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By Jack M. Turner

Westbound train # 7, the Empire Builder, departed Chicago on-time at 2:15pm on Thursday, June 16, 2016.  As soon as the train ducked out of Union Station, views of the north side of the Loop filled our windows.  Once more my wife and I had roomettes 3 and 4, this time in sleeping car 32094 “Montana”.  Our 11 car train consisted of seven cars to Seattle and four destined for Portland.

After passing through Northbrook and Deerfield our eastbound counterpart, train # 8, glided past nearing the end of its 48 hour journey from Seattle.  We anticipated a pleasant westward trip and the combination of a comfortably cool sleeper, a great car attendant, good dining, and beautiful scenery delivered the expected result.  The run to Milwaukee was uneventful and before long it was time to head to the dining car per our 5:30 reservation as the train departed Portage, WI.  The dinner menu was a pleasant improvement from the microwaved food served the prior night aboard the City of New Orleans.  I found my flat iron steak tasty and cooked to perfection along with a baked potato, mixed vegetables, and garden salad.  Christine enjoyed the crab cakes and accompanying vegetables.  We enjoyed interesting conversation at our table with a woman from Washington state with a background as a sea captain and her delightful mother from Texas.  Nice dining car tablemates make rail travel enjoyable as there is nothing like watching interesting scenery pass while having good conversation.  The scenic highlight during dinner came as the Empire Builder stopped at Wisconsin Dells affording a look at a popular upper Midwest tourist destination.  For dessert we enjoyed the chocolate cream tart which was delicious but resolved to order this “to go” during future dining car meals for an evening treat in our roomettes.

Leaving LaCrosse, WI in early evening the Empire Builder crossed the Mississippi River on a series of bridges then traced the river’s west bank in Minnesota.  Beyond Winona views of a colorful sunset over the Mississippi kept us glued to the windows for over an hour and a half as the twisting rail line presented different angles of the setting sun, the mighty river, and the hilly east bank on the river’s Wisconsin side.  The 45 minute stop at St. Paul Union Station allowed time for a look at the restored station which reopened in 2015 after previously seeing its last passenger train in 1971.  The beautiful waiting room, ticket area, and front portico’s grandeur reminded of the importance of maintaining these architectural treasures.  This was the third location in the Twin Cities used by Amtrak through the years and a vast improvement from the boxy, isolated Midway station used for the past 35-plus years.  Union Station is located right downtown, adjacent to the St. Paul Saints minor league baseball stadium with a light rail station directly in front of the grand station.


Crossing the Mississippi River, leaving Wisconsin and entering Minnesota


Hills on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River


The Empire Builder stops in Winona, MN


The Mississippi at sunset


The Empire Builder hugs the Mississippi for almost 2 hours


Restored St. Paul Union Station


The former ticket windows inside Union Station


The front portico of St. Paul Union Station

Our train’s steady westward progress on smooth rails induced a great night’s sleep and we awoke as the train departed Devils Lake, ND.  An excellent French toast, sausage and grits breakfast started the day off on a good note as we enjoyed the sights around Rugby, ND.  Afterward a stroll on the platform at Minot offered a perfect opportunity to stretch and take a look at the engines leading our train during the 25 minute stop.  Lunchtime came near Wolf Point, MT and the Angus cheeseburger was up to previous standards.  A passing eastbound BNSF freight reminded me that freight traffic had been relatively heavy since St. Paul though few delays had been encountered.  The grasslands of North Dakota and prairies of eastern Montana evoked thoughts of the pioneers who passed through this isolated region allowing our country to expand westward so long ago.  As we rolled through the Fort Peck Indian Reservation the Missouri River came into view conjuring images of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery traveling down that river in the early 1800s.


Morning dawns east of Rugby, ND


Grain silos on the outskirts of Rugby


The dining car menu


Head end of train # 7 at Minot, ND


Inside the Minot station

The Empire Builder traversed the BNSF Milk River Subdivision in early afternoon passing grasslands, agricultural and cattle farms, and winding rivers including the namesake Milk River.  An abundance of small ducks and interesting bird species were present in the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge east of Malta.  Soon the Montana mantra “Big Sky Country” was evident as wide open spaces enveloped the railroad with the Bears Paws Mountains to the southwest as a backdrop.  The dispatcher soon could be heard talking to eastbound Amtrak train # 8 which waited for us on the siding at Savoy.  A private vista dome car brought up the rear of that train, its occupants surely were treated to a great view.


The Milk River near Culbertson, MT

Our engines were refueled prior to pulling into the station at Havre and the station stop was limited to less than 10 minutes.  Nevertheless there was time to detrain briefly and take a look at the preserved Great Northern steam locomotive adjacent to the platform.  Two hours later we were back in the diner for dinner as train # 7 departed Shelby.  Soon the Rocky Mountains came into view ahead still an hour and a half away.  Indeed, Big Sky Country means great visibility over great distances.  My steak dinner was again excellent though the mixed vegetables were on the verge of becoming repetitively tiresome.  My wife gave the chicken dinner a thumbs up but agreed that the mixed vegetables were tiring after two straight nights.


A preserved Great Northern steam locomotive at the Havre, MT station


Approaching the Rocky Mountains

The scenery ramped up in a big way just before 7:00pm as the Empire Builder stopped at East Glacier where the Glacier Park Lodge and golf course stood a short distance beyond the log station.  Jagged mountains covered with snow and punctuated by glaciers dominated the view as the train navigated along the southern border of Glacier National Park.  We topped the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, elevation 5213 feet, about 20 minutes beyond East Glacier and soon passed through a series of railroad snowsheds.  The two hour passage along Glacier Park could best be described as a potpourri of beautiful vistas of snowy mountains, glacier fed rivers, deep valleys, and rich forests.  There was no shortage of daylight even around 8:00pm due to the far north latitude of northern Montana.  The day’s final opportunity to step off the train came at Whitefish and we enjoyed viewing the statue of Great Northern’s Rocky the mountain goat mascot, a restored Glacier Park touring bus, and a restored GN switch engine, the latter two in traditional GN colors.   A spectacular sunset observed beyond Whitefish lingered well beyond 10:00pm.


Crossing Two Medicine River Trestle near East Glacier Park


East Glacier station and Glacier Park Lodge


Beautiful views appear during the route along Glacier National Park’s boundary


The Flathead River


Another stream seen from the train


Isaak Walton Inn, a popular railfan stopover


Glacier-fed waters in Glacier Park


The Empire Builder stops in Whitefish, MT


A restored GN switch engine displayed at Whitefish


The Whitefish train station has an alpine appearance


Statue of Rocky, GN’s mountain goat statue


Restored GN touring bus displayed beside the Whitefish station


A lake west of Whitefish at sunset

The smooth BNSF tracks afforded a great night’s sleep which was interrupted only by the ringing of my alarm clock since the dining car’s breakfast hours would end when the train reached Cascade Tunnel around 7:00am.  Overnight we had dropped our lead engine and four rear cars which would run to Portland, however, this activity did not wake us up.  Our breakfast selections were identical to the prior day and equally tasty.  The dining car crew, composed of LSA David and servers Camille, Aaron, and Gwen, was outstanding and had made mealtimes a pleasure throughout the trip.

Ominous news was delivered via the public address system as we made an unscheduled stop at Berne at 6:55am.  A disabled freight train was blocking the single track ahead.  A wide range of possibilities came to mind as that could mean engine failure, a broken coupler, a minor derailment, or a variety of other possibilities.  Much to my surprise we were cleared to proceed through 7.79 mile long Cascade Tunnel, the longest railroad tunnel in the United States after a very short delay.  Approximately 30 minutes after exiting the tunnel the Empire Builder again came to a stop and word came over the scanner that the freight train crew had gone on the law, i.e., run out of hours of service on-duty time.  A relief “dog catch” crew was en route, something that often results in major delays.  However, luck was on our side as the problem had obviously been worked for awhile and we were underway after a delay of less than 10 minutes.  The troubled freight was passed at Skyhomish clearing the way for a smooth run to Seattle.

The BNSF line from Vancouver, BC was joined just before the station stop in Everett and soon Puget Sound came into view for the final hour of our journey.  Ten minutes later ferry boats could be seen plying Puget Sound’s waters as we approached Mukilteo.  The terminal for ferries to Whidbey Island was directly adjacent to the rail line and we made note for the next day when we would ride that ferry.  Within 20 minutes another ferry terminal was right beside the rails as the Empire Builder stopped in Edmonds.  This ferry crosses Puget Sound to Kingston and the Olympic Peninsula, a trip we would enjoy in a few days.


The Edmonds ferry terminal seen from the train. 
We caught the ferry from that location a few days later en route to the Olympic Peninsula.

As we approached Seattle a Princess cruise ship was visible on the right as it prepared to welcome passengers for a journey to Alaska.  The Empire Builder breezed past Seattle’s King Street Station at 10:30am and backed in on a stub track with a final arrival time of 10:35.  The conductor’s final announcement apologized for our 10 minute late arrival which, from my point of view, represented excellent timekeeping.


Pullman Railway Journeys sleeping car “Baton Rouge” parked in Seattle.  This car originally was Seaboard’s “Tallahassee”.
Having visited Seattle several times through the years, this visit focused on sights north of the city.  We rented a van downtown then set out to explore some of the Pacific Northwest’s leading sights with an eye out for signs of rail activity or history in the areas we visited.  Our base of operations was the Embassy Suites hotel in Lynnwood, WA, a short drive north of downtown Seattle.  This hotel was convenient to the sights described below and is within five minutes of several excellent restaurants, a great shopping mall, and the I-5 freeway.  The hotel is located in a small office park and we found our suite comfortable, contemporary, and quiet.  The daily cooked to order and evening manager’s reception were included with the cost of the suite.  The hotel’s indoor swimming pool appeared quite popular while the guest laundry facilities were welcomed late in our visit after a week on the road.


Embassy Suites, Lynnwood, WA is an excellent and convenient hotel for visiting sights north of Seattle

Our first sightseeing excursion took us back to Mukilteo where we boarded a Washington State ferry to Clinton, on the southern tip of Whidbey Island.  The 55 mile long island is Washington’s largest island and is the 4th largest island in the contiguous United States and 36th largest overall in the US.  Our drive provided glimpses of quaint towns, a few harbors, and scenic rural areas.  The highlight was the 180 foot tall arched cantilever bridge over Deception Pass which was viewed from the minivan and by foot on walkways over and beneath the bridge.  The north end of the island is connected to the mainland by a bridge leading to Burlington, WA, a stop for Amtrak trains to Vancouver.  Continuing eastward we headed to North Cascades National Park, a relatively unpublicized park that features outstanding views of snow capped mountains, glaciers, lakes, and streams.  The day’s activities consumed the majority of the day though one could easily bypass Whidbey Island to allow time to more fully explore North Cascades.


A lighthouse located beside the Mukilteo ferry terminal


The scenic Mukilteo to Clinton ferry crossing


Passing another ferry on our way to the Whidbey Island


The eastward view from the Deception Pass bridge on the north end of Whidbey Island


Walking under the Deception Pass bridge


Looking west from the bridge


Entering North Cascades National Park


A mountain lake in North Cascades National Park


A tall waterfall in North Cascades National Park


A dam holds back a lake in the highlands region of North Cascades National Park


One of several beautiful lakes in North Cascades


Snowy mountains are plentiful in northwestern Washington


The author enjoys a scenic day north of Seattle

The following day we drove about an hour north from the Embassy Suites to Anacortes where we parked our rented minivan and boarded a ferryboat headed to Friday Harbor located on San Juan Island.  The 65 minute trip aboard Washington State ferry “Samish” sailed past several of the San Juan Islands affording views of snowy mountains on the mainland and harbors, hillsides, and villages on the islands.  A variety of fishing and pleasure boats as well as other ferryboats shared the waters with our ferry and the journey was a treat unto itself.  The “Samish” was built in 2015 and can carry 144 automobiles and 1,520 passengers.  Inside it offers a well stocked snack bar and indoor seating areas, while outside viewing decks are also available.


A passing ferry during the trip to Friday Harbor


The ferry trip to the San Juan Islands provides scenic views


Passengers aboard Washington State ferry “Samish” enjoy the vistas


A sailboat seen near Friday Harbor

We were met at Friday Harbor by Barbara Marrett of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau for a tour of 55 square mile San Juan Island.  Friday Harbor, where the ferry docks, is an attractive town featuring several nice restaurants and numerous interesting shops.  One could easily spend an afternoon walking its streets and visiting its local establishments.  At the southeast end of the island we visited American Camp, a military outpost established in the mid-1850s when both the United States and Great Britain staked claim to the San Juan Islands.  A nearby hillside provided a commanding view of Griffin Bay and the Cattle Point lighthouse at the tip of the island.  Heading back north we stopped by False Bay, passed many other interesting sights, and proceeded to English Camp established by the British in 1860 to house that nation’s troops.  The presence of the two outposts led to some tensions but no violence as troops marched over a dozen miles to one another’s camp to celebrate various holidays.  Today both camps are designated a National Historic Park and are maintained by the National Park Service.  Roche Harbor, located at the north end of San Juan Island is a charming village containing a restored historic inn, restaurants and boat marina set near other fine lodging and homes.  The island is indeed popular with weekend and seasonal visitors from the mainland and is perfect for a day visit or a longer stay.  Ferries run year round with multiple daily trips during the summer months.  One can ride the ferry from Anacortes with or without a car.  Car and moped rentals are available at Friday Harbor and the handy Jolly Trolley shuttle travels around the island hitting most points of interest.


Approaching Friday Harbor


A black fox seen on San Juan Island


The southern tip of San Juan Island


False Bay on the west coast of San Juan Island


The lighthouse at Lime Kiln State Park on the way to English Camp


The British Union Jack flies at English Camp


An English Garden at English Camp


Preparing to board a ferry from Friday Harbor to Anacortes


The marina at Friday Harbor

Other interesting day trips easily accessible from Lynnwood include the Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Factory Tour in nearby Everett, a drive along US 2 to Stevens Pass parallel to the Empire Builder route, and a variety of downtown Seattle attractions.

After three nights in Lynnwood we drove to Edmonds, less than ten minutes west of the Embassy Suites, to catch another Washington State ferry for 30 minute crossing to Kingston.  Ferry “Walla Walla” has a capacity of 188 autos and 2,019 passengers and business was good despite it being a Tuesday morning.  From Kingston we made the short trek to the beautiful Olympic Peninsula with a brief stop at quaint Port Gamble.


Sailing out of Edmonds


Quaint Port Gamble 

Our home for the next three nights was the Holiday Inn Express hotel in Sequim, WA (pronounced “Skwim”), a wonderful hotel whose friendly staff and nice accommodations made us feel perfectly at home.  Our room was quiet, comfortable, and offered a nice view of a nearby valley while facilities such as the indoor swimming pool, guest laundry, and complimentary breakfast were much appreciated.  A unique rooftop garden was the perfect place to view the area scenery and magnificent rainbows after a late afternoon rain shower.


Holiday Inn Express, Sequim, WA, the best lodging on the Olympic Peninsula


The rooftop garden at the Holiday Inn Express


A double rainbow seen from the roof of the Holiday Inn Express


A full rainbow seen from the hotel’s roof

A late afternoon drive to the top of Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park started off our visit to the area on a great note as the winding road passes several small waterfalls and took us above the clouds.  The view of snow topped mountains was breathtaking when we got to the visitors center at the top of the mountain.  An advantage of our early evening visit was the dozens of deer we saw up close along the road as well as roaming near the visitors center. 


The road to Hurricane Ridge travels above the clouds


One of several deer seen at the Hurricane Ridge visitors center


This deer grazes above the clouds

The next day we drove west of Sequim past beautiful Crescent Lake; through the town of Forks, setting of the Twilight novels and films; LaPush an oceanfront Native American community on the Pacific; and the Hoh Rain Forest which lies within the western part of Olympic National Park.  We finished the day with visits to a couple of lavender farms in Sequim, one of which provided a chance to pick cherries from trees on the grounds.  The climate around Sequim is conducive to growing lavender which has a variety of cosmetic, medicinal, and fragrance uses.  Late June and early July are the peak times for lavender blooms.  The cherries, meanwhile, were as sweet as candy.


Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula


Lake Crescent


A deer grazes at a Crescent Lake rest area


Another deer a few feet from the one in the prior photo


LaPush is a scenic community on the Pacific coast


Driftwood is abundant at LaPush


The Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park


A lavender farm outside Sequim


Another lavender farm we visited


Cherries were ready for harvesting at one lavender farm


The author picks cherries for the first time

The third day of our visit was again busy as we visited more lavender farms as well as the Olympic Game Farm and searched for remnants of an abandoned Milwaukee Road rail line.


Another lavender farm visited on our last day in Sequim


A lavender farm close to our hotel

The Olympic Game Farm, located on the outskirts of Sequim, is an amazing 84 acre property where visitors see a wide array of wild animals up close from their automobiles.  Most of the animals roam free and can come right up to automobiles in hopes of a handout of whole wheat bread provided at the entrance gate.  Several llamas were the first animals we encountered and they were not shy about sticking their heads into our van’s open window to make their desires for bread known.  A herd of yaks nudged up to our vehicle a bit less aggressively but no less desirous of bread.  Several varieties of deer likewise were anxious to be fed as were the elk and other animals.  The stars of the drive were several Kodiak bears, which were close by but separated from the vehicle drive by a fence.  Many of the beautiful bears stood on their hind legs and a couple of them waved as we pulled up and rewarded them with bread tossed over the fence.  Along the drive we also observed zebras, a herd of buffalo, tigers, timber wolves, and a cougar.  Some of these were clearly not to be fed while others were more interested in food left by farm staff.  Animals at the Olympic Game Farm are mostly rescued from zoos or attractions that had run out of space for them and from movies and television shows.  Much of the wildlife are descendants of early Disney movies and television programs, some of which were filmed at the farm.  One such show, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, was filmed on site and the log cabin used by the lead character still stands on the property as do a couple of Disney movie sets.


A llama gets up close and personal at Olympic Game Farm


Yaks block the road waiting for bread treats


A peacock at Olympic Game Farm


Another peacock struts its stuff


Another llama tries to get a slice of bread


A Kodiak bear waved in hope of a bread handout


This bear crouches to secure bread tossed over the fence


Another bear tries to entertain us


Spotted deer roam the Olympic Game Farm


A buffalo grazes at Olympic Game Farm


The cabin used on the TV show “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams”, filmed at the farm

The railroad came to the Olympic Peninsula in the 1890s, with barges eventually linking Port Townsend with the rest of the Milwaukee Road system via Seattle.  The rail line passed through Sequim and Port Angeles on its way to Forks and LaPush and expedited logging in the region.  Passenger service operated from 1914 to 1931 between Port Townsend and Twin Rivers with a second train linking Port Townsend and Port Angeles.  Both trains stopped at Sequim.  Though the rails were pulled up beginning in 1985, several reminders remain along the Olympic Discovery Trail which is today used for hiking and biking.  The 101 year old Dungeness River Bridge has been preserved as part of Railroad Bridge Park near a Sequim neighborhood while magnificent Johnson Creek Trestle passes 85 feet above a ravine carved by Johnson Creek a short drive from the Holiday Inn Express.  A Shay steam locomotive built in 1930 is preserved in Forks and an old freight depot has been repurposed in Port Angeles.  A few old passenger cars and cabooses provide lodging at a railroad themed inn in Sequim.  The locations of many of these sights are identified in a handy brochure titled “Bridges, Trestles, Rails and Trails” available through the visitors bureau.


The Dungeness River Bridge in Sequim has been converted to a bicycle trail


A former Burlington car preserved at an inn at Sequim


Johnson Creek Trestle, saved as a bicycle trail


Side view of Johnson Creek Trestle


Part of a sign at Johnson Creek Trestle


A Shay logging engine is preserved at Forks, WA

A visit to the Olympic Peninsula should be a must during a visit to the Pacific Northwest.  A quick one day visit can be made during a stay north of Seattle, however, to best enjoy the area a three day visit is suggested.  US Highway 101 links the area to the Oregon coast and provides easy access to Tacoma in addition to the ferry boat routing we took from Edmonds.  Another ferry links Port Angeles to Victoria, BC.  Amtrak Thruway bus service connects Seattle with Sequim and Port Angeles via the Edmonds ferry twice daily.  Rental cars are available in Port Angeles and Sequim, a convenient option for those arriving in Seattle by train and connecting to the Olympic Peninsula by Amtrak Thruway bus.

From Sequim we drove down the Oregon coast then toured sights in central Oregon and northern California.  Highlights of that part of our journey as well as the Amtrak trip home will be covered in a subsequent report.


Embassy Suites, Lynnwood, WA (North Seattle) 
San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau 
Washington State Ferries: 
Boeing Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Factory Tour
Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Sequim, WA www.holidayinn/Sequim
Olympic Game Farm, Sequim
Other reports by Jack Turner: