There are many ways to travel across the United States of America, and the ideal way for you depends on your personal travel style.
If time is a priority then air travel is your best option. If you like spontaneity and moving at your own speed then plan a road trip.
If you want to relax, see North America’s scenic side and have the option of stopping off in a few cities;
Traveling across America by Amtrak Train is your best option.
Amtrak Trains span a route system that’s over 21,000 miles, and it runs through over 500 destinations.
The California Zephyr takes you from Chicago through the American Heartland, over the front-range of the Rocky Mountains, and across the Continental Divide.
It passes through Reno, Salt Lake City, and Sacramento before arriving at San Francisco.
Another scenic route is the Sunset Limited, a journey that starts in sunny Florida before passing through cities like New Orleans, Houston, and Tucson and finally arriving at Los Angeles.
This is Amtrak’s southern-most route, passing through coastal Louisiana and then southern deserts dotted with cacti and the mountains of California in the distance.
I didn’t travel on either of those Amtrak routes.
I traveled on the Empire Builder; a route that begins at the shores of Lake Michigan and ends at the shores of the Pacific North-West after a long westward journey.
I boarded at Chicago’s Union Station, one of America’s oldest and busiest train stations, located just outside of the downtown Chicago Loop.
As the train sped away from Chicago all I could see were the receding city lights of Chicago’s many buildings in the night sky.
The twinkling lights became fewer and fewer as we crossed the state line into Wisconsin, and then into Minnesota.
The train takes a long stop at Union Depot in St. Paul, it’s the perfect time to stretch your legs and explore the train station.
Union Depot is an early 20th century rail station that was recently restored and revitalized to replace Midway Station as the Amtrak Stop for the Twin Cities.
Since my journey across America by Amtrak train continued in darkness I decided that I might as well go to sleep. Sleeping on a train is easy since I use a tip from Alex Garland’s The Beach.
In The Beach, the protagonist is able to easily fall asleep on a train by imagining that he’s on a high tech race car that has an autopilot mode that lets him sleep while in the cockpit.
“While I sleep my vehicle continues on auto-pilot, speeding me towards the finish line….. It would be no good fantasizing that the race was in a Formula One car, because how could I go to sleep in that?” – Alex Garland, The Beach.
As I fell asleep the train sped past the twinkling lights of small town America, I woke up to a completely different sight; flocks of birds flying over sprawling meadows.
We crossed another state line and were now cruising through North Dakota.
I boarded the train with a left-over hot dog that I’d picked up from Hot “G” Dog. I had that for dinner, but nothing left for breakfast so I headed over to the café on the lower level of the sight-seer lounge.
I enjoyed a sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich while I feasted my eyes on meadow after meadow flying past me.
The huge panoramic windows were perfect for seeing far off into the distance and talking to fellow passengers about your journey across America by Amtrak train.
We were all on the same route, but everyone had a different story.
Some people had been planning their Amtrak trip for months, others bought a last minute ticket.
Some were traveling for pleasure, others for work.
As we crossed the State line into Montana, the landscape changed, there was now less open plain and more of the many mountains that the state is named after.
From the train, the Bear Paw Mountains and the Little Rocky Mountains were visible along with countless other mountain ranges.
Thanks to Trails and Rails, a collaboration between the National Park Service and Amtrak, there are guides on the train pointing out iconic landmarks and cultural heritage sights;
Like this bridge that stretched high over the Milk River;
And a well-preserved S-2 steam locomotive at the Havre service stop that once ran this same route for the Northern Railroad Company decades ago.
It was nearing lunch as we approach the Glacier National Park, home to over 720 miles of hiking trail and the Going-To-The-Sun Road, a breathtaking drive that I was happy to tick off on my bucket list.
The dining car uses a reservation system and they were booked solid for the next few hours so once more I headed to the café for more food.
Considering how bland airplane food is, and how expensive airport food is, it was a relief to once more get great value for money from Amtrak in the food department.
I had a fruit salad, two pieces of fried chicken, a buttered roll, and raspberry cobbler.
Soon it was time for my stop. Of course I couldn’t ride an Amtrak train across America and not stop off in Montana!
<---! On the way back to Chicago I also made a stop, this time in Minnesota. Read all about my visit to the Minnesota State Fair here.
After a few days in Montana I boarded the train again and continued to Seattle.
Over the course of the journey, the usual view of monotonous pine forest is broken up by apple and pear orchards that stretch for miles.
We’ve entered Wenatchee, home of the “Apple Blossom Festival”. Known as the “Apple Capital of the World”, more than 15% of the United States’ apple crop is grown in this region.
We also pass Leavenworth, a Bavarian themed village that’s home to one of the biggest Oktoberfest festivals outside of Germany.
As we continue towards the Cascade Mountains, the train rises 100 feet for every mile of progress. Eventually the train begins going through the mountain range, using the Cascade Tunnel.
The Cascade Tunnel is the longest tunnel in North America at almost eight miles in length.
Some time after, we’re greeted by the Pacific Ocean.
The train whizzes past ports and warehouses that have been contributing to the growth of industry in Seattle long before the Great Northern Railway was even built.
The Empire Builder skirts the Puget Sound for almost thirty miles.
Eventually, the Space Needle comes into view, after traveling across America by Amtrak train on a journey that takes almost two days of continuous travel; we have arrived at King Street Station in Seattle.
Seattle is the largest city in the Pacific North-West, it’s home to many attractions and the birthplace of Starbucks Coffee. Three Days in Seattle is just enough time to experience some of what the Emerald City has to offer.
There you have it, my journey across America on an Amtrak Train. Ok, it wasn’t all the way across America by Amtrak Train, but at least I didn’t plagiarize my article and steal pictures!
Empire Builder leaving Chicago via Wikimedia
Train at Two Medicine Crossing picture via Steve Wilson