Trip Reports & Reviews

Amtrak Empire Builder: Train Across America!

Noel

Noel Philips

I took Amtrak’s Empire Builder Train for an epic trip across America, and bought along the family!

The Empire Builder leaves SPokane heading east and passes almost immediately into northern Idaho. When we wake in the morming we’re in Montana, crossing the Glacier National Park. The ground gets flatter as we head towards the plains of Eastern Montana, and into the plains of North Dakota.

We arrive into Minot, North Dakota just before bedtime, and when we wake we’ve crossed into Minnesota and down to Minneapolis. The last day is spent following the Mississippi down into Wisconsin, before heading across to Milwaukee and south into Illinois, where we arrive into Chicago late in the afternoon after a journey time of 40 hours.

Amtrak’s trains can run several hours late. This evening was no exception with the Seattle section of the train running around two hours late. I’d recommend keeping an eye on Amtrak’s tracking map, and staying in your hotel or accommodation until around an hour before your train is due. Amtrak stations aren’t often well equipped with facilities, and we opted to send the kids to bed early, before getting them up and grabbing an Uber which got us there around 20 minutes before the train arrived in the middle of the night.

We arrived at the station just after Midnight, and checked in our bags to Chicago. It’s a pretty manual process so you can check in right up until around 20 minutes before your train leaves.

Fortunately our room tonight was in the Portland section of the train that had already arrived, so we could get into our rooms and get the kids to sleep within a few minutes of arriving at the station.

We headed upstairs to our rooms.

As we settled dowm in bed, the Seattle section of the train arrived. I’d fallen asleep by the time we left Spokane.

The terrain got flatter as we crossed into Eastern Montana. Within a couple of hours we were crossing the plains towards our next stop, Cut Bank.

We’d booked a table for lunch at 11:30am. Lunch is served from 11:30 onwards, and finishes at 2pm. Tables are in high demand though – and by the time the dining staff had come to our room to take the reservation, only 11:30 was left.

The dining car was six cars away, and in between us were several coach cars. I wouldn’t recommend taking a coach ticket on this train at all – the seats didn’t look a comfortable place to spend two days and nights in, it was noisy and hot.

The observation car is an incredible space – with floor to ceiling windows and comfy seats, you can spend hours here watching the world go by.

Passengers in the sleeper cars get three meals a day included in their ticket – breakfast lunch and dinner on each day. You also get non alcoholic drinks included – or you can pay for a glass of wine if you fancy it.

Rach had opted to stay back in the room and ordered room service – which is also an option.

The kids were given some cool DIY trains to build.

The food on Amtrak was pretty good indeed. I’ll cover dinner later on, but for lunch today I took the Natural Angus Burger. It was really tasty.

As we ate lunch, we passed through Shelby, Montana.

Like many towns in this part of the world, it has an old wild west feel to it, and even has a saloon.

After lunch, we headed back through the train to the sleeper section.

As we were pretty close to the back of the train, it was only easy to get to the back window and see the railroad disappearing behind us.

While I enjoyed watching the view, The kids were happy playing games on their phone

Just after lunch we hit the first fresh air stop of this trip, Havre Montana.

Havre is a crew change spot, and the crew that remained onboard had KFC waiting for them when they got off.

As we left Havre, we saw this cool looking old steam engine at the side of the platform.

East of Havre, we pulled into a passing point to let our sister train, the westbound Empire Builder, pass.

We passed through some seemingly deserted towns in northern Montana, interspersed with miles of nothingness.

The tracks in Montana and North Dakota are very bumpy indeed, and it was difficult to even stand up at times. The tracks are operated by BNSF, and are primarily freight lines, but Amtrak have an agreement to operate the Empire builder once a day in each direction.

It really is fascinating stopping in tiny towns that you’ve never heard of before, with seemingly barely anyone living in them.

Downstairs in the observation car is a cafe and a litlte shop, where you can grab light snacks and drinks to take back to your room.

It was soon dinnertime and we made our way down the train to grab our dinner.

You have to fill in these cards with your room number on, and can then order anything on the menu.

Tonight I took the Amtrak signature steak, which is, in my experience the nicest item on the menu. It really is a delicious steak, and much nicer than much of the rest of the menu.

As the sun got lower in the sky, the plains were interrupted by intermittent rocky outcrops.

We entered North Dakota and stopped at Williston, our first stop in the state.

As we headed further east, a huge storm was brewing on the horizon.

We stopped briefly at Stanley, North Dakota, before the sun started to set as we headed towards the city of Minot.

The storm was right overhead Minot, and as we sat in the station, we were treated to an amazing lightning storm. With the thunder rumbling and the rain hitting the roof of the train, I fell asleep.

I woke up in Minneapolis, where we’d just left the city’s central station.

One thing I will say about Amtrak is that the blankets you get for sleeping are really thin and don’t keep you particularly warm. I was glad to have taken my weighted blanket that YNM very kindly sent me. It’s a really nice blanket that is lightweight but still feels like a full duvet, and keeps you incredibly comfortable. It fits nicely in your hand baggage and on this trip it kept me warm and snug – just like at home. CHeck out the link down to this down below, I really do highly recommend it for when you’re traveling.

We followed the course of the Mississippi river down the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

We finally crossed the Mississippi into Wisconsin after a few hours.

Just after 3pm, we rolled into the city of Milwaukee.

We crossed our final state line of the trip and rolled into Illinois. The famous skyline of Chicago appeared on the horizon and welcomed us into our final desination.

We headed to the baggage claim where our bags appeared in around 20 minutes.