Tips for a train trip across the West.
August 23, 2009 9:00 PM   Subscribe

In September, I've got 10 days to see everything I can see from Minneapolis to Portland, OR along the route of Amtrak's Empire Builder. Know anything about these places? I'm looking for some Metafilter reconnaissance about my route.

My vague plans so far:
  • Camping at the Minnesota State Fair
  • Camping in Glacier National Park, being eaten by bears
  • Another yet-to-be-determined stopover in Idaho or Washington
  • Powell's Books, Stumptown Coffee in Portland
That's all I have so far. While I'm a fan of winging it, I'd still appreciate any suggestions of things to see, hikes to take, sites to camp, friendly coffee shops and bars in the cities, or anything you can throw at me, really -- this is my first time visiting this part of the country.
posted by the jam to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you let me know which day(s) you'll be at the Minnesota State Fair, I'll try to meet you and buy you a porkchop on a stick.

That's my favorite food at the fair.

If you've never toured the Minnesota State Capitol, it's worth it, as it's a beautiful building, and the St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse is a gorgeous building worth seeing.
posted by elmer benson at 9:10 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Er. America is big, so I'm afraid I don't have much to offer. To be honest, I grew up in Minnesota, and I didn't even know camping was offered at at the state fair. Although it's an excellent state fair, so I recommend you visit it if you're in the neighborhood at the time.

When I moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco to start law school, I took the scenic route, including Glacier National Park starting here. Strongly recommended, even though I never came close to being eaten by a bear.

Definitely get a National Parks Pass. It's easily one of the best deals in America, especially in the West.
posted by tellumo at 9:16 PM on August 23, 2009

you could "bookend" your trip by starting at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis.
posted by dogwelder at 9:38 PM on August 23, 2009

Response by poster: ... from Minneapolis to Portland, OR along the route of Amtrak's Empire Builder...

I should clarify a little: the "OR" is for "Oregon", not a conjunction. I'm for sure keeping the trip limited to the route of the Empire Builder train.
posted by the jam at 10:15 PM on August 23, 2009

These guys seem to have you covered.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:32 PM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dry Falls in eastern WA is pretty cool, especially if you are interested in geology at all.
Glacier is great.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:07 AM on August 24, 2009

For while you are on the train, the book USA By Rail is fun to have. It tells you about lots of little landmarks to look at as you are passing through.
posted by litlnemo at 12:11 AM on August 24, 2009

Eastern Washington definitely has some interesting geology and topography, if you enjoy that sort of thing.
posted by hattifattener at 12:22 AM on August 24, 2009

It's a good thing you are passing through so much nothing on the way to the northwest. I'd second the glacier national park. Spokane is ok, but if I was doing that trek, I would spent most of my trip in Seattle and Portland, 3 hour train ride between, also nice. Be sure to check out the Fremont & University districts in Seattle, unless you're a serious music or scifi nut, don't bother with the EMP. There's a renovated florist shop called Flowers a block away from UW that serves awesome vegetarian Indian food. There's also a walking/biking trail along the lake that goes from UW to Bothell. You simply must see the Pikes Place Market. Park far away, or bus it in. As far as hiking goes, I think you have to cross the Puget Sound to get to some more isolated trails, but I've only been there once. From what I've heard, out of Issaqua is some nice trails too. The Olympic peninsula is simply awesome.

In Portland, the old standards are Voodoo doughnuts and Stumptown Coffee. Cross the river on Hawthorne to find good food and funky shops. You can spend days in Portland reading books and eating out of food carts. Funny, I live in Portland, but I can tell you more cool stuff to do in Seattle.

Try the Thai food anywhere in the Pac NW. You won't be dissapointed.

Personally, if I was traveling, I would spend the extra time to hit up Vancouver, BC. (assuming your passport is up to date) From what I've heard, it beats the diversity of Seattle and Portland. Portland is the cheapest though, if you're on a budget.
posted by emptyinside at 12:32 AM on August 24, 2009

My advice pertains to general details about the train ride itself since I've taken the Empire Builder before. Nothing you couldn't gleam from Amtrak promotional stuff, but hopefully condensed a bit.

First, be aware that you're going to be traveling through Minnesota at night and that the train is halfway through North Dakota before morning, and that your second night on the train is going to be through Washington with Portland in the morning. Itinerary [pdf] Normally I'd recommend getting a sleeper car since it's comfortable, private, and has meals included with the cost (plus a free wine tasting and a better waiting lounge in Portland), but since you might want to get off during the night in those states that might not make as much sense for you.

Secondly the observation car is awesome to spend time in; it's a great escape from cramped seats if you're traveling coach, it usually has a staff member there who will point out things as the train passes and narrate general historical information, plus they sell beers if you want to relax and read a book as the prairie passes by. Good for finding chatty travelers too.

Third, be aware that most of the stops are very short in the smaller towns and you won't have time to do more than glance around unless you've already decided you're getting off there for the rest of the day.

Finally make sure you get at least one dinner meal in the dining car. Regardless of what their sales stuff says, you WILL need to make a reservation with an attendant for it when they start asking around in the late afternoon. Do this partially because the food is actually pretty good, but more so because it's cooked fresh in the kitchen below instead of being reheated which is very nifty and a not so common feature these days. Anyway, hope you have a great time and I wish you the best of luck!
posted by CheshireCat at 1:20 AM on August 24, 2009

Seconding what CheshireCat says. Every two or three hours, there's a stop long enough for a smoke break, but you certainly wouldn't get to see the town unless you get off for 24 hours.

There's just one thing I wanted to add: if you're making plans, allow flexibility for delays and definitely don't rely on arriving at a precise time. My experience was a bit abnormal because we picked up 9 hours when the train killed a farmer on a tractor in North Dakota (which, aside from being tragic and awful, also points to the frequency with which trains pass), but we were about 5 more hours behind by the time we reached Portland. I'd been really looking forward to Glacier National Park and should probably have planned an overnight there, because we passed through it at about 2 or 3am and I couldn't even maybe make out the silhouettes of camper-eating bears.

(Damn, this previous thread makes Glacier National Park sound like a great choice.)

Minneapolis/St. Paul was actually my only stop-off (from Chicago), so it was a bit train-centric. I really enjoyed the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis (not dead central), seeing the covered walkways in downtown Minneapolis, and I think Mount Tabor park in Portland nearing sunset was the most remarkable and awesome thing I did there.

Do you have a 10-day pass, or just a time limit? If it's the former and you're not fixed on small towns as your destinations, I'd throw a few days towards Portland-Seattle (or even -Vancouver) after Empire Builder - Olympia and Tacoma both make for pretty good 24-hour exploring stop-offs.
posted by carbide at 4:28 AM on August 24, 2009

ABout the train, they're trying to get better about this but any Amtrk line are subject to delays, sometimes long. Try to create a situation where it doesn't matter if you're 2-3 hours late.
posted by The Whelk at 5:37 AM on August 24, 2009

I'm doing a similar trip in late October, and there was a discussion about some of these locations in this thread back a couple months.

I, for one, am going to take my half-hour or so in Havre, MT, and get an ice cream sandwich (assuming it's still there).

You may also want to have a look at - which will show you every station from Chicago to Seattle/Portland, so you can have a look at the stations and judge from that.

Also, will help you keep track of the trends, and the Amtrak site itself has a lookup that people who may be waiting for you can access and find out if you're running late, and if so, how late.
posted by mephron at 9:21 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody, this is great info! Elmer Benson, I might just take you up on that porkchop. :)
posted by the jam at 9:28 AM on August 24, 2009

The cathedrals in Minneapolis and St. Paul (there's one in each city!) are absolutely stunning, and worth visiting for purely aesthetic reasons in addition to religious ones.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:22 PM on August 24, 2009

Traffic around the State Fair is really thick around Fair time (so buses may be slow, etc.) The fairgrounds are near the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. There's some local shopping on Como Ave. in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood. It's been a while since I've worked around there so I have no idea about the restaurant situation.

Como Park is directly east of the fairgrounds.

Metro Transit's Route 16 will take you (slowly) from one downtown to the other; Route 50 is quicker and both stop reasonably near the Amtrak station.
posted by Electric Elf at 5:07 PM on August 24, 2009

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