Railfanning in WA, sep/oct 2024

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Railfanning in WA, sep/oct 2024
Posted by The Danish engine instructor on Saturday, August 16, 2014 7:07 AM

Me and three of my friends are going on a 3½ week trip to WA, OR, ID and MT.

We're now in the planning-phase about WA and hope to see some shunting at the Alaska-ferry. Does anyone know when they're shunting at this location? It seems, that it's a public area (the Google-car has been there).

Best regards and thanks in advance

Stephan in Denmark (

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Posted by PNWRMNM on Saturday, August 16, 2014 1:38 PM


I grew up in Wenatchee and went to school at the University of Washington in Seattle, but have been away for a long time so I can not give up to the minute details. I will assume you fly into SEATAC which is up on the hill about 10 miles south of downtown Seattle.

I will propose two loops, one between Seattle and Spokane, and one between Spokane and as far east in Montana as you ant to go. I know Washington better than I do Spokane.

In Seattle you mentioned wanting to see the Alaska Ferry switching. This is actually a barge service. Last I knew it is on the north end of Harbor Island. The island has an inner ring road that provides access to most everything, so finding it should not be difficult. I have no knowledge of when they switch it. Another place you should see is King Street Station and the south portal of the two main track tunnel under downtown. The former Union Station is across the street but is now HQ for the local transit agency. KSS is on the edge of the original downtown. Yesler Way was Seattle's original "skid road", now an rarely used American slang term for a low income neighborhood. The park service has a small, but nice museum about Seattle's role in the Alaska gold rush, which was basically outfitting the miners for the trek to the Yukon. The downtown Ferry Terminal is also in the neighborhood. Some tourists like to take a ferry ride. Being Danish that might not be a big thrill but the view of Seattle from the water is impressive.

Interbay yard is about three miles north of KSS. It has a baby hump and a large roundhouse. You can see most of it from public roads. You can ask permission to enter, but our idiot Homeland Security has given the railroad lots of excuses to be unfriendly. I would pass myself. The two track ballard drawbridge is about a mile north of the geographic north, rairoad east., end of Interbay.

Ballard still has a remnant of the extensive industry tracks. If you go east from Ballard and stay near the water you will pick up the Burke-Gillman trail which is on the roadbed of the old Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern which failed in the 1890's and became an NP branch line. Where the trail goes under the Interstate 5 bridge you will find Ivar's. This is a lunch, or better dinner, stop not to be missed if you have a taste for seafood.

I would skip Everett and head for Stevens Pass. This is the ex-Great Northern line and it is handling in the range of 20-25 trains per day. Be sure to pull off the highway and stop in the town of Skykomish. Sky was a helper terminal from the day the GN was completed until recently. They have a nice nuseum and information on the Iron Goat Trail, which is a hiking trail on the former GN roadbed on Windy Mountain between Scenic and Tye. I know the Museum is open on Tuesday, since a buddy of mine is there that day. If the museum is not open, inquire at City Hall. Sky is a small town. If you cann't find it ask anybody on the street.

Scenic is the start of the Iron Goat Trail. It is also just west of the west portal of the 7.79 mile New Cascade Tunnel. It is worth a short stop for that reason alone.

As you go east on the highway you will loose sight of the old railroad until you get back to the main valley where the roadbed will be across the valley, with the road rising faster than the railroad. The railorad crosses a little side drainage and the Old Cascade Tunnel enters the mountain just past the drainage. The switchback line worked up the face of the mountain and crossed the top of Stevens Pass at virtually the same elevation as the highway.

A few miles down from the summit the highway crosses over the top of the east portal of the New Cascade Tunnel. If you slow down there is road access to the portal from the left side of the road. The summit of the railroad crossing of the mountains is immediately east of the east portal. Back on the highway you will go under the railroad. There is an access road here to the east switch at Berne. The road an railroad separate, with the railroad descending at 2.2% to Merritt. If you see the sign you can get into Merritt.

Continuing east you will go by the road junction known as Coles's Corner. A few miles later, near Winton the railroad goes over the highway again. This is very near the west end of the Chumstick line relocation of the late 1920's. The railroad soon enters a tunnel. The highway occupies the GN roadbed from this point through downtown Leavenworth. The dam in Tumwater Canyon was built by the GN as part of the first electrification of the Old Cascade Tunnel, completed in 1909. A pipe on the opposite side of the river carried water  about three miles downsteam where a truss bridge carried the pipe across the river to a railroad owned brick powerhouse that survived into at least the 1970's.

If you want to see most of the  Chumstick Line change the road up the valley diverges from the highway at the east end o the long flat line through Leavenworth, which was the original GN engine terminal and yard.

Wenatchee is the modern crew change point. Offices are in the Old Freight house on Columbia Avenue. The main freight yard is a couple of miles east of the offices at Appleyard, another 1920's project.

Your route east is WA 28 which you pick up east of the highway bridge. The big Rock Island bridge will be on your right just before the town of Rock Island.  The railroad and the highway run close to each other until a point about a mile below Rock Island dam. If you want a classic GN photo pull off the highway and walk toward the railroad. The shot is railroad west, toward the dam. Make plenty of noise to let the rattlesnakes know you are coming and keep ands and feet out of shady places that tey favor in the heat of the day.

The west end of Albus, formerly Columbia River, siding is also here. It marks the begining of a 20 mile long 1% climb to the rim of the Columbia Plateau at Quincy. At Trinidad the railroad goes up the near side of a small, for this county, drainage called Lynch Coulee. Take the road up the coulee. About four miles up there is a 10 degree horseshoe curve, mostly on a fill from one side of the coulee to the other. There are lots of great photo spots in Lynch Coulee, a very under appreciated place IMHO.

Back on the main road at Trinidad you rejoin the railroad at Crater Lake and the west switch of Quincy. The railroad and WA 28 run more or less together to Wilson Creek. The eastern portion of this is in the drainage of Crab Creek. Crab Creek is a small flood channel of the great Spokane Floods. If you want to understand  the geoolgy and scenery of Eastern Washington get a book about the Spokane Floods.

Hwy 28 will run into US 2 at Davenport, a station on the Central Washington branch of the NP, continue east to Spokane. The first significant railroad structure you will see is the Latah Creek bridge of the BNSF. This BN merger project joins the ex-GN main, which was relocated from Highland with the ex-NP main on the east side of the creek and the west edge of Spokane. The NP line goes through Spokane on a World War  I era grade separation. The GN line through Spokane has been destroyed.

Take the Division Street exit and work back to the current Amtrak depot. It was built by the Northern Pacific Railraod in 1892 and you can still see "NPRR" in the layer of stone that separates the first and second floors. The NPRR failed in 1893 and was reogranized by J. P. Morgan as Northern Pacific Railway in 1897. The BNSF yard is Yardley, about three of miles east of the depot. The UP has right over the BNSF through downtown Spokane and for several miles west on the old NP and SP&S lines.

My knowlege falls off rapidly east of Spokane. The 70 mile long segment of former NP from Yardley to Sandpoint is known is "the funnel" in the rail fan community. As part of the BN merger of 1970 all GN traffic was shifted to the NP between those two points. Today the line sees everything that moves east-west on BNSF, up to 70 trains a day.

The current crew change point, and fuel station for almost every train is at Hauser. Big modern facility. Doubt that visitors are welcome.

The lies split at the east edge of Sandpoint. A new 1970 era, line takes eastward BNSF traffic to the former GN mail line a couple of miles away, while Montana Rail Link ownership of the ex-np line begins just east of the switch. This is the common point of our Montana Loop.

We will follow the BNSF to Bonners Ferry. A scenic side trip north to Eastport Idaho following the Union Pacific's former Spokane International line is available here if you desire. US 2 more or less follows the BNSF to the east. Whitefish is the next crew change point. Essex, at the foot of the helper grade, is the location of the Isaak Walton Inn. This is a ca 1920 GN bunkhouse but very well built and is now a justly famous place to stay. DO NOT fail to stay at least one night. You can watch trains from the swings on the front porch and will hear them all night.

East of Essex the railroad runs along the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. At Summit there is a new eating place also with cabins that has gotten good reviews. I have no personal knowledge. Enter the park at East Glacier and drive the "Going to the Sun" road back west. I guarantee it is worth the time and westward is the more spectacular. Two Medicine bridge is a few miles east of East Glacier and reasonably accessible. You are now in Blackfoot Indian country. The tribe has a museum, watch the billboards if you are interested.

Shelby is the junction of a branch line to the CP at Sweetgrass, and more importantly to the former GN line to Laurel. Havre is as far east as I would go myself. The scenery at Havre continues well into North Dakota. Havre was the GN's largest diesel shop and still serves the BNSF. Power and trains are often adjusted here since the grade is 1% west and .6% east. There is also a big GN steam engine on display at the depot.

My next objective would be the Billings area. The most direct route is east on US 2 to Fort Belkap Agency then south through Grass Range and Roundup. This is all cattle country. You will cross the MILW roadbed at Roundup.

Billings has several interesting things. It is named after Fredrick Billings a construction era board member and President of the NP. Remember that the NP was the white man's first mark on the land in all of Montana. In that vein the Custer battle field, which was the Indian's last successful stand against the US Army, is only about 60 miles away to the east and south. Jones Junction, where the former CBQ line from Sheridan meets the former NP line about 20 miles east of Billings is the end of MRL. The CBQ-NP line east is today a BNSF unit train coal route. Moving west from Jones Junction I think the former NP depot still stands down town. Laurel, a few miles west is still an important yard. In the day it was an NP facility also used by the GN and CBQ. In addition to NP traffic through the GN and NP both interchanged traffic with the Q. I suspect that the BNSF has overhead rights to connect its former GN and Q routes since the line to Shelby continues to serve as an alternate to routing through traffic via the MRL.

Livingston is at the foot of the helper grade over the Belt Mountains. Livingston was a major steam shop that became the NP's most important diesel shop, and for the same reasons as Havre. The shop is now shut down but some of the buildings are intact. The depot is intact down down. Livingston was the junction of the now long gone branch to Yellowstone Park. Definately worth a stop.

You should consider a side trip to Yellowstone National Park, our first and to my mind most geologically interesting. Call Zantera for reservations. You could drive it in a day, but two would be more relaxed.

Helena, the capitol, was served by both the NP and the GN. MRL's main line goes through Helena today. The MRL crosses the Continental Divide is a few miles west. That is probably worth a day. Both towns have a rich mining history. I would go from Helena to Butte. The freeway roughly follows the Montana Central) GN line between Helena and Butte. Butte claims to be the "richest hill on earth" due to the thousands of tons of copper dug here and smelted at Anaconda and Great Falls. The town was relocated (in the 1970"s?) and turned into a single open pit mine that is active to this day, but a shadow of the place's former glory. The Union Pacific still serves Butte with a line from the south.

The freeway from Butte to Garrison follows the route of the Montana Union which at one time was jointly owned by the NP and the UP. It later went to the NP and is now an isolated section of BNSF. About 1890 the NP built a line east from Butte many miles to a junction with its original line. That line is intact but out of service.

To be continued

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Posted by The Danish engine instructor on Saturday, August 16, 2014 2:42 PM

Thank you wery much for taking the time to write and give so many informations, which I really appreciate. Actually it's the 4th. time (in 3½ years) my three friends and I  are going to the US.

In 2011 we were in CA, AZ and NV (Nevada Northern on a photocharter)

In 2012 we were in the midwest (CO, NM, UT, SD, WY and NE)  and the in 2013 also in the midwest (CO, NM, TX, OK and WY). The Yellowstone we visited in 2012. ;)

Georgetown Loop, Cumbress & Toltec, Durango & Silverton have also been visited. The last two lines both in 2012 and 2013.

I think that 75% of the "train-time" on the vacation will be the "normal" trains including some shortlines as well.

Here's some pictures from the first three trips to US. ;)

Best regards from

Stephan in Denmark.

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Posted by PNWRMNM on Saturday, August 16, 2014 5:10 PM

Part 2 of 2.

Before leaving Helena I should have noted that it is the base for a helper grade over the Continental Divide, so if you like helpers Helena and Livingston are your spots.

Missoula is HQ for MRL. It has a yard and is a crew change point. I think both NP and MILW depots are intact in the downtown area.

De Smet is a junction between the original main line, which goes up and over a mountain on 2.2% grades and what became the the freight main which follows the Clark Fork River. The two lines rejoin near Paradise. At about St Regis the freeway separates from the railroad, a condition that obtains all the way to Spokane. If you want to follow the railroad you will need good local maps at the very least. I would talk to the locals before committing to that course.

The freeway takes you over Lookout Pass and down into Mullen and Wallace which are in the heart of the Coeur D' Alene mining district. An NP predecessor built a narrow gauge line into the area from the west. The NP built a branch over Lookout Pass that featured 4% grades, but it was better than the narrow gauge. The UP built into the area from the Southeast. I think it is all gone now, but the former NP depot in Wallace is a little stone beauty well worth a stop for a photo.

From Spokane I would return via the NP to Pasco, SP&S to Vancouver, and the former NP double track line to Seattle. Marshall, about 15 miles west of Spokane is worth a stop. There was an interlocking tower here back in the day that controlled access to the Palouse & Lewiston branch that ran generally south and a few miles west of the Idaho border before going through Moscow Idaho to Lewiston ID. At Marshall the NP and the Junction are still there. The abandoned UP route into Spokane is now a bike trail, and the SP&S a bit higher on the slope is still in service. At a pair of junctions the NP and the SP&S come together, and then the UP diverges to its own line to Hinkle, Oregon. The SP&S is abandoned from the first Junction to the edge of Pasco, a huge mistake by the "Oil man" management that ran BN for a few years. Go through Cheney and get back on I-90. Just past Ritzville leave I 90 for US 395 to Pasco. This all runs sort of parallel to the old NP, but if you want a close look you will need to use local roads west of Tokio.

This stretch to Pasco is one that the BNSF is finally trying to add enough capacity to so they can get a train the roughly 160 miles  between Hauser and Pasco in a single 12 hour crew day. Look for construction of roadbed and second track all along this segment.

Pasco is the BNSF's largest hump yard in the state of Washington.  I suggest you leave the area on US 395 south. You will soon cross the Snake River and come to the paper mill at Wallula. While all of the railroad you see there dates to the relocation for McNary Dam Wallula is significant in that it was the original junction between the NP and the OR&N.   Leaving Wallula, you will pass through Wallula Gap, a major choke point for the Spokane Floods which ran at least 400 feet higher than the current river level. The UP is on your side, with the former SP&S, now BNSF on the orher side.

At Umatilla cross over to the Washington side. WA 14 follows the BNSF all the way to Vancouver. This is one of the best engineered lines in the state. Loaded unit trains of grain, oil, and coal roll west and about all the locomotives need to do is keep the air pumped up. Do not expect to chase trains here. They will be at least as fast as you and the road goes thru every small town there is and up and down ever more impressive hills.

Drop into Wishram, which I think has been bypassed as a crew change point. You might get a feel for the ghosts of this former civision point and you will certainly get a good look at the bridge across the Columbia River which is the north end of the Oregon Trunk and Hill's "Inside Gateway" route to California.

If you need a rest cross over into The Dalles, Oregon or go a bit farther and cross over to Hood River. The modern conveniences are all on the Oregon side.

I count Wishram as the begining of the Columbia River Gorge which is where the Columbia River cuts through the still rising Cascade Mountains. The BNSF and UP both cross the crest of the Cascade Mountains at an elevation of about 75 feet west of Stevenson, about where the Bridge of the Gods crosses the river.

At Vancouver the former SP&S line meets the former NP line. Amtrak uses the depot inside the wye at VAncouver so you can loiter there. If the sun is out morning light is better than afternoon. Union Station is about 10 miles away in downtown Portland, and the Vancouver Yard is immediately to the north. Vancouver was an SP&S facility in the day and its diesel shop is where SP&S maintained its Alco fleet.

Vancouver to Seattle is 150 miles of two main track with lots of freight, both BNSF and UP. Again I-5 generally parallels the railroad but if you want to see much or take photos you will need to poke around the back roads.

Kalama has at leat two, and I think three, lagre grain elevators that receive unit trains and load ships on the Lower Columbia River. Longview Junction has a large yard that you can see from the freeway but I have never been moved to try to explore it.

If you are interested in port activity Tacoma's is on full display from public roads. The UP operates on its own single track line from Tacoma to Black River, where both get together on adjacent roadbeds, and I think joint use main lines to UP's Argo Yard at the south edge of downtown Seattle. BNSF's South Seattle trailer and container yard is in this stretch. Their container yard is farther north on goround that used to be the NP's Stacy Steeet yard behind the Sears building, which I understand is now Starbucks' HQ.

There you have it two grand circle tours and more than enough to keep you busy.

Mac McCulloch

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Posted by MidlandMike on Sunday, August 17, 2014 9:28 PM

Mac seems to have covered the mainlines in great detail, although it seemed Hill Lines (GN,NP,SP&S) centric.  While the Milwaukee Road (CMStP&P) is gone, the crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains on the MT-ID border has been preserved as a bike trail.  They will van you up to the top, and you can coast down.  I drove along this section on back roads about 30 years ago before the rails were pulled, but I have not been back yet to try the bike trail.

If you find yourself on I-90 thru WA, you will see old MILW bridges on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass, and east of Ellensburg.  Between roughly those two points, the ex-NP Stevens Pass line is still used by BNSF.

At Hood River, OR there is a tourist/shortline up into orchard country that takes a switchback to get out of the valley.

I noticed you have taken a number of historic steam trains, so if you are in the northwest you should not miss the Mt. Rainier Scenic RR.  They have several working logging steam engines, including all types of geared steam engines.

If you want to see the last actual working logging RR, it is the Simpson Lumber line out of Shelton, WA.  It's just a 10 mile remnant of a much larger system that runs between mills and a dry sort yard.

You can also take shorter trips out of Seattle on Amtrrak's Cascades, or on the Sounder commuter trains.

Welcome to the USA

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Posted by PNWRMNM on Sunday, August 17, 2014 10:22 PM


If you find yourself on I-90 thru WA, you will see old MILW bridges on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass, and east of Ellensburg.  Between roughly those two points, the ex-NP Stevens Pass line is still used by BNSF.

Minor correction, "Stevens" in above para should be "Stampede". Line is close to I-90 from Cle Elum to Easton.


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Posted by StudeDave on Monday, August 18, 2014 9:26 PM

I am somewhat 'local' to the area, and even for me that's some good information there.

Thanks for posting all of that Mac!!! Yes

StudeDave  Pirate

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Posted by chad s thomas on Tuesday, August 19, 2014 8:49 PM

Wow Mac, Thanks for the flashback!!! That was an awsome rundown and I 2nd that trip suggestion. And might I add one of my all time favorite places for pacing is between Lyle and Stevenson where at places you can almost reach out of you window and touch the train!!!

(westbound on state route 14 just west of Cooks,Wa. at the crack of dawn. June 2008)

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Posted by MidlandMike on Wednesday, August 20, 2014 9:48 PM



If you find yourself on I-90 thru WA, you will see old MILW bridges on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass, and east of Ellensburg.  Between roughly those two points, the ex-NP Stevens Pass line is still used by BNSF.

Minor correction, "Stevens" in above para should be "Stampede". Line is close to I-90 from Cle Elum to Easton.


Yes, Stampede Pass.  I should have remembered, as I rode over that line during the 2011 NRHS Tacoma convention.  

Another correction I should make is that the Simpson Lumber logging rail operations are presently confined to the Shelton mill after snagging an electric utility line last year, as mentioned in a Trains NewsWire article yesterday.

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Posted by The Danish engine instructor on Friday, August 22, 2014 8:51 AM

Well thank you all for the information, which I appreciate. I can't wait to come (back) to the US again. Now there's only a month left until the vacation starts :)

I hope it's OK, if I put some more questions at this forum a little later.

Best regards from

Stephan in Denmark ( )

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Posted by NorthWest on Tuesday, August 26, 2014 6:00 PM

Mac has done an astounding job. A couple comments.

There is a bike path along Interbay Yard, stretching from Thorndyke Ave to the waterfront (also a good spot to watch trains, next to the sculpture garden). This is the Elliot Bay Trail, and it gives you excellent views of the hump and the locomotive storage facility, where Boeing 737 fuselages sit on occasion. I've gotten odd looks, but no harassment on the trail.  The roundhouse is visible easily from Gilman Ave. To view the drawbridge, a great location is the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, where there is a park. The Ballard Terminal Railroad runs through the parking lot, but only operates at night. Their locomotive facility is at 14th Ave and 45th St.

The trackage from Ballard north to Everett along the Puget Sound is spectacular, Carkeek Park, Richmond Beach Park,  and the Edmonds ferry dock are excellent locations.

The Iron Goat is spectacular, but a long and difficult hike.

If you need any more help, just ask.

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