Spring Break on the Empire Builder
For about the last 14 years we have said that one day we would take the Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Whitefish. The trip was not always in the forefront, but definitely not forgotten. I was not going to be able to get the entire week of Spring Break off due to month end at work so going anywhere too far flung was not an option.
It took a little convincing, but I was successful on lobbying for finally jumping on board! We had a fair amount of American Airlines miles we could use for plane tickets so we picked days around award availability (5 weeks in advance). Thursday to Tuesday - home to Chicago flight, Empire Builder Chicago to Whitefish, Spokane to home. Let's do this...
We initally purchased 3 coach seats even though deep down we all wanted Roomette's at a minimum. K frequently expressed her concern over a 4 week period. A week or two out the price for a bedroom dropped to a rate we were willing to pay. We jumped, but wanted to surprise K. Wanted is the key word here....see that photo above, she looks tired, right? At 2:30 AM on the morning of departure she got so nervous she got sick in her bed. So while doing laundry at an ungodly hour we let the cat out of the bag. She was oh so excited!
We arrived in Chicago around 9 AM and hopped on the Blue Line into the city. It was super easy and economical to take the train. The train fare was $5 per adult, and the train can be accessed from O'Hare. We had K's car seat, a rolling carryon, a rolling suitcase, and two bookbags. We chose seats at the back of the train car to keep our stuff as out of the way as possible. Once we reached our station Union Station was only a few blocks walk - easy peasy!
If you guys have not figured out by now, we make K learn a little something on every trip we take. She really wanted to go to the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve. It had been a while since she had visited the one in Kansas City so why not! We dropped our suitcase and her K seat at baggage check and stored our rolling carryon in the lounge storage area. Next stop...the Money Museum!
First off, the Money Museum is FREE!!! Who doesn't like free?
There are plenty of exhibts, an informational movie, some video screens where workers/money can be seen. (This is where Kansas City has a huge advantage!! One does not have to watch it via a screen.) As a souvenir one can take free bags of shredded money. Some exhibts are interactive and others are just reading about the changes in money/currency over the years.
Back to Union Station to wait in the lounge for just a little bit of time. Snacks and beverages are served to waiting passengers in the lounge. As the time to board the train approached we were all getting a little nervous. All of our train rides up until this point had been special event (Polar Express, etc.) or sightseeing trains. Over 30 hours on a train........
The Empire Builder was finally called to board right about the same time as the Texas Eagle was. Lawd...this made things a little chaotic. We did not feel like the directions given were very clear even though we knew our track number. We asked several other passengers along the way just to make sure we were in the right place.
We found the sleeper car line as sleeper cars/first class has priority boarding. The attendant at the front of the line told us what number to board at and we were on board in minutes. We had bedroom C which was upstairs in the sleeper car (If I recall correctly, there were 3 sleeper cars - 1 for the Portland bound train and 2 for Seattle. The train splits in Spokane.)
Being in a sleeper car our meals were included, but we still brought some snacks with us. We also brought small games, cards, colored pencils, and a notebook. We took photos just about every single time the train stopped to document our trip. Shortly after we were on our way, the attendant came by for dinner reservations. Then our time was spent just hanging out with no real distractions. Traveling by train is so much more free than air travel! It was definitely nice to not be confined to one small space! Time went by so quickly! Next thing we knew it was time for our dinner reservation. We were slightly nervous because they seat in groups of 4, and we are a family of 3.... Three of our four meals on board we were seated with a single traveler. We were nervous because we have K. K is an awesome kid, an old soul. We have never had any issues with her and others, but one never knows how others may react being seated with children.
After dinner we were EXHAUSTED! (Something about that laundry at 3 AM thing...) K claimed to top bunk. Dad and I shared the bottom. No real complaints because we were tired. I remember waking up sometime in the middle of the night when we were pulling into Fargo. It was snowing like crazy out!
Look at all this space in the room when the beds are up. hehehe.
K was quite excited when she woke up to all of the snow! We got dressed then headed to the dining car for breakfast which we finished just in time to hop off the train for an hour or so in Minot, North Dakota.
It was a balmy -1F. There was a huge snowstorm approaching, but nothing but sunshine while we were out and about. We did not venture far from the train because, well, -1F! We are southern. That temp does not exist at home! I honestly do not know how, but y'all, the rest of the day flew by! We hopped off the train for a few minutes almost every stop for the remainder of the trip. It was always cold, sometimes it was incredibly windy! The windy stops gave K the giggles. She was having a hard time standing up in the wind without our help.
Right before we got to Glacier, while we were at dinner...DELAY! Which is awesome when the scheduled arrival time is 1.5 hours past K's bed time (which is really 3.5 with the time change). But we have learned in all of our travels that sometimes one just has to roll with it. This is one of those times because....we are stuck on a train! We got to eat dinner while the train was stopped. We saw some wildlife. We saw the snow blow...a lot! After about an hour or so the train finally proceeded. K slept on the couch. We fought the urge to sleep. We got to Whitefish about 1.5-2 hours past our scheduled arrival time. The hotel shuttle was waiting on us as they knew we were arriving by train.
Now Glacier National Park has also been a topic of discussion paired with the Empire Builder. It was finally a reality. Now, we definitely will have to visit again in the summer months instead of the winter-ish early Spring. Access was very limited within the park. (Yes, we knew this. Just wanting to inform others.) We were able to visit the visitors center for the Junior Ranger booklet. We went on a small, eerily quiet hike. We had a picnic lunch at Lake McDonald, and drove as far as we could before the road closed (Lake McDonald Lodge).
The remainder of the trip we just went with the flow, and stopped when something caught our eye. It did not really take long to make our first unscheduled stop! We saw a sign for Hungry Horse Dam. We did not know what to expect but K LOVES the Hoover Dam so it's worth a shot. We found it to be very similar to the Hoover Dam without the commercialization. It was incredibly strange. There were some trucks and trailers there, but no other people to be seen. We almost felt as if we should not be there. But then seemingly out of nowhere comes all of these snowmobiles. Ah, trucks and trailers...makes sense now.
We decided to check out Whitefish Mountain. K is decent on skis for a Southern kid. We bought lift tickets for the beginner lift since we were not going to split up from each other with her. It was Easter and there were candy filled plastic eggs on the slopes. We ended up with SO MANY. We finally banned K from picking up more. It snowed so much while we were on the slopes. Powder days are the best! We managed to get out in powder 4 days from January to April (Alberta, Utah, & Montana).
We leisurely made our way from Whitefish to Spokane the day before we flew home. Much of the drive was spent without consistent cell phone service. It was a pretty drive in and out of snow and portions of the drive beside the river.
We stopped at Crystal Gold Mine in Kellogg, Idaho to do their gold mine tour. K enjoyed it. The owner showed her how to pan for gold, but we were mean parents and did not actually allow her to pan because it was snowing at the water was quite cold. We knew we would be in Alaska this summer so she would have the opportunity. Our last stop was incredibly important....Old Spaghetti Factory in Spokane! K devours their food. Hey, you take what you can get when it comes to food battles!
Would we do it all again? heck yes!!!! Even taking the train. Next time will definitely be farther into summer so we can explore more at Glacier.
Trip Report! September 2011
As I had posted previously, we decided to go back out to the Yellowstone National Park area for latest vacation.
September 3, 2011 - Driving and Flying...then driving some more.
A 9 am flight from Atlanta meant a 4:30 am wake up. We should have just booked a hotel in Atlanta the night before, but we procrastinated too long to get the Park, Sleep, Fly deals at a reasonable price. The drive to Atlanta was uneventful (thankfully), and we parked the car at The Parking Spot 2 since I had printed a $5.99/day coupon earlier in the week. We hopscotched across the country from Atlanta to Chicago to Denver to Jackson. The flight to Jackson was delayed a little so we arrived around 5 pm. I was not expecting that airport to be so small!! But it did make getting the bag and the rental car a breeze. We arrived at the cabin we rented in Idaho about 9 pm and called it a night.
September 4, 2011 - YELLOWSTONE!!!!!!!!
We finally got out of the cabin about 9:30 am and headed straight towards the West Entrance. Our plan was to hit Norris then work our way back down through all the geyser basins. We passed a VERY crowded Gibbon Falls, then attempted to visit the Artist's Paintpots...got quite lucky at Norris and actually found a parking spot. Made the decision that the geyser basins should be avoided, but since we were parked at Norris may as well wander the Porcelain Basin since we were too tired to walk it on our 2010 trip. We opted to visit the Back Basin later in the week (which we never got around to visiting...). After Norris, we decided to adjust our day by heading to Tower, out of the North East Entrance for some lunch, down to Canyon in order to cut back to Norris to call it a day. It was a pretty fun drive through the park. We saw lots of waterfalls, beautiful vistas, a petrified tree, and a LOT of bison. We stopped for lunch in Cooke City, MT at a place called The Bistro. The food was pretty good, but not quite what we were expecting since the word "Bistro" was in the name. (Perhaps we have worked in Greenville too long...) For the record, we were able to stop at the Artist's Paintpots and Gibbon Falls with no crowds on the way back towards the West Entrance.
September 5, 2011 - Operation Avoid Yellowstone: Virginia City and 1959 Earthquake Area, Montana
The crowds at Yellowstone were awful due to the holiday weekend so we were off to visit the old gold mining town of Virginia City. We thought it was slightly creepy there...interesting and creepy at the same time, actually. The city is pretty much a museum. There are lots of old items, furnishings, and displays from the city throughout its history. My favorite part of the day was visiting the earthquake area. In August 1959, there was a 7.5 earthquake that struck Hebgen Lake. It was nearly midnight when the earthquake occured. The quake caused a large portion of a mountain to give way sending the debris to the canyon below. The debris dammed up the Madison River creating Earthquake Lake. There was a campground at the base of the slide area. Twenty-eight people died from the landslide or from other injuries caused by the quake. We stopped by another campground to see a huge fault scarp. It was amazing how "fresh" it looked after fifty-two years! We visited Hebgen lake to see the destroyed highway and houses that had fallen into the lake. We hiked at Refuge Point to see the Ghost Village. Ghost village is a collection of cabins that were lifted off of foundations when the dammed Madison River formed Quake Lake and settled in the valley once the spillway was made by the Army Corps of Engineers.
September 6, 2011 - Geysers, Hostprings, and Animals...oh my!
We started our day by driving Firehole Canyon Drive. The falls were so beautiful! We tried to visit many of the "side streets" off of the Grand Loop as many of the roads were closed during our first trip to Yellowstone. Our next stop was the Lower Geyser Basin. We were most intrigued by Red Spouter. It was a huge, hissing fumarole this time of year. Since we visited it early spring last year, the Red Spouter was spouting boiling, muddy water. Firehole Lake Drive was incredible. There were many hotsprings right beside the street. We happened to be in the right place at the right time when White Dome Geyser erupted. There was only one other person at the geyser with us (and several others closer to their vehicles). It is incredibly nice how few pepole there were nearby compared to the "main" geyser basins. The Firehole Lake and Hot Lake area was our first favorite experience of the day. The size and heat were pretty amazing. (I am completely amazed by the thermal areas anyway, by far my favorite part of the park.) We headed to Gardiner, Montana in hopes of having lunch at Rosie's. Rosie's was closed!!!! We ended up eating at the Town Cafe...wow. I'll leave it at that...We missed Rosie's! We changed into our swimsuits after lunch for a dip in the Boiling River. YNP allows swimming where the icy Gardiner River and the hot Boiling River mix. It is such an odd feeling to have one leg FREEZING and the other in really hot water. When we arrived in Mammoth after our soak in the river, there were Elk just hanging out by the road. A park ranger was out to make sure no one got too close to the Elk. September is their mating season and the males can be quite aggresive. While at Mammoth we wandered around the terrace areas for a little bit before heading out of the park. On the way out we stopped by one of the springs right near Madison junction and saw a wolf and a dead bison...I think Kevin liked the bison the best...He took lots of pictures of it.
September 7, 2011 - More Geyser Basins!
First stop...the Midway Basin to wander the boardwalks. The Midway Basin is home to Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring. They are both beautiful and large. There were many people on a rock behind Grand Prismatic getting an amazing view. We were jealous! We knew of the rock, but did not know where to find the trail. We left Midway Basin enroute to Biscuit Basin and approached the trail (Fairy Falls) to get to the rock! DETOUR!!! We only went far enough down the trail to reach the trail up the rock overlook. The view was absolutely stunning!!! After our detour we headed to the Biscuit Basin. We saw both Mustard Spring and Jewel Geyser erupt while there. The West Thumb Basin was our next stop. The West Thumb Basin is at the edge of Yellowstone Lake. Yellowstone Lake is an alpine lake. It is so cool how the cold lake water and the hot thermal water are in the same area. It was getting kind of late in the day so we decided to make our way back towards Idaho. On the way we stopped at the Upper Geyser Basin to see Old Faithful erupt. There was a storm in the area so it was amazing to see the white plume from Old Faithful in front of the dark storm clouds! The temperature dropped dramatically because of the storm. We had to pull out the fleece pullovers when we stopped at the Black Sand Basin before leaving the park for the day.
September 8, 2011 - Canyon and Cody!
We started our day by headed straight to canyon area. Canyon is Kevin's favorite area of the park. We took the trail to the brink of the lower falls. The view was incredible! Our next stop was to the Mud Volcano area. The area is highly acidic (and stinky!) and there are spots in the parking area where the asphalt has been eaten away. Our first Yellowstone traffic jam came after we left the Mud Volcano area. It probably took us over an hour to get through it. The bison that were in the fields beside the roads were funny to watch. The were grunting loudly and rolling around in the dirt. We ended up having our picnic in the car since the bison kept playing in the road for so long. We stopped by the Fishing Bridge for a few pictures before heading towards the East Entrance. We saw lots of thermal areas along the lake shore. It seemed like it took forever but we finally reached the East Entrance and headed towards Cody. Cody was not what we had pictured!! Not in a bad way or anything, but it was just way smaller than we thought it would be. We got out and looked around at the Buffalo Bill Dam. We ate dinner in Cody, and then headed back towards Idaho. It was a LONG drive! The bison were STILL in the road when we got back to that area in Yellowstone. There was much less traffic so no huge traffic jam this time. We finally got back to the cabin around 10 pm.
September 9, 2011 - Just taking a drive...
We got up and decided we wanted to drive into Montana for the day. Helena or Bozeman were our choices. We ended up choosing Bozeman just because it was closer. Bozeman was bigger than we had anticipated. We had an AMAZING pizza at a place called Buffalo Bump Pizza Deli. We ordered the Big Sky Bird which had buffalo chicken, grilled chicken, bacon, fontina, and mozzerella! YUM! We wanted to call it a day early since we needed to pack. We stopped in West Yellowstone to mill around before heading to pack. West Yellowstone has bunches of those shops like Myrtle Beach and Gatlinburg. Nothing too interesting to us so we headed back to the cabin about 4 or so.
September 10, 2011 - Is it really time to go home??
We left the cabin bright and early to head back to Jackson. It was a nice scenic drive. Maybe we just noticed more of the scenery since we were not as tired as the first time driving through. There was some sort of festival at the square when we got to Jackson. We wished we would have had a little time to check it out. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Well, until we encountered the large group of people that could not figure out the self check in kiosks at the ticket counter!!!! Security was a breeze, ate a quick lunch, and then boarded the flight for Denver. Vacation was over. :( It was as if someone had pushed fast forward once we arrived. We got to Atlanta around 9 pm, picked up the car at The Parking Spot (only $50 for the week!), and headed back to Anderson.
It was so nice that more of YNP was open this time than our last visit. We managed to see almost completely different things than our first trip. We could probably visit there every year and still find new things to visit.
Now...where should we visit next?
For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with maps, globes, and wanting to see the world. Now I'm trying to make all of those childhood dreams into a reality.