Chicago to Glacier National Park Empire Builder trip, June-July 2019

Discussion in 'Travelogues / Trip Reports' started by dogbert617, Nov 6, 2019.

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  1. Nov 6, 2019 #1

    dogbert617

    dogbert617

    dogbert617

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    Slightly late that I am finally posting this here(as I posted about the Cardinal quicker), but better late than never I guess. Anyway I had been quietly debating in my head as far back as 2018 doing a trip out to Glacier National Park, and this year when I realized that shuttle service was sufficient to do such a trip without renting a car(even between Saint Mary(at the main east gate into Glacier NP) south to East Glacier Park Village by that train station, with a stop at Two Medicine on the way south), that I decided to finally pull the trigger and do such a trip. Never mind that next time, I may just try renting a car on my own to explore Whitefish and Kalispell a little bit, and perhaps cross the border into Alberta to see Waterton Lakes National Park for myself! Never use my passport enough, and should put that into use more often. :) Although for sure, a part of me does regret that I didn't do some sort of brief excursion into Whitefish, MT. That's okay, since next time I know for sure I will stop in Whitefish, and likely from there also rent a car, maybe explore Whitefish/Kalispell, and then go on to Glacier NP. And I'm sure also try to visit Waterton Lakes NP, in Alberta?

    Anyway, my trip going west to Glacier National Park on #7/27 on June 29th(and arrived the 30th at West Glacier station), may perhaps have been THE most crowded I had ever seen an Amtrak long distance train in coach. And unfortunately as it was too overpriced to upgrade to a sleeper going west(thankfully, it wasn't as pricey to upgrade to a sleeper roomette going east, so I got a roomette coming back), I rode on #7/27 all 31 scheduled hours going west in coach! One sad aspect I quickly realized going west was that the train was SO DANGED CROWDED, that I was blown away that the staff had decided to reserve all tables(usually designed for groups up to 4 people to sit in) on one end of the sightseer lounge, for all the extra coach passengers boarding the train. I don't know how all the coach employees somehow pulled it off so that every coach passenger going west on the Builder got a seat, but Amtrak should give all those employees on that train run special kudos from the company! I especially liked the coach attendant who was regularly working my car as she was a very nice (Asian?) woman who really was handling that challenge of getting all passengers a seat well, and even crossing into other cars to make sure all boarding coach passengers going west could find a seat somewhere on the EB train! And as I understood the Builder train I rode going west talking to that coach attendant, it was sold out to at least East Glacier Park I believe.

    Back to how the first day of this trip went and to move on from talking about crowds, I was impressed that when I boarded at Chicago Union Station, that each door of the train was marked with clear paper sheets with boarding assignments(that each coach car on the EB going west was going to handle) for each car. I wish more Amtrak trains departing Union Station, would also do this myself. Since usually they don't write out clear paper sheets to tape to each door with the station stops each train car will handle, and one of the Amtrak employees will bark out 'go to blank car further down the platform' to each boarding passenger in coach with no notes taped next to each train car door on where to board(just like what I remember happened, when in 2018 I rode the Capitol Limited to Pittsburgh and back). Anyway the boarding and departure of the train went fine and on time, though I knew that once we got to Milwaukee and Columbus, WI, that I already was bracing the warning that this coach car attendant and others were telling all of us that 'enjoy not having a seatmate while it lasts, since likely once you hit Milwaukee or Columbus you'll have a seatmate for the rest of your trip'. That said away from the issue of crowds, the trip went VERY well, and I got a lot of great photo opportunities going west. Aside from slightly mistiming one of my photos I attempted to do going through Wisconsin Dells of Broadway Ave(main east to west street there) looking east, but going back eastbound on #8/28 I finally got off that photo opportunity of that town I attemped to do going on #7/27, and barely missed my photo turning off well enough for me. After that the trip went very well, and also I didn't realize outside of Tomah, that there is a brief tunnel the EB passes through! The scenery was great passing through western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota, transitioning into beautiful vistas of the Mississippi River by the time we hit southeast Minnesota after La Crosse. Right after we passed La Crosse, I went over to the Sightseer Lounge(and somehow I found a seat!) to take in the views of southeast Minnesota, all the way till it got dark just before Red Wing. After we passed Winona(also the first smoke stop of the EB going west, and I briefly walked outside here), it got too dark for pics about 15(?) minutes before Red Wing, MN, which made me slightly sad as I was hoping to see the town of Red Wing just before it got dark. Least I quickly realized looking at the schedule, that this wouldn't be a problem(having daylight to allow for seeing Red Wing properly, and photos) when I rode the EB going back east. And going back on #8/28 later, I got some good shots of Hastings(not a station stop, but it's a nice town the EB passes through), and of course Red Wing. Also if you are wondering about dinner the first day(and night), I made a reluctant decision to skip getting dinner and eat either my own food or cafe car food during both dinner periods going west, since in my opinion dinner prices in the dining car are EXPENSIVE as heck, if you aren't riding a sleeper(where all meals are gratis) for your whole trip. I did do a dining car breakfast and lunch the next day on the EB(day 2) through ND and MT respectively, since dining car breakfast and lunch prices aren't as expensive as dinner. Thankfully coming back east on #8/28 I was somehow able to afford a sleeper upgrade, and get all dining car meals gratis.

    The smoke stop in Saint Paul went fine(as I LOVED seeing St. Paul's skyline at night), and I have no doubt that likely in 2020, it'll be a top contender for a possible future Amtrak trip I may do. Not just since lol, the employees in both directions talked me out of my desire to very briefly look inside the station building, then head right back to the platform. OTOH when I took the Cardinal and we did the smoke stop in Indianapolis(probably helps that night the train was early there going east, and will note I didn't ride the Card going west as I got a ride going back to Chicago), noone talked me out of my plan to look inside the station house there. Ah well, it's all good and not the end of the world, since train crews on each Amtrak train can be a little different. And myself, my preference(IF at all possible) is to get a brief look inside station houses at stops during smoke stops, IF(!) time and the train crew allows for doing that. I understand VERY, very well(and for sure, more than some of the other posters may think!) that train crews keeping the train running as close to on time is a top goal, so not the end of the world if sometimes that goal doesn't work(getting a brief look inside each station house during smoke stops, and get a photo or 2 of the inside of those station houses IF time allows). After leaving Saint Paul I didn't totally fall asleep, until sometime past Staples or Detroit Lakes. I tried starting to sleep before we hit Saint Cloud, but weirdly I rewoke up briefly for the stops in St. Cloud, Staples and Detroit Lakes, then fell asleep for good right after Detroit Lakes. And totally slept through the stop in Fargo. Next morning I briefly rewoke up around the time of the Grand Forks station stop, now demolished today) and went back to sleep, then woke up for good a little after passing Devils Lake. At least I did see Devils Lake's downtown going eastbound and even got a pic of its charming downtown, albeit at night coming back on the EB just before I slept going east on #8/28 later on. I'll post more day 2 details(starting with when our train went by the Lake Irvine/Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge west of Devils Lake, ND, as barely before that NWR was when I first woke up for day 2 of the EB train ride for good), later. On a side note a few months back(think it was on some random online website where I saw such a photo), I wish Grand Forks' Amtrak station was still downtown in its former downtown station site(and was a Great Northern Railway constructed station), and not moved to the western edge of that city in an Amshack station it now has today(sigh).

    Am posting some photos for the scenery I saw, going west on day 1. Will be honest that to me, Montana stood out a little more vs. Minnesota, though for sure I did LOVE the scenery along the Mississippi River in MN. North Dakota had a few good moments too(oil equipment aside, but at least I didn't notice that once I crossed into Montana), on day 2.

    Photo 1(#5036) is Wauwatosa, WI, photo 2(#5040) is a marshland a little east of Columbus, WI(can't remember exactly where), photo 3(#5043) is Columbus, WI's Amtrak station, photo 4(#5045) is scenery in Columbus, WI barely west of the Amtrak station including a local church, pic 5(#5047) is a local cemetery in Columbus and a farm next door to it, pic 6(#5055) is looking north on the Wisconsin River right after we departed the Wisconsin Dells station going over a bridge, pic 7(#5061) is a rocky cliff and a town(per relooking at street view on 11/6/19, I'm 99.9% positive it's Camp Douglas, WI) between Wisconsin Dells and Tomah, pic 8(#5063) is the Tomah Amtrak station house, pic 9(#5066) is the rural scenery somewhere between Tomah and La Crosse, and pic 10(#5070) is La Crosse's Amtrak station. I'll post Minnesota pics on the next post, since IIRC this site only allows 10 pics a post.
     

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  2. Nov 7, 2019 #2

    dogbert617

    dogbert617

    dogbert617

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    I think for post 1, I caught all my errors when for some reason I accidentally typed Sparta instead of Tomah(which is indeed correct) for that station stop, lol! That said they are close to each other on the map, so ah well if I made an accidental error there.

    Anyway as I had a LOT of great Wisconsin pics(and choosing THE final 10 I did post for post 1, were all DIFFICULT decisions), I decided to post a few more Wisconsin pictures I narrowly decided against posting the first time. Minnesota pic posting going west on #7/27, will start the post after this.

    And as always if you have any questions or noticed something I missed(i.e. mislabeling a photo of somewhere rural by mistake, albeit I will say I'm 99.9% sure photo 7 is Camp Douglas, WI, after relooking at some WI towns in that area on Google Street View), please feel free to post and I will respond to your question, comment, or observation.

    I just chose to post 10 more Wisconsin pics, and the last one funny enough was when the Builder was crossing the Mississippi River bridge between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Then I'll work on finishing uploading Minnesota pics(you'll love those pics, when I post those later today), then I'll move on to talking about the North Dakota and Montana parts of the trip going west. I may split talking about North Dakota and eastern Montana separately, vs. when I talk about the central and western Montana portion of the trip(from Havre, MT onward) till I finally arrive at Lake McDonald Lodge within Glacier National Park. We'll see, once I get around to later talking about the trip from North Dakota and Montana to onward, how much I'll cover in each post.

    Pic 1(#5037) is Wauwatosa, picture 2(#5038) is some farm countryside and a road a little east of Columbus, picture 3(#5041) is looking southwest on Ludington Street(Wisconsin Highway 73) right after our train begun its station stop to discharge/receive Columbus passengers, pic 4(#5044) is another view of the Columbus station house, pic 5(#5056) is of one of the towns between Columbus and Tomah(not yet sure which town it is, once I found out looking on Google Street View I'll add that info), pic 6(#5060) is the Wisconsin town of Camp Douglas, pic 7(#5067) is one of the small towns between Tomah and La Crosse(not yet sure which town this is myself, am hoping soon to add info clarifying this), pic 8(#5069) is another pic of La Crosse's station house and platform, pic 9(#5073) is somewhere along the eastern shoreline of La Crosse on one of the smaller streams just east of the main Mississippi River, and pic 10(#5076) is while our train was crossing the Mississippi River from Wisconsin to Minnesota.
     

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  3. Nov 8, 2019 #3

    dogbert617

    dogbert617

    dogbert617

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    A quick note for the previous post above this: I am still looking over various google street view images of various Wisconsin towns(after all, THIS is how I identified those 2 past pics properly that were while we were passing through Camp Douglas, WI, photo 7 two posts above(#5061), and photo 6(#5060) one post above), in the hopes I can verify which town photo 5(#5056) was taken in. I think it may've been Portage, WI(which also is an Amtrak stop), but I'm not yet 100% sure. One post above, I believe photo 7(#5067) was either West Salem, WI, or Bangor, WI. Once I verify the towns where both #5056 and #5067 were taken, I will make a post on this thread that clearly mentions that info.

    Some Minnesota pictures before sunset our first day going west, enjoy. Also, I loved how the sunset looked so much like a painting over the Mississippi, once we passed our smoke/stretch break in Winona, MN. Also there is a cool ex-Milwaukee Road RR freight building that's next door to Winona's station depot, but that I'll save posting that picture till I upload pictures coming back from Glacier National Park on 8/28. Also, the smoke break in Winona was the first of many very noticeable 'all aboard!' calls that I heard our great coach car attendant yell, en route west to West Glacier and finally my destination of Glacier National Park. I'll forever regret I didn't ask her for her name, since she was a great coach car attendant that I would've given an amazing compliment to how great she was, on Amtrak's form on their website where you can write complaints, mention issues about their service, or even give an employee compliment(there REALLY is an option in the drop down menu where you can select that, btw) to someone working for Amtrak.

    Photos 1 to 4(respectively, #5084 to #5091) were taken just before arriving in Winona, MN, photo #5 was of a random street and also a local bar just before we arrived at Winona(which also is a smoke break), photo 6 is of the Winona station depot building(was unsure when our train would depart, as I was under the impression this stretch break would only be a brief one. and due to that I unfortunately didn't run inside this station house for a quick photo), and photos 7 to 10 were between the stops of Winona and Red Wing.
     

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  4. Nov 9, 2019 #4

    Tony in Ann Arbor

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    Tony in Ann Arbor

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    The pictures of evening over the Mississippi are marvelous.
     
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  5. Nov 10, 2019 #5

    dogbert617

    dogbert617

    dogbert617

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    Thanks, I'm glad you greatly enjoyed the Minnesota pictures! And for sure, the sunset that I saw once we passed Winona did feel like a painting, as we were heading west. While I was disappointed it got dark before we arrived in Red Wing, MN, I did see it in daylight on the way back home(on train #8/28). And I'll post a pic of that, when I later get around to posting about the trip going back east later. To me unlike the VERY crowded train #7/27 I was on, it was a LOT more relaxing to take train #8/28 back, since there were fewer people on that train. And probably the fact I boarded that train on July 4th(a holiday) to head back home, probably helped as to why it wasn't as crowded. :)

    Pic 1(#5117) is Saint Paul's downtown skyline at night, pic 2(#5119) is a nearby bridge I could see in the distance from the platform, pic 3(#5121) is the St. Paul platform, pic 4(#5122) is looking back at St. Paul Union Depot and the transit center there as the train was departing, pic 5(#5129) is Saint Cloud's depot. Unfortunately going eastbound on #8/28 after leaving Glacier National Park despite that I'm pretty positive sunrise likely occurred just before we got to Saint Cloud, I unfortunately didn't wake up until barely after we had departed St. Cloud. And I'm pretty sure I woke up, before we hit Cable, MN as well. For sure I was pretty disappointed, since I was hoping to get a daytime pic of that station depot! And finally pic 6(#5131), is Staples, MN. Yep somehow I rewoke up briefly, and got an okay pic of that station despite it being late at night!

    And now, I feel ready to post about the North Dakota portions of my Empire Builder trip, going west on #7/27. May also post a little about eastern Montana too, but not sure if I'll split that into a separate post or post about that in the same post. The ND post will occur either tonight, or tomorrow when I get around to that!
     

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  6. Nov 12, 2019 #6

    dogbert617

    dogbert617

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    On day 2 of riding Empire Builder(combined train) #7/27 west to Glacier National Park, for whatever reason(not sure why) I briefly woke up around when we stopped in Grand Forks(just one of those meh Amshack depots, so I didn't take a pic of that), then slept again till a little bit after we passed Devils Lake, ND. After Staples, MN, am not sure why I briefly rewoke up during the Detroit Lakes, MN stop, and was able from there to successfully sleep through Fargo till we got to just before Grand Forks, then slept again till a little past Devils Lake. Maybe the track conditions are maintained a little better in western Minnesota, and eastern North Dakota? I'm not sure. Anyway, I did wake up a little bit after we passed the station stop of Devils Lake, and the first thing I noticed that morning was Lake Irvine and Lake Alice, while we were passing through the Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge. This is just barely before you hit the very small town of Churchs Ferry, ND btw.

    Right after we passed there, I decided it was a good time to get breakfast in the dining car, so I walked over there and was able to sit immediately. Also I was motivated by the fact I wanted to time finishing eating my breakfast before we hit the extended smoke/stretch break in Minot, and I had no problem accomplishing that goal lol! Didn't take a pic of my food for this meal weirdly enough, but I ordered some sort of omelette with monterey jack cheese that was really decent. During this meal, whichever person(s) I sat with didn't talk as much as some of the other times I've been in Amtrak dining cars before, but that's okay since the staff/servers working train #7/27 were all great to talk to. I can't remember the name of my server I had during breakfast, and later saw him again during lunch in the dining car, and was a great guy! I remember on one of the pics I took of the inside of the dining car, that it showed that guy I really liked talking to clearly(if any regular EB riders who ride that train more often than I do know his name, let me know since I'd like to give him an employee complement on Amtrak's 'contact us/email us' page). Also surprisingly enough, unlike when I rode #8/28 going back to Chicago, the crew for at least #7/27 on the run I had going west, still did the (faux?) flower decorations at each table. Also when we did the station stop at Rugby while I was eating, I noticed a banner hanging from the station house that said 'geographic center of North America'. Unfortunately the pic I took looking back at the platform and part of that station house doesn't quite show that, but for sure it was interesting to see that banner. Also somewhere in eastern North Dakota there was one brief moment where we passed some rolling hill formations, which was a tiny hint of the more interesting scenery to come that we'd more see once we hit into western North Dakota, and especially eastern Montana. And believe me once our train passed Williston, the scenery definitely got more interesting!

    Once I finished my meal, IIRC I sat in the observation car for a little bit and did some reading, along with just looking at the sights till I got to Minot. Never mind it wasn't much, but of course I always LOVE sitting in the observation car. Our train briefly stopped at a rail yard that was barely east of the Minot station, and then we pulled into that station for our extended 30-35(?, however long the break westbound is scheduled for) minute break there. Minot's station house was very nice looking, and it even had a take a book/leave a book rack inside(unfortunately didn't see any books I wanted to take, and I didn't find a lot of interesting local travel brochures, vs. inside the stations at Havre, Shelby, and East Glacier Park). Before we left, I even got to see a group of Amish/Mennonite(?) people doing some exercising on the platform during that break, which was really cool! Which you'll see, in one of the pictures. I was unfortunately reminded that Amtrak allows police drug dogs to walk inside trains to sniff for drugs and pot, as I saw one briefly enter the train during our smoke break. Luckily, NOT a single passenger got kicked off the train because of that cop and drug dog, which was good.

    Time for a break, and to post some North Dakota pictures that were all taken barely before the Minot smoke/stretch break. Pics of the Minot platform, sights I saw(and such photos) during that break, y'all will get to see starting in the next post. And a weird random fact I learned about the Empire Builder, thanks to the friendly (Asian?, and also wish I could remember her name so I could give both her and that friendly male server in the dining car complements, on Amtrak's website) female coach car attendant I talked to from time to time throughout my trip going west. For those who don't know, the very friendly female coach car attendant I talked to said there were only a few stops on the ENTIRE Empire Builder route where ALL train car doors can be opened at once: Saint Paul, Minot, and IIRC the other station was Portland, as that was where the Amtrak crew base serving the EB where she worked for was located. BTW in Chicago, she did add(and also I remember personally seeing this with my own eyes, as well!) that one railcar barely doesn't fit the platform, and that it's parked barely beyond where the door can be safely opened for it!
     

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  7. Nov 20, 2019 at 5:39 PM #7

    flitcraft

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    flitcraft

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    I'm enjoying your very detailed trip report, and look forward to the next installments when you have time to do them. You're reminding me that it's been too long since I took the Empire Builder!
     
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