Amtrak's new service to the faux-Bavarian town of Leavenworth is welcomed by many, but be prepared for a difficult schedule and some complications along the way.
LEAVENWORTH, Chelan County — The reclining seats were comfy. The lack of traffic was nice. The darkness was … dark.
For the first time in decades, you can take Amtrak from Seattle to the mock-Bavarian Cascade Mountains town of Leavenworth. Service began Sept. 25. So earlier this month my wife and I tried it out.
There were good parts. And, like a polka played by a new convert to the tuba, some hard-to-miss sour notes.
The good parts:
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As I leaned back in my coach seat on the way home, the train swayed gently and the rails chanted a mesmerizing “thucka, thucka, thucka” while outside my window the dramatic spike of Mount Index played peekaboo through morning mist. A foaming chute of the Skykomish River flashed past like a scene from a nature film. Away from roads, we got our own private tour of the dark north woods.
No driving. No Highway 2 backups through Sultan. What a way to go.
The not-so-good part:
For the 3-hour, 20-minute trip to Leavenworth from Seattle, you ride the Empire Builder, the train that goes to Chicago (and which heretofore passed Leavenworth without stopping). The eastbound train leaves Seattle at 4:40 p.m. So at this time of year, just when you’re all excited about getting out of the city and into the scenic mountains, most of the trip is in the dark.
Oh, and then there’s the Leavenworth station.
It’s not exactly in Leavenworth.
Nor is it exactly a station.
Banish those visions of hopping off the train just steps from your hotel, among oompah music, apple-cheeked villagers and snow-frosted alpine chalets. Icicle Station, as Leavenworthers call the unstaffed waiting hut, is 1.3 miles down a very dark road from the center of town.
It’s surrounded by, well, a lot of darkness, which is all we saw, since the 6:08 a.m. boarding for the return train is in darkness this time of year, too.
No worries on the way
While mountain scenery is visible only on the Seattle-bound return — once dawn arrives, and that’s progressively later in coming weeks — there is still the lure of a comfortable, low-stress ride to a quaint town that many people love when it wears a mantle of snow. No slip-sliding drive over Stevens Pass. No frozen hands and soaked knees from applying tire chains.
The town’s Christmas Lighting Festival, the first three weekends in December, is a prime time for visiting.
The new stop is also good news to Leavenworth-bound train fans who used to have to disembark in Wenatchee and get a ride 22 miles back on Highway 2.
“I’m happy; this is very nice,” said occasional visitor Scott Garrison, of Olympia, cozied into his coach seat and reading by the overhead spotlight as our train trundled toward Leavenworth, where he would meet his spouse, already there for a conference. “And my wife doesn’t have to drive to Wenatchee and pick me up!”
While the evening light lasts, another plus on the journey is the stellar view as the train snakes along the Puget Sound shoreline from Seattle to Everett before heading for the pass. We enjoyed an eye-goggling sunset of tangerine and cyan over the Olympics and Whidbey Island — which we wouldn’t have seen if the train hadn’t been 90 minutes late departing Seattle because of a mechanical problem. (This is Amtrak we’re talking about.)
“They’re fixing a brake problem,” a station attendant told me. We were OK with that.
A new alternative
Leavenworth has high hopes for the new passenger service, believed to be the town’s first since the 1950s, when there were five trains a day.
“I think it’s great for our town,” said Mayor Rob Eaton, who has championed the project for years. “We’ve been bringing 1.5- to 2 million visitors a year, all by auto or bus. This will provide a new alternative.”
The first phase of the new station cost $1.4 million, including a 600-foot boarding platform, parking, lighting, some track work and a tiny shelter with an overhead heater. Financing came from state and federal funds, a local bond issue, the Chelan Port District, Chelan County and local donations. A larger shelter, with a Bavarian design to match the town’s theme, is expected in two or three years, Eaton said.
He anticipates payback in the form of visitor dollars, citing Whitefish, Mont., an Empire Builder stop with similar attractions (mountain scenery, nearby skiing) where 60,000 train passengers disembark each year. He said a study found that out-of-state visitors arriving on Amtrak spend $5.7 million annually there.
Leavenworth’s Chamber of Commerce hopes to draw visitors with packages teaming the train and local shuttle service with ski trips to Stevens Pass or Mission Ridge.
Plus, “there are some folks who just don’t like winter driving, so it opens up a whole new opportunity to them to enjoy the village of lights, or take a sleigh ride, or go sledding,” said Nancy Smith, chamber director.
But don’t plan on bringing your own skis. This is a carry-on-only station, and Amtrak doesn’t allow them.
A big tunnel, too
Sightseeing will improve when the train makes the mountain run in daylight on long days next summer, but you still won’t see the top of Stevens Pass. Instead, riders get the novelty of traversing the nation’s longest railway tunnel, the 7.8-mile Cascade Tunnel, built in 1929 to avoid winter avalanches. Kids think it’s cool; some adults wince at the diesel smell that penetrates coaches in the tunnel.
There remain a few hiccups with the Leavenworth service.
For example, when passengers arrive from the east around 6 a.m., not much in town is open yet, noted Eileen Kelly, our friendly driver with Leavenworth Shuttle & Taxi.
“I picked up a guy from Whitefish who was meeting a group from his college days, and he wanted to go out to the golf course … but everything was locked up.” (She called an innkeeper who took pity and made a room available.)
“But usually restaurants aren’t open yet and it’s too early to check into a hotel. It’s a problem the town has to work out.”
Seattle travelers, too, be forewarned: In the offseason, many restaurants close before the 8 p.m. train arrives. Best to eat in the dining car or bring food with you on the train. And don’t count on the lounge car to divert you on the dark ride; it doesn’t join the train until Spokane.
Good news: The private shuttle has agreed to meet every train so that travelers aren’t stranded on the edge of Leavenworth (and if you get missed, the number is 509-548-RIDE). The fare into town is $3 per person.
For a round trip to Stevens Pass Ski Area, the shuttle will cost $12, owner B.T. Parton said.
But the train arrival and departure times will likely be problematic for some. Is there hope for a better schedule with Amtrak?
“For us, it’s one step at a time,” said Smith, the chamber director.
“At this point, we’re just happy to have the service up and running,” Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org