Scenic Amtrak trip from Portland to...?
July 5, 2017 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Last week, my long-term relationship ended and I quit my job. I need a solo trip to reset and process before I start the next phase of my life. I am leaning towards taking the train somewhere (for reasons below the fold) and am based in Portland, OR.

I start grad school in six weeks, and had been planning on spending most of that time writing (I've been working on a novel and want to try to bust out a first draft before I start school). This breakup has sent me spinning, and I worry that if I just stay home, I'm going to wallow and waste this time feeling sorry for myself -- so I need to get the heck out of here. I've heard that some of the Amtrak routes (the Coastal Starlight and the Empire Builder, for example) are really beautiful, and I think that a long train ride would be a good chunk of time to focus on writing. I'm not necessarily opposed to big cities, but I would much rather end up somewhere that is close to nature. I've been looking at places in Montana, (Whitefish?) but would love to hear about any train-accessible destinations that people would recommend.
posted by frizzle to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The scenery on the Coast Starlight is very nice from ~Tacoma to Vancouver, B.C., but it's only a day. The southbound Starlight is gorgeous from ~Eugene onwards - then it gets a little drab south of Redding (and then it depends on how you feel about industrial landscapes) -- it depends on how much daylight or moon you'll have if the delicious scenery is actually visible. I've mostly seen the Cascades section on the northbound trip only, since I've only take the Starlight around Thanksgiving-time.

Are you wanting to train out/train back or train to a place where you stay for a few days?
posted by janell at 10:59 AM on July 5, 2017

If the long distance routes survive, my next trip will be on the Empire Builder. But the Coastal Starlight down to LA, then the Southwest Chief to Flagstaff (if you haven't seen the Grand Canyon; there's a good tour out of one of the hostels there if you don't want to rent a car) is a lovely and scenic mental reset. I've also enjoyed stopping in Glenwood Springs, CO, staying at the Hotel Colorado and enjoying the caves and hot springs.
Earplugs under large headphones for writing in your seat or the observation car. Train people are often chatty, with others if not with you.
posted by notquitemaryann at 11:06 AM on July 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I do not have any specific trip to suggest. But it sounds like your six weeks time might almost coincide with Great America Solar Eclipse. I would research a route that will get you directly under a totality zone to witness the Eclipse without having to deal with traffic.
Here is a great resource to help with train routes:
Oh, and you are a writer, perhaps keep this in a future file:
posted by gloturtle at 11:32 AM on July 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Several years ago, a co-worker and her boyfriend took the train from Portland to Glacier National Park. It sounded like an awesome get-away. Seattle Times has an article with some guidance about transport from the train to the park.
posted by elmay at 12:56 PM on July 5, 2017

I really loved my trip on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland. Once you get out of Oregon, the scenery is truly beautiful and it stops at Glacier National Park if you want a convenient point to get off and appreciate nature.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:57 PM on July 5, 2017

I recently took the California Zephyr from the Bay Area to Chicago and it was gorgeous. There is only one train a day in each direction, but they time it such that you go through the most beautiful sections (the Sierras in California, eastern Utah/the Rockies in Colorado) in daylight. You could take the Coast Starlight to Sacramento (or Davis, or Martinez, or Emeryville) and get onto the California Zephyr there.

If you were looking to make a (very large) loop by train, you could take the Coast Starlight/California Zephyr from Portland to Chicago and then the Empire Builder back, or reverse the order.
posted by sigmagalator at 1:00 PM on July 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Canadian train from Vancouver to Banff is super popular. You could take Amtrak from Portland to Vancouver. Be aware this route is very popular in the summer, no idea what availability looks like.
posted by Nelson at 2:02 PM on July 5, 2017

A long train ride might not be a good way to be able to focus on writing (matter of opinion), but it is a great way to relax and transition away from everything for a little while. The Empire Builder ends up in Chicago, after going through the Twin Cities, but if you want to get away from it all, you might take a look at one of the many smaller stops along the way, and see if there's something that sounds interesting or intriguing as a destination. For example, St. Cloud MN has a nice reputation as a smaller city, or if you wanted to be closer to nature, maybe Detroit Lakes MN or Portage WI. Find a small vacation rental cottage and just make a big adventure out of it.
posted by jgreco at 2:24 PM on July 5, 2017

I agree with sigmagalator, the Bay Area to Chicago route is beautiful.
posted by bendy at 3:38 PM on July 5, 2017

I've always wanted to do the ferry ride between Seattle and Anchorage. I imagine that it will be quite beautiful and peaceful. Or maybe Amtrak to vancouver BC and then ferry/cruise to Alaska.

Here's one I found:

No experience with those guys. But it departs from Bellingham and lands in Wittier. I think there are more.
posted by TomFoolery at 4:40 PM on July 5, 2017

I took the train (from Sacramento) to Seattle, and the ferry out to the San Juan Islands. They are absolutely stunning, especially in summer! Beautiful scenery, small cute towns, nothing to do but ride a bike around, kayak, and sit around eating local handmade ice cream and write.

I'm pretty sure there are no trains that run through to LA - you always change to a bus to go through the grapevine (no tracks through Big Sur). If you want to go south, I'd take the train down to Sac/Bay area, and change there and go East through Donner Pass/Lake Tahoe and get off in Truckee. Not sure how far you want to venture?

I've also taken the one that runs out of Los Angeles through the SouthWest, and a lot of that is really stunning too, New Mexico in particular (hot though!).

On preview: I bet the ferry from Seattle to Anchorage would be awesome too.
posted by jrobin276 at 5:53 PM on July 5, 2017

There's an Amtrak stop right in Glacier National Park, if I recall correctly.

I think the alternative suggestion offered by TomFoolery is a great idea -- the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries share some similarities to train travel, have a bit more space to wander around, and the scenery is spectacular.

Budget might be an issue but if it helps, it's considered totally normal for passengers who haven't booked a stateroom to sleep in the lounges or even set up tents on the back deck.

As far as writing goes: you have a lot of time and while you'll want to spend some of it talking with other passengers and admiring the Inside Passage, you'll easily be able to find a table with a power outlet and do some writing. However don't expect internet service while you're underway.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:53 PM on July 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure there are no trains that run through to LA - you always change to a bus to go through the grapevine (no tracks through Big Sur).

Just popping in to say that this is incorrect, except the no-tracks-through-Big-Sur part (which is true). The Coast Starlight is a continuous train trip from Seattle to LA. It bypasses the coast via the Salinas Valley and San Luis Obispo, then returns to the coast just northwest of Santa Barbara. You can continue as far as San Diego on the gorgeous Pacific Surfliner route.
posted by aws17576 at 1:34 PM on July 6, 2017

I once went from Portland to Sacramento, then Sacto-Chicago on the Amtrak and it was awe-inspiring. You could get off in Colorado and spend some time there -- it's incredibly beautiful -- and then fly home.
posted by hungrytiger at 8:55 PM on July 6, 2017

Since someone mentioned the ferry option, just wanted to comment on it a little. The actual Alaska ferry site is You could take the 8:20 AM Amtrak Cascades from Portland to Bellingham on a Friday. The unfortunate part of this route would be that there's a transfer to bus at Seattle, but you'd arrive in Bellingham at 2:25 PM, giving you a few hours to wander the Fairhaven district in Bellingham (coffee shops, bookstores, a cheese shop, restaurants, etc). Then you could catch the ferry leaving for Alaska at 6 PM (the terminal is practically adjacent to the Amtrak/Greyhound station).

The ferry ride up the Inside Passage takes about three days. You'd have plenty of time for writing as well as to check out the scenery. Your biggest choices would be where to get off and to decide if you want to book a cabin or just snag a lawn chair in the solarium (cabin being more comfortable and more expensive). Also no internet or cell service for nearly the entire journey.

Personally, with this option I would book a ticket to the second to the last stop, Haines. It's a very charming town without the bustle of cruise ship traffic that other ports have (I believe there's one ship a week). I would stay a few days, then catch the ferry back to Juneau (daily service but check the schedule). And from there I would fly back to Portland (or if you had the time, you could take the ferry all the way back).

That said, I would also wholeheartedly recommend a pure train option too. I've taken the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited, and the California Zephyr is next on my list.
posted by timelord at 1:19 AM on July 7, 2017

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