Empire Builder vs Coast Starlight

Coast Starlight near Ventura California

The Empire Builder and Coast Starlight are two of Amtrak’s most popular long-distance routes. Both stop in Seattle, have beautiful scenery, and the same on-board amenities. However, the scenery is very different, and the sights you want to see and the destinations you want to visit will be the biggest factor in deciding which route to ride.

As the name suggests, the Coast Starlight travels along and near the West Coast of the United States. There are amazing views of the Pacific Ocean (pictured above) and the Cascade Mountain Range. In between you’ll see agricultural valleys and wine country.

In contrast, the Empire Builder is a true cross-country route that is almost 1,000 miles and 10 hours longer than the Coast Starlight. You’ll travel through Midwest farmland and the Great Plains for about half of the trip, and the other half you’ll be in the Montana Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest. You can shorten the journey (and view the best scenery) by starting on the West Coast and traveling only to the Rocky Mountains. View stations near Glacier National Park to explore your options.

Whether you decide to book tickets on the Coast Starlight, Empire Builder or both, keep in mind that it’s best to plan your trip in the summer when there is the most daylight. Views of the scenery are greatly impacted by early sunset times in the winter, including:

  • No visibility while traveling through the Rockies on westbound Empire Builder trains
  • Limited views of the Columbia River Gorge on eastbound Empire Builder trains
  • No views of Mt. Rainier on northbound Coast Starlight trains
  • Limited views of the Pacific Ocean and beaches on southbound Coast Starlight trains

To learn more about these two Amtrak routes, see the table below.

Coast StarlightEmpire Builder
Route Length1,3772,200+ miles
Travel Time35 hours45 hours
Type of TrainSuperlinerSuperliner
Sightseer LoungeYesYes
Dining OptionsCafé for coach passengers, traditional dining car for sleeper car passengersCafé for coach passengers, traditional dining car for
sleeper car passengers
States on the RouteCalifornia, Oregon, WashingtonIllinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon
End-of-the Line StationsLos Angeles and SeattleChicago, Portland, Seattle
Popular StopsLA, Santa Barbara, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, Portland, SeattleChicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul-Minneapolis, East Glacier Park, Whitefish, Portland, Seattle
LandscapesPacific Ocean, agricultural valleys, Cascade Mountain RangeMidwest farms, Great Plains, Montana Rocky Mountains, Pacific NW forests, Columbia River Gorge, Puget Sound
Best SceneryPacific Ocean, CascadesMontana Rocky Mountains, Columbia River Gorge, Puget Sound

More Information

Top photo credit: Circe Denyer