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Amtrak from California to Illinois reveals country's beauty

Amtrak from California to Illinois reveals country's beauty

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Without my friend Pam’s encouragement, I might have missed one of the most exciting exciting trips of my life.

I was in San Francisco visiting my son and hadn’t bought a plane ticket home since I didn’t know how long I would stay. When I finally checked, prices were outrageous. outrageous.

“I wonder what Amtrak has,” I thought.

I had long wanted to take an overnight train trip in a sleeping car, but the price always put me off. Learning the ticket included three meals a day in the dining car helped remove some of the sting but still.

This time, though, the price of a roomette roomette from San Francisco to St. Louis on the legendary California Zephyr wasn’t a heart-stopper. I could get the ticket for not much more than a return plane ticket.

The California Zephyr — 2,447 miles of exciting, often spectacular scenery from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area — has been called one of the most beautiful train trips in North America.

But should I do it? I always envisioned taking this epic train trip from east to west where the splendor of the Rockies and then the Sierra Nevada would unwind from Midwest flatness, and in summer with long hours of daylight when the scenery and greenery would be at its best.

I’d be going in mid-January not long after the winter solstice when daylight hours were just beginning to lengthen.

Pam texted: “You know you’ve always wanted to do it. When will you have a chance again?”

But I’d lose three days sitting on a train. I had work I needed to do. The trip takes 55 hours and 59 minutes.

Pam countered: “You’ve got your laptop. laptop. Work on the train.”

So I bought the ticket.

The Zephyr starts and ends (depending on which direction you’re traveling) in Emeryville, a small town just north of San Francisco. For me, taking BART to Richmond, Richmond, the train’s second stop, was easier than taking an Amtrak-chartered bus to Emeryville to board the train.

At the Richmond BART station, I simply crossed to another platform and waited for the California Zephyr.


The sleeping car attendant introduced me to my roomette, a space barely wider than a seat. There are actually two seats facing facing each other. At bedtime, the attendant folds the seats into a bed. Another bed folds down from overhead. Since I was traveling alone, the upper bunk became storage space for my luggage.

The attendant said I could have meals in my roomette or in the dining room where reservations are necessary.

He also gave me a couple of bottles of water and towels. The shower room is downstairs, he said. A shower on the train? Who knew?

I settled in, enjoying the panorama unfolding outside my roomette window as we flit past San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay and then Suisun Bay. Before long we stopped in Davis, home of UC-Davis where my daughter went to grad school. How interesting to see the sleek 1913 adobe-style station from the train rather than the parking lot as we did when we visited her.

At Sacramento, the next stop, it was fun to pass through Old Town, an area we visited visited several times on day trips from Davis.

Things really got interesting as we climbed to Auburn in Gold Rush Country. Nearby is Sutter’s Mill where the discovery discovery of gold touched off the explosion of 49ers seeking their fortunes here in the mid-1800s.

After passing Colfax, the Zephyr really works as it chugged upward to Cape Horn, a bluff 1,500 feet above the American River. The slope is supposedly the steepest on the entire route.

I made my way to the dining car for my lunch reservation. I was seated with Sean, a young man on his way to Truckee, Calif., to meet up with friends to go skiing.

Amtrak dining room food is surprisingly good. Some of my fellow passengers said they worried food on the train would be like airline food — if anyone can remember the days when the airlines actually served meals.

A waiter explained that Amtrak used to get a lot of complaints about the food. So many complaints, in fact, that Amtrak officials hired a coterie of top chefs to reformulate the dining room’s menu. The result is a sparse dinner menu of tasty dishes — usually steak, one fish item, a land and sea (surf and turf) dish, a chicken offering and a couple of vegetarian dishes.

Sean and I chit-chatted over sandwiches, sandwiches, then watched with awe as the scenery morphed dramatically as we crossed Interstate 80 and Emigrant Gap, a break in the ridge on the California Trail where it crosses the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mountains. So steep are the cliffs that early settlers heading west reportedly lowered their wagons on ropes to get down the trail.

Outside our window, towering pines parade down mountainsides, and granite peaks reach for the clear blue sky as our train snakes around corners and bends. To the east: infamous Donner Pass where 39 pioneers died after their wagon train became stranded for an entire winter in the snow.

Not far from Soda Springs, to the west, a deja vu moment in 1952 when 226 passengers traveling on Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco Francisco Streamliner were stranded for three days in a blinding snowstorm.

Before Donner Lake, we entered a tunnel to pass through Mount Judah. At that point, we were 7,000 feet above sea level, the highest on the trip. Coming out of the tunnel, we saw an amazing sight — a ski lift carrying skiers from nearby Sugar Bowl Ski Resort across the tracks.

As the train crossed several plateaus plateaus and clambered over Donner Pass, we gazed at the Truckee River Basin below us.

At Truckee Sean left to meet his friends, and the train continued eastward through weird rock formations formations shaped like castle spires called the “Hoodoo Pillars.” Shortly thereafter, thereafter, we crossed into Nevada.

First stop in Nevada: Reno, which bills itself as “the biggest little city in the world.” In summer Reno is lush with trees and other greenery, but Nevada is largely desert. It’s also the most mountainous state, so there are plenty of massive rock formations in fascinating colors to ogle.

That evening I texted Pam: “No work done today. Can’t take my eyes off the scenery.”

Night has to happen sometime. It does some time after Reno and so, sadly, we traversed the rest of Nevada and most of Utah including the Wasatch Mountains in the dark. We stopped in Salt Lake City at 3:30 a.m.

I woke up in time to see a bit of Utah before we crossed into Colorado and glimpsed the mighty Colorado River with a mountainous backdrop.


No one says you have to stay in your roomette.

The sunlit observation car is the place to be. Comfy chairs and windows even on the curved ceiling make for great scenery-watching. You’ll never find a better spot for taking in the grandeur of the American American West. It’s where I spent most of the daylight hours.

It was on to Colorado with stunning stunning views of Ruby Canyon, the confluence of the Grand and Colorado Colorado rivers and its many winding canyons. We paralleled the Colorado River for more than 200 miles, an area that some call the most scenic scenic stretch seen from a regularly scheduled passenger train.

The train stopped next in Glenwood Glenwood Springs long enough for me to get off the train. Several passengers took pictures of one other in the snow.

As we chugged ever eastward through the canyons and alpine- looking villages, snow began to fall giving the area a surreal feeling as night fell. We wended our way to the Moffat Tunnel, a 6.2-mile passage through the mountains and across the Continental Divide. Opened in 1928, it took four years to build. The tunnel saves 176 miles between Denver and the Pacific Coast avoiding avoiding Rollins Pass with numerous switchbacks and steep grades.

It was dark before we reached Denver, and by the eastern end of Colorado, the spectacular scenery was behind us. I tried to sleep, but the train was jerking and lurching. The conductor said it was because the tracks are in bad shape in Nebraska.

In the morning, we were in Iowa, and it was time to pack up. I got off in Burlington, a three-hour drive from St. Louis. My husband picked me up. 


Just like with the airlines, book early for the best prices. Sample pricing shows a roomette (double or single occupancy) from San Francisco to St. Louis to be $528-$972, depending on time of year and when you book.

  • AAA members get a 10 percent discount.
  • Kids 2-12 travel for half price. Children under 2 travel free.
  • Passengers 62 and older get a 10 percent discount.
  • Like the airlines, Amtrak has a rewards program where you earn points for each trip you take and redeem them for travel. An Amtrak credit card allows you to amass points as you make purchases.
  • More info: 
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