It was almost evening. The sunlight was in the throes of fading, throwing a dark brownish tinge on the surrounding landscape. I was looking outside the big windows of the observation lounge as the train rattled away through the barren landscape of Utah while colossal mountain sides with slopes scattered with rocks of varying sizes loomed beside. It was a scene right out of a sci fi movie. And I was enjoying every minute of it.
I was on the California Zephyr Train. Run by Amtrak, it starts at the majestic Union station at Chicago and ends its journey 52 hours and 3450 kms later in Emeryville near San Francisco. Through its journey across the length of the mainland USA it traverses 7 provinces and crosses 3 time zones. Its the second longest train ride in the USA. Trains have always interested me and when I moved to Canada I was fascinated by the transcontinentals. These were trains that ran from coast to coast and connected the whole country together. Bothe Canada and USA built their own transcontinentals in the late 1800s. I wanted to experience the feeling that the travelers of those times felt when traversing the whole country on train. Remember this was a time before Airplanes. These trains were the fastest way to reach one coast from another. In January 2020 I did the 4 night train journey from Toronto to Vancouver in the iconic ‘The Canadian’ train. It was an epic ride. This time I wanted to do similar journey in the USA. After a bit of homework on different options I choose The California Zephyr and added another famous train, the Coast Starlight from Emeryville to Seattle for good measure. And I booked the coach seat in both the trains. This was the cheapest option. But this also meant that I had to sleep in the seat itself. No berths, no lying on my back. Adding my flight from Vancouver to Chicago it was for 4 consecutive nights of no lying on my back. It was a challenge I was raring to take up. But I had some experience of this kind of adventure. Even on my 4 night train journey in Canada before I had travelled on sitting seats.
The idea of this trip germinated in early this year while I was exploring options for the May long weekend. I always wanted to check out Amtrak so I thought this would be a good time do a train trip. In preparation of this trip I read a book on the story of the Railroad revolution in the USA.
I reached Chicago at around 5 am in the morning. California Zephyr departs at 2pm from the Chicago Union Station so I had some time to spend in Chicago. After taking a day pass ($35) for the Metropolitan Lounge at the station where I kept my luggage I went off to do some local sight seeing. I booked an Architecture tour offered by the Chicago Architecture Centre. I choose the Historic Treasures of Chicago’s Golden Age. It was an insightful experience. After it was done I grabbed a quick Shawarma from the Halal guys and made my way back to the Station.
At around 1 30 pm it was time to board the train. After a few minutes of confused walk around the station trying to find the gate to the train I finally found it and made my over to the platform. Unlike in India where the platforms are where you basically spend the whole time waiting, trains in North America do not allow passengers to be on the platform near the tracks in major stations(with exceptions). A queue had formed near the last car(bogie/wagon/coach) of the train where the Conductor, a lady in a smart Amtrak uniform was checking our tickets and allotting the seats. We cannot choose our seats while reserving our seats which I found a bit weird. The conductor allots it on the spot. I was praying to get a seat on the left side as I read online that that’s where most of the scenery is during the trip and thankfully I got it!
The Train departed on time and soon started its way out of Chicago. A gentleman from the Midwest was my co passenger. He kept on talking and wouldn’t let me look out the window. I missed most of the sights of Chicago due to this. Soon I made up an excuse and went off to explore the train and its layout.
California Zephyr has 2 locomotives, 1 car for storing luggage and 6 cars. 2 for the sleeping accommodation which includes roomettes and rooms, 2 for coach and 1 dining car and 1 observation lounge with a café.
Day 1 : 0 – 804 kms (Illinois – Iowa- Nebraska)
After my exploration of the train I spent some time in the observation lounge and later made my way back to my seat. My co passenger was nowhere to be found. The landscapes at this point were nothing noteworthy. Just run of the mill small towns and cities. Soon, around 2.5 hours into the journey we reached the mighty Mississippi river which is the second longest river in the country. The bridging of this river was a huge achievement back in the day.
Evening approached and produced a spectacular sunset. The whole sky all around was dark orange as the train glided by. I again spent some time in the observation lounge enjoying the sunset with a coffee. Soon it was dinner time. There is a separate dining car reserved for the passengers in the sleeping accommodation. Depending on the situation they open it for the coach passengers after the sleeping class passengers had their dinner. It was a bit too expensive for me so I did not venture there for the whole trip. I made my way to the café in the first level of the lounge car and bought a cheese sandwich for myself. Throughout the 3 days I alternated between only 2 options, a grilled cheese sandwich and Mac & Cheese.
The last next major stop was at Omaha where we had the opportunity to get down. But it was a brief 10 mins. This was one point of difference between Canada’s ‘The Canadian’ railway journey. That train has longer stops at station. So more time to look around, just hang around the station or maybe take a look at the locomotives. Amtrak is more brisk with its stops and looking at the locomotive is not possible at many stations. Omaha, is a pretty historic railway stop. It was from here that the journey of the transcontinental railway started. This was the eastern base of operations when the line was being built. The western base was at Sacramento. Track laying started from these two points in the opposite direction and they finally met in Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869 thereby completing the first transcontinental connection. This was a historic occasion. We reached Omaha at around 11 pm in the night. I got down simply because of the historic significance of the station. Wandered around a bit, took some pics and returned to my seat on the train.
There was nothing else to do now than to call it a day and tuck in for the night. This was my second night of sleeping in an upright position and first on this train (first was during my flight from Vancouver to Chicago which was during the night). I had bought the sleeping kit that I was given on Via Rail with me which consisted of a light blanket, a sleeping mask and ear plugs. Draping myself with blanket, putting on the sleeping mask I soon fell asleep in no time as I was tired. Fortunately I did not have to use the ear plugs. My co passenger was still not in his seat so luckily I had some space to wriggle around. I slept peacefully during the night.
Day 2 : 804 – 2588 kms (Nebraska – Colorado – Utah)
I woke up early, around 5 am, as this has many advantages. Earlier use of the washrooms and everyone is still sleeping. Also, I could take up a better spot in the Observation car as that day offers the best scenery. I quickly had my breakfast of bread and Nutella that I had packed before the trip and had it with me. I then went over to the Observation car. We reached Denver around 8am where the train stopped for around 30 mins. My attempts to take a look at the locomotives were thwarted again as we were not allowed to go near the locomotive.
We departed Denver around 8 30am and immediately afterwards you can notice the change in the landscape. The train starts its journey through the Rocky mountains. This is the stretch that has made the California Zephyr famous. The rest of the day offered stunning views. We passed through many tunnels, of which the main one was the Moffat Tunnel. Near the stop of Clay I saw an interesting sight. There was an old train with plants growing out of its cars standing on the adjacent track. These are kept as a windbreak against the strong winds that blow here.
We passed by herds of cows grazing in fields, some horses here and there and people going about their daily life. One of the most interesting stretches is when the train snakes along the Colorado river. There were many rafters on the river. Here I got introduced to the concept of mooning where people take off their pants and shake their bums towards the train. Its a kind of a tradition. The reaction of the people on the train was interesting. Some laughed, same waved back, some ignored. One of the guys sitting in a seat behind me said that maybe we should do the same from inside the train. Two rows of people in front and back roared with laughter hearing this. I love moments like these where a group comes together, even though its for a brief moment.
My co passenger got down at Grand Junction after which that seat was empty for a while. A couple of stops later, another person took that seat. He was from France doing some exploration of the US. Soon the train crossed over into Utah which offered some of the most surreal landscapes I have even seen. Brown mountain cliffs far and near. Some of them looked so massive that I wondered how it must be to climb them. These mountains were diffirent to what I am used to seeing in British Columbia(BC). BC has green mountains with snow covered peaks. But the ones in Utah were brown, clear of any vegetation and rugged. In some places they stretched out like a wall far off. It was definitely the highlight of my journey.
Our last stop of the day was at Salt Lake City in Utah where I finally got the opportunity to take a look at the Locomotives and take some pics. After this I prepared for sleep. This time I had a passenger beside me so I was a bit more careful sleeping but again I had a good nights sleep.
Day 3 : 2588 – 3924 (Utah – Nevada – California)
As I woke up in the morning, our train was crossing Nevada. Todays highlight was the crossing over the Sierra Nevada mountains. The train began its climb through the mountains after a town called Truckee. One of the highlights of this stretch near the Donner Lake was the story of the Donner Party. This is where a group of around 87 people got stranded during the winter of 1846-47. Unable to cope with the harsh winter they had to resort to cannibalism to survive. The cult movie ‘Ravenous’ is loosely based on this incident. It’s soundtrack is creepy, totally matching the vibe of the movie. I am listening to one of the tracks as I write this.
My co passenger, the Frenchman, was getting off at Colfax, a small beautiful town and we spent the intervening time just chatting about the different train networks around the world. After he got down I had the seats to myself till we reached Emeryville.
We reached Emeryville at around 5 pm, only 30 mins late which, as some of the other passengers said, is very rare. After a journey of 53 hours, 3924 kms, crossing 3 time zones and passing though 7 states we finally reached our last stop. I conveyed my thanks to the conductor and got down. At the last moment, while walking back to the waiting area I struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger who gave me some useful pointers on where to get something to eat at Emeryville. There is a nice food court right opposite to the station where I had some nice hot dal rice. After those bland offerings from the train’s café this was heaven.
Around 930 pm I boarded the Coast Starlight. This train looked a bit newer and cleaner than the Zephyr. I quickly walked over to my seat which was again thankfully on the left side, said hello to my co passenger, settled down and soon fell asleep. This was my 4th and last night sleeping upright in a seat and surprisingly I wasn’t feeling too bad. Again, I slept nicely.
Day 4 : (California – Oregon – Washington)
The full today offered beautiful views of the pacific northwest in all its glory; green fields, blue skies, snow covered mountain peaks and serene lakes.
I got down at Eugene, this time wanting to take a look at the locomotive of this train and take some pics. Having done that I looked around a bit and got inside. I spent the rest of the journey just enjoying the scenery.
We reached Seattle at around 8 pm and thereby ended my epic 75 hours journey covering 5200kms in total. I was tired and in need of a good meal. From Seattle I took the Amtrak bus connection to Vancouver which I reached at around 1230am. I reached home at 1 30am. And thus ended my memorable 3 day trip.
From: Chicago Union Station, Dep time : 1450 Hrs.
To: Emeryville, Arv time : 1610 Hrs.
Total duration: 52 Hours
Distance: Approx. 3920 Kms
Class : Coach
Cost: 306 CAD
Best side to book tickets: Left side.
From: Emeryville, Dep time : 2147 Hrs.
To: Seattle, Arv time : 1951 Hrs.
Total duration: 23 Hours
Distance: Approx. 1280 Kms.
Class : Coach
Cost: 255 CAD
Best side to book tickets: Left side.
There is a dining car and a café separately. The dining car is more for the sleeping accommodation passengers. The Café is open to all. The menu of the café can be found here.
Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago
Free for Sleeping accommodation passengers but Coach passengers can buy a day pass for $35 USD ($46 CAD). Check the latest prices from their website.