drew near. I shall call this place: Gates of the Mountains.”

As we cruised by Mann Gulch, Tim dramatically presented harrowing details of the 1949 raging forest fire that killed 13 firefighters.

Seeing the rugged limestone cliffs rising 1,200 feet above the Missouri River was spectacular. Ospreys, eagles and falcons in flight soaring through the canyons caught us gasping.

Glacier National Park

After pronouncing his name, our Sun Bus Native American guide Matdsowwan Nikgapbi wrote it out before telling us everyone called him “Sweetheart.” Like all Sun Tour guides, Sweetheart is a member of the Blackfeet Indian tribe. With humor and wisdom, he related facts and stories that brought humanity to the tour. He also related the history of his region and the Blackfeet tribe.

Professor Gromet had advised us that the area might better be called “Glaciated National Park” as most glaciers have disappeared. However, he promised that the aftermath made for spectacular scenery.

We appreciated the beauty and history at every stop on our train tour through the Great Northwest.

Cynthia Kagan Frohlichstein is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Above:: Grand Teton tour participants walk to the Chapel of the Transfiguration.

Below: Jenny Lake in the Grand Teton National Park provided an inspiring photo opportunity for tour participants. Cynthia Kagan Frohlichstein photos

Before You Go
The Great Northwest & Rockies tours are offered June 20–26 and July 4–10 from Salt Lake City to Seattle, and on the reverse route June 27–July 3 or July 11–17. Standard prices range from $4,490–$6,490 per person, double occupancy. Early booking discounts are available.

AOE also offers tours to the west, south and across Canada. AAA members save $300–$500 on select vacations.

To request a brochure, or for more information, call AAA Travel at 1-888-366-4222.

By Cynthia Kagan Frohlichstein

T ravel onboard the American Orient Express (AOE)–like the Great Northwest tour–had its good, bad and beautiful moments.

The Good: They don’t get any better than our porter, Ike. He more than carried out our wishes–he anticipated them.

AOE stressed the necessity of keeping hydrated in the high altitudes. Staffers made sure we had ample supplies of bottled water aboard the train and on the tours.

Traveling during the night while we slept allowed extra time at destinations.

The Bad: Steve Kaverman, the operations director, warned us at the passenger orientation about train turbulence, “It can go five directions at once.” We bounced around in our births like rubber balls, making sleep difficult. This is not for people who experience motion sickness.

Kaverman also warned us that Amtrak and other trains had track priority over AOE causing scheduling delays. Many passengers missed flights home. Allow adequate extra time for flights.
Even our Grand Suite was exceedingly compact. Claustrophobic passengers were uncomfortable.

Closets are four inches wide. Bring clothing that can be folded and piled on shelves. Mornings in July were outright cold where we were. Warm jackets and layering are essential. It was a packing challenge.

The Beautiful: The dining and club cars have been elegantly restored with mahogany paneling, marble and brass bringing back the glory days of train travel. Every passenger is invited to dine in the dome car one evening. The passing panorama of the Great Northwest provided unforgettable views.

White linens, signature blue and cream china, sparkling crystal, polished silver and fresh flowers at dinner embellished intimate tables set for two or four.

The compact Grand Suite onboard the American Orient Express can challenge expert packers. American Orient Express photo

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