A scene on the railway from Chicago to Lacrosse
While the trip by Amtrak’s Capitol Limited is spectacular in beauty, it’s really only a hint of what you can experience once you leave Chicago’s Union Station on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s magnificent route to Portland and Seattle, Washington.
But beauty isn’t the only asset of traveling on Amtrak. The lounge car and dining rooms, where train crew set passengers in groups of four at the tables, encourage friendship, getting to know others, and sharing travel experiences and information about different parts of the country. While roomettes and bedrooms are decidedly more comfortable for overnight travel, coach seats are wide, with both head and footrests, car lights are dimmed and quiet reigns, making for even coach making an enjoyable ride. Going west, both from the nation’s Capitol and from Chicago, means frequently traveling with families of Amish and Mennonites who are as curious about our way of life as their own, and friendly and candid in their conversations. While rail travel appears to be a popular mode for senior citizens, it’s also highly popular with collegians and families, representing a fair cross section of Americana.
Traveling the seven stops between Chicago and Lacrosse, Wisconsin takes about six hours and is filled with charm and beauty. But the beauty on this first part of the two day trip to its northwest terminus is actually only a hint of the natural splendor that continues through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, where the train goes through Glacier National Park, Idaho, and finally Washington.
With Lacrosse my destination to see a grandchild and two great grandchildren, I’ll have to leave the rest of the beauty of the northwest to another time.
The Empire Builder makes the trip daily from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, and for a good part of the route, travels along portions of the Lewis and Clark Trail, along the Mississippi and past farmlands and mountains, gorges and flatlands.
Amtrak’s done a really great thing teaming up with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, for a Trails & Rails program that helps you appreciate the natural and historic beauty you’re passing and enjoying through huge sparkling clean windows in coach, in roomettes or bedrooms, or in the lounge car complete with ceilings of glass to make the views even more spectacular.
Volunteers from the Park Service board the train at specific stops for several hours, and delight audiences in the lounge car with stories, legends, culture and facts about passing scenery. The program is on both the Empire Builder and the Capitol Limited, the train from Washington D.C. to Chicago, among several other routes, during the spring and summer months. On the Empire Builder, the two guides who got on in Columbus Wisconsin were knowledgeable, fun, entertaining, and made the trip more memorable.
It’s less than two hours from Chicago to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the state’s largest city, first inhabited by Algonquian and Winnebago Native American tribes, later French Catholic missionaries and fur traders. A French Canadian explorer, Solomon Juneau, settled in the area in the mid-1800s, and combined his area with two others to form the city. German immigrants and Poles were the next to settle in this part of the country, and each established a sense of community that made life comfortable and agreeable. Because of the large German influence in the city, there is still a German Fest every July and an Oktoberfest in the fall, to say nothing of plenty of German restaurants, beer gardens, and appreciation of German culture.
Portage is another two hours past Milwaukee, and a charming town named since the lower land area there was a portage for canoeists between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. Known as the city “where the North begins,” Portage was cited by Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet when they were on their way to discover the Mississippi River in the 17th century. The community also has strong connections to John Muir, the naturalist who started the Sierra Club. Muir, who came to American from Scotland with his parents, was raised in the Portage area, giving him his first taste of the flower, fauna, and birds that inspired his life work.
Baraboo, home to the Circus World Museum, the former headquarters and winter home of the Ringling Brothers circus, Devil’s Lake State Park and Wisconsin Dells are recreational cities in the area. Amtrak’s Empire Builder stops at Wisconsin Dells long enough to see the huge amusement parks and rides that were built in the area of the Dells of the Wisconsin River, the natural gorge formed by glaciers that features magnificent sandstone formations along the banks of the river. From there it’s about an hour to Lacrosse where a couple of gorgeous great grandchildren and their dad were waiting to show me the charm and beauty of Lacrosse.