I like train trips. My some of my favorites were the Transsiberian trip across Russia and the Canadian Via Rail to Churchill – the Polar Bear Capital of the world. This year I got to take Amtrak Across America – at least half way. My trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder started at one of the two west coast hubs – Seattle. The other being Portland. These two trains connect in Spokane, WA and then make their way to Chicago.
Seattle has the great old King Street station. Our departure time was scheduled for 4:40 but the train was really late and we didn’t leave until close to 6:00pm. No explanation was given and Seattle was the starting point so it was a mystery and we were trying to catch up the time for the rest of the journey.
We boarded the train and I grabbed a seat on the left side of the train, knowing this has the best views of the trip – specifically views of Puget Sound, Olympic Mountains, the highest peaks of Glacier National Park, and the Mississippi river.
Johan, the car attendant came around to ask everyone where they were going. I exclaimed “I’m going to WIN!” Each train station has a 3-letter code and the code for Winona, MN is WIN. He didn’t get the joke. After I more clearly specified Winona, he wrote “WIN” on a card and reserved my window seat for the duration of my ride.
The trip from Seattle to Everett are almost completely along the Puget sound. We went by the ports of Seattle, the sculpture garden, the Aurora bridge, Golden Garden Park, Ballard Locks, and many other secret, deserted parks along the sound. The Olympic Mountains were trying to peek through the clouds. We then started driving towards the Cascade Mountains, and thru the longest train tunnel in America.
Based on my prior good experience on dining on Amtrak, I had decided to eat dinner each night on the train, so I made a reservation for 7:45. The kitchen must have been having issues because we didn’t sit to eat until 8:15 AND they only had 3 dinners – chicken, shrimp, or steak, ranging from $17.50 to $25. I ordered the $17.50 chicken and was underwhelmed. A seemingly microwaved chicken breast, small amount of green beans (about the equivalent of 5 large green beans), a small baked potato, and a stale bun. They had run out of butter so the toppings were margarine. The cool thing about having dinner is due to limited seating, they partner you with 3 other diners. My dining partners were a mother & daughter on a short trip to visit a sick relative, and a 20-year old wanna be electrician. The 20-year was telling me crazy things about Snapchat. He had a friend that had a 200+ day streak going. They were vacationing near the four corners and didn’t have any reception. She was in a panic as there were only minutes left until she’d lose her messaging streak. They had to speed to the next town to save the streak. Man, I feel old!
It was dark by the time we arrived in Leavenworth and stayed dark until the next morning where we were riding towards Glacier National Park.
I got off and on sleep throughout the night, trying a new position each time I woke up. Luckily, I had 2 whole seats to myself for the entire ride.
I awoke the next day as light was coming up west of Glacier National Park. This was the way I’d be celebrating my 44th birthday. I didn’t want to miss a second of it so I went to the club (bar) car for some coffee. The weather was cloudy, but there were still great views as we entered the park. Most of the snow had already melted by mid-April but a few spots remained. It even snowed lightly as the train made its way across the continental divide.
The terrain changes quickly after leaving East Glacier, from mountains to plains and small hills. The sun was out and you can really see why they call Montana “Big Sky” country. I chatted with a fisherman and two sweet brothers from a reservation near Glacier national park – a high school sophomore and a 3rd grader. They had lots of fish tails but had pictures to back up their stories – a photo of the largest rainbow trout I’ve ever seen.
Eventually we crossed the border into North Dakota and we saw some mini-badlands and started to see evidence of the booming oil industry near Williston.
Thru-out the day and the next morning, a good amount of wildlife was seen.
Here’s my personal Wildlife Guide to the Empire Builder: The following are wild animals that were seen and where:
- Montana – West of Glacier: elk at dawn break, wild turkeys, lots of deer
- Montana – In Glacier Park: surprisingly nothing
- Montana – East of Glacier, and North Dakota – West: dozens of antelopes, 20-30 pheasants, many waterfowl.
- Minnesota – South of St. Paul: a couple deer and wild turkeys, 20-30 bald eagles, musrats, many waterfowl, and dozens of turtles.
Unfortunately, the train was going too fast to get a photo of any of these, but it was still a thrill to see so much wildlife.
After the subpar dinner the night before, I decided to get a bite to eat in the club (bar) car and have a few beers for my birthday. I befriended a great group of guys that became my travel buddies:
- 70-something retired fisherman from Anacortes, WA who fished and processed fish in Alaska. He knew some of the guys from the Deadliest Catch and was good friends with Sig, but he never owned a TV and had never seen the show. Later in life he drove barges in the Mississippi River locks and most recently has been summering in Italy on an olive farm and wintering in Anacortes.
- A 70-something jack of all trades. This guy claimed that in his lifetime he was a trucker, owned a trucking company, sold it and then ran it for 20 more years, was in the army but kicked out for medical history. Then he was in the top of his class to be a pharmacy assistant but had some reason that he could never work in the field. He also ran a tour company to Europe. He’d take 72 passengers for 6 weeks and he would drive, guide and act as concierge and porter. He’d hire a girl as “stewardess” and all she did was handed out drinks on the bus. And to top this all off, he was an Anglican priest. He also claimed that he gets paid $400 a month and he saves $200 of this.
- A 70-something retired salesman from the Black Hills that worked with the coal industry in Wyoming. A really cool guy. I might go and camp out at his acreage for the Sturgis rally some year.
- A 60-something former homeless man that was obsessed with the apocalypse. He went crazy when he discovered the priest so there was a lively discussion. We were relieved when he had to get off at his stop in Rugby, ND.
We stayed up to midnight talking about topics from travel to family to farming to “the kids these days”.
On my last morning, the train stopped in St. Paul to pick up many passengers. I hung out in the club car to see the Mississippi river. It was pouring rain in the morning but eventually the sun came out. I couldn’t believe the number of bald eagles we saw.
Eventually, I got to WIN! And got off the train at the small Winona Station.
Tips for the Empire Builder and other Amtrak trains
- For the best views – If heading east, get the window seat on the left. If heading west, choose the right side.
- Bring plenty of snacks so you’re not totally reliant on the meal services of Amtrak. The costs can really add up.
- Do be friendly – you may meet some interesting people. It would have been very easy to sit in my window seat and watch the scenery go by, but it was meeting folks in the dining and club car that made the trip.
- Consider a meal in the dining car. Although my meal on this trip was subpar, I had a good meal in the past. They will put you with random people so it’s easy to meet others and that’s the fun of Amtrak.
- If traveling in pairs, an upgrade to a sleeperette may be worthwhile. Unfortunately, the cost is almost double for a single. My roomy coach seat cost $138 but the sleeperettes were over $500. Sleeperettes do include free meals, but I still saved over $300 by going coach.
- Take some sleeping comforts. A pillow and a blanket (or even better, a sleep sheet) go a long way towards comfort in the night. It’s usually warm when you first go to sleep but got a little chilly by the morning. If you don’t have a pillow, use a piece of clothing like a sweatshirt or jacket.
- Pick up the schedule for your train at the station before boarding. It’s fun to watch the schedule and it gives you a clue of what stations allow longer stops that allow you to get some fresh air and see some of the old train stations along the route.
- Check out the train stations en route. You can usually get snacks and cold drinks for much cheaper than the train. They are often stocked with free travel brochures and free or cheap used books.
- The luggage limit is way high! A carry-on in Amtrak is the equivalent of a checked suitcase on an airplane. So in addition to checking up to 2 suitcases, you can take two “carry-ons” and two personal items, included in the price.
Whole you take Amtrak across America?