Amtrak Across America: Journey on the California Zephyr

There are no neutral responses when you tell someone you’re taking an Amtrak train across America.

“You’re crazy!” was the standard reply, followed by, “You’re never going to want to take a train again after this.”

This was a bucketlist item, and as a graduate student, with a more flexible summer schedule, I thought, what better time to slow travel across America? So I bought a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Philadelphia.

The Trip Basics:

Depart: Emeryville, CA

Arrive: Philadelphia- 30th Street Station

Total trip time: 74 hours, 45 minutes

Total Trains: 2- California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago and the Cardinal from Chicago to Philadelphia.

Cost: $232

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Traveling Coach

On the long haul trains, you can reserve one of two tickets:

  • Reserve Coach The most economical option. You get a seat on the upper or lower level of the train. Meals and showers are not included, but you get access to the dining car and awesome observation car, with ceiling windows.
  • Superliner Roomette For a big jump in price, you can get a private room with a couch that turns into two beds. Showers and meals in the dining car are included.

What to bring:

This is for if you have a Reserved Coach ticket. One of the first questions people asked me was: Is it comfortable? Fairly! And definitely more so than an airplane’s economy seating. The seats are big, recline, and include a foot rest.

Here’s what to bring to make it more enjoyable:

  • A pillow
  • Earplugs 
  • Eyemask
  • Light travel blanket 
  • Fresh fruit and snacks – This made a huge difference in the quality of my experience! While you can get food on the train (we’ll cover that later), it’s pricey for the actual quality, and there’s a lack of fresh fruit and more healthy snack options. I brought instant oatmeal, oranges, apples, Kind Bars, dried cheese, crackers, and supplies to make PB&Js when I wanted a quick bite.
  • A good book – There’s no wifi onboard, so get ready!
  • Baby wipes – To replace showers
  • An open mind – You’ll meet all different types of people, from the retired couples to families (more on that later).

The Journey on the California Zephyr

The train began moving at 9:10am. The guy in front of me was absolutely bewildered. “Damn, they don’t mess around!” he laughed as our train departed exactly as promised by our ticket.

As we passed through Martinez, a booming voice filled the room: “Welcome aboard everybody. Looks like a beautiful day for a train ride!” It was our cafe-car attendant.

During this part of the train, I chatted with a sign-language teacher from Petaluma, CA. and her friend who were heading to Reno for vacation. Her friend was deaf, and her friend translated my words to sign language. When they heard I was studying education, her friend said, “Ohhh, you’re going to have your work cut out for you with Betsy DeVos…” I agreed that U.S. public education was under threat.

Next, we stopped in Davis. A woman got on the train carrying a giant yellow “Minion” toy.  She had won it at a fair. She laughed: “Great. Now what am I gonna do with this?” Someone pointed her to the luggage room, and the Minion stayed there until Denver.

After Sacramento, we climbed into the mountains, following the American River.

With all of the 2017 rainfall, the mountains were glimmering with runoff streams and snow.

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We climbed higher in elevation, passing Donner Lake at 5,935 feet.

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We made it to Truckee, CA.

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I settled into the observation car. It’s the social hub of Amtrak double-decker trains, with glass windows extending to the ceilings. I spent a lot of my time here, gawking at the scenery and chatting with other passengers. In these trains, you’ll meet a lot of different people, and it’s interesting to hear everyone’s stories and reasons for taking the train…

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After Truckee, we got into Reno, NV around 6pm. After a quick break, we were off to the Nevada Basin.

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It was vast and beautiful.

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So much salt…

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We stopped in Winnemucca, NV for 10-minute break. “Don’t get any ideas about wandeing off too far…” the train announcer joked, “Or else, the train may leave you…”

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The train lulled me to sleep as the sky turned orange, and then dark.

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I woke up in Provo, Utah around 6am. We were 2 hours past schedule. I found out that in the middle of the night, our train was sidelined as we gave the right-of-way to freight trains. (Amtrak rents the rails from these companies, so priority is given to the freight).

I went and sat in the observation car and met a couple, Alex and Yvonne, from Taiwan.

Right when I sat down, the intercom clicked:

“Wake up, wake up, wake uhhhhh—-upppp……”

The familiar, cheery voice of the cafe car attendant filled the air. “We got coffee folks, it’s ready in the cafe car.” Alex and I jumped up before he even finished his sentence. I had a coffee and some hot water for my instant oatmeal that I brought on board. I threw in a banana and walnuts, and called it a morning.

Suddenly, we were surrounded my massive cliffs. Utah was incredible….

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More people trickled into the observation car. I met a Dad and his 15-year-old son who were traveling to Chicago. The son was obsessed with train travel , and combined with a slight fear of flying, they decided to train 52 hours to Chicago.

We pulled into Helper, Utah next.

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“You Are Here.” in case one forgets.

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I settled into my seat and watched the most epic landscape unfold.

The Wild West.

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Before we entered Colorado, I decided to have lunch in the dining car earlier rather than later on this day. Colorado’s canyons are some of most famous sections, starting right after the Glenwood Springs stop. It’s smart to get a good seat in the observation car by around Grand Junction, CO.

Dining on Amtrak:

What kind of food options are available on the California Zephyr?

Cafe car Essentially a snack and drink bar. You can get coffee, tea, and some light breakfast food. They also serve alcohol.

Dining car Serves the meals. In order to utilize space, you’re always seated with another party (unless you have 4 people) at a table. This ensures some good mingling and crossed life paths.

As for the food quality? It’s like a baseball game’s but with slightly higher prices. For that reason, definitely bring your own snacks and food if that’s important. I am so glad I brought fresh fruit!

I was seated with a couple from England on holiday in the U.S., and Claudette, a woman in her late 60s, from Chicago. Claudette told us how she worked at Xerox for over 25 years, and had to fly constantly for business. After she retired, she now prefers to take the train and enjoys  slow travel. (This is a common sentiment amongst Amtrak riders, I’ve discovered.)

With no wifi on the California Zephyr, and social seating situations like this, it’s wonderful to just slow down and connect with people from all walks of life.

As we ate lunch, the topic of politics emerged. We discovered we were all on the same page. At one point, we all paused, in thought, and looked at the great landscape passing us by through the windows. Claudette broke the silence. “We need to protect this.  This isn’t forever if we don’t protect it.” We all agreed.

It’s easy to have one’s dedication for environmental conservation renewed or instilled during a train ride across America.

After lunch, we went to take seats in the Observation Car, ready for the epic-ness of Colorado.

After the Grand Junction stop in Colorado, we got ready for 12 miles of sheer Glenwood Canyon awesomeness…

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We followed the Colorado River for miles, as rafters waved at us…

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The train slowed down significantly here to snake along the cliff overlooking the Colorado River.

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Rocky Mountain National Park…

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A rest stop in Fraser, CO…

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It started raining as we departed.

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Someone’s got a nice house on the hill..

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As we neared dusk, we saw the end of the Rockies, and the great, flat planes ahead of us…

Denver was below…

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We got into Denver around 8pm. I  figured I better hop off and took a photo. 21 more hours till Chicago!

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I fell asleep to Rogue Wave’s latest album, and watched the sun set behind the Rockies.

The next morning, I woke up with cornfields outside the window. We passed a sign: “Stanton. Population 689.” Green lawns, church steeples, and brick houses broke up the fields.

Suddenly I felt very far from the West Coast.

In a few hours, we stopped in Ottumwa, Iowa.

There was not much around, so I took a photo of this station. One guy put on his lime green running shoes and did laps around the station on our 7-minute break. Soon we heard the whistle, and the “All aboard!” call.

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As we trained through Iowa, I heard a woman say to her friend, “There are so many more windmills than when I was here last time!” That was reassuring.  Then, a young boy walked through our car in a bright orange shirt that said: “Next gen climate.org. 100% renewable energy.”

Go Iowa. Here’s their website: https://nextgenclimate.org/

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After endless fields, we suddenly crossed a mighty river.

The Mississippi!

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A few hours later, around 4:45pm, we reached Chicago!

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The next train, the Cardinal, would depart in an hour. I grabbed my things.

It was time for the second part of the journey East…

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