Amtrak’s California Zephyr
Active World Journeys travel blog: Cross Country Trip on Amtrak’s California Zephyr.
Those who know me know that I’m an outdoor enthusiast and nature lover. When I travel it usually involves some kind of active component such as hiking or kayaking or bike riding. But I’ve always had a multi-day overnight train trip on my travel bucket list. To me it harkens back to America before plane travel was affordable for most people and before the highways and interstates were built. I always wanted to know what it’d be like, especially since I’m also a classic movie fan and so many movies featured train travel in the scenes and stories. (Think “Strangers on a Train,” “North by Northwest,” etc.)
So, I decided to take Amtrak’s California Zephyr train from the bay area in California to Chicago, Illinois. It’s a two-night/three-day trip that’s known to be the most beautiful rail ride in the USA; in particular because it goes through our Rocky Mountain range. It also traverses through the Sierra Nevada mountains, Utah’s desert, the plains of Nebraska, and the cornfields of Iowa. I made the trip in the month of March, and it featured wonderous snowy scenery as we passed through the Colorado Rockies. (I was told by the staff that it’s also very beautiful in the fall when all the leaves are changing.)
After travelling through Sacramento, we hit the Sierra Nevada Mountain range with stops in Truckee and Reno. All in all, the train stops at about 37 stations on route from the bay area to Chicago in which most are quick stops where you don’t get off. But, occasionally, they’ll announce a longer stop of 20 minutes or so if you want to get out for some fresh air. It was such nice scenery going past Donner Lake and the Sierra Nevada’s on the first day, I stayed in the observation car (mostly all floor to ceiling windows for optimal viewing) for quite a while and then I went to my roomette to read for a bit and open a bottle of wine. As long as you have a roomette (which is a small private room but you share the bathroom and showers with others in your car) or an actual bedroom or suite (private bathrooms) then all three meals are included on board the Zephyr train.
We had to choose what time we wanted dinner that evening so I chose 7p slot. Since I was a single, when I went for dinner, they paired me up with another single person at a table. I had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner with 97-year-old Harvey. We hit if off right away and he was fun and had so many stories about his life from WWII to hanging with the Rat Pack in Vegas back in the day. He lost his wife about 10 years ago and had flown out from Michigan to the bay area to visit one of his children and decided he also wanted to do a bucket list across American train trip. We hit it off so well that we asked if we could be seated again the next night together for dinner and the crew obliged. Every so often I’m reminded of exactly why travel is so rewarding, whether solo or with groups: You never know who you’ll meet and share experiences with.
The next day I awoke at 6:30a to the breakfast staff announcement: “wakey wakey kids, it’s time for eggs and bakey.” I chuckled and jumped in the shower (Btw I never had to wait to get a shower) and got to breakfast to sip my coffee and slowly wake up to scenery that started to look much different than the previous day. We were heading into the wonderous snow-covered Rocky Mountain range. I spent most of the day in the observation car as the scenery was so captivating. (I’d say the most beautiful section of the entire trip through the Rockies was between Grand Junction and Denver in Colorado, so if your short on time and just want to somehow do a day trip on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, that would be the way to go.)
The last day on board was bland rural and small-town scenery as we passed through Iowa and Illinois. I finished my book and as we pulled into the station at the windy city, I said goodbye and tipped the staff members. I felt like I had just completed one of the most Americana experiences there is.
While I had never been so inactive since I can remember over a three-day stretch I have to say I absolutely loved the experience. I’m a high energy on-the-go kind of person and the train trip really calmed me down and soothed me. I slept very well each night and almost felt like the rhythm of the train on the tracks married with the circadian rhythm of my body for a total relaxing slumber each night. Also, it was so nice to just chill and read a book whenever I wanted, drink some of the wine that they let me bring on board (as long as you have a roomette or bedroom). I met such interesting people in the dining car and the staff on board were wonderful, hospitable, and tons of fun!
The distant train whistle I heard during my three-day rail journey across America on Amtrak’s California Zephyr still blows quietly in my head reminding me of the time I travelled like a character in a classic movie.
Jack Witt, MS, CPT
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