Whistle Stop: Coda (Itinerary for Days 1-25)

As I dust off this blog for my upcoming train trip around Europe, I discovered half a dozen never-published posts from my Amtrak train trip around the United States three years ago.  I’ve now collected these half-written posts into two posts detailing my itinerary for that trip, which has made for a wonderful trip down memory lane.  While a lot of the itinerary is personal to me, I also make a special effort to include useful information such as the time frame for activities, my hostel experiences, and transportation options for the benefit of those trying to plan their own trips to these regions.

That six-week trip — which turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life — took me through seven national parks and seven major cities: NYC –> Toronto –> Niagara Falls –> Chicago –> Glasgow, Montana –> Glacier National Park, Montana –> Seattle, Washington –> Olympic National Park, Washington –> Crater Lake, Oregon –> Lassen Volcanic National Park, California –> San Francisco –> Los Angeles –> Grand Canyon / Flagstaff / Petrified Forest / Painted Desert, Arizona –> Independence / Kansas City, Missouri –> St. Louis, Missouri –> Chicago –> NYC.

Day 1 (Thursday, Sept. 6):  I kicked off my trip by taking a super-cheap Megabus out of NYC around noon.  (The Amtrak USA Rail Pass doesn’t cover Canadian segments of Amtrak train routes).  After eleven surprisingly painless hours, I arrived in TORONTO.  I’d been to Toronto before, so this visit was less sight-seeing and more friend-seeing.

Day 2 (Friday, Sept. 7):  My friends and I spent the day walking around downtown Toronto, including St. Lawrence Market (once named the world’s best food market by National Geographic in April 2012 — the Montreal bagels and Peameal Bacon sandwich are must-tries!).  [Note: Closed on Mondays.]  We then took the ferry ($7 RT, 15 mins one-way) out to the Toronto Islands, which afforded great views of the city skyline.  For more on Toronto, see my previous post.

Day 3 (Saturday, Sept. 8):  We visited Pacific Mall, located in neighboring Markham, Ontario, which holds the distinction of being the largest indoor Asian mall in North America.  While I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit this mall, it could be a good rainy day activity if you like Asian food.

Day 4 (Sunday, Sept. 9): On the way to NIAGARA FALLS, we stopped by some wineries on the Niagara Peninsula (or Niagara-on-the-Lake). We reached Niagara Falls State Park (U.S. side, $10 state park entrance fee for vehicles) at around 3 p.m., where we did the Cave of the Winds tour, which fits you with a poncho and lets you walk right up to Bridal Veil Falls.  Following the Cave of the Winds, we enjoyed an evening stroll around Goat Island along the illuminated rapids. I boarded my first Amtrak train at BUFFALO Depew station at 11:59 p.m. for Chicago. For more, see my previous post.

Day 5 (Monday, Sept. 10): After arriving in CHICAGO a little before noon (on the first day of the Chicago teachers’ strike, incidentally), I walked from Union Station to Chicago Hostelling International to drop off my stuff. The hostel was only $33/night and, for my first hostel, exceeded expectations — it’s very professionally-run and secure, with 3-4 levels of swipe access required to access your room; the staff was extremely friendly and provided invaluable tips on exploring the city.  I spent the entire day on foot, hitting up Buckingham Fountain (much better at night though!), Millennium Park, and the Loop area (architectural landmarks at every turn — pick up a guide first!).  I had a an early Chicago deep-dish pizza dinner at Giordano’s before walking across the Michigan Avenue Bridge to see the Centennial Fountain (nothing special, but the riverside walk was nice), Chicago Tribune Building (its facade contains pieces of famous structures from all over the world, e.g., the Great Wall of China, Hagia Sofia, Berlin Wall, etc.), the Magnificent Mile (Fifth Avenue equivalent), and finally John Hancock Tower for the sunset (tip: skip the pricey observation deck and go straight to the Signature Room to enjoy the same view over a drink).  After nightfall, I lounged around Cloud Gate (the Bean), watching security guards zoom around on segways.  For more, see my previous Chicago post.

Day 6 (Tuesday, Sept. 11): I spent the morning at the Art Institute (the setting for one of my favorite movie montages and home to one of my favorite paintings, Nighthawks) then headed across the street to the Chicago Cultural Center.  [Tip: Visit this first!  It’s both informative for tourists and a beautiful attraction in its own right.]   Then I took the Metra (which I’m told is preferable to the Green Line, safety-wise) down to the University of Chicago to see the campus and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House.  At night, I enjoyed a Chicago-style hot dog at Portillo’s and walked down La Salle Street (which ends with the Chicago Board of Trade building) while recalling the Dark Knight scene.  I ended the day by admiring the Chicago skyline from Buckingham fountain, where I was treated to light shows accompanied by cheesy renditions of patriotic songs on the hour.  At around 10 p.m., a crowd of Chicago teachers swarmed the fountain in protest. I wandered the Lake Michigan waterfront area for a bit before calling it a night.

Day 7 (Wednesday, Sept. 12):  To kill time before my early afternoon train, and at the suggestion of one hostel staff member, I rode the Brown Line ‘L’ train from Adams/Wabash to Armitage for a view of the city and back again. The round-trip took a little less than an hour. [Tip: Ride in the last car so you can look out the back window.]  I departed Chicago Union Station at around 2 p.m. on the Empire Builder line for Glasgow, Montana.  This was my first major train ride of the trip: a whopping 24 hours from Chicago to Glasgow, a small town of 3800 in eastern Montana where my cousin lives. I passed the time chatting with Mennonites and other rail riders.

Day 8 (Thursday, Sept. 13):  I arrived in GLASGOW, MT around noon, where my cousin picked me up.  One thing that struck me immediately about Montana: everyone has so so much land.  And horses.  Everyone has horses.  My cousin took me to the pastures where her family keeps their two horses — left behind by a family that had moved a few years back.  After spending over an hour tracking the horses down on the land, I rode the tamer one bareback while my cousin led me around.  She also took me down to Milk River, named by Lewis and Clark, who followed it for a portion of their journey.  For dinner, I had wild elk that my cousin’s husband shot last year. .

Day 9 (Friday, Sept. 14):  My cousin’s husband, a professional hunter and writer, took me out for an abbreviated round of dove-hunting in the morning (the only kind of hunting permitted in mid-September; only bow-and-arrow hunting was allowed for everything else).  No luck finding any doves, but I shot at cans with a .14 caliber rifle.  We then visited Fort Peck museum, where I learned about the trove of dinosaur fossil discoveries in Montana (home of the Tyrannosaurus Rex) and the Depression-era PWA construction of the Fort Peck Dam to channel the Missouri River.

Day 10 (Saturday, Sept. 15):  I departed Glasgow at noon for Glacier National Park, located in the western part of Montana and part of the Rocky Mountains.  The trip was eight hours.  I arrived at the WEST GLACIER stop (the western entrance to Glacier National Park) at around 9 p.m.  Montana is more or less flat, open space up until the Rocky Mountains, which shoot up out of nowhere.  Aboard the Empire Builder, I enjoyed commentary from a Trails & Rails volunteer about Glacier National Park.  The railroad and Glacier National Park share an intertwined history, with Glacier marketed by the railroad as the “American Alps” and also advanced for national park status by the railroad.

Day 11 (Sunday, Sept. 16): I took the eight-hour Crown of the Continent” Red Bus tour, which starts at West Glacier, traverses the entire length of the famously scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road (featured in the opening scene for The Shining and Forrest Gump’s run across America) and loops back around.  Glacier National Park was actually the reason I moved my trip up by two weeks, as Sept. 16 marked the last day that all of Going-to-the-Sun Road was open.  [Tip: Check on the accessibility of Going-to-the-Sun Road — and all national parks in general — before you visit.  One thing I learned on this trip was that most national parks are essentially only open in their entirety for three months of the year — mid-June to mid-September — due to snow.]

As with the railroad, the Red Bus company, which dates back to 1938, has a long and storied history intertwined with the park’s.  I enjoyed the tour very much and would highly recommend it, as I imagine it would be difficult to drive the winding mountain roads and appreciate the views at the same time.  After enjoying a slice of huckleberry pie with huckleberry soda (huckleberry is the big thing here), I departed at 11 p.m. for Seattle.

Day 12 (Monday, Sept. 17):  I woke up when my train was deep in the Cascades.  After reaching the coast, the train followed Puget Sound all the way down to Seattle.  Shortly after arriving in Seattle, I took the Olympic Bus Dungeness Line — the only transportation to the Olympic Peninsula that I could find ($69 RT, 3.5h) — to PORT ANGELES.  I arrive in Port Angeles at around 4:30 p.m., rent a car, check into my Super 8 motel, and drive up to Hurricane Ridge (a 17-mile, mountainous drive for a stunning vista of the mountains) just in time for the sunset.

Day 13 (Tuesday, Sept. 18):  I wake up early and manage to hit up Lake Crescent (where I do the popular and short Marymere Falls hike), the Sol Duc Falls hike, Hoh Rain Forest (Hall of Mosses Trail), and the First Beach at La Push (the westernmost point of the contiguous U.S. — a classic Pacific Northwest beach complete with driftwood, fog, and rock outcroppings) all in the same day.  The Hoh Rain Forest — a primeval rainforest — was my favorite part of the Olympic Peninsula.  I check into a Forks motel for the night (see previous post on Forks).

Day 14 (Wednesday, Sept. 19):  In the early afternoon, I boarded a bus back to Seattle from Port Angeles.  After checking into the Seattle Hostelling International, I took the Bainbridge ferry out and back for sunset views of the city.

Day 15 (Thursday, Sept. 20):  From my hostel, I walked to the Seattle Public LibraryPike Place Market, Olympic Sculpture Park (great view of the Space Needle), and the Seattle Center (where the Space Needle is).  From the Seattle Center, I walked uphill to Kerry Park for a magnificent view of the Seattle skyline.  After that, I took the Seattle Monorail back to downtown Seattle and my hostel.

Day 16 (Friday, Sept. 21): I took an early morning train out of Seattle for KLAMATH FALLS, OREGON, the closest Amtrak station to Crater Lake National Park.  Two Trails & Rails volunteers between Seattle and Portland talk about Mount St. Helens and the Cascades mountain range.  I arrived in Klamath Falls at 10 p.m. and checked into Maverick Motel, a 7-min walk from the station.

Day 17 (Saturday, Sept. 22):  I took the 9:30 a.m. shuttle provided by Crater Lake Trolley up to Crater Lake ($25, boarding from the Amtrak station).  Once there, I decided to do the two-hour Crater Lake Trolley ranger-guided Rim Drive tour as well (another $25).  After the Rim Drive, I hiked Garfield’s Peak, an easy trail that alternated between stunning views of the lake and of the Cascades (highly recommend!).  At 10 p.m., I departed Klamath Falls via Amtrak for REDDING, CA, where I would meet up with a friend to explore Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Day 18 (Sunday, Sept. 23):  I arrived in REDDING at 3 a.m. and walked 7 minutes to Thunderbird Lodge to join my friend.  In the morning, we took a quick detour to see Calatrava’s Sundial Bridge (the most notable attraction in Redding). Then we made our way to Lassen, where we first hiked Lassen Peak before going down to Bumpass Hell for geothermic activity.  We ended up stargazing in the parking lot to Bumpass Hell before heading to a hotel in Chico.

Day 19 (Monday, Sept. 24):  We stopped by Sacramento on the way to San Francisco, where we wandered around Old Sacramento and toured the State Capitol building.  We arrived in San Francisco in the early evening.

Days 20-25 (Tuesday, Sept. 25 to Sunday, Sept. 30):  I spent the week in San Francisco with friends.  This was my halfway recharge point.

Part 2 coming shortly…

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