Travel – Amtrak’s Empire Builder: Seattle to Milwaukee


Bucket list item checked off. Extended train ride across the USA. We finished our vacation riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Seattle to Milwaukee. This part of the journey began at Seattle’s King Street Station on Tuesday June 7 at 4:40 pm PDT and ended at Milwaukee’s Downtown Intermodal Station on Thursday June 9 at 3:30 CDT. One hour later than scheduled which is pretty darned good by Amtrak standards.

Train travel. If you are of a certain age, like us. There’s nostalgia in the thought of it. Perhaps your mind’s eye sees people waving farewell from the back of a caboose that is adorned with red, white and blue swags hanging from the back railing. Or perhaps a scene from The Wild Wild West, with James West and Artemus Gordon riding the rails on the way to their next adventure on behalf of the POTUS.

Old rockers like R Dub picture the Traveling Wilburys in the music video of “End of the Line.”

For fans of This Is Us, and more recently, the series next to last and perhaps best episode; season 6, episode 17 entitled appropriately, The Train. Mandy Moore’s matriarchal character Rebecca Pearson lies on her death bed dreaming of being on a train that her father described to her as a young girl. A luxurious train from a long lost era before the jet set took over our transportation industry.

Rebecca starts her final journey in coach at the front of the train and is quickly greeted by her escort for the journey William, her adopted son Randall’s biological father. William leads her from front to back through the train cars meeting significant and influential people in her life. The first stop is a beautifully decorated cocktail lounge with Dr. Katowski who delivered her triplets, saved her life and was a frequent source of sage advice for Rebecca and husband Jack when the kids were young.

William escorts Rebecca through the opulent train until at last they arrive at a sleeper car. If you saw the final episode and have had the pleasure of booking a bedroom car on Amtrak, you know that the sleeper room that Rebecca and Jack occupy as her time on earth ends is MUCH larger than any bedroom you can reserve on AMtrak. But, Boy Howdy did this episode make us excited for our Amtrak trip scheduled for June 7 through June 9!

A quick selfie while awaiting our turn to board the Empire Builder at Seattle’s King Street Station.

We’ve been on Amtrak before. Mainly the Hiawatha from Milwaukee to Chicago Union Station for weekends in The Windy City and once from Milwaukee to Omaha to see my parents. That trip was on two trains; the Hiawatha from Milwaukee to Chicago, then the California Zephyr from Union Station to Omaha.

We’ve also been on tourist trap type narrow gauge railroad trains, which is fun, but the ride is short. We have always been left wanting more, which is good. Right?

Oh! I almost forgot. The Christmas Train! In 2017 we were able to go to the Columbus, WI Amtrak station and see the Christmas Train make an entertainment stop. That was a fun night with our friend Michelle Martin.

Michelle and Beth with the Christmas Train at the Columbus, WI Amtrak station.
The Christmas Train circa 2017 at Amtrak’s Columbus, WI station.

But…I digress. On the bucket list, a cross country Amtrak vacation. This year, home after visiting Seattle; we boarded the Empire Builder at 4:10 pm PDT on June 7, and arrived at our final destination at 3:30 pm CDT on June 9. We booked a bedroom suite for the ride from Seattle’s King Street Station to Milwaukee’s Downtown Intermodal Station.

You may have questions. First why home from Seattle and not round trip to and from Seattle? Next question; would we travel Amtrak again? The answer is yes. Hopefully, the remainder of this blog entry will answer another question of ‘Why will you travel Amtrak again?”

Question one. We chose to fly out and train back for two reasons. Mainly, we had hard time commitments on the front side of our vacation that were prepaid. Amtrak is notoriously late to arrive. Flying out was a better bet for arriving on time to Seattle. Secondly, we were hedging our bets on how much we would enjoy this mode of travel. If we discovered that traveling by train was not as fun as we were hoping, it was only one potentially bad leg of travel.

The time commitment is roughly 50 hours on the train. Compared to the time flying out? Home to airport to hotel was roughly 12 hours. One of Beth’s patients asked what we would do for 2 days on a train. That was a good question, and an easy one to answer.

Beth and I are avid cribbage players and a large part of the journey was spent chatting while playing cribbage. The games were frequently interrupted with sights to see from our bedroom suite. What sites are there to see from Seattle to Milwaukee? The Pacific Northwest ocean shoreline, the Washington Cascade Mountain Range, the Montana Rocky Mountain Range, the high plains of North Dakota, the banks of the Mississippi river beginning in Minneapolis plus more.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder Route. 2,200 miles from Seattle to Chicago.

Cribbage, sights and bourbon on the rocks for a little over two days in a private bedroom suite on the Empire Builder.
The view from our room along the Pacific Northwest shoreline.

While cribbage and sightseeing from our room was the majority of our two days, there two other activities that took up much of the remainder of our time on the train. Eating and sleeping.

Beth in the dining car perusing the menu while waiting to place our order. Dinners have a choice of 3 appetizers, 3 entrees and 3 desserts, breakfast features 4 entrees and 3 sides, lunch features 4 adult options and 4 children’s entrees. (There is no age limit to order from the children’s menu.) Non potent drinks are free and unlimited, potent potables are limited to one free drink per passenger per day. Lunch and Dinner are served each day on several Amtrak Superliners.
R Dub waiting to be served breakfast in the dinning car while a conductor checks his messages.

Riders that ride in roomette or bedroom accommodations are treated to three no additional cost meals per day. There is a menu which has a surprisingly pleasant range of options. More surprising…the food is good! Beth and I frequently order different entrees while dining out and share the selections. Dining on the Empire Builder was no different.

Breakfast & lunch menu.
3 Course dinner menu.

Our choices? The east bound train boards in the afternoon, so the first meal was dinner. Beth wanted to order crab cakes as an appetizer, but they were out of them for this trip. We settled on sharing the Green Cheese Chili Tamale and the Mixed Green Salad with Baby Brie. Entrees night one; Beth had the Pan Roasted Chicken Breast and R Dub had the Flat Iron Steak (medium rare). For dessert; Beth had chocolate torte and I had carrot cake. We each had a glass of Cabernet wine.

Dinner on day two was similar with the exception of salad for both as an appetizer, and Beth went with the cheese cake for dessert.

Favored foods for dinner? We both gave the nod to the greens, but were disappointed that the crab cakes were not on board. We both thought the flat iron steak was better than the chicken. The chicken was a little dry, while the steak was cooked to our liking at medium rare. Beth preferred the cheese cake and R Dub loved the carrot cake.

We ate breakfast twice while on board choosing to share the french toast and omelet with bacon on day one, and we both ordered scrambled eggs with bacon on day two. Favorites; scrambled eggs with a croissant and bacon. Coffee was the beverage of choice at breakfast.

Lunch on day one; Beth chose Artisan Grilled Cheese and R Dub the chili (of course). Both entrees were very good, no clear cut winner here. Beer was purchased to wash down our savory lunch choices; Stone IPA for Beth and Stella Artois for Ron. This was only alcohol that we purchased while on the train. (We did however smuggle a bottle of bourbon on board. Which is permitted.)

Day two lunch was skipped. That’s a lot of eating in a two day period!

Sleeping! Plenty of sleep, for sure. Roomettes and Bedroom Suites feature twin bunk beds. The bedroom bunks are wider on bottom compared to the roomette, but not much, 4″ wider on the bottom. Superliner bedrooms feature a lower bed that is 44″ wide and 75″ long. The upper bunk is 28″ wide and 74″ long. We chose to share the lower bunk. Snuggling was mandatory.

Nap time on day 2!

For our CPAP travelers, many people were spotted toting CPAP bags during the trip, including us. We used ours on the train two nights. Preparing is important. First, there is only one electrical outlet in a roomette and two outlets in a bedroom suite. Bring a multiple outlet adapter. Two, the train will stop somewhere each night and shut down all power to the cars. Your CPAP will also shut off. Bring along a portable battery capable of powering your CPAP for the entire night.

There are plenty of spots to get off the train and stretch or walk around or take a fresh air break (that’s train speak for smoke a cigarette). Beth and I did not take advantage of too many. We were in the dining car during most of the stops and chose to stay on board. However, Beth got off at the Red Wing, MN station to take a photo of the observation car. (This photo was sent to her family in the next town of Lake City, MN so they would know where we were sitting as the Empire Builder sped through town at 80 MPH.)

We both got off the train at Winona, MN because it was the last fresh air break before our final destination of Milwaukee.

R Dub conversing with the lower level conductor during the Winona, MN fresh air stop. We were talking about Lake City, MN being the birthplace of water skiing 100 years ago this year.
R Dub mugging for Beth. She’s a good photographer.
…and the obligatory self, or usie at the Winona, MN fresh air break. The lady behind us is taking a power walk while we just stretch our legs and take photos.

Summary: Short and Sweet. The experience was positive for us. As stated earlier, we will take another long train trip. Next Amtrak trip? The California Zephyr through the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Preferably in winter.

Photo gallery.

Moving in. I’m excited to stow our stuff and settle in.
The observation car. Windows everywhere!
The Cascade Mountain Range
Cascade Mountain stream during snow melt.
Beth got a good reflection profile of R Dub taking a photo.
Our view of the High Plains of North Dakota from the dining car.
Beth’s mom and dad waving to us from Lake City, MN as we pass by.
Beth’s sister Sara waving to us from the Wild Wings parking lot in Lake City, MN.
Beth holding a sign for her mom, dad and sister as we passed by them and Lake City, MN.
Overlooking the Mississippi river in Minnesota.

Seattle’s King Street Station.
Destination complete at Milwaukee’s Intermodal Station.
Leaving the Rocky Mountain Range to enter the high plains of North Dakota.
The Izaak Walton Lodge in Essex, Montana
An old school oil well in North Dakota.
A restored fort. Which one? Not sure…
Lock and dam along the Mississippi river in Red Wing, Minnesota.

Just off the train in Milwaukee.

Published by R Dub's Rub

Conversational BLOG writer and contributing writer for LocaLeben magazine. My BLOG entries represent observations that intrigue, amuse, inspire or stimulate my appetite.

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