Full steam ahead aboard the Empire Builder

I woke before dawn on my third day aboard the Empire Builder. The observation car was silent and the passing countryside soaked in darkness, but then the first grey light of pre-dawn began to outline the contours of mountains and a glimmer of river. All too soon, the ethereal half-light gave way to an angry burst of fiery red clouds and then golden daylight hit the river water and filled the observation car with dancing shafts of light.

full steam ahead empire builder amtrak usa train sunrise dawn

full steam ahead empire builder amtrak usa train

Change was in the air. In Spokane, a new crew boarded and cars were decoupled. Half the train was going to Portland and the other half to Seattle. I said goodbye to my Amish friends as they headed off down the tracks in the observation car bound for Portland. Our part of the train got the dining car, so I wandered down for a strong cup of coffee and a plate of eggs with some fellow passengers I had met at an earlier meal. We greeted each other like old friends and swapped stories. They were well-rested, having had the luxury of a sleeper car, but sequestered in their private quarters they had missed out on all the excitement of the near mutiny and were still in the dark about the previous day’s mysterious delay. My tiredness slipped away as I filled them in on the adventures they had slept through, and suddenly my spot in the observation car seemed infinitely preferable to a comfy bed in a private car.

Back in my seat, I overheard a fellow passenger ask a conductor if we were on time. The conductor who had boarded in Spokane laughed amiably and answered ‘I can’t speak for what went before, but my part of the journey is on schedule. We’re not going to lose any extra time on my watch’. The whole car erupted in laughter. It was reassuring to see most people had maintained a sense of humour.

A glance out the window revealed the countryside was changing rapidly now. We were passing through the fertile lands of the Columbia Basin. The scars of agriculture formed vast swathes of colour, geometric and sweeping and dramatic enough to rival the most modern of painters.

full steam ahead empire builder amtrak rail train travel miro columbia basin fieldsfull steam ahead empire builder amtrak train rail travel miro columbia basin fields

The sharply etched fields gave way to high desert. I was in familiar territory now, having driven the stretch from Spokane to Seattle countless times in the past. Huge, parched, craggy outcrops lined the tracks, dipping down to afford tantalizing glimpses of the Columbia River beyond, twisting and weaving its way through the arid landscape, appearing at alternating sides of the train as it clattered across bridges.

full steam ahead empire builder amtrak train travel high desertfull steam ahead empire builder amtrak train travel columbia river

The tracks cut stark gashes through the barren landscape. I discovered, to my delight, that the decoupling in Spokane had left the back window of the train in full view, so I could watch the tracks unfolding behind us as we carved our way through eastern Washington.

full steam ahead empire builder eastern washington train tracks amtrak travel

Then green trees and waterfalls, green rivers and the Cascade Mountain Range were suddenly flanking the tracks on both sides. As we crested Stevens Pass, the train plunged headlong into the Cascade Tunnel. It is the longest tunnel in the US; a masterpiece of man’s perseverance measuring 7.8 miles in length. After a full quarter hour of darkness we re-emerged into dappled green and dropped down into the overcast lushness of western Washington.

full steam ahead empire builder amtrak train travelfull steam ahead empire builder amtrak train travel cascades

As we descended, the Cascades soared like giants behind us, and then we hit coastline. This was it, the final stretch of the journey along the coast from Everett to Seattle. Cloud-blanketed skies diffused gentle light across Puget Sound as the Empire Builder clickety-clacked along its final few miles of track.

full steam ahead empire builder amtrak train travel puget sound

The train pulled in to Seattle’s King Street Station and passengers scurried down the aisles, eager to disembark. I gathered my bags and walked the length of the platform to greet friends and family before taking a long shower, catching up on news and sipping a glass of wine until my eyelids grew heavy and I stumbled into bed. I was going to need all the rest I could get in the next 24 hours, because I was about to turn around and travel almost the same journey again, in reverse. This time, however, I would be doing it by car, in the company of a friend and a very special dog called Sprocket… (continued here)

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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65 Responses to Full steam ahead aboard the Empire Builder

  1. Wow … so awesome! I feel like I was there with you! SCHWEET word and photo essay!!!

  2. scrapydo says:

    Wow thank you for taking me with you on your journey. Waiting for the trip back! Beautiful potos they explain everything.

  3. Wonderful to travel across the country by train like that… although it appears from your posts that it’s not all a bed of roses! 🙂

  4. writecrites says:

    I had never seen Eastern Washington before. It was quite a treat to see it in your photos, and the way you describe it is perfect: as geometric, sweeping and dramatic as a modern painting. Wonderful photo essay.

    • ailsapm says:

      Thanks, writecrites, the dramatic change from one side of the Cascades to the other is one of my favourite experiences. So glad you enjoyed it. xxx Ailsa

  5. LubbyGirl says:

    ah yes, these are familiar scenes, but I’ve never gotten to take any photos from a train. That’s on our list! I have so enjoyed the trip alongside you – hope the return by car is wonderful!

    • ailsapm says:

      It’s not that easy taking photos from a train, unfortunately, LubbyGirl, unless you can find a window that opens. All too many of my shots were ruined by dirt streaks on the outside of the window or reflections of lights inside the train car. Happily I managed to get a few keepers. 🙂 So glad you came along for the journey! xxx

      • LubbyGirl says:

        I wondered if that would be the case, since I have bug juice on so many of my road trip photos – the ones through the windshield, at least. But I’d take that chance, just for the experience!! 🙂

  6. Wonderful images! I have never been but I love a great rail ride too!

  7. pommepal says:

    The photos are just magic, especially the dawn ones, I noticed lots of curves…. Photos from train windows are very difficult, always seems to be a tree or telegraph pole pops up just as you press the shutter. So it’s an “oh damn” and try again…

  8. I loved being on your train trip! The photos are great! Still a great way to travel

  9. This has been a wonderful journey, particularly the scenery in this instalment

    • ailsapm says:

      This was definitely my favourite part of the journey, Denise. Montana and Washington are incredibly scenic states, and I am always thrilled by the huge contrast in landscape and climate when you traverse the Cascades.

  10. Beautiful photos that capture the country. Did you grow up on Washington? The first time I came to the Northwest, i knew it was going to be my home. I hope you have fun in Seattle–so much to do. Artifacts from the tomb of King Tut are on exhibit at the Science Center, if you like history and museums, and we have two national parks and a volcano that really works within driving distance.

    • ailsapm says:

      Hi Naomi, I grew up in Ireland, but have spent time in Washington state before and love it dearly. I noticed they have a really fun sign over King Street station where they’ve inserted a ‘Tut’ between King and Street. Made me laugh. Even though I’ve spent time here before, I’ve never visited either of the national parks, so am definitely going to see them while I’m here.

    • If you can possibly get to Olympic National Park, it is only 17 miles out of Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge. There is a stunning view, and if you follow the road a little past the visitors’ center, you will come to the trail head for a spectacular day hike on Hurricane Hill. It is my favorite hike in the Northwest.

  11. Gunta says:

    Thanks for taking me along on the journey. Lovely images despite the dodgy chances shooting from a train!

    • ailsapm says:

      Glad you followed along on my journey, Gunta. I was relieved that at least some of my shots came out – although there were plenty that picked up grime on the windows and weird reflections too. 😉

  12. viveka says:

    Wonderful journey I’m able to do with you here … you’re a such a good story teller too. It’s like I’m there with you. The photos are fantastic for being taken from a moving train – when I traveled on the train from King Street to Vancouver only 4 hours it was so foggy I could only get 3 pictures – it was yearly in the morning .. and they didn’t turn out that great. That’s life. Thank you so much … for this journey.

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh viveka, I’m so glad you enjoyed the telling of my journey. It really is hit or miss with photos from trains – but I was on the train for three days, so I had plenty of opportunities to get it wrong, and thankfully some of them turned out alright. 😉

      • viveka says:

        I was also lucky when I took photos from our bridge between Copenhagen and Malmoe – took 4 and they all came out good. That train moves fast too and with the bridge’s all construction in the way. This with memory cards are fantastic – just to delete all the not so great shots. Your shots are stunning and your story telling is brilliant.

        • ailsapm says:

          Blush, thanks for the compliments, viveka. I totally agree, the digital age has made it so much easier (and cheaper) to take surplus shots in the hope that at least one of them will be a keeper. It would be horrifically expensive with film!

          • viveka says:

            I have my wonderful Canon, the film eating one, on the topshelve in the wardrob – out of all the photos I taken with it maybe 100 has been perfect in my eye – so I’m concidering buying a bigger, but then my great lenses doesn’t fit of course. Catch 22.

  13. adinparadise says:

    Such a wonderful journey to take from the comfort of my chair at home. 🙂 Thanks so much much for sharing your amazing photos, Ailsa. I really love your dawn pics.

    • ailsapm says:

      Hurray for armchair travel, my second-favourite kind of travel, ad 🙂 I have to say, dawn is my absolute favourite time of day to take photos, but I love my sleep so much I don’t often get the chance to photograph it. Another reason to love the observation car on the Empire Builder. 😉

  14. Madoqua says:

    Great series on your train trip! Feel as if I was there with you enjoying the views and experiences!

    • ailsapm says:

      Thanks, Madoqua, I’m happy you enjoyed travelling along with me across the country, and maybe one day you’ll do it for yourself. There’s so much to see, and almost all of it is beautiful. xxx

  15. You make me want to take a train across the country (even though I know I’d hate it. No showers? No, thank you!). The Eastern Washington pics make me miss home. I’m glad you made it to Seattle safely, and I hope you enjoy the return trip!

  16. Debbie says:

    Audible sigh as that oh so familiar desert land turned into green forest on this side of Stevens. I love my state!

    • ailsapm says:

      Me too, Debbie, it’s such a beautiful part of the world and has a little bit of everything you could possibly need. Ocean, mountains, rainforest and Trader Joe’s. 🙂

  17. Max510 says:

    I follow your travel that it’s a dream for me…
    Your write is… sweet, your shots lovely

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh Max, thank you so much for your lovely words, and my wish for you is that you get to do this journey for yourself sometime. xxx Ailsa

  18. Gilly Gee says:

    What an amazing journey!

    • ailsapm says:

      Gilly, it’s been an incredible journey … and this is just the beginning, there’s still a road trip right back across the country and another road trip down south. So.much.fun. I love travel! 🙂

  19. restlessjo says:

    I always wanted to travel on one of these trains, and I want to even more now!

  20. rfljenksy says:

    Spokane is my hometown.. I’m guessing you didn’t get to see much of it as the trains usually stop there about 2 am.. too bad if you didn’t. I’m considering the Empire builder from Spokane to Chicago then to NY in mid Jan.. I have to be back in DC in February and thought it would be a good re-bonding trip with the kids and grandkids.. just have to verify it all.. thanks for sharing

    • ailsapm says:

      We were running so late it was actually daytime when we reached Spokane, believe it or not, rfl. But I’ve been to Spokane before. I love the Falls and Riverfront Park and have had many a tasty breakfast at The Elk in Browne’s Addition. 🙂

      • rfljenksy says:

        NICE.. then you DO know spokane.. Wow.. I don’t think I’ve ever caught a train before 3 am. At any rate your Empire Posts inspired me to re-visit my idea of Amtraking it to Chicago in January. The photos are great and made me a little homesick.

  21. Wonderful! This makes me want to take a long vacation train ride even more now! If only I could get my husband to leave the cigarettes at home!

  22. gingerbreadcafe says:

    Amazing love the contrasting landscapes, those sweeping fields are lovely.

    • ailsapm says:

      I couldn’t get over how beautiful those fields looked against the clear blue skies. At points it was like passing through a giant art gallery 🙂

  23. Emily Gooch says:

    Lovely shots, especially that last shot. I used to live only a few miles from that beach… sigh… now the nearest ocean bean is 7 hours away. Thanks for taking me down the memory lane. 🙂

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh, Emily, I feel your pain, it’s hard living that far away from the ocean. I hate feeling land-locked – growing up in Ireland there was always ocean somewhere nearby.

  24. I like your writing about “Full steam ahead aboard the Empire Builder.” Do you have a photo of the train that you rode?

  25. beebeesworld says:

    What beautiful places-I really wanted to close my eyes and just :be there: forma while in each one, I will definitely follow m]this blog and hope to participate. I don’t get to got to exotic places very often but there are many beautiful ;”sites” right here where I live. I hope that those of you who participate in “Where’s my backpack” will check out my entries as well.

  26. What great fun on the trains! That is my preferred way of traveling and is a great way to see this beautiful country. I love the Empire Builder route and have traveled on it several times. I’ve been shore to shore like you to NYC and Seattle via the train. Great posts!

  27. NomadTravels says:

    What a dream! I’ve got friends in Seattle and as soon as I can afford it, I’ll be on the Amtrak. Your photos evoke the wide open, pure and longing spaces the west evokes in my memories. There’s nothing like sitting on the dining car, meeting new people and soaking up the glory that is the west.

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