Travel: A day trip to Tacoma via train

Departing from the Edmonds Amtrak station. (Photos by Kevin O’Keeffe)

My wife and I just combined the gift of our recent leap day with the need to save my Amtrak points before an upcoming deadline. Rail travel options are generally sparser in the Western U.S., but Seattle (and Edmonds) have a relatively rich supply of choices. (See a previous piece – “Three Bridges South, Three Tunnels East” for a slice of our local rail history.) Thanks to spending five years as a National Park volunteer on Amtrak, and many personal trips, I have taken the Coast Starlight as far south as San Jose (so I do know “the way to” that destination!). I have taken the Empire Builder east to ski in Whitefish, and even beyond Glacier Park to a turnaround at Havre, Montana.  A more exotic destination was two winter trips to the whistlestop of Essex, Montana and staying at the Isaac Walton loge.

With the regional Cascades trains, I have often gone south to Portland and a few times north to Vancouver. All such rail travels came to a halt with COVID for more than three years, so we were way overdue for enjoying rail travel. While air travel may be a necessity at times, riding the rails is actually generally a comfortable pleasure .

Estuary reclamation at Seattle’s Golden Gardens.

Because of time constraints, we’d have to employ a short getaway in time and distance. North to Bellingham. East to Leavenworth/Wenatchee? Well, when I was considerably younger, and Amtrak was a client, I got them to let a friend and I to put our bikes in the aisle of a mostly empty car and we did a turnaround trip to Washington’s often under-appreciated “second city” — Tacoma — for a ride around the peninsula. I’m now long retired from biking, but the current schedule is suited for a less-active getaway from the Edmonds Amtrak station. The 517 train departs to the south at 11 a.m. and gets to the Tacoma Dome station at 12:55 p.m. The return 518 Cascade train leaves at 4:47 p.m. and returns at 6:27 p.m., so at this time of year, after sunset. Our round-trip senior coach fare was only $50.40 for both.

Using taxis or ride shares, more distant parts of Tacoma, such as the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, could have been visited, but this was a wet and cold day. Plus there now is the remarkable option to take the short Link streetcar route to Tacoma’s Union Station stop. (Years back, the Amtrak station was relocated from that vintage building — now the Washington State History Museum — to the newly built Tacoma Dome Station. This probably was in conjunction with the later unfortunate choice to save travel time to Portland by discontinuing the scenic route around the peninsula and past the Narrows Bridge — a real loss. Anyway, we weren’t going farther south this trip.

Tacoma Art Museum
Some of the Chihuly pieces on display at the Tacoma Art Museum.

We could have visited the state history museum, with its giant model railroad layout, or the nearby Museum of Glass, but chose instead the Tacoma Art Museum or TAM. It’s much larger and perhaps bolder than Edmonds‘ Cascadia Art Museum and includes quite a few Chihuly glass pieces. Most works were contemporary and abstract, but there was a surprising small display of impressionist works, including Morisot and Degas. The 90 minutes we spent inside were well worth the senior admission price of $15. There’s a gift shop and a cafe available. While Amtrak trains have a canteen car, we checked out Tim’s Kitchen in Tacoma, which definitely “did chicken right.”

So the destination proved worthwhile, but what about the journey itself? Well, for me, re-experiencing any view rolling by was enough, especially as accompanied by the familiar constant jostling and the frequent long-long-short-long alerts of the horns. Unfortunately, the “clickety-clack” has vanished with the modern seamless rails.

A view of Seattle’s Salmon Bay.
The backside of Seattle’s Lumen Field and WaMu Theater.

I’ve often stated that rail travel “uncovers the backside” of developed America, along with views of natural scenery. Except for the shoreline between Edmonds and the Seattle Ship Canal, and short glimpses of the Duwamish and Puyallup Rivers, this isn’t the most scenic of Amtrak segments. Nevertheless, the industrial truck lots, abandoned cars, homeless camps and the widespread graffiti still catch the eyes, with interspersed interim stations, sports stadiums, a racetrack and many stately vintage houses. Remember, the overall novelty of this mode of travel will sustain your journey, and at the right time of year you will be rewarded with a special view of the mountains and the sunset as you return to Edmonds.

— By Kevin O’Keeffe

Author Kevin O’Keeffe lives in Edmonds

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