Riding the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago
Photo by JK
Amtrak’s California Zephyr is, arguably, the most spectacular train journey in the United States. From the San Francisco Bay area, the train travels 3,923km to Chicago overcoming three formidable barriers – the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains, the vast arid deserts of Nevada, Utah and Colorado and the steep canyons and snow capped peaks of the Rockies. As it progresses toward Chicago the California Zephyr passes some of the most spectacular natural wonders the United States has to offer.
Due to San Francisco’s peninsular geography, and the lack of rails across the Bay Bridge, the California Zephyr departs from Amtrak’s Emeryville Station close to the eastern foot of the Bay Bridge in Oakland. Amtrak provides a connecting bus from downtown San Francisco to Emeryville connecting with the train.
As the California Zephyr pulls in to Emeryville Station I board full of anticipation for the amazing journey ahead. The imposing string of double deck stainless steel Superliner carriages tower over the platform – the California Zephyr is a serious train! After finding my carriage, I am greeted by a friendly sleeping car attendant who has clearly ridden this train before! I navigate the stairs to my Roomette on the upper level of the carriage. As I’m settling in we’re off. On this trip I’m traveling in an Amtrak roomette – a compact room approximately 1.5m by 3m. It’s cozy but somehow it works well and I don’t feel the need for any more space. My Roomette contains two seats which face each other (excellent as I’m guaranteed a forward facing seat) around a panoramic window in “day mode”. In “night mode” the seats slide together to form a bed. Restrooms and showers are located downstairs.
As we depart the San Francisco area, on the left-hand side of the train there are views of Downtown San Francisco, the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge before the California Zephyr winds around the coast through Martinez and into the Central Californian Valley – In the first 20 minutes the California Zephyr already counts as a scenic train! San Francisco, a city of immense wealth is juxtaposed by the glimpse of the state’s homelessness crisis, with tent cities, now common in urban areas, starting to spread into rural areas along the track.
There is no breakfast service on the train departing the Bay Area, and with a 7am bus departure from the city I’m hungry, so I set off to explore the train in search of food. After walking through 3 sleeping cars I enter the dining car – arranged with four top tables on the upper level and a kitchen on the lower where made to order meals are prepared. The next carriage along is the train’s Sightseer Lounge – complete with floor to ceiling windows to view the spectacular scenery. Whilst dining car meals are included for Sleeping car passengers, the Sightseer lounge contains a cafe on the lower level where snacks and beverages available – lucky!
Whilst I’m exploring, the train stops in Sacramento, California’s capital, right on time. Running back to the first sleeping car (the doors aren’t opened in the lounge car) I take up the opportunity to stretch my legs on the platform – it’s noticeably warmer outside than it was in San Francisco. Very soon after departing Sacramento the train arrives at the first of three formidable barriers it faces on its journey east – the Sierra Nevada mountains. Climbing into the foothills the train slows and the scenery becomes dramatic. Crossing Donna Pass, where the fabled Donner Party were snowbound, Lake Tahoe’s smaller ski resorts appear and at one stage a ski life crosses the track above the train! Departing the Lake Tahoe region, it is not long before we leave California behind. With the coastal plains and the Sierra Nevada mountains behind us, and lunch being served in the dining car, the train faces its second formidable barrier to its journey east – the desert that stretches almost 1,500km east from here through Nevada, Utah and Colorado to the edge of the Rocky Mountains. Despite Amtrak’s reputation, we pull into Reno, Nevada 40 minutes early, giving me time to walk around and explore the city – Amtrak’s station is very centrally located and its just a short stroll into the heart of the action.
After departing Reno, the California Zephyr train enters frontier country – the vast emptiness of northern Nevada’s deserts and the wild west towns of Winnemucca and Elko.
Sunsets on the California Zephyr are a big highlight. Leaving Reno, the sun setting over the desert is absolutely spectacular. Before I know its time for my second meal onboard – dinner. I’m quick to strike up a conversation with an elderly couple who are afraid to fly and a Kenyan man on a voyage of discovery to see America. For dinner I opt for the salad followed by Amtrak’s surprisingly good signature steak served with a baked potato and vegetables, followed by a delicious pecan pie. All meals on the California Zephyr are served on plastic disposable plates with disposable cutlery as staff cuts have meant dishes can no longer be washed onboard – not great Amtrak in a time when we are desperately trying to reduce single use plastics. After dinner, the California Zephyr arrived Elko almost an hour early giving a perfect opportunity for an evening stroll around a true frontier town before retiring to my Roomette – which has now been converted to “night mode” for the evening.
During the night, the train stops at Salt Lake City, the gateway to the Utah ski resorts and home of the Mormon church before crossing the southern Wasatch Mountains and continuing along the rim of the Book Cliffs.
Last night I was convinced that the sunset over the desert could not be beat. I was wrong! Watching the sun rise over the rock formations close to Moab, UT is a truely special experience. Today’s journey east, I’ve been promised, runs through the best scenery of any train trip in America. Today the train will travel from the desert through winding canyons to crest the ragged Rocky Mountains before descending to the cosmopolitan city of Denver and speeding into the night across the plains. Somewhere during the night we’ve lost time and are now almost an hour late so I have time to make it to the dining car for breakfast before our arrival in Grand Junction. At breakfast I’m convinced to try the, so I’m told, famous Railroad French Toast. One of the worst things about the train is Amtrak’s choice to exclusively serve Pepsi products. Grand Junction is home to the only accessible shop selling Coke on the entire route – the line out the door indicates I’m not the only person with a preference in the cola department!
Departing Grand Junction the tracks now following the course of the Colorado River with towering mesas and rock formations continuing almost to the resort town of Glenwood Springs. In Glenwood Springs some passengers leave the train to visit the upmarket ski resorts of Aspen and Vail. It is as if the train crosses a line, into a new world, at Glenwood Springs. To the west are mesas and arid desert. To the east is the third formidable barrier to our journey east – the steep canyons and snow capped mountains of the Rockies.
The California Zephyr winds up the Rockies passing through canyons that feel barely wider than the train with steep cliffs towering above us. The Colorado River transitions from a wide stream reflecting the cliffs of Glenwood Canyon into a narrow, white-water river as it carves its way through Red Gorge (with its towering red iron rusted cliffs), Gore Canyon and finally arrives Granby and Winter Park. After leaving Winter Park the California Zephyr enters the 10km Moffat Tunnel under the Continental Divide and begins is scenic journey down the front range to Denver.
In Denver the train stops at at one of the best reinvented historic railway stations in the US. Departing Denver the mountains are gone, and ahead are the flat plains that form the agricultural heartland of America. Dinner is served on our departure from Denver, and, after a second Amtrak Signature Steak I’m ready to retire back to my Roomette for the night.
The next morning I’m greeted by sweeping views of the heartland of America – the soy, corn and wheat fields of Iowa and Illinois sweep by. The pancakes are a hit at breakfast, and after an audio book and a hurried lunch service, the train pulls into Naperville and the suburbs of Chicago.
Before I know it, I’m standing in a Starbucks on Adams St wondering how the past 3 days riding the California Zephyr train passed so quickly.
The California Zephyr takes approximately 52 hours (2.5-days and 2-nights) to complete its 3,923km journey from Emeryville (in the San Francisco Bay Area) to Chicago.
The train terminates in Emeryville from where bus connections operate over the bay bridge to San Francisco proper. The California Zephyr operates using Amtrak’s bi-level Superliner equipment. Superliner sleeping cars consist of Bedrooms located on the upper deck offering a large lower bed, fold down upper bunk and private bathroom (ideal for 2), cosy Roomettes located on both the upper and lower decks with two comfortable seats on either side of a big picture window that convert to beds at night (ideal for 1 or 2), a Family Bedroom on the lower deck which spans the entire width of the car with two windows on either side and 4 beds (perfect for a family), and an accessible Bedroom. Coach seats offer comfortable reclining seats on both levels of the car. All Superliner trains in the west include a full-service dining car (meals are included for sleeping car passengers) and a sightseer lounge with wrap-around windows on the upper deck and informal café on the lower. Amtrak sleeping accommodations are sold on an “full room” basis meaning passengers will never share sleeping accommodations with strangers as is the case on other trains.
Matt travelled on a fully paid ticket, not as a guest of Amtrak.
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