This Underrated Train Is the Most Picturesque Way to See the Mississippi River, Glacier National Park, and the Pacific Northwest

Amtrak’s 46-hour Empire Builder runs daily, with stops in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Embrace slow travel and take in some of the most underrated natural sights in the U.S. by riding the rails between the Pacific Northwest and Chicago on one of Amtrak’s most scenic routes: the Empire Builder

Amtrak Empire Builder in the winter

Justin Franz/Courtesy of Amtrak

The 46-hour long-haul journey has daily departures in both directions. Heading eastbound, the route starts at either Seattle’s King Street Station or Union Station in Portland, Oregon. The two forks meet in Spokane and then continue on to Chicago’s Union Station. Of course, passengers aren't required to make the entire journey and can book trips between any of the dozens of stops along the route.

Along the way, the Empire Builder passes through the nation's northernmost states in the west and midwest, running from Oregon or Washington through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, through to Illinois. It's completely immersed in the pristine scenery of some of the country’s most stunning natural beauty, including in some remote locales that would normally be more challenging to reach, that truly makes the rail journey so enticing. 

“Eastbound from Seattle, we travel with the Puget Sound on the left side of the train and climb up and into the Cascade Mountains, [while] eastbound from Portland, we have the Columbia River Valley on the right as we travel to Spokane, where the two parts of the train are combined to continue into the Rockies,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told Travel + Leisure of some of his favorite sections of the journey. “We travel with Glacier National Park on the left and the Flathead National Forest on the right, with a monument at Marias Pass at 5,216 feet, surrounded by mountains and wildlife.” 

Amtrak Empire Builder exterior in the winter

Justin Franz/Courtesy of Amtrak

In fact, the Empire Builder is one of the best ways to reach Glacier National Park, since it was created by the builders of the Great Northern Railway as a tourist attraction, with three stops in the area during the on-season.  

Of particular note is the station itself in Whitefish, Montana. “Not only is [it] an important ski, B&B, and lodge destination, it contains the Stumptown Historical Society and Museum, a reference to an early name for Whitefish,” he added. Another highlight is the West Glacier station, from which travelers can drive about three hours over the Canadian border to the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, if they're ready to take their journey even farther north.

“Another scenic highlight is on the last day of our eastbound trip, where the route follows the Mississippi River between St. Paul, Minnesota, and La Crosse, Wisconsin, with the river on the left,” Magliari said. He also noted that stations in St. Paul and Chicago themselves double as some of each city's most essential landmarks.

The 2,205-mile journey between Chicago and Seattle, or the 2,255-mile one from Portland, can be enjoyed in one of six accommodations, though they may vary by train. Those who would like privacy and comfort can opt for a Superliner Roomette — which range from 6-by-6 feet to 6-by-8 feet in length and 3-by-6 in width — that can accommodate one or two adults, with seats by day that can be transformed into upper and lower beds at night. Each also has upgraded bedding, pillows, towels, and sheets, as well as access to a shared shower and restroom. All onboard meals are included, as well first-class attendant service, priority boarding, and lounge access. 

Family aboard the Amtrak Empire Builder

Courtesy of Amtrak

For even more space, the Superliner Bedroom, for up to two guests, doubles the area with a 7-by-7 foot length and 6.5-by-6.5-foot width room, which includes a private sink, restroom, and shower. There’s also a sofa and separate chair that can be turned into two-tier beds. For larger parties, the Superliner Bedroom Suite can accommodate up to four people with two adjoining bedrooms, featuring twice the amenities, while the Superliner Family Room is for two adults and two children. Passengers with disabilities can also select the Superliner Accessible Bedroom, with accessible sink and restrooms in a space that’s 7-by-9.5 feet long and 6.5-by-7 feet wide.

Those who prefer a more traditional train experience can opt for coach class seats with wide reclining seats, equipped with tray tables, reading lights, and electrical outlets.

Eastbound trains leave Portland and Seattle at 4:55 p.m. PT, reaching Spokane, Washington, at 1:15 a.m. PT, before pulling into Chicago the second afternoon at 4:45 p.m. CT. Along the way, there will be a dinner service the first night, followed by three meals on the full day of travel, and breakfast and lunch on the final day. Going westbound, the train departs Chicago at 3:05 p.m. CT, and then leaves Spokane for Portland at 3:54 a.m. PT the second morning, arriving at 11:17 a.m. PT, or departs for Seattle at 3:24 am. PT and arrives at 11:29 a.m. PT., with dinner the first night, three meals the next day, and breakfast the final morning. 

Those staying in the private rooms will have their meals included as part of the traditional dining service with chef-prepared meals, including three-course dinners and a one alcoholic beverage, which can be enjoyed in the Dining Car on white linen tablecloths or privately with room service. Sample menus include omelets and quesadillas for breakfast, and burgers, salads, and chili for lunch. Dinner items may include coconut-crusted shrimp or brie-and-raspberry empanadas as appetizers, steak or Atlantic salmon as an entree, and chocolate toffee mousse or lemon cake for dessert. Additionally, there’s cafe service available from morning to night, offering both full meals and snacks.

The Empire Builder also offers checked baggage service and trainside checked bicycles, and allows small cats and dogs on board, though only for limited durations. While there is Wi-Fi, Magliari notes that there may be spotty services in areas since much of the route, especially in Montana and North Dakota, is far from the interstate highway — but that there will be service at station stops. 

With an array of dining options, cozy accommodations, and a constant palette of American landscapes outside the window, the Empire Builder provides one of the most underrated long-haul train routes. After all, as Magliari says, there’s nothing like, “Snuggling in a private room, watching the miles go by with actual 'purple mountain majesties' in Montana, sipping coffee or another drink after enjoying a meal in the Amtrak dining car.”


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