Riding the Empire Builder

Riding the Empire Builder
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Learn more about Amtrak’s on-board experience here!

We left Chicago in the early afternoon and began our trek west. Checking the route’s timeline, it seemed likely I’d head to bed sometime after the St. Paul-Minneapolis stop, and that we’d have daylight through Illinois, Wisconsin and a portion of Minnesota.

After we’d settled into our roomette, we quickly headed on to the observation car. I brought my laptop and was shocked at the amount of work I was able to get done while casually enjoying the view over the next few hours. I wrote several features for PointsAway and sketched out the structure for another project management class for Pluralsight. That level of productivity is impossible for me on an airplane and only rarely is achieved in a good airport lounge. For me, at least, it turns out the train is a great place to get some work done!

Before heading west, we first went north, through Milwaukee. That included a quick ride by Miller Park, home of the MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers.

Our route turned westerly thereafter, heading through Columbus and Portage, on through the Wisconsin Dells. I was struck by how marshy much of Wisconsin was.

Our journey was an exceedingly rural one, dotted only by small towns and even smaller stations like this one in La Crosse, WI:

As dusk began to fall, we ended up crossing the Mississippi River.

At most stops, the train would cease moving for at most a couple minutes at a time. There were a few service stops where this wasn’t the case. St. Paul-Minneapolis was one of these. I took the opportunity to step out and see how chilly it was, and to also get a better look at our train, which had been mostly obscured by sitting under a bridge in Chicago.

Day Two on Empire Builder

The next morning yielded a nifty view out the back of the train, given our sleeper car’s caboose status:

We’d lost time overnight and appeared to be running about two hours behind. The day prior, we’d been intermittently held up by freight traffic, and it appears there must have been several more stops or slowdowns over the course of the evening. We arrived in Rugby, North Dakota in the morning, but well after the 7:02AM published arrival time:

The town’s claim to fame is that it’s the geographic center of North America, which is a good reminder of just how much Canada there is, if nothing else.

North Dakota as seen from the Empire Builder can be summed up in two pictures.

1) Oil:

2) Junk:

I gained an appreciation for why patches of earth like these were referred to as badlands. There would be nothing for miles at many times but poorly vegetated land as far as the eye could see. That and an incredible array of old cars and scrap metal, often in vastly better condition than the ones pictured above. It looked almost as if the cars had driven themselves to certain spots decades prior, choosing a quiet place to die.

I’m certainly not an expert, but the area closest to the train tracks appears to have suffered immensely in many spots from the booming oil industry that has swept North Dakota in the past few years. Indeed, an almost shocking number of passengers departed the train in small towns like Minot, headed back to an energy-related job. In some places, mobile homes were stacked a few dozen wide and a few dozen deep, while small neighborhoods could be seen hastily under construction in the distance.

From time to time, we’d pass some sort of industrial processing facility that had a spur of tracks leaving and rejoining the main rail line, but this was about all of the excitement there was to be found. We passed the time by enjoying some games and doing some reading.

I get easily bored on a car ride, but despite the desolation of North Dakota, I never felt as tormented as I would have behind the wheel. Being able to not only kick back and read, but also freely walk between cars – double-kicking the foot-height buttons to walk through each of the two doors separating each car along the way – afforded a sense of freedom of movement rarely seen on an airplane and never seen in a bus or car. It was enough to know that soon we’d be seeing something new, and there was nothing for me to do in the meantime but whatever I’d like.

As we entered Montana, the world began to show color once more, and we passed a few interesting streams and rivers as mesa-like outcroppings of rock began to appear:

We began to near Glacier National Park as the day wore on. I was sad that we didn’t begin entering the outskirts of the park until maybe 7:45PM, as we were still running behind, making it increasingly difficult to take pictures:

As luck would have it, we actually began winding up the mountains into ever higher elevations right as sunset was beginning. It was snowing fairly hard once we reached a higher elevation, which was somewhat remarkable for mid-April. It was the kind of scene that was beautiful to see but very difficult to photograph, given the combined factors of the moving train, reflective windows and low light. Eating meals while enjoying the view outside the large windows of the dining car never got old, regardless of the terrain, but this was one of the two most beautiful segments of our long journey, for sure.

Overnight, we were scheduled to have a long stop in Spokane, Washington after just a single stop through one of the thinnest portions of Idaho. It was in Spokane where the Empire Builder would break in two. The primary line continues in a northwesterly direction towards Seattle, but a separate spur continues with a different locomotive on to Portland, where we were heading.

I woke up to a dead stillness in the middle of the night and observed as our cars were detached from the train that had pulled us from Chicago and were reattached to a different, much smaller train ready to pull us on to our connection point, before falling back asleep.

Day Three on Empire Builder

As I had the morning before, I made a point to look out the back of the train as soon as I woke up, and was stunned by the breathtaking views southern Washington afforded us:

We were now following the Columbia River, riding almost directly on top of a route first charted by Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition. It could hardly have been more beautiful:

Not only had our locomotive been replaced, but I awoke to find most of our train missing. The observation car had once led to the dining car and then another series of passenger and sleeper cars. No more. The dining car and all of the passenger and sleeper cars ahead of it were gone, replaced by a locomotive attached directly to the observation deck. Our train had shrunk to less than half of its original size:

We were also back on time. Spokane had been scheduled as an hourlong stop at minimum, and we instead had apparently been hurriedly connected to our waiting locomotive and quickly tugged back to our planned schedule. A few hours later, we arrived in Portland, after a winding, three day journey through seven states.

Our trip was not over, but arriving at Portland’s Union Station ten minutes ahead of schedule meant we had a few hours to explore the city and grab some food from its legendary food trucks before continuing south on Coast Starlight to San Francisco.

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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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