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Empire Builder and East Glacier National Park

The train route to the mountains

semi-overcast 72 °F
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After a bumpy nights sleep in our roomette bunk beds, we woke up to dawn with views of the plains of North Dakota.
Example of a roomette and bed set up

Example of the dining car

Some views of daybreak of the plains of York, North Dakota

We made coffee in our French Press travel mugs and headed over to the diner car by way of the observation car for complimentary breakfast (all meals are free for sleeper car ticket holders).

The food is variable and offers a vegetarian option. However, if you’re riding trains for more than a couple days as we did in our Lovebug Train Trip, the selection can get a bit repetitive.

As is Amtrak custom, we dined in a booth across from another set of passengers. It serves a dual purpose of accommodating more people with limited space and to encourage conversation among passengers. At breakfast, we dined with a Texan couple who were also headed to Glacier National Park and staying in Essex to access the park from the west side. At lunch, we met a couple traveling to Seattle to for their grandson’s 3rd birthday party. Since our train was set to arrive on time during dinner service, we were given priority seating so we would be able to eat before getting off the train. At dinner, we had our best pairing with a couple from Delaware also heading to GNP by way of East Glacier. Mike and Mindy (even their names are adorable) were self-proclaimed national park addicts. They recounted some of their most memorable trips as children with their respective families, as young parents with their own children, to now as empty nesters. We lamented over the overcrowding of the parks for those in pursuit of a “picture for Instagram," destruction of the trails, and tourists who do not respect wildlife. Their enthusiasm for NPs got us even more excited to continue pursuing adventure vacations just like this one!

Wildflower farm

The road to St Mary

As the train got closer to the park, the views transformed from farmland to mountain ridge lines. We viewed all this splendor from the observation car, accompanied by our Witbier growler.

When we finally arrived in East Glacier Village, we could barely contain our excitement. Our new friend Mindy helped us snap our first official pic in the park.
After picking up our rental car (Dollar is the currently only company at East Glacier) and a failed attempt at purchasing beer (alcohol sales were prohibited on this particular Sunday on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in observation of their tribe's holiday), we began our 1 hour scenic drive from the Two Medicine area of the park to St. Mary. Along the way, we encountered a herd of bison as well as several different groups cows on the roadside hills. Our first local bird, black-billed magpies, also made their first appearance.

The rivers and creeks were beautiful, but nothing compared to our first sight of St. Mary Lake, a massive glacial lake, is the centerpiece of this area of the park. It was breathtaking! The lake and its backdrop of mountains would be the perfect site for tomorrow’s sunrise landscape photography session.

Entrance to the St Mary section of GNP:

After a brief stint on Going-to-the-sun Road, we finally arrived at the Rising Sun Campsite.
This area is known for their motor inns and cabins dating from 1940s, which have been refurbished for modern use. Here are some photographs of our cabin:

St Mary Lake Sunrise session

We woke up just as the day was starting to break around 5:30 am. After brewing and pressing our coffee, we grabbed the tripod and mirrorless camera to make our way to the viewing area spotted the night before heading into the camping area.

This was a great spot; a Golden eagle (a life-list first for us both!) soared over the horizon and a rainbow emerged across the glacier mountain peaks.
We collectively took hundreds of photographs, but here are a selection of our favorites:

We later found out that the field right behind us is a popular spot for bears to eat their breakfast. Luckily, we did not find that out on that morning!

Hiking to chase waterfalls

After a quick stop at the St Mary Visitor Center, which has excellent exhibits about the park's wildlife and the the three native American tribes who originally inhabited the area, we packed up our gear and made lunch (tuna wraps, our favorite) in preparation for our hike.

Going-to-the-sun road

We decided to hike to Virginia Falls, a short hike (about 4 miles) of moderate intensity (mostly uphill). It passes several waterfalls along the way, including St. Mary Falls. It was a beautiful hike with amazing views, cool mountain wildflowers, and wildlife.


St. Mary Falls

When we finally reached Virginia Falls, we encountered another life-list first, the American Dipper. This bird is a small grey bird with long legs that frequents fast moving rocky streams. It bounces (or dips) as it pauses to feed along fast moving rocky streams, in this case the waterfall itself!

Virginia Falls

American Dipper

On our trek back down the mountain, we encountered a ton of tourists. Staying at East Glacier was an intentional choice; it’s less touristy (fewer people) and less developed than West Glacier. However, later in the day tourists are everywhere in this popular national park. The east side tends to be windier and cooler from a temperature perspective so the West side is more popular (and warm). A strong storm on the West side that afternoon brought a lot of people to the East that day.
The trail was temporarily held up by a deer and her fawn babies feeding on berries. Some tourists were trying to scare the mother deer off the trail, with limited success. She eventually moved to the side to continue her meal and the hiking groups were on their way.

After lunch and a short hike to Sun Point for views of Wild Goose Island, we headed back to our cabin site for celebratory local Montana craft beers.


We dined on-site at Two Dog Flats Grill, a restaurant named after an area of rolling plains in St Mary known for its wildlife viewing. That evening we attended a campsite talk on the dying trees of GNP as impacted by climate change hosted by Park Ranger Rebecca.


It was an informative and interactive presentation on the ability of the mountain pine beetle and western spruce budworm (native, not invasive species) increase their killing potential as warmer climates permit more life cycles than previously observed. These deleterious effects on the pine trees were glaringly apparent during our time in the park. So sad!

On a more positive note, tomorrow we plan to travel to Many Glacier, the “heart” of Glacier National Park, for more adventures.

We hope you’ll join us!

Claudia & Heidi

Posted by baecation2016 09:33 Archived in USA Tagged mountains parks wildlife park glacier sunrise national montana amtrak Comments (0)

Automobiles, planes & trains

Plans in Peril?

rain 70 °F
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Our game plan seemed solid. Get up early, finish packing, settle the pets, and leave the house by 11 am for the drive to my parents house just north of the airport. Here my mother would take us to Logan Airport where we’d have enough time to catch our flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul (and hopefully a pre-flight beer and lunch). But northbound traffic on I-95 humbled our optimism. . .

As a 90 minute ETA morphed into over a 120 minute one, we quickly grew concerned that our plan to catch our evening connection (the 10p Empire Builder sleepliner roomette to Montana) was about to have some major setbacks.

Heidi called Mummie and briefed her of our predicament. Once closer to the exit, we asked her to be in the car and ready to take off once we arrived with our luggage.
Our anxiety and relative panic grew after a Google search for later flights yielded a list of delays (due to incoming rain) and ticket prices exceeding $3,000!
Mummie, typically a nervous and cautious driver, assumed the role of Mama Bear (bears are the total spirit animal of this trip) and with a flair of Boston aggression drove her personal best Lynn to Logan run we’ve ever witnessed. She declared, “Girls, you are NOT missing this flight. It’s not going to happen.” And in that moment, we believed her.

At the “kiss and go”, we waved our goodbyes and ran to TSA. Thankfully, the security lines were short and despite an overzealous, newly-hired agent that stopped every bag for screening, we made it just in time for the boarding of our group assignment!

The 3 hour flight was made a little less painful by in-flight snacks (50% off Jetblue flights with use of a Jetblue card) and views of beautiful fluffy clouds, the Great Lakes, and an introduction to the many lakes of Minnesota.


Craft brews, good times, and a brief architectural history lesson

Since we still had (thank goodness) 5 hours to kill in the Twin Cities and it was a rainy day, our plan to visit breweries was put into action.

Our first stop was Surly Brewing Company.
It is a huge campus with several outdoor beer gardens, a massive taproom/restaurant , and an upstairs pizza eatery/bar with Surly craft brews on tap.

For pizzas, Claudia got an amazing pizza with arugula, Manchego, caramelized onions, and a soubise sauce. She had been new to soubise, but is now a forever fan. Thank you French cuisine!

Heidi got the Disturbance, a pizza with chipotle-tomato sauce queso Oaxaca, pickled onion, lime crema and jalapeno relish.

The beers were amazing, but the winner goes to Grapefruit Supreme, a deliciously crafted grapefruit ale in the style of a Berliner Weiss.

The next stop was a must do for us: Urban Growler Brewing Co, a lesbian couple co-owned microbrewery that doubles as a local live music venue, Sunday morning farmer’s market, and general locale of badassery.

We were welcomed by friendly servers and then by co-owner Jill Pavlak , who shared her success stories as a brewmaster (first woman owned craft brewery in the STATE) and gave us her well wishes in our journey to Glacier National Park.


Jill Pavlak, center, co-owner of Urban Growler

The cover band was awesome and a some fans rocked out on the dance floor to their tunes.

A lady was on site screen printing custom brewery t shirts, so we had to support all of it!

Our last stop was Bad Weather Brewing Co, which was ironic as the terrible rainstorm had finally cleared up by the time we arrived to this St. Paul establishment.

Here were did some half pours and settled on a to-go growler of a Witbier.
We met a semi- retired St Paul research historian named Jim Sazevich who was doing research at a nearby table. He knew a grew deal about the history of his hometown St. Paul (and it's namesake Cathedral of St. Paul) but also of New England towns, such as Newburyport, MA, the subject of one of his books! He was eager to show us his favorite sites around his beloved home town, but unfortunately we had other plans.

In an effort to not be dramatically late to our next and most important leg of the trip, we bid Jim adieu and headed over to the Union Depot with sufficient time to spare.
The Union Depot is a large, relatively underutilized train station with beautiful high ceilings.

A very tired Claudia waiting for the Empire Builder.

Our time here was brief as the attendant began early boarding on the platform for sleeper car passengers (early boarding is one of the many perks of this ticket upgrade, more to follow in an upcoming post).
Heidi in our roomette.

The view from the sleeper car hallway.

Our very tiring, long, stressful, but super fun day traveling to and away from the Twin Cities ended with a much needed night’s sleep in our beds as prepared by our attendant Susan.

Happy trails, the mountains are calling and we must go!

Claudia & Heidi

Posted by baecation2016 15:24 Archived in USA Tagged cities airport st pizza twin amtrak union paul brewery depot soubise jetblue Comments (0)

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