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Questions about Empire Builder trip

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J-P

Joined
May 7, 2012
Messages
5
Considering a December or January trip on the Empire Builder and had some questions before booking.

Which direction puts you in the scenery in daylight hours. I can make an educated guess from the schedule, but I'm not very familiar with the geography outside of Glacier. We are willing to go all the way from Chicago to Seattle, or vice-versa. But I'd rather shorten the trip to the most scenic sections. (We can get on/off at any town with scheduled airline service.)

Are there many disruptions of service or detours in the winter months?

Where would you recommend getting off for a night or two along the way? Was considering Whitefish.

Any other tips appreciated. Thank you.
 

20th Century Rider

OBS Chief
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Jan 26, 2020
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706
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Oregon Coast
You will be traveling during some of the shortest days of the year and will miss a lot of the best scenery. However, the advantage of a sleeper is to shut the curtains and still be able to see interesting scenery... especially if there is snow... the lights of the train will also reflect off the snow giving you a dream quality view.

One of the misfortunes of viewing... especially from the EB is luck of the draw at which side you are on. The left side going East and the Right side going West are my choices... which favor reduced glare mid day and great views. I've lucked out about 40% of the time but was able to make up for it in the observation car. If you are in the coach section ask the attendant if you can sit on your side of choice.

Starting off in Seattle you will ride along Puget Sound before sunset turning East in Everett... passing through the Cascades during darkness... as well as much of the Rocky Mountain scenery up until Whitefish. Past Whitefish you will enjoy some amazing scenery... West Glacier... and for many of us the best spot on the line... Isaac Walton Lodge at Essex surrounded by its historic RR antiquities... used as lodging as well. You will see the great divide marker on the right... continuing to East Glacier and it's historic station. Past here it gets pretty flat but even that has it's stark beauty; especially in the winter. 'The Day in the Middle' takes you through the northern plains and some interesting small towns. The next morning brings you to the St. Paul station and a chance to stretch. Ahead is another beautifully scenic day... first heading along the Mississippi River [to the left] and crossing over in LaCrosse. Wisconsin is it's own forested beauty which you will enjoy until industrial areas of Milwaukee... then you speed south to CHI with the skyline looming up on the left.

Starting in CHI the late afternoon ride past the CHI suburbs and on to Milwaukee. As you get closer you will see Billy Mitchell airport to the right... and the well known Jones Island Bridge. Late afternoon will bring you West along the lake area and its resorts and beautiful home... sunset as you get into Columbus.

The 'Day in the Middle' takes you through north Dakota and Montana and gets dark as you arrive at East Glacier. The next morning after the train splits in SPK you will be treated to some incredible mountain views of the Cascades with daylight at Leavenworth. Very interesting views of HWY 2 to the right... and the 'dessert' of the trip is Puget Sound.

I have taken this trip so many times that I dream it in my sleep. Looking forward to being on the EB again - CHI to PDX departing January 18. Perhaps I'll see you aboard!

Happy journeys! 🤠

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FrensicPic

Conductor
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Jan 15, 2012
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LAX
I believe the general consensus is eastbound. Daylight from before Whitefish through the southern end of Glacier National Park (West Glacier, Essex, East Glacier (East Glacier is closed that time of the year so the stop is Browning).
Possible disruptions from avalanche/rock slides, etc. depending on conditions at the time. NO way to predict that except that it is "that time of the year".
 
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niemi24s

Conductor
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Feb 11, 2015
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If not familiar with the geography outside of Glacier, open up Google Earth and follow along the route the whole way. Been most of the whole route between Seattle and Columbus WI several times and IMHO there's only one pa rt of the route that's not "scenic" - the stretch between the East Portal of the Cascade Tunnel and several miles West of its West Portal.

I love any part of the rest of it, day or night. To me, what's scenic is in the eye of the beholder - even it it's nothing more than the distant glow of a yard light at some ranch in Montana.
 
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Siegmund

Service Attendant
Joined
Nov 19, 2018
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178
Location
northwestern Montana
You can see more of Glacier, or at least have a better chance of seeing any of it, eastbound. Sunrise and sunset in Whitefish on the winter solstice are at 8:26 and 4:45. That means you'll be long-after-dark westbound, and just-barely-getting-light eastbound, if on time - but if late eastbound you'll move into full daylight.

The Cascades (and Columbia River Gorge on the Portland section) are the opposite. On time westbound you will have half-light just before the Cascade Tunnel and real light coming down the west side. Eastbound you will get sunset along Puget Sound and full darkness before you move inland any distance.

If it's a full moon, or even a clear starlit night, the view out the sleeper window IS quite good. I've been known to lie awake all the way from Whitefish to Sandpoint. (Which makes waking up in time for breakfast the next morning a real killer.)
 

J-P

Joined
May 7, 2012
Messages
5
Thanks everyone for the incredibly thoughtful responses. I appreciate it very much!

Thinking about flying to Spokane and starting there west bound to Portland. Biggest issue is 2:45am departure time.

Then Portland to Seattle and spend the night. Seattle to Whitefish, spend a couple of nights. Whitefish to Williston (if my son will be there we'll visit) Williston to Chicago.
 

Dakota 400

Conductor
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Mar 5, 2014
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2,071
I have traveled during February Eastbound on the Empire Builder and really enjoyed the winter time scenery all along the route from Seattle to Chicago. If one is lucky to have fresh fallen snow while in the Cascades and at Glacier NP, particularly at night, it is a scenic sight that one will not forget!
 

Willbridge

Lead Service Attendant
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Mar 30, 2019
Messages
461
Location
Denver
The first time I did a park-n
Eastbound! Granted, in winter months, sunlight is limited - but eastbound!
The first time I did a park-n-ride from Alberta on the Empire Builder, my dad made a typical West Coaster's comment about eastbound: "Cut Bank? Oh, yeah, that's where the Great Northern ran out of scenery." Having traveled the entire route, I agree with the others who like the whole thing. Everyone gets excited about the Cascade Tunnel, but it's just a big bore.
 

Siegmund

Service Attendant
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Nov 19, 2018
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northwestern Montana
The first time I did a park-n-ride from Alberta on the Empire Builder, my dad made a typical West Coaster's comment about eastbound: "Cut Bank? Oh, yeah, that's where the Great Northern ran out of scenery." Having traveled the entire route, I agree with the others who like the whole thing. Everyone gets excited about the Cascade Tunnel, but it's just a big bore.
Surely you corrected your father, and reminded him that GN built east to west, so Cut Bank was, in fact, where they ran into scenery, not out of it.
 
Joined
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>>Then Portland to Seattle and spend the night. Seattle to Whitefish, spend a couple of nights. Whitefish to Williston (if my son will be there we'll visit) Williston to Chicago. <<
Take the ferry to Bremerton (it's about 8 blocks downhill to the ferry) rather than spending the night in Seattle. It's safer, cleaner, and far less expensive. Takes about an hour. Nice Fairfield and Hampton Inns a block or two from the terminal. Same in Portland; careful where you sleep. Hampton Bremerton (on the water) is $100/night. Consider Isaak Walton Inn as a stopover.

There's a really good guide -- Flashing Yellow Guidebooks -- written by a railfan that gives you the complete rundown on every stop. Great read!
 

Willbridge

Lead Service Attendant
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Denver
Surely you corrected your father, and reminded him that GN built east to west, so Cut Bank was, in fact, where they ran into scenery, not out of it.
He only rode eastbound. Then he picked up a new Studebaker at the factory and drove home on US30, stopping in Iowa to ride interurbans which sort of dates the anecdote.

There's some brief footage of East Glacier on that trip on YouTube. A German eisenbahnfreund spotted that it was filmed before the EB had domes. Keep in mind that the 8mm camera did not have the built-in light metering we take for granted now, so there's glare off of snow drifts.

Empire Builder through East Glacier
 

Palmetto

Conductor
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May 12, 2014
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Miami
Off topic, but if the Studebaker factory was in South Bend, IN, I did the same thing with my aunt and uncle in 1957. Camped all the way back to Massachusetts.
 

Chris I

Train Attendant
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Jan 8, 2019
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37
Location
Portland, OR
>>Then Portland to Seattle and spend the night. Seattle to Whitefish, spend a couple of nights. Whitefish to Williston (if my son will be there we'll visit) Williston to Chicago. <<
Take the ferry to Bremerton (it's about 8 blocks downhill to the ferry) rather than spending the night in Seattle. It's safer, cleaner, and far less expensive. Takes about an hour. Nice Fairfield and Hampton Inns a block or two from the terminal. Same in Portland; careful where you sleep. Hampton Bremerton (on the water) is $100/night. Consider Isaak Walton Inn as a stopover.

There's a really good guide -- Flashing Yellow Guidebooks -- written by a railfan that gives you the complete rundown on every stop. Great read!
Lived in Portland my entire life, and taken Cascades between Portland and Seattle, staying in downtown dozens of times, even with little kids. I've never felt "unsafe" in either city. Are there some homeless people? Sure. Everyone has different thresholds, so I get it. Taking the free bus into west Baltimore to visit the B&O Museum was a bit much for us... never seen anything like that in the NW.

There are plenty of good options in downtown Seattle, including a few right on the waterfront. Rates are low right now. Best railfan hotel is the Embassy Suites right at King St. Station. You can request a south-facing room and you'll be able to watch the trains at King St. (and the BNSF mainline) from your room. The indoor pool deck and fitness center (may not be open) also have view of the train station:


I would also recommend a ferry crossing, but I would do Bainbridge Island. It has a really cute downtown and is a great short day trip for about $8 as a walk-on passenger. Cheapest way to get on the water and see the Seattle skyline. A must for any Seattle visit!

I would also recommend riding Link to the UW station. It's an interesting campus to walk around, and the Link Subway is impressive.

Enjoy your trip! You might get "lucky" like us when we did Portland to Essex last year and ended up being 10 hours late eastbound (5 hours late out of Portland plus 5 hours in Spokane waiting for the Seattle half), which allowed us to see Spokane to Glacier in the daylight. We got the Gorge in the daylight on the way back, so we got to see it all in one trip.
 

Willbridge

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Mar 30, 2019
Messages
461
Location
Denver
Off topic, but if the Studebaker factory was in South Bend, IN, I did the same thing with my aunt and uncle in 1957. Camped all the way back to Massachusetts.
It was. My dad always ended up on the South Shore on his trips to the factory.
 
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