Reinvention of the Railroad: Why Your Next Adventure Should Be by Train

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As far as I’m concerned, life is best when it’s partially-planned. Enough, say, to get you to the right place at the right time, while still leaving enough blank space on the canvas that is your day. This creates room for serendipity, which in turn, breeds a good adventure.

adventure by train
Photo: Andy Cochrane

I apply this paradigm to most things, including travel. Planes are practical to get somewhere far, fast. Cars are best for flexibility and convenience. Buses and public transit are economical and predictable. Sure, all of these are necessary in certain situations. But for the moments that you’re not in a rush and willing to try something new, I’d suggest the train.

adventure by train
Photo: Andy Cochrane
Stormy at dusk as the train approaches the Rockies. Photo: Andy Cochrane

Once the crown jewel of of the nation’s transportation system, the railroad was the first to connect the east and west, distant raw materials with big industrial factories, and major metro areas with food and supplies to sustain them. The rail almost immediately became a great way to see the country, an early predecessor to the booming tourism industry of today.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Not long go, I had five gap days between commitments in Minneapolis to Seattle, so I decided to buy an Amtrak ticket; specifically, one on the Empire Builder. I packed a small duffel of clothes, my camera, laptop, running shoes and my bike—which costs a shockingly low fee of $25 to check—and a lot of snacks. That’s it. The less I carried on, the more stops I knew I could explore along the way. I was able to work remotely along the way, but that doesn’t make for a great story. Here’s what I found on my journey.

adventure on a train
Photo: Andy Cochrane

First Stop: Minneapolis

Before hopping aboard, I spent a day biking around the city with two old childhood friends. Minneapolis is an incredibly bike friendly city, arguably one of the best in the country. We spent the day taking breaks to swim in crystal clear lakes, explore the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, eat delicious Somali food, and try our hand at fishing, before I headed to the train station around 9 p.m.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Second Stop: Minot, North Dakota

After a solid night of sleep the train stops halfway through North Dakota in Minot, spending about an hour here to refuel and restock food. I took advantage to get some fresh air. While it’s easier to walk around the train than it is an airplane or bus, I was eager to get some real exercise. I threw on my running shoes and found my way to the Minot Riverwalk, a 5-mile out-and-back pedestrian trail that runs near the train station.

Photo: Andy Cohrane

Third Stop: Whitefish, Montana

After an afternoon nap and a chance to meet new friends in the observatory car, we arrived at one of the stops I’d been looking forward to the most—Glacier National Park. I hopped off and picked up my bike, safely stashed in the baggage car, and rode to the trailhead at sunset. I spent the next two days on a short backpacking trip with my sister and a few friends—I’m lucky to have a community of “yes” people—and returned on my fourth day to continue my trip.

Photo: Courtesy of Adam Wells

Fourth Stop: Wenatchee, Washington

After another full day on the train we made it to the Cascades, only a handful of hours from my final destination of Seattle. I still had a day to kill, so again I exited my train car and biked 23 miles to Leavenworth, a smaller town that’s dressed head-to-toe in Bavarian architecture and design–which alone is worth the visit. From there I continued on a few more miles to a trailhead in the Enchantments, a wilderness unlike any other. After a quick half-day hike I biked back to the train—downhill this time—to wait for my ride.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Last Stop: Seattle, Washington

The last few hours on the train are magical, descending out of the Cascades and winding along the Pacific Ocean, with wildlife abound. I spent my last afternoon of this adventure biking to Agua Verde Kayak Club on Lake Union, renting kayaks and going for a two-hour paddle, then meeting a friend at MiiR Flagship, a great local coffee shop, before I returned to the fully-planned world.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

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