The Amtrak Empire Builder operates daily between Chicago, IL and Seattle, WA or Portland, OR. It was named for James J. Hill, the builder of the most Northern railroad in the US, the Great Northern Railway. If you spend some time in St. Paul, MN, you can tour the 1891 house where his family resided. This Amtrak route travels along Great Northern’s main road from St. Paul, MN to the West Coast.
Amtrak Empire Builder’s Route
The Empire Builder leaves daily from Chicago’s Union Station, Amtrak’s Midwest hub at 2:15 p.m. The train stops to receive passengers in north suburban Chicago, IL and Milwaukee, WI before continuing across Central Wisconsin. At La Crosse, WI, train crosses the Mississippi River to Minnesota and winds its way along the river to St. Paul.
From St. Paul, MN, you can take a connecting motorcoach to Duluth, Minnesota and Lake Superior. The train leaves for the west coast a little before midnight and works its way to northwestern Minnesota. By the time you wake up in the morning, you have crossed the Red River into Fargo, ND, gone north along the river, turned west at Grand Forks, ND and you will find yourself in the middle of North Dakota around Minot.
Although you will spend much of the days looking at plains, there are varied landscapes, crops and small towns in North Dakota and Eastern Montana. You even go through three Indian reservations. As evening approaches, you begin to see the outline of the Rocky Mountains. The Empire Builder has four stops close to Glacier National Park with the largest at Whitefish, Montana.
Leaving Whitefish, MT a little after 9 p.m., you go to sleep knowing you have magnificent scenery ahead of you the next day. Right before midnight, the train crosses briefly into Idaho and then into Washington state. In the early morning the train stops in Spokane, WA to split into two separate trains for the rest of the journey. One goes to the Rose City – Portland, Oregon and the other to the Emerald City – Seattle, WA.
The Portland, OR train travels to Pasco, WA close to the confluence of the Snake and Yakima Rivers that creates the Columbia River. The train follows the Columbia on its Washington state (north) side. On a clear day, Mount St. Helens can be seen to the north and Mount Hood ranges over the river to the south. Finally, at Vancouver, WA, the Empire Builder crosses the Columbia and heads to Portland, Oregon’s Union Station.
The Seattle, WA train motors it way through its last set of mountains, the Cascades. Between Wenatchee, WA and Everett, WA, you are transported through a pass between the Chelan and Wenatchee mountains. At Everett, WA, the train turns south and rides along the Puget Sound shore before heading into King Street Station in Seattle, WA.
If you want to add a trip to British Columbia from Seattle, WA, you may wish to consider taking the Victoria Clipper high-speed catamaran. You can catch the ship at Seattle’s Pier 69 (which is one mile from the Amtrak King Street Station) and it will drop you off at the Inner Harbour in Victoria, BC. The catamaran runs year-round and requires advance reservations.
Empire Builder’s Services
You are able to choose between coach seats and sleeping accommodations. All coaches and sleepers must be reserved in advanced for any portion of the trip on the Empire Builder.
Coach travel on the Empire Builder is quite nice. You can reserve seats on either the upper or lower level in case stairs are a problem. The seating is spacious with leg rests, large pillows and at-seat meal service upon request.
Empire Builder's Superliner sleeping accomodations are varied. On the upper level you will find:
On the lower level you will find:
All sleeping car passenger receive complimentary complete meal service in the dining car (except between Spokane, WA and Portland, OR where they receive complimentary cold meal service in their accommodations). Also, complimentary beverages and a bedtime treat are available. Also, sleeping car passengers are able to use the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago, IL and Portland, OR.
Besides the at-seat meal options described above, the Empire Builder has a number of other dining opportunities:
Dining Car (Chicago, IL - Spokane, WA): This car provides full-service, hot meals prepared-to-order for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Coach class passenger may pay for their meals with cash or major credit cards.
Sightseer Lounge (Chicago, IL - Spokane, WA): This car provides food with a view. Passengers may enjoy sandwiches, snacks and beverages from early morning to late evening, while gazing out the clear ceiling. Also, popular card and board games are available to play.
Combined Diner/Lounge (Spokane, WA - Seattle, WA): This car provides full service meals and more relaxed beverage service in the same car.
Trails and Rails Program
This program, presented during daylight hours between Chicago, IL and Seattle, WA/Portland, OR, offers en-route lectures about the culture, geography and history of the Great Plains in the summer. In cooperation with the National Park Service, volunteer rangers provide narrative at these points along this Amtrak route:
Seattle, WA and Shelby, MT (Daily)
Williston, ND and Malta, MT (Tuesdays,Saturdays and Sundays)
Chicago, IL and Winona, MN (Daily)
Empire Builder's Scenic Highlights
Wisconsin Dells - With tremendous natural beauty (and man-made family attractions), the upper and lower dells along the Wisconsin River wind for 15 miles through beautiful scenery and 150-foot sandstone bluffs
Mississippi River - Between La Crosse, Wisconsin and St. Paul. you will ride along the river, on the Minnesota side, for 140 miles gazing at fertile farmland and riverbank towns such as Winona, Wabasha (where the Grumpy Old Men movies were filmed) and Red Wing. If you are lucky, you may see an eagle or turkey vulture along the limestone bluffs that dot the riverside.
Rocky Mountains - For eight hours between Spokane, WA and Browning, Montana, you will ride through the most spectacular mountain range in the US along Marias Pass. West of Whitefish, Montana, your train will go through the Flathead Tunnel. The second longest tunnel in the Western Hemisphere, it even has fans to provide ventilation.
Glacier National Park - The Empire Builder runs along the south edge of the park between West Glacier, MT and East Glacier, MT. You will see rugged snow-capped mountains, majestic tree stands, prisitine lakes and river and hardy wildlife. In the middle of the trip, the train may stop in Essex, MT, home of the historic and cozy Izaak Walton Inn. The Great Northern Railway constructed this hotel for its snow removal workers in 1939.
Mount Rainier, Washington - On the Seattle, WA portion, you will cross the Cascade Mountains. On a clear day, you will be able to see the 14,410 feet Mount Rainier, the tallest peak in Washington state. It is over 8,000 feet taller than any of its Cascade cousins.
Columbia River Gorge - On the Portland, OR section, you will be able to see Mount Hood (11,239 feet and the tallest peak in Oregon) across the Columbia River. Along the gorge itself, along this Amtrak route, you will be able to take in the stunning beauty of its black basalt cliffs, ribbon-like waterfalls, and lush fir forests for the 200 mile trek between Portland, OR and Pasco, Washington.
Weather Along Amtrak's Empire Builder Route
For full details on the weather in Chicago, IL , weather in Seattle, WA or weather in Portland, OR, as well as a 4 day forecast, click on the links above.