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.

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