Excursions On Track Private Rail-Line Rides Offer Unique Look At The Beauty Of The Northwest
We appear to be supported only by air, 100 feet above the ground, as our train crawls across the longest wooden railroad bridge in Washington state, offering bird’s-eye views of Lake Washington and the Olympic mountains to the west.
“Cross your fingers,” says our waiter. “This trestle was built in 1891, and was only guaranteed for 100 years.”
The dining car passengers aboard the Spirit of Washington train giggle nervously, then turn back their attention to the scenery and the food.
Actually, it’s hard to imagine too much going wrong at 15 miles per hour as we ride leisurely along the east side of Lake Washington. This train isn’t for transportation but for fun: sightseeing, a gourmet dinner and a winery tour.
The ride begins in Renton, a bedroom community at the south end of Lake Washington. Our route runs through the middle of town, stopping traffic (for everybody who’s ever waited in their own car for an endless train to pass, revenge is sweet). We pass the giant Kenworth truck and Boeing factories, through posh neighborhoods, over and under freeways, alongside shopping centers, and finally emerge from the sprawl 24 miles later, amid farm fields at the northern end of King County.
Some of the rail cars, all refurbished, date back to the 1930s. Two are old-fashioned dome cars, in which passengers sit high above the rails, looking out through panoramic windows.
Americans have always had a love affair with rail travel, and while Amtrak may be struggling, private excursion lines are thriving (the Spirit of Washington carries about 100,000 passengers every year). They range from commercial operators running daily rides to mostly volunteer groups offering weekend excursions. You can take a luxurious two-day excursion through the rugged Montana Rockies or a simple twohour steam ride through the placid farmlands of Western Washington.
There are choices in a wide variety of locations for a wide variety of budgets. Here’s a sampling:
The Puget Sound and Snoqualmie Valley Railroad Co. offers a sevenmile round trip between the towns of Snoqualmie and North Bend, about 30 miles east of Seattle. The locomotive is a diesel; one car is open and two others are enclosed.
Round-trip fares are $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for kids. Rides are offered several times a day on Saturdays and Sundays through Memorial Day, then Sunday only through the end of October. For information, call (206) 888-0373.
The Chehalis-Central Railroad has a steam train ride from Chehalis (on Interstate 5, about halfway between Seattle and Portland) through scenic farmlands along the Chehalis River. The 18-mile round trip takes about one hour and 45 minutes.
The steam engine is a restored 90-ton 2-8-2, with two 1920s-era covered coaches and one open car. The trips are offered on Saturdays and Sundays through Labor Day.
Fares are $11 for adults, with discounts for larger groups. Food can be ordered for an additional charge. For information, call (206) 748-9593.
Hood River, Ore.
The Mount Hood Railroad, built in 1906, links two of the Oregon Trail’s most spectacular natural wonders: the Columbia River Gorge and the foothills of Mount Hood, the highest mountain in Oregon.
The train begins its run at Hood River, 60 miles east of Portland, then makes a 44-mile round trip through fruit orchards and steep canyons (the trip is especially popular for viewing spring blossoms or autumn foliage).
The diesel-powered train runs twice daily on Sundays through October; more limited service is available on Saturdays and some weekdays, depending on the season. Many “theme” rides are offered and the entire train can be chartered.
Fares are $19.95 for adults, $16.95 for seniors and $11.95 for children. For information, call (503) 386-3556.
The Lake Whatcom Railway uses the oldest steam locomotive still operating in Washington state (built in 1907, the Alco 0-6-0 was used in Spokane’s railroad yards for many years). An hour-long trip begins in Wickersham, (about 15 miles southeast of Bellingham), then runs for seven miles through a tunnel, past Mirror Lake and through a forest. All equipment is former Northern Pacific cars dating back to 1910. Coffee and light snacks are available on board.
Rides are offered twice daily on Tuesdays and Saturdays from July 1 through Aug. 29. Fares are $10 for adults and $5 for children, or an entire coach can be reserved. Special rides are offered, too. For information, call (360) 595-2218.
The Yakima Valley Rail and Steam Museum operates a 20-mile run between Harrah, near Toppenish and White Swan along a branch line completed in 1916, featuring scenic farmland and views of Mount Adams.
The train uses a diesel engine (a steam engine is being restored) with two 1929 passenger cars. The run takes approximately 2 1/2 hours.
Fares are $5 for adults and $3 for children, with the train running at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from June 1 through Oct. 31. Special holiday runs are offered, too. For information, call (509) 865-1911.
Not quite a train is Yakima’s trolley railroad, which dates back to 1907 and is on the National Register of Historic Places as the country’s last intact, authentic, electric interurban railroad.
The Yakima Interurban Lines Association offers public rides between Yakima and Selah on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays and some weeknights from early May through mid-October. The trolley travels through Yakima, through orchard country, crosses the Naches River over a historic bridge, passes along the vertical cliffs of Selah Gap, passes Convict’s Cave, then drops into Selah.
Round trip is one hour and 40 minutes. Adults are $4, seniors are $3.50, and children are $2.50. For information, call (509) 575-1700.
The North Pend Oreille Valley Lions Club offers round trips from Ione (about 86 miles northeast of Spokane) to Metaline Falls on several holiday weekends throughout the summer.
The train offers several rides a day on June 17-18 (Father’s Day weekend), July 1-2, July 29-30, Sept. 2-3, and autumn color trips on Sept. 30, Oct. 1, 7, 8, 21 and 22. The fare is $4 and reservations are required; call (509) 442-3397.
A private company is offering luxury tours this summer on the historic Montana Rail Link, from Little Bighorn to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
The four-day rail trip features side trips, a short cruise on the Missouri, museum visits and other events. Prices begin at $2,990 per person, based on double occupancy, with trips offered in May and June.
For information, call PVA Travel Planning at (800) 795-5700 or (415) 812-7355.
The Montana Rockies Daylight, a new service, will offer two-day, round-trip rail tours from Sandpoint to Billings, Mont., or vice versa, from July 28 through early October.
The route includes the Cabinet Gorge, McDonald Peak, Mullan pass and tunnel, and Yellowstone River region. Travelers spend the night at hotels in Billings or Sandpoint, then return the following day.
Prices range from $400 to $900 per person, based on double occupancy. Coach class features a reclining seat and box lunches; club class features table seating, buffet lunches and glass-top dome cars.
For information, contact a travel agent or call (800) 519-RAIL.
The Spirit of Washington dinner train operates between Renton, south of Seattle, and the Columbia Winery near Woodinville. It features a diesel engine and restored vintage equipment, including three old-fashioned dome cars; the trip lasts about 3 1/2 hours.
Dinner entrees must be ordered in advance and typically include beef, chicken and seafood, plus rolls, salads and dessert. Beer and wine are available. The train makes a 45-minute stop at the Columbia Winery, where tastings are offered and wines can be purchased at a discount. The winery “tour” is so brief as to be worthless, but the verandah is a very pleasant place to sit and sip on a warm summer evening.
The train operates year-round, Tuesday through Sunday (and every day in summer), with a special Saturday lunch and Sunday brunch. No smoking is permitted. Prices range from $47 to $69 per person, depending on the meal and seating location. Advance reservations are required; call (800) 876-7245 or (206) 227-7245.
This pint-size railroad runs three quarters of a mile, from the historic Great Northern Depot to downtown Anacortes.
The rail gauge is only 18 inches wide, but it’s a real steam engine and has cars with cherrywood interiors and red velvet cushions. Turntables at each end rotate the locomotive for its return trip.
Frequent rides are offered on Saturday, Sunday and holiday afternoons from mid-June through Labor Day. All fares are $1. For information, call (360) 293-2634.