Normally, I would fly back from college for the summer - but this time I decided to do something a little different. I have taken the Amtrak Cascades from Vancouver, WA to Seattle before, but I had not gone on a long distance train trip. In my case, it would have been faster and very slightly less expensive to fly from Phoenix, AZ to Portland, OR; however, I had time to spare and the extra $10 turned out to be well worth it. Additionally, Amtrak allows passengers to take a much larger amount of baggage for free than the airlines do: two 50 pound carry-on items, two personal items, and two 50 pound checked bags. This superior baggage policy allowed me to bring by belongings home for free.
I began the trip by taking the Amtrak Thruway Bus (really a ten-passenger van operated by Arizona Shuttle) from Phoenix to Flagstaff, AZ, where the Southwest Chief stops on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles.
After arriving at the Flagstaff train station, I was greeted by a friendly station attendant who checked my large bag. Flagstaff's early economy was bolstered by its location on the transcontinental railroad, and it still enjoys a large number of freight trains passing through. Additionally, there was live music in the Flagstaff Visitor Center, which is located in one half of the train station.
By the time I boarded the Southwest Chief, it was dark outside and I was unable to take any pictures of much interest. However, I was surprised by the smooth ride at 90 mph which allowed me to comfortably finish writing a paper. We arrived at Needles, the first stop in California at approximately 12:40 AM, and I fell asleep shortly thereafter.
When I awoke nearly four hours later, it was raining lightly as we made our way through San Bernardino. During this part of the trip, I was able to see many Metrolink commuter trains and a dumpster with "NASA" written on the side. We arrived on time at Los Angeles, where I waited for approximately two hours for the Coast Starlight, which was being readied for its run to Seattle.
After boarding, I promptly made my way to the observation car where I spent the majority of the trip. The best scenery began as the train made its way through the Santa Susana Mountains and along the Southern California coast.
Passing through Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Trails & Rails guides pointed out several rocket launch sites, an underground missile silo and the California Men's Colony.
In addition to the vast expanse of agricultural land, we passed through an active oil field which provided an interesting contrast to the natural scenery.
The Salinas rail yard contained an old locomotive and several vintage train cars.
After leaving Oakland, I was able to sleep until the morning when we moved through the Siskiyou into Oregon. The observation car provided unobstructed views across Upper Klamath Lake and down the mountain slopes into dense fog.
Logged areas provided a line of sight into the distance.
Passing through Oregon City, I was able to see across the top of Willamette Falls to the Willamette Falls Dam and the now-defunct Blue Heron paper mill. This dam initially provided electricity for Portland in 1889, and is still used to this day.
At approximately 3:30 PM, the train arrived in Portland and waited for operators to close the lower deck of the Steel Bridge before pulling into Portland Union Station. The Steel Bridge is considered to be one of the most multimodal bridges in the world, as it carries cars, buses, and light rail on the top deck, and bicycle, pedestrian, and rail traffic on the lower deck.
From here, the train crossed two more rail bridges and the Columbia River, before arriving at my final destination of Vancouver, Washington. Crossing the Columbia River Railroad Bridge took longer than expected because two barges needed to pass through before the swing span could be closed.
Taking the train was a very worthwhile experience, and I would suggest it if you have the opportunity. If you can sleep in a relatively comfortable reclining seat with a leg rest, and bring along some snacks, the train is also reasonably priced.