North, south, east, west: Which way is best?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When traveling by train, I subscribe to the way of thinking that says hit me with the best part of the trip first, while I’m fresh. Later on I’ll be tired, distracted, absorbed in a book, or maybe even sound asleep. Plus, sometimes you see more going one way than the other, as I’m about to demonstrate. So here’s my compass guide to Amtrak (and VIA Rail Casnada) travel.

California Zephyr. This is a no-brainer: Take Train 5 west. Leaving Denver after breakfast, be sure to claim a seat in the Sightseer Lounge before the crowd gets there and don’t give it up! Let’s count the canyons: South Boulder, Coal Creek, Fraser, Byers, Gore, and Glenwood, in that order, followed by the moonscape desert west of Grand Junction, all in daylight. Going east, a late train or just the wrong season has you going through some of these in darkness.

Canadian. The big difference, as I see it, is spending half a day going west under the trainshed in Winnipeg while the train is relaunched. Who wants to do that? Eastbound is the way to go. You leave Vancouver at 8:30 p.m. The first day is the British Columbia mountains, the second day the praries, the third northern Ontario’s lakes and forests and the fourth morning the arrival in Toronto.

Capitol Limited. The best scenery is between Washington and Cumberland, Md., namely Point of Rocks, Harpers Ferry, and of course the Potomac River. Going back to my desire to see the best stuff first, this argues for the westbound train. For the perfect round trip between DC and Chicago, see the next entry.

Cardinal. I’ve taken it both ways and prefer going east. Leaving Chicago is a gas, going from railroad to railroad and usually being held out off the Union Pacific segment because the Yard Center yardmaster has the track blocked. You may wait an hour. That’s okay with me, because it means I can see more of the former Chesapeake & Ohio coal country the next day. And that’s the whole point of riding the Cardinal, isn’t it?

Coast Starlight. Either direction works the same for me.

Empire Builder. East beats west. You see the Cascades (or the Columbia River if you start from Portland, Ore., the first afternoon. Next morning you’re in the Rockies, and the morning after that racing through the Minneapolis suburbs, following by the race down the west bank of the Mississippi River to LaCrosse. Going west, you may miss the river and the Rockies, depending on the time of year.

Florida trains. Something about going to Florida from the north always excites me, even in summer. You go to sleep where it’s cold and familiar and wake up where it’s exotic. Maybe that’s because I don’t live in Florida. But that’s my take. I’d rather go south.

Southwest Chief. Go east! You’ll wake up around Kingman and have the whole morning to experience Train 4 weaving amongst the BNSF Railway freights. Ditto going from Kansas City to Chicago the second morning. Either direction, you will experience the emptiness between Lamy and Raton, N.M.

Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited. This is purely personal, but I like the idea of spending two whole days, wakeup until supper, going through my beloved Texas and standing still in San Antonio while I sleep. You can do that on Trains 21/1. Fred W. Frailey

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