No. 3: Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
I will always have a soft spot in my heart for this train. I’ve made the trip nine or ten times and had the very rare privilege of getting a four-hour ride in the head end of the Builder from Milwaukee to Winona, Minnesota. Amtrak arranged it for me back in the mid-90s when I was working on the first edition of my book. The westbound train originates in Chicago and, in Spokane, WA, splits into two sections—one continuing on to Seattle, the other swinging southwest to Portland, Oregon. The eastbound train reverses the process.
This train has had a bad time for the past couple of years. Things have improved a lot, I’m relieved to say, but terrible winters and awful rail congestion across North Dakota pretty much wrecked the Empire Builder’s on-time performance. Some delays are still possible, but do consider booking the Empire Builder when planning a rail journey. Yes, it could run late, but so what? What’s your hurry? You’re on the train!
Leaving Chicago, the Builder heads north into the heart of the Wisconsin dairy land, running along the Mississippi River near Wisconsin Dells and stopping at Minneapolis-St. Paul late in the evening. You’ll be crossing the plains of North Dakota when you wake up the next morning and by lunchtime you’ll be in the Big Sky country of Montana. It will take all day to cross the state, but don’t let anyone tell you this is a boring ride. It’s a rolling terrain with vast fields of grain, grazing cattle, and, here and there, oil wells.
When the Builder reaches the town of Havre, Montana, in the mid-afternoon of Day Two, you’ll have time to get off and walk around a bit because there’s a crew change here. There’s also a magnificent steam locomotive on display right next to the station.
About three hours later, after you leave the little community of Cut Bank, you should start seeing the Rocky Mountains up ahead. The train’s first stop in the Rockies is at East Glacier and from the train you’ll be able to see the venerable old Glacier Park Lodge, originally built to accommodate passengers of the Great Northern Railroad.
Leaving East Glacier, the train will begin running along the southern edge of Glacier National Park and about an hour later you’ll go through the little community of Essex. It’s a flag stop, so chances are you’ll just go right on by, but watch for the Isaak Walton Inn (photo above) on the right side of the train. This little hotel sits right on the busy main line and is a favorite train-watching spot for rail fans. At least two or three of them will be out in front of the hotel taking your picture as you roll by, so get up close to the window and wave as you pass.
In the wee hours and while you’re asleep, the Builder stops for about an hour in Spokane. This is where the train divides into the Portland and Seattle sections. If you’re staying on the Seattle section, wake up early the next morning because your journey is now taking you through the incredible Cascade Range, with towering evergreen trees in thick woodlands that are crisscrossed by rushing streams.
About an hour before the stop at Everett, the train passes through the Cascade tunnel. It’s almost eight miles in length, accommodates only a single track, and is the longest railroad tunnel in the U.S. Everett, by the way, is where Boeing assembles their jet aircraft. Most of the last 90 minutes is running along the shore of Puget Sound, literally within 50 or 60 feet from the water. Seattle is the Empire Builder’s western terminus and you’ll end your rail journey in this wonderful city at just about the same time the other section reaches Portland, 200 miles to the south. Folks, this is a great ride!