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.
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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.