Amtrak, Trains

Amtrak’s Empire Builder – in the Winter!

The Empire Builder has long been one of my favorite trains. In the 2,205 miles between Seattle and Chicago, the route takes passengers across the Cascades, through the heart of Glacier National Park, across the tundra of North Dakota, before descending into Illinois via Minneapolis and Milwaukee. This is a trip I had made a couple of times before, but never with winter scenery, so we decided it would make a nice long weekend getaway mid January.

The beginning of the journey starts at Seattle’s beautifully restored King Street Station. This station has a lot of activity with Amtrak trains headed to Oregon, California, and Canada. It’s well located close to downtown Seattle, which allowed us to walk around, seeing the sights and grabbing lunch before boarding the train.

After boarding, we were just a few minutes behind schedule, but it’s a long journey and a few minutes didn’t make much of a difference. As the train headed to Everett, we cruised along Puget Sound and were treated to a beautiful sunset. No rain on this trip to Washington!

Once the sun finally set, it was time for dinner. Dinner in the dining car is included in sleeper car reservations. You can view the menu ahead of time on Amtrak’s website, although it tends to vary a bit once you’re actually on the train. Community seating is used, which basically means they seat four people to a table, grouping smaller parties. It’s one of the things I actually enjoy about Amtrak because it helps build the community on the train. You meet interesting people from all over the world. This trip alone we met people from Switzerland, California, Chicago, Oregon, North Dakota, and New York – quite the varied bunch.

The skies got darker as we crossed the Cascades until we got our first glimpse of snow around Wenatchee, WA. It was now getting late, so we bundled to get a quick picture before having the sleeping car attendant turndown our roomette, and grabbing some sleep.

The next morning we woke up to the beginning of Glacier National Park, having traveled across eastern Washington and northern Idaho through the night. Suddenly the mountain scenery was more dramatic, and the snow cover was much more substantial. It is almost like magic to suddenly be transported into this frozen scenescape.

The cloud cover kept the sun at bay and made the scenery almost look black and white until Whitefish, MT. Whitefish is a beautiful little town and the Amtrak station is right downtown. We took some pictures, but it doesn’t capture the picturesque quality a cold morning in Whitefish has. This is a place I’d like to get off and spend some time someday.

Following Whitefish is jaw dropping  for hours on end. Glacier National Park is the northern end of the Rocky Mountains, and I think just as beautiful as the Rockies across Colorado. The weather would vary from overcast to sunny, to snowing, all the way through the park. At some points you flow through the trees, others you follow the river, and occasionally you fly across the landscape on tall bridges.  It was unforgettable.

This was a great time for us to visit the sightseer lounge for some 360° views. We were lucky enough to meet a BNSF engineer who was able to tell us a lot about the route as we passed through the mountains. It seems like that would be a nice perk about working on the railroad – free (discounted?) Amtrak travel.

Ending all too soon, you pass the peaks at the east end of Glacier Park and start your trip across the flat, frozen parts of remote Montana. Not without one last view of the park behind you.

As we crossed onto the flat expanse, the temperatures dropped even colder. We cruised at 80mph, never missing a beat due to the weather. From time to time a snow storm would hit us pretty hard, but it didn’t impact us in the slightest. The only warning the car attendant gave us was due to the extreme cold (between 0°F and -24°F) we should keep an eye on the shower drain. He said to stop using the shower if the drain froze over and they would melt the ice at the next station. Both of us took showers, but luckily experienced no drain problems.

Having made this trip before, I can say that eastern Montana is much more beautiful in the winter. It looks like a foreign planet with the snow and ice. Although I always bring a book and anticipate some time to read, I never got to it. Instead we played some cards and looked out the window. Once we reached Havre, MT, they let us know we’d have a few minutes to step off, so we bundled and took in the cold air.

It’s always surprising how many people use Amtrak to travel to and from these remote towns. Especially this time of year, I imagine it’s a lot safer than driving or taking a bus. While I admired the train, Vanessa took the opportunity to play with some fresh snow.

Montana blended with North Dakota, and it started to get dark. The sunset across the flat landscape didn’t disappoint. Temperatures stayed low and the train started to accumulate more ice from the occasional storm. Of course we stayed comfortable in our cozy room.

When we reached Minot, the temperature was well below zero. Even bundled, our breath froze. I managed to walk the train, but afterward was ready to pop back inside since my face hurt. The crews at Minot went around the train with blow torches to make sure there wasn’t too much ice accumulating in the wrong areas. That’s something I hadn’t seen before.

The conductor made an announcement after Minot letting us know that if the temperature dropped much more, we may have to travel at a slower speed overnight. It’s really amazing that anything works in these frigid conditions, and I am glad they take safety seriously. Come morning, we woke up in Minnesota right on time, so the weather must have cooperated. I had coffee as we passed frozen rivers and towns.

I believe this was the Mississippi River, where the train crosses from Minnesota into Wisconsin. It’s a bit tough to tell it’s a river at all.

Weather was great all the way to Milwaukee. This was a good sign for us since we were planning to walk a bit in Chicago and take the L to our hotel near O’Hare airport.

We met some people in the dining car that told us we should check out Wicker Park in Chicago before heading out to our hotel. They even put us in touch with a friend of theirs who owns a bookshop in the neighborhood, where we could leave our luggage while exploring. Unfortunately, the weather turned sour just before we hit Chicago and it put doubt in our plan to see some neighborhood spots before heading to our hotel.

We arrive in Chicago right on time. It was amazing to see how operations didn’t slow due to the weather. There are literally fires along the track leading up to Union Station to keep the switches from freezing. Good thing too, as you can see from our baggage car, there was a lot of ice.

Snow was falling, the air was cold, but we were stubborn and still headed to Wicker Park for dinner. It’s a really nice neighborhood with lots of shops, restaurants, and bars. Having been downtown many times, it was nice to see somewhere else. The bookshop staff told us a good, casual place to grab some pizza and local beer for dinner.

The cold didn’t impact us too badly and we still managed to take the L to the airport. It felt like we had been traveling for days, probably because we had. Three days and two nights on the train goes by fast, and that’s a testament to the wonderful people, stunning scenery, and hard working crew members you encounter along the way. Although I’m not one for favorites, I have to say the Empire Builder in winter is one of my favorite train rides. The best part has to be through Glacier, since the train is one of the easiest ways to see the winter scenery in the park. 

Feel free to leave comments below! I love hearing about your experiences traveling or upcoming train trips.

7 Comments

  1. Lucy

    Hey Parker, what an awesome journey! I really appreciate the write-up – and all the pictures! – as I’m planning to take the train the long way from Chicago to LA, via Seattle or Portland and then down the coast. You’ve convinced me to ignore those negative TripAdvisor reviews and just go for it! It’ll be mid-November, so if winter comes early maybe I’ll see some awesome snowy sights but either way I think I’ll enjoy it. Coming from New Zealand, large flat expanses like Montana fascinate me!
    Cheers

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      Parker Day

      Hi Lucy! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m so glad to hear that you’re going to give the train a chance. The Empire Builder route is so beautiful, although not everyone seems to share the same enthusiasm for the flat expanses of North Dakota and eastern Montana that we do! In November I’d bet you’ll see some winter weather through western Montana. The train makes it comfortable and safe to travel through most weather conditions, so I quite like that aspect of it. I also like that it gives a sense of the scale of the United States. My one tip would be to bring some ear plugs along for sleeping, mostly to reduce the background track noise.

      Not to say that people on TripAdvisor don’t have valid complaints, Amtrak is far from perfect, but you can’t please everyone.

      The Coast Starlight from Seattle/Portland to LA is one of my favorite trains. I ride it quite often between San Francisco and LA and never tire of the views. Enjoy the journey!

  2. Helene L

    Would the weather be colder at the beginning of March? More snow? More delay risk?

    I live on the East Coast and want to travel to Alaska one winter to try to see the aurora borealis. Early March/late winter is the “tail end” of best possible aurora viewing time. Air travel being so awful now, I thought it might be interesting to take the train across the lower 48, then fly from Seattle to Anchorage. I’d also hope to see the start of the Iditarod.

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      Parker Day

      Hi Helene –
      I don’t think it would be colder at the beginning of March, but I’m not sure about the snow. There had been quite a bit of snow before and during this trip. Unless there is some sort of blizzard or avalanche, the Empire Builder doesn’t seem to have much trouble with snow.
      I think the Empire Builder route is really beautiful and worth experiencing. Check the scheduled timing of the eastbound train vs the westbound train. I think the eastbound train may be better time to scenery through western Montana. Definitely give yourself some buffer time in your plans, just in case.
      That sounds like a once in a lifetime trip!

  3. Jenn

    I enjoyed reading about your experience. I am planning far ahead for a solo trip along the Empire Builder route in fall of 2021. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to experience train travel so I’m taking this trip solely for that purpose. I live in Spokane which is where they connect the Seattle train and the Portland train. So my roundtrip will be Spokane-Chicago and I’ll be getting a roomette on the train, and staying a night or 2 in Chicago. I’m hoping that despite taking this trip in October, I will still have enough daylight for viewing some of the highlights (especially Glacier). Fall is my favorite season so I wanted to take this trip then to enjoy fall colors along the way. I’ve also never seen any of the Great Lakes, so I hope to do that while in Chicago. Any advice? You stated you’ve taken this trip several times. Any experience taking it in the fall or advice on maybe a better time to make this trip for improved viewing? I see that you loved the winter and while I would probably enjoy that scenery very much, I’m quite used to snow where I live so I’d prefer to travel during the fall. I just don’t want to get my hopes up that I’ll have great viewing only to be disappointed. Your insight would be greatly appreciated!

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      Parker Day

      Hi Jenn – First of all, sorry it’s taken me some time to reply.

      That sounds like an amazing trip. I think you’ll enjoy it no matter what time of year you travel. From my understanding you will still see some fall colors in early October, and if you travel before the late October Daylight Savings time change, I think you’ll see all of Glacier National Park on the eastbound train toward Chicago. I think most of the park will be in the dark on the westbound train back to Spokane.

      For me, the scenery is great, but the experience of traveling in a roomette is just as much of the fun. These little rooms have a lot of privacy and nice big windows. I think you’ll enjoy it.

      You’re really lucky to live in Spokane, so close to this train route. If anything was to obstruct or detract from your trip you could always take another trip! I’d highly suggest also taking the trip from Spokane to Portland at some point – the ride through the Columbia River Gorge is amazing.

      For more practical advice, I suggest looking at amtraktrains.com. The discussion boards there are full of train nerds like me who can help plan your trip and let you know what to expect.

      Have a great trip!

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