A Winter Wonderland Aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder

Here is a great way to catch the last of winter in the comfort of your train car. And don’t worry, there is still plenty of snow!

David the train nut is in heaven! The Empire Builder in Chicago!
David the train nut is in heaven! The Empire Builder in Chicago!

As a bit of a nut about trains since childhood — train nuts actually prefer the term railfan — David was pretty fired up when Amtrak invited us to take a trip aboard the legendary Empire Builder. There was no way we were turning down two round-trip tickets to the ultimate “winter wonderland” experience — riding in style from Chicago to Whitefish, Montana through the breathtaking and frozen Glacier National Park.

The Empire Builder is the best way to see Glacier National Park once the snow gets deep enough to be measured in feet. Veronica was pretty jazzed too, since The Builder has long been known for premier service and is considered by train nuts, oops, railfans as the ultimate in rail travel.

The sleeping car lounge for train passengers for Amtrak at Chicago's Union Station
The sleeping car lounge in Chicago’s Union Station.

In Chicago’s Union Station, we discovered the well-appointed waiting lounge reserved for sleeping car passengers and enjoyed the complementary great service, coffee and wifi, before boarding our westbound train for a journey across the Great Plains, and over a century of history.

The route to the Pacific Northwest still follows the original path laid out in the 1890s by James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway and namesake of the train.

Hill’s tenacity toward finishing a railroad to the Pacific earned him the title “Empire Builder.”

Although he didn’t live to see the train that was named in his honor, it was an immediate success and soon became the Great Northern’s premier train.

We had plenty of outlets to keep us charged up and ready to rock in the Sightseer Lounge – check out the HUGE windows!

Working our way north along the shore of Lake Michigan, we stopped in Milwaukee before turning inland and racing across the snow-covered dairy farms of central Wisconsin.

We staked out a couple seats in the Sightseer Lounge, reminiscent of the original “Great Domes” that debuted on The Empire Builder back in 1955, to watch the scenery, The Dells, and the setting sun roll by.

Sunset from the Sightseer Lounge on Amtrak's Empire Builder

The Sightseer, like its predecessors, features panoramic dome windows running the entire length of the car. We knew this was going to be THE place to be to watch Glacier National Park pass by.

Having scouted the entire train for the optimal spots, we headed up front to our roomette in the sleeper car.

We’ve covered a lot of ground on Amtrak in the past, but always in coach (click here to see 6’2″ David showing off how comfy coach seating is!), so we were really curious about the set up in the sleeper cars.

The ingenious design makes for both riding and sleeping comfort.

Equally as cool is the access to showers when staying in the sleeper car. Really, really nice.

Weather in the morning on Amtrak's Empire Builder!

Nightfall brought us into Minnesota where we crossed The Mississippi River and into a serious arctic chill.

Waking briefly near Fargo, North Dakota, we checked our weather app and it was 17 degrees below zero… wind chill of 31 below.

Luckily we were all safe and warm nestled in aboard our Superliner. We simply pulled up the covers and let the train rock us back to sleep.

Nearing the Montana state line we began to see dozens of drilling rigs and oil wells through the swirling snow as we blazed across the prairie. It meant we were getting close to the oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota.

A remarkable story akin to the old gold rush days, the town has more than doubled in size in the past few years due to new technology for extracting oil.

As the rigs rolled by our dining car window, we shared breakfast and conversation with one of the oil field workers and learned that these reserves, in what is known as The Bakken Formation, may possibly hold several billion barrels of oil.

That would make it the largest in the United States and this has propelled North Dakota past Alaska to become the second largest oil producing state in the union behind Texas.

Veronica marks her 48th state - North Dakota! Celebrating with crab cakes for breakfast on the Empire Builder
Veronica marks her 48th state – North Dakota! Celebrating with crab cakes for breakfast in the dining car!

This was also the portion of our journey where Veronica marked the milestone of visiting her 48th state.

By stepping off the train in North Dakota she has set foot in all of the contiguous lower 48.

Since Amtrak has no current plans for a bridge to Hawaii, looks like we’ll need some alternate form of transportation for her to finish the task of seeing all 50.

Later in the day, as an added entertainment bonus for sleeper passengers, the dining car is transformed into a tasting room. Amtrak hosts a wine and cheese event on the second afternoon of every Empire Builder run.

We settled in for an array of tasty cheeses from Wisconsin, spirited wines from Washington State and some laughter and great conversation with our fellow travelers.

Wine and cheese pairing aboard Amtrak's Empire Builder! Fun Trivia and great conversation!

In addition to introducing each selection, our crew entertained with trivia challenges, with bottles of the wines as prizes, that ranged from real brain teasers to hilarious farces… and nearly everybody won something. Perfect, a nice Columbia Valley Gewurztraminer to go with dinner.

The full service kitchen on Amtrak's Empire Builder

Speaking of dinner, Amtrak serves full, cooked-to-order meals aboard all long-haul routes, often featuring regional specialties.

No airplane food zapped in a microwave in their dining cars.

This is possible because there is a full kitchen below the dining room on the double-decker superliners. Elevators are used to send the entrees up so every dish is fresh and piping hot.

Our amazing server aboard the Empire Builder, Sophia!
Meet Sophia, our amazing server!

Highlights of the culinary offerings were cage-free eggs cooked to order for breakfast, the Amtrak Signature Steak or Spice-rubbed Salmon for dinner, decadent desserts, as well as gluten free, vegetarian (the Chipotle Black Bean and Corn Veggie Burger is amazing – get it) and lite fare.

Not gonna lie, we were really impressed.

Dinner selections on Amtrak! Steak and salmon

For a less formal repast, or those between meal cravings, the cafe car on the lower level of the Sightseer Lounge dome car has a wide assortment of snacks and beverages (click here for a tour with “Ellis the Cafe Guy” aboard the California Zephyr).

Our passage through Glacier National Park westbound from Chicago was in the dark, so we spent a few nights in spectacular Whitefish, Montana, where we took in the offerings of the wonderfully quirky little mountain town, and even zipped through Stillwater State Forest in a dogsled.

Getting ready to dog sled in Whitefish, Montana!
All warm and cozy and ready to dog sled! Can’t wait to share the video with you!

Sunrise over the train depot in Whitefish Montana

Catching back up with the Empire Builder at the picturesque Whitefish Depot, our snowy early morning return trip had us glued to the windows of The Sightseer Lounge as we snaked our way through the The Lewis Range along The Middle Fork Flathead River.

Other than snowshoes or cross-country skis, this really is the optimal method of Glacier Park winter exploration.

Not surprisingly we, not being big on the idea of walking the icy wilderness with tennis rackets or two-by-fours strapped to our feet, or icicles hanging from our noses, chose the comfort and luxury option of Amtrak.

Glacier was designated a National Park on May 11, 1910, after lobbying efforts by The Great Northern Railway. Most all of the park’s early development was directly related to the railroad, in fact The Great Northern built several lodges to increase their tourist traffic.

The train skirts along the southern border of the park, and we wore the shutters out on our cameras while climbing up to 5,213 feet to cross the Continental Divide at Marias Pass. From there one could truthfully say, “it’s all downhill from here.”

Glacier National Park from the Sightseer Lounge on Amtrak's Empire Builder

Click here for more photos of Glacier National Park from the Sightseer Lounge!

Veronica is served breakfast in bed on Amtrak!

On our way back down to Chicago we discovered that meals could be served to the comfort of our roomette.

Is there a better way to start a day than breakfast in bed?

Veronica doesn’t think so.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

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63 thoughts on “A Winter Wonderland Aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder”

  1. This is a trip I’d love to take. I’ve been a big fan of train travel ever since I took the Canadian across Canada right after university. There’s nothing like sitting in a comfy seat watching the snowy landscape rush by in winter — but then, there’s nothing like chugging across almost any of the world’s great landscapes. Train travel is where it’s at.

  2. Loved the blog documenting your trip on The Empire B. We’re California and southwest bound in February from Toronto- debating a one-way route by train as part of the trip. Any suggestions as to which route might hold the best trip in winter? We’re considering: Coastal Starlight (Seattle to LA); Southwest Chief (LA area east to Albuqueque); California Zephir (San Francisco – Denver, possibly on to Chicago).
    Thoughts? We’re doing cross-Canada next year as they are launching a new Premiere Sleeper class which looks terrific!

    1. Coast Starlight is a very nice trip, we haven’t done the Zephyr in the winter, but I’ll bet that is gorgeous through the mountains in the snow so I would lean towards that route. Have a great trip!

  3. Last year’s end-of-year vacation was NYC to New Orleans, with a one night stop in Atlanta, then north…all the way to Minnesota, via Chicago. Passed through Chicago on our way back to NY, but a wonderful way to see distant friends, enjoy the very varied landscape, and make great memories to share on return to school and forever more. This year, we are thinking of NY to San Diego, maybe through Texas, then up the west coast to WA, then back to our friends in MN via the western portion of the Empire Builder route…the part we didn’t get to last year. We were delayed on our return, owing to a major snowstorm and frigid temperatures, but it only made it more exciting! Yes, I am a huge rail fan… My son, not so much ( he looked at his laptop much more than the scenery), but he may appreciate it more as time goes by. By the way, we did it “on the cheap:” economy seats all the way, with excellent entertainment by the various crews en route.

  4. I just booked my ticket from DC to Portland. I’ll be on the Empire Builder from Chicago west. Thanks for the writeup, it only added to my excitement for my trip.

    Does the train stop long enough anywhere to get off for a few minutes?

      1. Thanks so much for the response. I am in car 2730, room 8…any idea if that is the side with the betters view?

  5. Thanks for all your information! We can’t wait for our honeymoon trip abroad the Empire Builder. Minneapolis to Seattle December 2013!!! Your videos have added to our excitement:-)

  6. We are contemplating our first train trip in late December. Your blog has just about sealed the deal. We have a wedding to go to in MN.. ( we are from CA). I think we will make it an adventure. Thanks for sharing!

  7. We are heading to Seattle to visit my husband’s kids via the empire builder. We will arrive on Christmas Morning…I cannot wait…and this blog has made me that much more excited…

  8. My sister and I are taking the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago, and back again, in December. Your site has me even more excited for our first trip by train.

  9. Sou de Sao Paulo/Brasil, e não falo ingles, mas quero deixar aqui registrada a minha admiração pelo privilégio que voces nos EUA, tem em poder viajar de trem. Não há trens de passageiros no Brasil. Deve ser fascinante. Sou um “railfan”, e trem é o melhor transporte que há, pois é divertido e voce não fica preso em uma poltrona. Abraços a voce e parabens pelo relato da viagem e pelo blog. Thanks.

  10. I am visiting my married daughter in Michigan. I have been doing so about every 18 months since she came here 18 years ago. But this time I flew into LA, caught the train to Portland and then on to Chicago. A wonderful experience and your videos brought it all back to me. It was as exciting as you paint it. I’m already planning for the next visit which will in wintertime.

      1. I’m now planning my second trip on the Empire Builder for December 2014 travelling west to east. Which side gives the best views from an upper roomette?

  11. Im looking forward to being on the EB in June, second time for me. Thanks for a great article telling it as it really is.

  12. What did you think of downtown Whitefish?
    I always pass through there on the Empire
    Builder and wondered what it would be like
    to stay.

  13. I rode Amtrak’s Coast Starlight about 12 years ago. My trip was from Sacramento to Seattle. Wonderful train trip-much like this trip documented here on this website. I am a dedicated railfan. Thanks for sharing your trip!To all railfans: I recommend VIA Rail’s train, “The Canadian”, which crosses Canada. Unforgettable trip.

  14. So this trip was a gift from Amtrak for all of your travels previously? Nice! I like the idea of the rail pass it is cheaper than the regular fares for sure. Great job on the whole blog! 🙂

  15. Fascinating. My main focus on Amtrak has been the Boston – NYC, or Boston to Philadelphia, or even Boston to D.C. route. Not as much fun as your trip!

  16. Hi, I really love your website! I’m contacting you because I’ve written a book entitled Never Marry a Momma’s Boy: and 62 other men to avoid like the plague and I am hoping to get the word out about my new book! You can guess that this book is about types of men that women should steer clear of at all costs. It is a funny and smart read that I’m really proud of! If you would be interested, I would be thrilled to write a guest blog on your site. Please feel free to contact me at [email protected]. Thank you for your time!
    Susan Conner

  17. Great post! My husband and I did this trip in reverse a few years ago. Portland, OR to Glacier during the summer. Some day we’ll take the empire builder all the way just for fun. We’re just starting our retirement adventures – selling it all on ebay and becoming citizens of the world. My blog of our adventures is JustaBackpackandARollie. You’ve got some great inspiration for us here.

  18. You have just traveled Alan’s dream. He’s been talking to me about a train trip from Whitefish to Chicago and back. Now that I’ve read your report, I’m not so hesitant.

    In my former life, I was married to a railroad executive who was involved with the actual maintenance of trains. He called rail fans “hysterical nuts” instead of “historical nuts.”

  19. Are there two seats or just the one? Looks like an adventure to put on the “Bucket List”. Just have to find out how to snare a couple comp tickets. Thanks for the review. It was excellent.

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