A Little Time and a Keyboard: Riding on Amtrak's Empire Builder

Riding on Amtrak's Empire Builder

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Riding Amtrak's Empire Builder Cross Country

Amtrak Empire Builder route from Chicago to Seattle and returning from Portland takes you through incredible landscapes.

For this year's summer vacation to Portland, Oregon, our mode of transportation was just as much of an adventure as the destination itself. For our journey to the Pacific Northwest, we hopped aboard the Amtrak Empire Builder which runs between Chicago and Seattle or Portland. The approximately 46 hour trip transported us through some of the most scenic parts of the country. Since we took the train out and back, we were able to see some of the scenery in a different light as well as some that we may have passed in the night in one direction. So wonderful and relaxing to spend a couple of days with nothing to do except enjoy scenes like this in Minnesota go by:

Tranquil scenery in Minnesota viewed from the Empire Builder.
Tranquil scenery in Minnesota.

Riding on the Empire Builder:

We boarded the train in Glenview, Illinois which is not too far from home. Glenview is the first stop after the train leaves Chicago.

The Empire Builder stopped at Minot, North Dakota.
The Empire Builder stopped at Minot, North Dakota.
We reserved sleeper car rooms which I think is the way to go if traveling cross country. The rooms give you a little privacy and you can have the beds folded out throughout the day if you would like. Plus, you have nice windows to enjoy the scenery all to yourself. We found our seats to be sizable and comfortable even though the room was tiny. We received bottled water which was a nice add-on.

Sleeper car rooms allow you a more private space to sit back and enjoy the variety of scenery across the US.
Sleeper car rooms allow you a more private space to sit back and enjoy the variety of scenery across the US.

Our rooms each had two seats. In the evening, the seats would fold out into a bed and then another bunk would drop from the ceiling. We shared communal bathrooms with other sleeper car guests. However, we never had to wait to use one. There are family sleeper with restrooms, but I found that they smelled a little when I passed them. So, I was happy we chose the two rooms for our family of three. Not the best picture, but here is my bed folded out from the chair:

Dining in the Dining Car:

Tables in the Dining Car of the Empire Builder

The Dining Car serves breakfast, lunch and dinner at announced times. For dinner, you make a reservation. For breakfast and lunch if you go early, you should be able to get right in. If you go later, you may need to get on a wait list. Food selection decreases as service goes on, so I recommend going early to have the best selection. Tables are for four and they will fill the tables, so parties smaller than four with be seated with other guests. This is a bit fun and I am sure you will have travel stories to share - we certainly did! Meals come with sleeper car reservations but not with coach. Coach guests can pay for their meals in the dining car. There is a menu to choose from for each meal. There is a limited selection but enough options considering you are on a train! I was pretty pleased with the amount of fruits and vegetables available. This often is a problem when traveling. Here is a peek at our dinner:

Dinner selection on Amtrak's Empire Builder in the Dining Car. Dinner is sit down.

Doesn't the salad look great? I enjoyed the salmon and ended up ordering it for three dinners. My husband had the steak and my daughter the mac-and-cheese. Each of us was able to order a salad with our meal as part of our package with the sleeper car.

Flourless chocolate cake and cheesecake aboard the Empire Builder.

We did enjoy dessert as well. I loved the flourless chocolate cake while my husband and daughter enjoyed the cheesecake. Alas, we must admit that we had dessert with each lunch and dinner on the train.

Breakfast on the Empire Builder.
Breakfast on the Empire Builder.
Breakfast was pretty filling and just what we needed on the day we were getting off of the train in Seattle. Other menu items included additional egg dishes and pancakes. We also had lunch but I am not sure why I didn't take pictures. Lunch options included burgers and a goat cheese salad that was dynamite. Overall, the food was decent and some items were pretty good. The fare was better than we expected and I loved the chocolate cake!

The Scenery:

We were treated to some amazing scenery. Prairie, wetlands, farmland, bluffs, mountains and more glided by as we traveled across country. I really was in awe during our trip through the North Dakota Badlands:

Stunning layers of the North Dakota Badlands captivate as we ride by on the Empire Builder.
Stunning layers of the North Dakota Badlands captivate.
We went through Glacier National Park which greeted us with breathtaking landscapes.

Picturesque view of Glacier National Park from aboard the Empire Builder.

At the time, we did not know there was a wildfire at Glacier NP. However, you can see the smoke in the photo below. Temperatures were about 100 F. Our train would later be delayed due to an issue with the engine and then trouble with the hot rails.

More Info: Forest fires can be terrifying and we were definitely were definitely alarmed by some of the issues caused by them on our trip. However, they do have a role in the ecosystem. Everyday Wanderer has a great article Why Forest Fires (Although Terrifying) Are Actually Good for the Environment that gives more perspective on their role.

The scenery in Washington is also not to be missed. If you go through to Portland or start there, you will enjoy the Columbia River Gorge.

The Columbia River Gorge as the sun sets.
The Columbia River Gorge as the sun sets.
We were able to savor views from our rooms. You can also sit in the observation lounge and benefit from the large windows. However, the lounge is popular so it is hit and miss if there are seats.

The Observation Car on the Empire Builder.
The Observation Car on the Empire Builder.

Brief Stops:

There are stops throughout the route in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington in addition to Portland and Seattle at the end and Chicago or Glenview, Illinois where we got on at the other end. Some of these stops are very brief and you will not be permitted to get off unless you are truly departing. Others, you can get off for a brief break. Most of the time, you will not be able to go into the station but can walk around near the train. Many of the depots have interesting engines to check out. You may also spy other trains stopped for a bit. A brief walk outside for fresh air is nice. Our stop in Minot, North Dakota on the way out was a bit longer. When the conductor yells "All Aboard!", you better make sure you are on board!

Another of the engines we discovered en route:

Santa Fe Railway Engine

Our Experience:

Overall, we enjoyed our adventure on the Empire Builder. The trek allows you to view the American landscape in a unique way and see places that you may not by car. We also savored the downtime reading books and playing games. Naps were also welcome! We do recommend getting the sleeper if you are going cross country and to be prepared for delays. We did not have many going out to Seattle but had quite a few on the way back from Portland. All in all a great American adventure!

For more on our adventure, head to Traveling on Empire Builder to Washington and Oregon.

To Know:

  • There will be stops where you can get out and stretch your legs but you will not have time to go into town. You will be left behind if you do not get on the train when the conductor shouts: "All Aboard!"
  • Passengers will be getting on and off at various stops. Some ride the whole way; others do not. 
  • The Dining Car goes with the portion of the train to Seattle. If you are going to or coming from Portland, chances are you will have one boxed meal.
  • If your train is late enough to warrant an extra meal, selection will be sparse. We were offered beef stew as the only choice when our train arrived late.
  • Bring extra snacks and beverages not only for the trip but in case there are delays.
  • The train stops in a couple of locations in Glacier National Park, so this is a popular stop for people to get off. There are hotels near the stops.
  • The train splits in Spokane or comes together in Spokane depending on direction.
  • There is no Wifi but you may have spotty service in some areas.
  • Bring games and books.
  • There is a snack shop in the lounge car that is open a selection of hours.
  • We did bring some alcoholic beverages on the train. You cannot bring them to the dining car. They have them for purchase there as well.
Riding on Amtrak's Empire Builder


  1. The food looks way better than I'd expect! What an amazing adventure!

  2. Enjoyed reading your article. Going from Chicago to west coast is on my bucket list. Last year we took Amtrak from Chicago to New Orleans and really enjoyed the trip....with funny stories about staying in the roomette.

    1. Glad you liked it! It is quite an adventure. Glad you enjoyed yours to New Orleans. :)

  3. Sounds like a nice scenic journey across the country. Would definitely love to visit Chicago one day from British Columbia, Canada. What a nice relaxed way to travel! Robert :)