For the past few years, ever since starting college in California, I, like almost every other person who would like to cross 3,000 miles, have flown home to the east coast for breaks. But recently, I decided to stay on the ground. During part of Dec. 2016 — Jan. 2017, I took the Amtrak across the United States and back around, traveling through seven cities and eight train segments.
The trip was made possible with the Amtrak US Rail Pass. The pass allowed for regular coach seats on all Amtrak trains given that space is available.
I made this as a visual recollection of my experiences. They were all unforgettable, from the ups and downs, the boring, to the near-death. Packed with my camera equipment, laptop, and winter jackets, I left on December 20th. This was my trip.
Segment 1: Emeryville-Los Angeles
Duration: 12 hours
Train: Coast Starlight
I woke up excited for the trip but a bit anxious. The Emeryville station is about a 15 minute drive from Berkeley. The Coast Starlight was scheduled to leave at 8:20am, but was one and a half hour late (Amtrak is infamous for how often it is delayed and I have repeatedly learned this the hard way).
The train ride to LA takes almost twice the time it would take in a car, but it was worth it. The Coast Starlight opts for a scenic route, heading towards the shoreline and near-coast valleys on the way down south.
Some Amtrak trains have a dedicated car for lounging and sightseeing (there is even a cafeteria on the lower floor). It is fashioned with big windows extending to the top. Half the car has chairs facing both sides and the other half has diner-style tables and benches. I spent most of my time here taking pictures, watching movies, and meeting other riders.
The Coast Starlight wiggling through the valleys near San Louis Obispo. By the time the train got to the coastline, it was too dark for a good view.
A friend generously took me into his house in Alhambra, a beautiful city near LA. We just ate a lot of food. By the end I had decided to spend an extra two days there (shout out to Amtrak and my friends for catering to my impulsive decisions). Amtrak was super flexible and changed my reservations literally 3 hours before the scheduled trip.
Segment 2: Los Angeles-New Orleans
Duration: 46 hours
Train: Sunset Limited
On the next segment, I took the Sunset Limited in its entirety from Los Angeles to New Orleans. The train cuts through the deserts of southwestern America, first heading south close to the US-Mexico border and then going through the lower half of Texas.
The trip was long and tiring. It was a reality check to my ability to stay sane and entertain myself for two days within the confines of 500 tons of moving metal. There was no wifi and cell phone service was dubious. I passed the time watching downloaded movies, reading, and trying my best to sleep.
Tip: don’t take a 46 hour train ride.
The first half of the ride offers a monotonic view, passing through huge parts of sand, boulders, and mountains before moving into the major cities and suburb areas of Texas.
Going through El Paso, we could see the US-Mexico border from the window. Behind the fence in the picture above is Ciudad Juarez. At a certain point a whole other country was within 20 feet from our train.
On the second day, the train went through a sea of fog outside of San Antonio. The fog picked up and the scenery turned dark and ominous even though it was only 9am.
Crossing Lake Houston. At this point, the train has picked up more passengers and the sky has turned blue again.
I arrived in New Orleans late at night and spent the next day at the French Quarter, a francocentric neighborhood with Spanish architectural influence but is populated with cocktail bars, gift shops, street performers, and seafood joints. There was absolutely nothing in New Orleans to indicate that it was winter. It was 70 degrees and slightly humid with the occasional breeze, and locals as well as tourists were day drinking in shorts and t-shirts.
The Airbnb location I stayed in was a house converted into a hostel. It was a hole in the wall location, but the stay was fantastic and I enjoyed meeting other travelers. It was also super affordable.
On Orleans St. facing Place de Henriette Delille and the St. Louis Cathedral.
Segment 3: New Orleans-Alexandria
Duration: 25 hours
The ride required me to wake up at 5am to catch the Crescent up to Alexandria, VA. Remnants of the college student who only had afternoon classes last semester crept up and I overslept on the first day. And so I spent an extra day in New Orleans. Amtrak came to the rescue once more and moved my reservation to the next day, when I overslept again, but made it in time to get on the train. On the other hand I am impressed at how many alarms I can sleep through.
I was in an almost empty car and got two seats to myself. Amtrak coach seats are reclining chairs with lots of legroom and storage space both above and below.
The train initially runs alongside Lake Pontchartrain, the biggest lake in Louisiana located north of New Orleans.
Crossing the lake, the train runs parallel with Pontchartrain Dr. On this side, the rising sun changes the color of the scenery completely.
This is the Amtrak Signature Steak, provided by the train’s dining car. Reservations with the dining car are communal and passengers are seated with others to fill up tables. Meals on the train are a social gamble but everybody I’ve had the privilege of meeting were interesting and incredible people.
Though it was a good dinner, I eventually tried to bring food onto the train because Amtrak’s food pricing is absurd.
Stopping at Atlanta, the northbound Crescent faces the city night skyline directly.
Moving from the 70 degree New Orleans to the 20 degree Northern Virginia was quite a change. Where I live is surrounded by incredible sights of nature, all within short driving distances. Above is the Potomac River running in Great Falls Park, located only 25 minutes from my house.
Shooting the night sky outside Shenandoah National Park, which takes about an hour to get to. That is me standing still in the freezing wind waiting for the long exposure.
Segment 4: Alexandria — New York City
Duration: 4 hours
Train: Northeast Regional
After spending a week at home, I continued my trip. Leaving early on a cold morning, the Northeast Regional ran through mostly industrial parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey before arriving in New York City.
Aboard the Staten Island Ferry facing the skyline. The city was magnificent. The grandiose scenery of New York is not something I, who has lived in the suburbs and small cities my entire life, am used to.
New York City was beyond what I expected it to be. I have always assumed that photos and videos have been to an extent overexposed or highly contrasted to exaggerate the city’s livelihood, but being on Times Square, in the midst of the electronic billboards and neon signs, night was as bright as day.
I visited Central Park the next day. The usual green was replaced by inches of snow and the overcast weather did not make for very good pictures.
Segment 5: New York City — Chicago
Duration: 18 hours
Train: Lakeshore Limited
On leaving New York, the Lakeshore Limited ran alongside the Hudson River, but by then the sun had gone down. On the next day, the train meets up with Lake Erie and Lake Michigan, but I underestimated how strong the fog was. Moreover, industrial buildings in the area blocked a good amount of the view anyway.
DuSable Bridge, a famous historical drawbridge, crosses over a half-frozen Chicago River. It was not as cold as I imagined, but the wind was ridiculously strong.
I was there on one of the days when fog and rain clouded the city, so I shot single landmarks, such as the Private Bank Theatre above, before calling it a day and retreating back to my Airbnb location with a Chicago-made personal pizza.
Segment 6: Chicago — Whitefish
Duration: 32 hours
Train: Empire Builder
The Empire Builder left a foggy Chicago behind in the afternoon. By nighttime, it had already entered the wintry north in Wisconsin. From there, temperature dropped as snow piled on the further the train travels north.
We crossed North Dakota and most of Montana on the second day. It was incredibly cold outside; at one point it was -15 degrees with -40 wind chills. The view was similar to that of the Sunset Limited, just covered in snow.
I learned that it is very common for Amish folks to take the train. They spoke English and a variation of Dutch and spent their time reading or playing cards. The Amish were probably the humblest and nicest group of people I have ever encountered.
We didn’t get to the glaciers in Montana until nighttime. Looking out the window I could see the magnificent cliffs and mountains and frozen lakes under the moonlight but nothing could show in photos.
Above is the view right outside my Airbnb home.
The train was 4 hours late to Whitefish. By then, the car rental place was closed and I have had no service on my phone for the entire day to let my Airbnb host know. There was no payphone nor any other means of communication and the town looked completely empty. Fortunately, I found a map behind an empty front desk and proceeded to walk in shin deep snow and below 0 degree weather to my Airbnb location. It makes a funny story once I was no longer almost frozen to death.
Whitefish was a rest stop before going to Seattle since I didn’t want to take another 50 hour train ride. Being near Glacier National Park, it is a beautiful ski town where everybody knows everybody else. My host took me on a tour of the town and it was a great change from walking in the big cities.
Segment 7: Whitefish — Seattle
Duration: 13 hours
Train: Empire Builder
This segment is famous for its amazing sights in the winter. After boarding the Empire Builder at around 9pm, I fell asleep. We were still crossing the Montanan mountains when the sun was starting to rise. Not a bad view to wake up to.
The dining car was almost empty. I ate a good warm breakfast while looking out the window to snow-covered mountains.
Pictured is the view from Kerry Park, a famous vantage point to see the city skyline. It was a beautiful sunny day with cool air. Tiger Mountain can be seen looming behind the city.
I then walked down to Lake Union Park, a popular port for boats and seaplanes. It was inactive on a Saturday afternoon except for the occasional seaplane landing.
I hung around the city for a bit then went to Olympic Sculpture Park, where chairs are set up along the shoreline for visitors to watch the sunset.
My Airbnb apartment was close to a bridge that overlooks the city. That night, I went out to the highway bridge to shoot the night sky. It seemed to be a popular spot as other photographers came out as well.
Segment 8: Seattle — Emeryville
Duration: 24 hours
Train: Coast Starlight
At last, the final train segment. The Coast Starlight left in the morning and went straight down through Oregon into California. The most interesting part was seeing the transition from the cold, snow-covered north region to the green and sunny California.
Most of Oregon still had snow by the time we crossed it, though the snow started to disappear gradually the further south we went.
Soon, the train entered the green and (relatively) warm California again. We crossed through a large part of rural northern California before entering the Bay Area.
And on the next morning, I stepped off the train and finished my one-month trip around America.
The trip was very rewarding. I traveled alone and so I tried to stick with the big cities, but even then, through the windows of the train, I saw parts of America I have never seen before. From the still-warm desert of the southwest to the chilling cold of the north, the train offers a view not seen from a plane’s window. Moreover, I have met so many interesting individuals around the country and learned their stories: engineers, ski bums, backpackers, CEOs, solo travelers, couples, families, young, old, conservative, liberal, and almost everyone in between.
Was the trip both mentally and physically exhausting and sometimes made me want to pull out my hair? Yes. Would I do it again? Hell yes. There are still sights I haven’t seen and cities and parks I haven’t spent hours walking through, and not just in the United States, so I look forward to more train rides in the future.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading.