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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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