I recently took my children on a bucket-list trip across the United States and back via 7 coach tickets on the Amtrak railway system (and for just $380! You can read more about that here. ) My initial plan was to make it a true cross-country trip by starting at either Penn Station in New York City or Union Station in Washington, DC and heading west all the way to the Pacific Coast.
We had just a couple of places on the calendar where we were able to squeeze our journey in but neither gave us more than 2 weeks to do it with. So, it made making it a true coast to coast trip a little trickier as it would add an extra leg of travel and an extra day to our journey to leave from New York City. And while it was incredibly tempting to take off from Union Station in Washington, DC, parking there runs about $20/day. $20/day times the almost two weeks we’d be gone was about $260 more than I was wanting to spend on that. Since we’ve wandered through Union Station many times (we try to park there when we visit DC, which we do fairly often), and have taken the DC metro about as far out from the city as it will go, we figured we wouldn’t be missing much by picking a station outside the city instead.
We are huge national parks buffs, so we decided to board the train at the station inside of Harpers Ferry National Park in West Virginia. Parking there is free (IF you can find it. I didn’t realize actually finding parking could be an issue or I’d have chosen a different station).
Something else I didn’t take into consideration, which I’m sure I’ve read before but managed to forget, is that Harpers Ferry is a carry-in, carry-out park. Meaning: whatever you bring in with you also goes back out with you. There are no trash cans anywhere to toss out, say, half-enjoyed milkshakes you might have grabbed from one of the little shops in town just before they closed up for the night. There’s also nowhere to go to the bathroom there after everything closes up. The remnants of those milkshakes sat in the car for two weeks. TERRIFYING, I know, but there was no where else to put them and the parking lot was still packed at that point, so I didn’t dare move the car to find a place to purge them. It was time to get everything loaded up onto the platform anyway, so there they sat. I thought on them more often than I probably should have while we were away….what amazing smells (or worse!) would await us when we opened the car door at the end of the trip…
Also worth noting: the train platform at Harpers Ferry National Park IS NOT handicapped accessible. More specifically, you need to travel down a set of steps, through a tunnel under the tracks, and up a set of steps to get to the west-bound platform. It’s not a huge deal, but Amtrak’s webpage for that station simply states that there are steps leading up to the platform, and that’s really just not how I imagined it. So, I’m putting it out there to save someone else from hauling a ton of luggage through all of that.
THE TRAIN – Day 1
Our first train, the Capitol Limited #29, picked us up at 5:15pm on the button and took us west, overnight, past Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and on to Chicago, Illinois. We spent what remained of the daylight hours getting to know our accommodations and getting everyone calmed down and ready for bed…which wasn’t hard at all. We’d slept horribly at the hotel the night before and it was a long day, so we were all ready to zonk out not long after we’d gotten on the train.
Day 2 – Chicago
We woke up the next day in Somewhere, Ohio. I made sure the kids were all up and mobile for the day. We packed up our belongings and got everything set so we were ready to detrain when we pulled into Union Station in Chicago.
We had a six-hour layover here, so we chose to utilize one of our lounge passes at the Metropolitan Lounge. Here, we dropped off our luggage, grabbed a few snacks and drinks, and went for a walk. The Willis Tower (which was formerly the Sears Tower and was the tallest building in the world when it was built back in the 80’s) was just a few blocks from the station. I was hoping to take a ride up to the lookout at the top of the tower and peer out at Chicago from the sky, but the kids decided, after we’d meandered around inside the bottom of the building, that they’d rather hunt down something that looked like actual food since our next day and a half would be on the train and we’d have to survive off of the snacks we’d brought along and whatever looked decent and didn’t cost a fortune on the train.
Samantha found a joint called the Cactus Bar & Grill that wasn’t far from the Willis Tower, and she guided us there. It was all decked out for Mardi Gras, so that was kind of neat. The food was delicious and was reasonably priced too. After lunch, we made our way back to the station, grabbed a couple of beverages quick, harvested our luggage from the storage room, and took off for our next train…the Southwest Chief #3.
We boarded just before 3:00pm central time and again, by the time we’d gotten everything situated and had gotten to know the train, it was dark outside and time to be thinking about sleeping for the night. We all curled up with our books and our phones and rested the night away.
Side note: The Metro Lounge in Chicago has a couple of very nice shower stalls available for folks that are just getting off of long-haul trains. For anyone, actually. Samantha inquired about using one of them about an hour prior to our departure time and was shot down. So, if you’re interested in grabbing a shower there, be sure to give yourselves a good hour and half before boarding starts (not before the train is scheduled to leave) if that’s an amenity you’re planning to use.