Westbound on the Empire Builder

As a child I used to sit transfixed as trains rumbled past my grandmother’s little house in Decatur, Georgia. I never tired of watching the crossing gate bars go up and down, nor of listening for the clanging bells indicating an approaching locomotive. My favorite bedtime book was “Someplace for Sparky,” a story about small train engine that just wanted to find his place in the world. Thus began a lifelong love of trains.

Like travel author Paul Theroux, I find myself still staring at maps, especially those with long-distance railroad routes, imagining trips I might take. I had often dreamed of taking a trip on the Empire Builder, the former Great Northern Railroad route from St. Paul, Minnesota through Glacier National Park to Seattle, Washington. This summer I had the chance to realize that dream.

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Union Depot, St. Paul, Minnesota

We began our unusual journey by flying to Iowa, one of only four states we had not yet visited. After driving northwards in a rent-a-car to visit friends in Minneapolis, we then boarded the local metro tram at the Mall of America and enjoyed an evening ride through the beautiful downtown campus of the University of Minnesota, where a pro soccer match had just ended. The excitement of the fans and gorgeous sunset heightened the anticipation of our big train trip! We arrived at St. Paul’s historic Union Depot just before dark. A pleasant surprise awaited us, as a sleeping car room became available for a big discount, giving us the chance to relax in the Empire Builder lounge before our 10:20pm departure. After boarding and being gently rocked to sleep on the rails, we awoke to a wonderful North Dakota sunrise.

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Sleeper car bedroom

One of my very favorite travel experiences is having breakfast in a railroad dining car, and Amtrak did not disappoint us. We enjoyed a bountiful breakfast of pancakes, bacon and coffee while rolling by bird-filled lakes. When the train stopped in the town of Minot for servicing, we stepped off to enjoy a nice walk and another cup of coffee as we met people on their way to the North Dakota state fair. Continuing westward into Montana and the Mountain Time zone, we reached East Glacier Park station just before dark and detrained for a two-day stopover.

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Dining Car Breakfast

One of the highlights of the Empire Builder train route is not only the Rocky Mountain scenery, but also the opportunity to visit Glacier National Park, one of the country’s oldest. Nicknamed “puzzle country” by my wife (a reference to the dazzling landscapes which look like jigsaw puzzle images), a main highlight is driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road, especially in one of the vintage Red Bus Tour vehicles. We were blessed with a dazzlingly clear day for our Big Sky Circle tour, which took us in a clockwise loop from East Glacier around to Lake McDonald Lodge for lunch, then up the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass, and finally back east through St. Mary Lake.

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Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
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Vintage Red Bus Tours
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St. Mary Lake, Glacier Park

The next day, as we waited to re-board another westbound train, a clear afternoon suddenly became cloudy and a massive hailstorm soon engulfed the little station. As we gazed at the popcorn-like balls of ice piling up, we were glad we were not in the open top red bus at that moment! After twenty minutes of intense hail, the storm ended, the sun came out and a gorgeous rainbow appeared just about the time the train arrived. We found seats in the unique dome-topped observation car, which gave us plenty of great twilight views as we crossed the mountain pass to West Glacier. After daylight faded, we found our way back to our reserved coach seat and reclined to spend the night aboard the train. The coach seats are very comfortable, and similar to a business-class airline seat, so they are fine for spending a night onboard and much cheaper than a sleeper car.

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Rainbow after surprise hailstorm

Awaking the next morning in eastern Washington, we again enjoyed breakfast in the dining car while rolling along the Columbia River. A pleasant surprise was the final few hours of the trip, as we passed through the Cascade Mountain Range before reaching Everett and the Puget Sound. The train then turned southward and sped along the water all the way to Seattle, passing marinas, shipwrecks, shore birds and swimmers. We loved our journey on the Empire Builder and highly recommend it!

Yes, it’s been quite a summer, rent-a-cars and westbound trains” – Jimmy Buffett, Come Monday

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Seattle, Washington – final stop on the westbound Empire Builder train

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