Railfan Trip Report: late June, 2021
Well, finally – a road trip over Stevens Pass, out to Wenatchee and Lynch Coulee, and back again, all in a virtually mask-less environment. A comment like that just 2 years ago would have sounded absurd. (“Masks? What masks? What are you talking about?”) But after enduring more than a year under the gloomy pall of the COVID pandemic and all that came with it, life had become far removed from “normal.” Even now, we are all still remaining alert to the impact of this thing and taking prudent measures to ensure it does not find a resurgence. But at least for a few days in late June, there was little on our minds besides keeping cool in the blazing heat, and finding the next good spot to snap some photos of trains.
Tuesday, June 22
My wife Jan and I took a few days off from work and set off for the Cascades and central Washington for some railfan fun. On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 22nd, we left home near Everett and began the drive to Leavenworth. Once there, we checked into the Icicle Village Resort on the edge of town for a 2-night stay. This would be our base of operations to begin our outing. In keeping with the slightly schmaltzy Bavarian theme adopted years ago by Leavenworth to attract more hoards of tourists than they can accommodate, the Icicle Village Resort has its city ordinance-mandated share of Black Forest style trimmings and décor. But they have also embraced the railroad history of the town of Leavenworth, which was once a significant division point for the Great Northern Railway. This influence is seen particularly in the motel’s homage to the GN’s “Empire Builder”, James J. Hill, with a framed photo of the man and the honor of having the dining room and bar called “J.J. Hill‘s Fresh Grill.”
After checking in to the motel, it was off to Visconti’s Italian Restaurant for dinner. We enjoyed a terrific meal to help us celebrate our wedding anniversary (Did I mention this whole trip was a way of celebrating our anniversary? No? Well, oddly enough, it was. And it was Jan’s idea, not mine!). If you ever have a meal at Visconti’s, do yourself a favor and order the “Northwest Board.” It’s treated as an appetizer, but you could make a pretty good meal of it. Visconti’s describes the elements as “pure country capicola, smoked paprika salami, buckboard bacon, and smoked white cheddar.” They also include some crackers and a few other treats. Sip a glass of wine with this and you’ve got it made.
Wednesday, June 23
The next morning, we packed up our cameras and jumped in the trusty stead (Toyota 4Runner) and drove to the “Icicle Station” Amtrak stop for the arrival of Number 7, the westbound Empire Builder. I don’t recall anyone getting off there, but they did have a couple of passengers who boarded that morning. The sun was still below the tops of the ridges to the east, but high enough to bathe the upper reaches of the Cascade foothills to the west of us.
Using the Skykomish Railfan webcam as a guide, we learned there was an eastbound double-stack headed over Stevens Pass and coming in our direction. So off we went up the hill toward the pass to see if we could catch the train at Nason Creek on White Pine Road. We made it there in plenty of time, but the lighting was not optimal. Adhering to the tried-and-true strategy to find a train and then follow it, we jumped in the truck and headed east. We arrived at the Merritt grade crossing just ahead of the train, so we pulled off the road there for a few grab shots. The lighting was pretty good, as were the results.
Off again we went, slowly working our way through the growing bustle of tourists in Leavenworth. We topped off the gas tank and continued down the hill as far as Monitor, peeling off onto Sleepy Hollow Road and the roadside perch at Richardson’s Curve.
|Photo by Jan|
After this, we drove into Wenatchee to scope out any evidence of trains readying to depart Appleyard or the crew change point at Thurston Street. Spotting a westbound stack train with ditch lights, we doubled back out to Monitor to catch the train as it rolled through the fruit orchards along Sleepy Hollow Road.
|Jan's shot at the grade crossing, Sleepy Hollow Road|
Finding trains to chase was becoming a bit challenging. But eventually we decided to drive out toward Lynch Coulee and the Trinidad Loop on spec. There was evidence of an eastbound train leaving Wenatchee soon, so we pulled off the road at the state highway department’s sandpit by Trinidad and set out our folding chairs to roast in the sun and await the train’s arrival. To our surprise, the first train to arrive on scene was a westbound double-stack, so we snagged a few going-away shots as it wound its long snake-like string of cars through the S-curves just east of Columbia Siding.
|Entering the S-curves at the sandpit; photo by Scott|
We were not in any rush on this railfan excursion, choosing instead to take things as they came to us, and to use the opportunity to explore a bit. There were a few locations on my list to visit, ones that I had either known about but never quite managed to visit before, or a couple that I scouted out on Google maps as looking promising. Jan had never visited Columbia Siding, so we drove down the hill to that area to check it out. There was nothing moving through while we were there, but we took a few minutes to explore it. After that, we decided to head west again and see if we could catch the westbound stacker or some other train headed up into the mountains.
One discouraging piece of intel we learned about was the state’s plans to do some significant road work on Highway 2 between about Scenic (west of Stevens Pass) over to about the location of Gaynor trestle on the east side of the pass. The state DOT warned of 30-minute (or longer) wait times on the highway, and this was to continue through Thursday. Our original plan was to use Leavenworth as our base to focus on an area from about Skykomish to Wenatchee River bridge near Plain, but the highway work scuttled that plan. Instead, we calculated that nothing further up toward the pass than Nason Creek/White Pine Road would work well for us. Nevertheless, we were glad to see that we had a westbound train to chase that had just left Wenatchee and was working its way toward Cashmere and Dryden. On our last railfan trip in this area, in May of 2020, we attempted to try a new spot on the south side of Highway 2. There is a small public access area located there by the Wenatchee River, and it seemed like we might be able to catch an interesting view of a train crossing the river on a trestle at that place. We gave a good try, but the river level was very high and we were unable to get the bushy vegetation out of our images without wading into the river. Maybe this location will pan out at another time of year.
|Dryden-East trestle; river too high for optimal shots|
With the westbound train we caught at Dryden being the best prospect we had at the moment, we elected to continue up the hill to get ahead of him somewhere. Another location that I’ve been wanting to try is the west portal of the Winton Tunnel. It’s right off Highway 2 and easy to access, but for some reason that location had just never panned out for me before. We decided to head to that location and wait for our train. We arrived in plenty of time, and I finally “scratched that itch” with a couple of favorable photos.
|Scott's pic at Winton Tunnel|
Things were kind of slow for the next couple of hours. We eventually made our way all the way out to the sandpit at Trinidad again, and caught the “Spud Local” heading toward Lynch Coulee. But at this point we decided to head back to Leavenworth and grab some dinner. With the pre-weekend hordes of tourists already flocking to Leavenworth, it was impossible to find a place to eat in the pedestrian mall area of Front Street without a wait of at least 30 minutes. Then we spotted a kind of hole-in-the-wall place with outdoor seating and a German sausage option on the menu, so we gave it a shot. This turned out to be “Old World Pub,” which I learned used to be “Uncle Uli’s Pub.” I’d been jones’n for a sausage dinner in Leavenworth, and although I won’t try to claim this was the epitome of such an experience, they did have one unexpected treat for me: ice-cold bottles of Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier!
After dinner, with the sun still illuminating one of the longest days of the year, we decided to roll out to Icicle Station once more and catch Amtrak #8 coming through town. We chatted briefly with a member of the train crew who seemed unable to restrain his enthusiasm in sharing that Amtrak was finally able to resume “traditional dining” on this train. No more uninspiring meals heated in a microwave.
|Number 8 pulls into Icicle Station, Leavenworth|
Waving farewell to the Empire Builder, we moseyed over to the local high school and its large open parking lot. There we opened up the box for a new toy: a DJI Mini 2 Fly More Combo pack. I have never before attempted to operate a drone, so we made a deliberate decision to ease into this drone business very slowly and cautiously. We had charged a couple of the battery packs, and put the drone with its unleashed rotor blades on the pavement, powered up the drone and the remote control, and . . . nothing. Nothing happened. The controls on the remote did not appear to have any effect. The one small booklet that came with the drone with operating instructions looked like something written up by Ikea. All they had were a few tiny illustrations that merely suggested the steps to take. What we did not yet realize was the need to attach a smartphone to the remote unit, and download the DJI drone app. Oh well. Our strategy to take it all very slow and easy was playing out more or less according to plan.
Thursday, June 24
On Thursday morning, we decided to take advantage of the Icicle Village Resort’s complimentary breakfast. In all fairness, I’m assuming pre-COVID this offering was typically quite satisfying. But still easing out from the impacts of the pandemic and probably some continuing staffing challenges, the breakfast fare on this day was underwhelming, to say the least. It was free, and just barely worth what we paid for it. The upside was discovering they had a large gauge model train running non-stop on a circuit throughout the dining and bar areas, on a track elevated up high on the walls. That was a hoot. For about the first two or three times it came around. Then it just became annoying.
We loaded up our truck with all our stuff, and I waited in the truck just outside the lobby for Jan to get us checked out. I set my prescription lens sunglasses down on the top of the center console while I was fiddling with something else. This was a dumb move on my part. As Jan climbed back into the truck, and with varying lighting causing the console area to be in shadows, Jan unwittingly set her elbow down on my glasses and popped a lens out. This sad development could prove to put a massive damper on the remainder of our trip, since the skies were almost completely clear with a blazing sun each day. I absolutely had to have my sunglasses! But Jan saved the day when she used her smartphone to locate an optician in town, and they were able to re-seat the lens securely in the frames. Whew! Crisis averted.
|Big news for Northwest candy lovers!|
After hearing some disheartening news some months ago about the iconic Aplets & Cotlets candy business looking like it would be closing for good, we were happy to learn that a new owner seems to have come forward, giving the 100-year-old sweets-maker new life. We rolled into Cashmere and made Aplets & Cotlets the first stop of our day. We loaded up on boxes of the yummy candies and confirmed that yes, they can be effectively frozen for up to two years or so. After stashing our loot in the ice chest, we began to explore our options for trying to catch a train as it passed the still-standing GN depot at Cashmere (just across the street from Aplets & Cotlets). We located a long stack train idling in the siding east of the depot. We reasoned he was waiting for a westbound that must be approaching soon. Sure enough, we were treated just a few minutes later to a short BNSF geometry train, utilizing BNSF car #90. As the train approached the grade crossing, the bells started clanging, the crossing gates with their flashing lights came down, and the engineer started his usual grade crossing horn signal. One vehicle driver decided to weave around the gates and cross ahead of the oncoming train. So did the driver of a second vehicle. If this was not enough, some cluck on foot went jogging across the tracks. These were not what I would term “close calls,” but it’s got to be frustrating for the engine crews to continually see knuckleheads like this playing “chicken” with a fast-moving train.
|Pics of BNSF geometry train, for evaluating track conditions, at Cashmere, WA|
As soon as the geometry train passed through, the idled stack train got its clearance to continue eastward into Wenatchee. We knew there was not enough time to get ahead of the train at Monitor, so we opted to pop down to trackside at the division point between the Scenic Sub and the Columbia River Sub. We had ample time to prepare, and we snagged a few more adequate photos.
The train action once again slowed to a crawl, so we took the opportunity to drive out to a location near Malaga that I’d been hoping to explore. The lighting was not good, but we found the spot and snapped a couple shots just to show we made it. We need to come back to this location in the late afternoon for the best lighting.
Driving back into Wenatchee and past Appleyard, I pulled over for a minute to document a pile of crossing signals in the boneyard.
Before long, however, we had another eastbound stack train to pursue. Jan and I discussed our options, and despite the blistering heat, we elected to work our way up on a little hill east of Rock Island Dam for a fine down-on perspective of the eastbound train.
|I'm not unhappy with the composition, but the lighting is all wrong.|
Looks like this should be a morning shot.
Just as soon as we had our photos there, we jumped back into the truck and charged (within legal speed limits) back up the road to Lynch Coulee and the Trinidad Loop. We both took several photos of the train as it struggled up the grade into Lynch Coulee and rounded the loop.
It was exceptionally hot, so we retreated to the comfort of the truck and its A/C to cool us off. We slowly started back down the road on our way toward Highway 28, when low and behold, we found a long string of oil cans heading up the coulee toward the loop. This second train was right on the heels of the last one!
We had not planned on exploring anything further east than the Trinidad Loop, but with two trains headed that way we decided to take our chances and see what we could do. Heading through Quincy (where the old GN depot has finally been razed, sadly) and on to Ephrata, we caught up with but could not overtake the stack train. Just on the east end of Ephrata we finally gave up on that chase, and came back into town. Jan thought we might have a chance to catch the oil train near the big grain silos in town, so we gave that a shot. This is just a block or two west of the Amtrak stop. We pulled off the street by the grade crossing near Division and Alder. Just as we climbed out of the truck, the crossing gates came down. We had arrived just in the nick of time to snap a few shots of the train with the grain silos providing a backdrop.
That signaled the end of another long but satisfying day of railfanning, and we ambled back to Wenatchee to get checked in to our next motel and grab some dinner. On this night, we supped at Saddle Rock Pub and Brewery in Wenatchee. We had a fine meal in a quiet little place, and while the air conditioning kept the dining area cool, we learned their food cooler in the kitchen had gone belly up, and the local HVAC company was swamped with service calls. We had to skip having a side salad with dinner, but we would come to learn that things were getting worse for some places in town.
Friday, June 25
This day proved to be one of the best of the whole trip. The first thing we did was drive all the way up into the Chumstick Valley to our favorite haunt in that area, the Wenatchee River Bridge. By now, we had figured out what we needed to do with a smartphone to activate and operate our new drone, and we looked forward to a lazy day of hanging out by the river in our folding chairs, with plenty of snacks and cold water, and start familiarizing ourselves with the basic controls of the drone while we waited on trains.
The first few minutes of drone operation were very tentative. I started out by simply flying it up into the air 20 or 30 feet, and then bringing it back down to land. I began to understand the “Home” feature, which logs the position of the drone just before it launches, and then permits the pilot to press a button on the remote control to automatically fly the drone back to its starting point – and then land by itself. There is quite a flock of birds (swallows, I think) who make their nests on the sides of the railroad trestle deck. They made it clear they were not happy with my drone! I never flew it any closer to their nests than at least fifty yards, but that seemed too close for their liking. They treated the drone like a lurking predator and kept swooping down at it to chase it away. In the meantime, I continued to explore the controls in an effort to learn how to operate the thing.
Soon enough, the nearby crossing gates came down and the bell started clanging. We had an eastbound closing in on us. Fish on! I rapidly landed the drone to keep it out of the equation (I was not ready to try to snap any photos or footage with it just yet). We got our shots of the passing train, and some friendly toots of the horn from the engineer.
Since we were enjoying ourselves in this spot, and it was nice and open for working with the drone in a limited way, we just stayed put for another hour or so and then shot photos of an eastbound that finally appeared.
It was getting to be well into the afternoon, so we headed back down into Wenatchee for the night. We went into Bob’s Classic Brass and Brew for a couple of burgers to go. Oh, my, were we glad we chose to take our food out with us! Remember the HVAC woes I spoke of earlier? This restaurant had their entire A/C system fail, and no promise of a service call expected for days. It was uncomfortably hot in the restaurant, but we especially felt bad for the kitchen crew who had little relief from the heat in there.
As we departed with our burgers, we got wind of an eastbound string of oil empties getting ready to depart Appleyard. Now was the time to get back to that new-found vantage point out by Malaga. Off we went, scarfing down some of our burgers as we made our way out ahead of this train. We got into position with a comfortable margin ahead of the train. We banged off some shots as it rounded the curve toward us, and once again received some friendly toots of the horn from the crew. They must have thought we were nuts, though, hanging out in that God-forsaken spot in 100° heat. I’m always hearing about rattlesnakes and even scorpions in that area. We saw none (thankfully), but I’m still kind of surprised that in many years of plodding around out there I never have encountered any.
And then the train proceeded along the rocky cliffs above the river, and finally worked its way out onto the Rock Island Bridge. At the same time, a pleasure boat was zipping up the river and heading to go under the bridge. This was actually a photo composition I have long hoped for here. Success!
We headed back to our motel and polished off our dinner. Since it was still so light out, we elected to return to the Amtrak station to meet the evening’s arrival of eastbound #8.
|Number 8's relief engineer is briefed by the conductor|
|Adios Number 8! Happy travels...|
Saturday, June 26
This was our day to catch what we could while working our way back up over the mountains and home again. Since we were departing Wenatchee, this was our best bet for finding a westbound train to follow home. We drove to Appleyard and looked around. The yard seemed remarkably flush with strings of freight cars, but not much action. We went over to the crew change point and sat there (in our air-conditioned truck!) and kept an eye on what was happening. A westbound-facing stack train pulled in from Appleyard and then the next 20 minutes or so were dedicated to uncoupling the front-end power and relocating it onto another sidetrack. More out of boredom and lack of anything else going on, we snapped a few photos of that activity. We went back out to Appleyard again, and this time found a new westbound stack train that had just recently drifted into the yard. The engineer was on the ground talking to someone on his cell. Shortly after that, we heard a little bit of conversation over the scanner about a dogcatcher who was on the move. Back to the crew change point we went, one more time. Sure enough, we passed the dogcatcher who appeared to be going over to Appleyard with a few railroad employees to relieve the crew of the stack train sitting out there. It was a slow start to the day, but it appeared things were finally going to break loose a little.
We opted to head west to set up somewhere and wait for the first of these trains to depart Wenatchee and come our way. However, we were favored with a bonus. Somewhere around Cashmere or Dryden we spotted an eastbound coming into Wenatchee. So, we wheeled around and zipped back into town. We pulled off at Duncan Road and worked our way back near trackside for some more photos at the division point between the Scenic and Columbia River Subs. Train Hype! Mission accomplished there, we finally bid Wenatchee farewell for the last time on this trip and headed west.
We continued all the way up the Tumwater Canyon and pulled in to the 59er Diner near Coles Corner, where we each got a delicious milk shake. We continued up the road to the rest area at Merritt for access to the facilities and to sit in the shade and eat our lunch (sandwiches; something we had each day of our trip, since Jan wisely packed all the fixin’s we needed in our ice chest – it was convenient and helped offset some other expenses, so we weren’t just buying every meal at a restaurant). After lunch, and having still not seen one of the westbound trains yet, we decided to double back to Winton Tunnel for another try at the west portal. More fun photos there.
Next stop, another location that I have never before managed to get to for some reason – West Berne Siding. It’s not high on the priority list of good photo-op locations, but it’s not bad. In the past though, it just hasn’t worked out. But today it did. With the excessive heat resulting in widespread slow orders, and a train that was pulling hard up hill to Stevens Pass, it was easy to get some photos and then leap-frog ahead of our train to the next good spot.
Once finished at West Berne, we drove on over to the west portal of Cascade Tunnel. It wasn’t too long before our stack train appeared, and we grabbed some more nice pics. From there, we decided to head into Skykomish.
We easily arrived ahead of the train, where we sat in the truck and awaited his arrival. With the sun now shifting off to the west, we had decent lighting to get photos of this train with some of the ubiquitous establishments of Sky in the background. This included the Cascadia Inn and the Whistling Post Tavern.
|Scott nabs a shot with the Cascadia Inn (where the Sky Railfan cam is perched)|
|Jan took this one as the train passed the Whistling Post|
Maybe it was the siren call of the Whistling Post’s tasty suds, and maybe it was just as much the unrelenting heat of the past four days, but Jan hit on the idea that I ought to buy her a cold beer. So, in we went to quench our thirsts. Typically, I would have gladly joined her in a cold brew, but on this day I opted for a refreshing cold lemonade. That suited me fine.
After all this lounging around, we learned the second of Wenatchee’s two stack trains from that morning had finally made it up and over the pass, so we trundled on down to Index to set up and await its arrival. We pulled off the road by the riverbank on Avenue A. Seriously, that’s what they call it. How about naming it “Pickett Street” in honor of legendary photographer Lee Pickett? They have a museum largely dedicated to him after all. And guess what street it’s on: Avenue A.
The late afternoon lighting and crystal-clear skies provided a stunning and iconic Washington Cascades scene for the final few photos of our trip.
|Crossing the North Fork of the Skykomish River at Index, WA|
I’ve read recently that container traffic is getting jammed up at saltwater ports in the Seattle area and railyards across the BNSF system at least as far east as Chicago. Our experience on this trip seemed to offer evidence of this situation. Of all the freight trains we encountered, it seemed like about 90% of them were double stacks. One other observation to make: our buddy Lindsay Korst just happened to be out on the road on his own railfan adventure at about the same time. We did not learn until after the fact that he was coming back west through Lynch Coulee, Wenatchee, and Stevens Pass on the 23rd – right while we were also working that area. It’s a small miracle that we didn’t bump into each other at some point.
What a great time we had. I can see more such adventures in our future.