Early in my trip to Portland I was talking to a friend from Miami who recently moved to Seattle and it got me thinking about making a trip to Portland’s neighbor city to the north during my holiday visit. My younger brother also lives in Seattle and he didn’t have much time off work for the holidays at home, so it seemed like a nice short trip to do from Portland. My “little brother” in my fraternity in college also lives in Seattle, so there were definitely several people I wanted to see. It also seemed like perfect timing because my fraternity “little brother” (only can get more confusing because my actual younger brother and I were in the same fraternity as well) was driving down to the Rose Bowl (GO DUCKS!), so I was able to catch a ride with him on the way back.
On the way up my plan was to take the train (Amtrak Cascades route). My fraternity little brother recommended talking Bolt Bus, because it was quicker and cheaper. Bolt Bus are the nice coaches with WiFi, plugs for your electronics, and extra leg room (relative to something. Greyhound maybe?). I looked at their website and it’s noticeably cheaper (anywhere from $15-$20 vs. $30-$50 for Amtrak depending on the time and when you book).
I however decided to stick to my original plan and spend the extra money to take the train. I had taken Amtrak Cascades from Portland to Eugene many times before in college and I really like the ability to walk around the train, the views from the windows, the snack car, etc. Compared to flying while being 6’3” it’s kind of a dream (besides the whole taking longer part of course). The train overall is a very calm and relaxing way to travel in my opinion. The seats also have the same amenities as the Bolt Bus (electric plug, WiFi). I had never taken the train from Portland to Seattle, so I also really wanted to see what that route was like (in terms of the views). I also just really love the train. I totally relate to George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” when he says that the three best sounds in the world are “anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles!” On this trip I actually splurged and got a business class seat for a little bit more (like $16-$18 more), so that I could have a bit leg room in a wider seat and less people per car.
After my trip I am very happy with my decision. Obviously I think there are times and decisions to go the more economical route with Bolt Bus. However I think that everyone should do the Portland-Seattle route (in either direction) at least once on the train. The views (as you will see below) are pretty incredible. I brought my computer to Seattle to try and get some writing done on the train, but that was a dumb idea. I spent almost the whole time looking out the window. I will also argue for the better experience of having more space to walk and stretch, plus a snack car if you get hungry on the trip. You just have to decide personally if it’s worth the extra money. The time saved by Bolt Bus is about 35 minutes based on schedule (of course both Bolt Bus and Amtrak can be late due to traffic on the roads or tracks).
Amtrak Cascades goes from Eugene, Oregon all the way up to Vancouver, British Columbia. The train itself runs from Eugene until Seattle, when you then transfer to a bus for the remaining stops between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. For this trip from Portland it departs from Union Station in downtown, which has been one of my favorite buildings in Portland since I was a kid. It reminds me a lot of a classic American train station. That’s based on my “vast” knowledge of train stations in Portland, Eugene, Seattle, Chicago, Milwaukee, D.C., and New York… But it is a very beautiful, historical building. My grandparents also would take the train out from Chicago to Portland every year, so I have a lot of memories attached to the building. I did a blog post on a visit to Union Station in an earlier trip in Portland that you can check out here.
The route for Amtrak Cascades north of Union Station in Portland goes first along the Willamette River in Northwest Portland, then crosses and goes through North Portland and up to cross the Columbia River. I enjoyed seeing a side of Portland I hadn’t seen a lot of before (since the train goes some places that cars don’t). Suprisingly at the beginning you saw a lot of nature as you went along the Willamette and through parts of North Portland. Once through Vancouver (Washington) the train travels along the Columbia River to Kelso/Longview. The views along the Columbia River can be pretty stunning. You also get some close up shots of some of the mills and factories along the Columbia, which I found pretty cool. At a certain point you head “inland” to Centralia. I really enjoyed this part of the trip. It just felt like I was connecting with the Pacific Northwest that runs through my blood- trees, streams (we went over tons of streams/little rivers!), etc. It’s a lot different from Miami and something I have missed a lot. A little after the Olympia station you hit Puget Sound and travel along it until Tacoma. Beautiful views of the water, the islands, and the Olympic Mountain Range (on my trip they were visible at least). You also see ferries and cargo ships and a good view of the Port of Tacoma. The Port is not beautiful in the tradition sense, but I think it’s pretty impressive and interesting to see. After Tacoma the train goes inland and makes it way to Seattle through a combination of farm/wood lands and suburbs. The trip ends right next to Safeco Field (home of the Seattle Mariners) and Century Link Field (home of the Seattle Seahawks/Sounders). King Street Station itself is a pretty cool building (check out the pic of the insane ceiling below). I also wonder how many Harry Potter fans in Seattle go to see if there is a Station 9 3/4 there (even though the ‘s is missing from King).
Note: one slight downside to Amtrak Cascades is that it travels on tracks owned by the freight lines. So Amtrak trains will occasionally need to stop to let another train pass (freight trains get preference). This happened twice to us, including a tunnel where there is only one track. I’ve heard they are working to remedy the single tracks, so stopping happens less. However these stops usually seem to be factored into travel time based on my trips between Portland and Eugene/Seattle.
This trip to Seattle all seats were assigned and luckily mine was on the side facing the Columbia River and Puget Sound on the way up. In the business class car all the single seats were on that side. On the other side of the business class car were rows of two seats. In the middle were two rows facing each other with a table that can fold out in between. There was a family of four using it, which seems like the perfect set-up. Only downside to my seat was that I was facing backwards. I don’t get motion sickness or anything usually, but a few times I had to look away as it was having a little effect on me. I got more used to it as time went on. There were just a few things I wish I could have seen coming up ahead instead of just as we passed. The single seats were numbered by fours (4, 8, 12, 16, etc.). 4-16 were facing forward and 20-32 were facing backwards (in case you are able to request a specific seat when you check in). Most trips when I’ve gone from Portland to Eugene they only assign you a car (for business class) and then you can pick any open seat. Most times I think I’ve seen coach have assigned seats. This train to Seattle was pretty packed, so that might be why they assigned seats in business class (or maybe Portland to Seattle is always assigned). Just something to note if you take the trip and the views are important to you.
I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story, but again highly recommend taking at trip between Portland and Seattle at least once!