A night aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder 🚞

After a couple of long flights across the Pacific, we were excited to be getting back on a long-distance train again. Although travelling on Amtrak has been growing in popularity in recent years, it’s still pretty niche, with only a small proportion of the population as diehard fans. Meanwhile, domestic flying remains the default, and it’s easy to understand why, given its relative speed, price and choice of routes. But Helen and Mick had a couple of trips under their belts already, and having heard their stories and consumed more cheesy, relentlessly optimistic Amtrak content from Jeb Brooks than we’d care to admit, we were very keen to get in on the action.

From Seattle, WA, we took an overnight train to Whitefish, MT – the gateway to Glacier National Park. This was our first taste of Amtrak’s Empire Builder route, which we’ll ultimately ride all the way to Milwaukee, WI, just shy of its terminus in Chicago, IL.

We boarded the train from King Street Station, a beautifully restored 1906 terminus in Downtown Seattle.

Since this was our first of three long-distance journeys aboard an Amtrak train, I thought I’d do it justice with a full review…

The room(ette)

Sara and I shared a “roomette”, which consists of two wide seats facing each other in a small lockable compartment. While it has plenty of space for two travellers, there’s not a lot of room for luggage beneath the seats, and it’s quite a squeeze to host any guests!

At night, the train attendant folds the seats down to form the lower bunk, while the upper upper bunk folds down from just above the window. Sara definitely drew the short straw on the upper bunk, with a slightly narrower bed and heavily restricted head room. Having said that, they were probably the most comfortable beds we’ve ever slept in on a train.

Amtrak trains also have larger ensuite “bedrooms” to which our budget did not stretch, and daytime “coach” carriages which we’ll test on a later leg of the Empire Builder route.

The food

Amtrak sleeper-car tickets include three-course meals in the ticket price, which are served in the dining car and accompanied by a view – what a way to travel! All tables seat four diners, which means that couples are often treated to polite conversation with two other Amtrak travellers. Fortunately we were already a party of four so we didn’t need to share with anyone else, although we still overheard plenty of very forced conversations over our early breakfast. Meanwhile, we were free to sit in stony silence until we’d all had our coffee!

For dinner, I had coconut shrimp to start, a flat iron steak for the main event, and a slice of lemon cake to top it all off. Much like the beds, we were genuinely impressed with the food – the shrimp was satisfyingly crispy, the steak was genuinely comparable to anything you’d find in a restaurant, and the lemon cake was deliciously sweet.

The main downside of eating this much good food is that there’s pretty much no way to burn it off while on the train. Fortunately, we woke up on the doorstep of Glacier National Park the following day, although we still found time (and space) for a breakfast quesadilla before alighting!

The scenery

Our train departed Seattle heading north, and unexpectedly (for me, at least) tracked the coast for quite some way before turning east. This meant that we were treated to some stunning afternoon sun over Puget and Possession Sound from our little compartment.

Our train also featured a beautifully light observation car, with plenty of huge windows stretching all the way up to the carriage roof. The only issue with this car, though, is finding it – Helen and I both made independent expeditions into the staff-only section of the train in our attempts to find it! With such a long train and with so many similar looking carriages, it was really quite disorientating.

Later on in the journey, we passed through the tiny town of Dryden, WA, whose residents had turned out in force to treat us to an “Amtrak salute”. This consisted of about 15 residents lined up beside the railway exposing their bare behinds for all to see. It was an incredibly coordinated effort! For better or worse, there wasn’t time to reach for my phone to take a photo, so you’ll have to make do with the mental image instead.

The speed

Our train averaged 71 km/h over the 943 km route from Seattle to Whitefish, including stops at stations. While it isn’t exactly high-speed rail, it’s still significantly faster than our long-distance trains across eastern Turkey on the Doğu Ekspresi and from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan.

Amtrak trains are often criticised for their frequent (and sometimes unscheduled) stops. These occur because passenger trains must give way to freight trains, since Amtrak rents the rails from the freighters who own them. This can lead to delays accumulating along the route, although our train only arrived about 30 mins late in Whitefish, which is apparently pretty good going!

The price

Long-distance Amtrak trains are both slower and considerably more expensive than commercial flights, so they’re up against some pretty tough competition. In fact, our train journey cost nearly three times the cost of the cheapest flight from Seattle to Glacier’s nearest airport. Having said that, this Amtrak route was still cheaper per kilometre than our Eurostar and New Zealand trains, and neither of those included meals or a sleeper compartment!

In terms of carbon, our rail journey emitted 41% of the CO2 that would have been emitted by a direct flight. These savings aren’t quite as large as I’d expected, owing to the wonky route taken by our train as it left Seattle and passed through the mountains.

Overall, Amtrak felt like the definition of travelling slow and low. It gave us the opportunity to enjoy the mountains, prairie and small towns from the train window, while also giving us a sense of scale of the distance we were covering. Here’s our final scorecard for how Amtrak ranks against the other trains we’ve taken on this trip:

Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️★
Food: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Speed: ⭐️⭐️⭐️★★
Value: ⭐️⭐️⭐️★★

Seattle-ing in to the west coast

After our (thankfully cougar-free) hike up Mount Walker, we headed to Seattle via the Kingston-Edmonds ferry, which took us across the Puget Sound and into the city.

It was a gorgeous evening, so having been fantasising about burgers and cold beer all the way down the mountain (honestly, you’d think we’d been lost and starving for months), we stopped for a pub dinner on a sunny terrace as soon as we disembarked the car ferry.

The next morning, we headed to Pike Place market, probably Seattle’s most famous attraction. Given that we’d all been to Seattle previously and we all knew just how touristy the market was, I’m not quite sure why we felt the need to go again, but there we are! It did mean we could revisit Lowells, a local institution that’s famous for its seafood. Even on a grey day we were very pleased to nab a window seat for a view over the ferries and seaplanes crossing the harbour.

My clam chowder was delicious, but our next stop was much less palatable… Seattle’s famous gum wall, which has been gradually building up since the 1990s. Well actually, the alley walls have been cleared at least once in that time (because the bricks were starting to degrade from all the sugar!) but the gum is now back with a vengeance. It even came second on a TripAdvisor list of the world’s germiest attractions (after the Blarney Stone near Cork, in case you were wondering). It was totally disgusting, of course, but also strangely pretty.

In the afternoon, we headed to the Museum of Flight, where we introduced Mum and Dad to our signature move of arriving at the rear entrance. You could tell the staff were very confused about how we’d ended up there, but we couldn’t explain because we didn’t know! Anyway, we went inside a BA-liveried Concorde with its interior intact, so Mum gave us a guided tour of where she used to work. It never fails to astound me just how tiny the Concorde is inside.

We also saw an exhibit on the development of the Boeing 747, where we had our own personal tour guide in Dad. In fact, he was so knowledgeable that I accused him of skipping ahead to read the information panels!

Dad was most indignant because the museum claimed to be exhibiting the only Blackbird M-21 in existence and he knew for a fact that there was another at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, but then he realised that OF COURSE the one at Duxford was the SR-71. Silly him! We all nodded along, obviously already aware of the big differences between the M-21 and the SR-71 (as I’m sure you are too). Actually it was quite cool – the Blackbird already holds the record for being the fastest and highest flying jet in history, and this version had an added drone sat on top that launched from the ‘mother ship’ to collect intelligence from enemy territory during the Cold War. Apparently it never quite worked as it was intended, but we did enjoy the relatively low-tech way it delivered surveillance data, by dropping a canister over friendly territory (rather than transmitting any data electronically).

The following day, we had breakfast at Toulouse Petit, a Louisiana-style Creole restaurant that Mum and Dad had visited before (and Oli, it turned out, on Dad’s recommendation). Dad had mentioned it just the once or twice, so we knew he was keen to return! And it was delicious. Oli and I hedged our bets and shared some tangy, spicy shrimp served with creamy grits (left) and then went full Americana for our remaining choice, with chicken fried chicken, which came with eggs, breakfast potatoes and (my favourite) a biscuit.

To work off our breakfast (which, slightly worryingly, we all polished off), we took a wander around the Capitol Hill neighbourhood. This was described by the Lonely Planet as “Seattle’s most unashamedly hip neighbourhood, where the exceptionally rich mix with the exceptionally eccentric”. Indeed, it was an interesting walk, but to be honest it was mostly notable for Dad’s antics at the gas station just before we parked, when he attempted to pay by posting his credit card into the receipt dispenser of the self-service pump 🤦🏼‍♀️. Thankfully he managed to retrieve it before I reached the front of the queue in the gas station to ask for help, because I still hadn’t worked out how to explain why he’d done it!

After this mishap, it was time to drop off our hire car (probably for the best, really) and head to King Street Station to begin our much-anticipated Amtrak adventure across the continent.

Cats, cougars and custard on the Olympic Peninsula

From Portland, we set off on a road trip with Mick and Helen north to Olympic National Park, which occupies almost the whole peninsula surrounding the Olympic Mountains. We were visiting the national park at a slightly unfortunate moment, with one access road being closed due to the visitor centre burning down, and two other roads being closed due to landslides. As a result, we spent about as much time exploring the rest of the peninsula as we did inside the park itself.

On the way north from Portland, we stopped in Astoria, a cute Art Deco city perched on the Pacific coast. Apparently, the town is well known as a filming location for the 1985 film The Goonies, though this reference largely flew over our heads. Instead, top of our priority list was of course lunch, so we headed for a fish and chip shack named Bowpicker. Housed in an old fishing boat, this place offered two menu items; beer-battered nuggets of albacore tuna and thick-cut chips. I don’t think any of us had eaten tuna cooked like this before – it had a satisfyingly meaty texture and was coated in delightfully crispy batter. We rounded off the meal with some frozen custard from Custard King; a 65 year old Astoria institution with a view of the historic waterfront trolley.

Further up the road on the way to the national park, we just couldn’t drive past a sign pointing towards what is apparently the world’s largest Sitka Spruce tree. But when I say largest, I don’t mean the tallest, heaviest, or even the girthiest. Instead, “size” is measured using points awarded by the American Forestry Association, who take into account a tree’s height, trunk circumference and branch spread to produce a single score. The sign proudly claimed that tree had 922 such points, and a casual footnote pointed out that this was more than its bitter rival just over the state border in Oregon. The tree was indeed pretty big and an impressive 1,000 years old!

Upon arriving at the national park, we headed to our accommodation, an apartment in a big rural house on Deer Park Road. True to its name, we had a few furry visitors roam past our window while we unpacked our luggage!

Our prayers to the weather gods hadn’t been answered and it was still raining the following morning, so we went out for brunch at Chestnut Cottage, which seemed like an excellent use of the weather. I ordered a classic American breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash brown, pancakes and maple syrup, and as feared, the amount of food that arrived seemed like enough to feed a small family. And yes, both plates in the photo below were mine!

The look of fear in my eyes seems strangely familiar

When the weather finally cleared, we set off on a road trip towards Cape Flattery; the most northwesterly point on the contiguous United States. Despite being yet another slightly tenuous record (being neither the most northerly nor the most westerly), the peninsula boasted some spectacular rock formations (e.g. sea caves, arches, stacks and stumps), as if they were lifted straight out of a geography text book. We took hundreds of photos of the scenery, and then we met Chip, the red-jumpered cat in a carry case, and took a hundred more photos.

That evening, Helen dashed back into the supermarket to pick up some wine which had somehow nearly been forgotten after we’d shopped for dinner. However, she emerged from the supermarket empty handed, having had her purchase refused when she wasn’t able to show ID when requested – she thought they were joking! I then returned to the supermarket, found the cashier and said with a smile: “I hear you’ve been flattering my mother-in-law!” The cashier just looked confused and asked for my ID, so I handed over my passport and made the purchase as quickly as possible. When we got back to the apartment, we came across a book that summed up the cashier’s dilemma perfectly!

The following day, we went for a short hike to Marymere Falls, a beautiful glacial cascade located about 1.5 km along a dirt path through dense forest. We also managed to bend our return journey via Lake Crescent’s shore, which made the perfect sunny spot for our lunchtime picnic.

After a handful of wholesome activities, it was time to turn our attention to the USA’s cat count, which was already languishing near the bottom of the league table. I’d read that there was a colony of cats living on out Ediz Hook, a 5 km spit of land protruding from Port Angeles’ harbour. After tracking the cats’ paw prints on the beach, we came across the colony basking in the sun on the rocks. We also met a gentleman who told us that he came to feed the cats every afternoon, and that they’re all neutered, chipped and registered at the local vet. They must be the healthiest and most loved stray cats in the world! It was so nice to meet him and hear stories about each of the cats’ distinct personalities – and what a commitment to visit them every day, rain or shine.

The weather was absolutely stunning on the day we were due to leave the peninsula, so we planned a hike up Mount Walker on our way to Seattle. This turned out to be be a short but genuinely strenuous hike, covering 612 m of vertical elevation gain. The route was lined with wild rhododendrons and passed through dense pine forest, which provided some essential shade, even if it did restrict the views until we reached the summit. But more importantly, we managed to dodge the resident cougars, about whom we’d been warned on numerous information boards!

We were absolutely exhausted by the time we’d made it back to the bottom of the mountain, but glad to have made the most of our time in the area. Our next destination was Seattle, where we spent a few days before boarding the Empire Builder Amtrak train to head east overland once again.

Street art in Port Angeles. The dog and children are part of the scene!