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Amtrak Cross-Country
A Holiday Season Family Journey

AMTRAK, USA-- "All aboard," roared the station attendant inside the small Amtrak Train Depot. in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Abruptly awakening from our brief sleep, we quickly gathered our carry-on luggage, two bags each, and headed outside for the arriving Coast Starlight Amtrak train. I counted heads as we walked: sister-in-law, three nieces, son and wife.

The plush seats with ample foot space were a welcome change from the stations’ hard oak benches where we had leaned on each other like toppled bowling pins.

"Dad, how far are we going?" asked my 12-year-old son.

"Ah, about 4000 miles one way, coast to coast. Then of course, another 4,000 miles back," I replied.

Author's family boards

A Great Way to Travel

Our Amtrak journey across 16 states last December and January took four days and three nights each way. We were gone 28 days, including a three-week vacation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The journey left me hooked on train travel.

Amtrak's spacious lounge car

Training is a great way to see the back and front doors of America without the mental drain resulting from cramped vehicle travel. Fares are reasonable. The round trip for the seven of us cost only $1800. The travel is relaxing, and a great way to interact with family and new acquaintances. Yet, if one wants total privacy, that can be had, too. Reading, studying, playing games, and sightseeing are convenient via rail. There are also opportunities for many historic discoveries en route.

Christmas Season Departure

We departed two weeks before Christmas. We had made reservations a few months in advance in order to get the best fare and also to avoid the holiday traveling frenzy. We traveled by coach to Portland, Oregon, by sleeper car from Portland to Chicago, and continued with coach to North Carolina. Retrospectively, I would arrange next time for a sleeper berth for the entire journey. It would be worth the extra expense. With Amtrak you can travel plebian, elitist or in between, depending on your needs and pocketbook. Regardless of the specifics, the journey is very pleasant.

The northern route was our choice because we wanted to be in the snow zone during the holiday season. Immediately our wish was granted as we chugged into Oregon’s Cascade Mountains near Chiloquin, Oregon, 30 miles from the state’s only National Park, Crater Lake. Nearby Williamson River Canyon was a winter postcard, the fresh snow covering rocks, trees and shrubs. Stark, leafless aspens nearly blended in with the downy white. The winter landscape set the tone for our buoyant Christmas mood. Soon still and silent Odell Lake in the heart of the Cascades passed by our large viewing window. Soon after, I fell asleep, awakening when we stopped in Eugene.

Here Santa boarded the train, passing out candy canes. He and an elf rode with us to Portland. In the kiddies lounge, the elf unveiled magic tricks and Santa read the book "Polar Express." The train’s younger kids were mesmerized by the jolly fellow and his helper.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake, typical of Amtrak scenery

Santa aboard the train

Author's son, en route

Empire Builder

As we continued, the snow gave way to the wet, luxuriously green Willamette Valley. In Portland, we changed trains from the Coast Starlight to the Empire Builder. Heading east from Portland, in the Columbia River Gorge, we passed through the small town of White Salmon, Washington. We were treated to the sight of two magnificent Yule season lighting displays of salmon, both displays larger than our sleeper car. As we settled into our berths for a restful night’s sleep, we had visions of salmon and sugar plums dancing in our heads.

During the night, we exited Washington, crossed Idaho’s Panhandle, and entered Montana. We awoke to a light snow drifting into the green and white forests of Glacier National Park. Breakfast in the dining car was enchanting as we viewed frozen waterfalls and staircases of ice, sculpted from summer streams that ruptured through steep canyon walls.

Before the morning was over, we had exited the Northern Rockies, emerging onto the vast Montana plains. That night I drank a glass of fine red wine in the darkness of our berth. My eyes were transfixed on the Big Dipper and the great open country along the U.S.-Canada border.

"Christmas Story" Country

The scenery had changed dramatically when we awoke the following morning. During the night we had passed the length of North Dakota into Minnesota. Winona, Minnesota had patches of snow on the lawns of the tidy, two-story, screened porch homes. They reminded me of the homes in the movie "Christmas Story" and the TV series "Happy Days."

We crossed into Wisconsin, a land of many waterways and farms with picturesque barns. Near Wisconsin Dells, a bald eagle flew beside our window, no more than 20 feet away. Bait and fishing houses, campgrounds, and lakefront homes with boats and docks were omnipresent.

Wisconsin farm
Wisconsin farm, along the train route

Chicago Sightseeing

Chicago Christmas
Chicago Christmas season scene

Our arrival at Chicago’s Union Station came during Friday’s early evening rush hour. With a several hour layover, we stored our carry-on luggage in a train terminal locker and set out sightseeing. A patina of winter blue cast a pleasant pall over the city. Passerby’s added to it with their dark overcoats as they briskly headed to the train and subway stations.

Trees along Chicago River were festooned in white lights. We took the elevator to the top of Sears Tower, the world’s tallest building. The views were spellbinding, like being on top of a metropolitan mountaintop, peering into a cityscape intoxicating with lights and buildings.

Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C.

We boarded Amtrak’s Capital Limited that evening, traveling through northern Indiana and Ohio, awakening as we pulled into Pittsburgh. Later that afternoon we would arrive in Washington D.C.

D.C.’s revitalized Union Station, the city’s most visited tourist attraction last year, is a work of art. The U.S. Capitol Building is an easy few block walk away. One needs to take a taxi or tour bus to visit the more distant Washington Monument and Vietnam Memorial. To do Washington D.C. correctly, one should plan for a several day layover.

Author's family,
Washington, D.C.

Our Holiday Destination

Changing to the Carolinian and Piedmont Amtrak train, we boarded for our last leg, arriving later that evening in Raleigh, North Carolina. We noticed en route that many of the colonial homes were adorned with a separate Yule wreath on each window.

Murrel's Inlet, SC
Murrel's Inlet, South Carolina

We found North Carolina to be a beautiful state. We were also pleased to find so many sites rich in Revolutionary and Civil War history. During our Chapel Hill stay, we visited the University of North Carolina, UNC’s Planetarium, and many museums. We also enjoyed visits to the coastline at Myrtle Beach and Murrel’s Inlet. And the Carolina cuisine was varied and delicious, from "down home, southern cooking," international dishes, to a sumptuous seafood New Years Eve feast in Murrel’s Inlet, South Carolina.

After three seemingly short weeks crammed with fun family vacation activites, we found ourselves looking forward again to a relaxing Amtrak return voyage to Klamath Falls. We had elected to take the same northern route, but we found that much of the trip seemed new to us. We discovered sites and scenery that we had missed in the night when coming in the opposite direction. My family must be hooked on the experience of train travel, for we found ourselves discussing the alternatives for our next Amtrak voyage sometime soon.

Click here for details to plan your own Amtrak journey.

        Larry Turner
        Article and Photos

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