Riding the Zephyr is a breeze
Make the scene from San Francisco to Washington
Start with this simple truth: Crossing the country by train is an adventure. Whether you’re out to see the country in a relaxed manner or avoid the hassles of flying or driving, a train journey will challenge and delight you.
My February journey aboard the California Zephyr from San Francisco Bay to Chicago and on to Washington, D.C., was superb. But it demanded the right attitude.
I began in San Jose in the Silicon Valley traveling three hours through the East Bay to Davis, the university town near Sacramento. In the morning, I joined the California Zephyr on its 2,400 mile run to Chicago. The Zephyr is rightly regarded as Amtrak’s most scenic train across the Sierras and Rocky Mountains.
Settling in, you make your way to the observation car and join the slice of life already on display.
There are four-person tables and fixed-position chairs close together, a configuration promoting conversation. Across from me are Caitlin and Jason, an engaging couple fresh from hiking in the northwest. They are headed home to Maine where they hope to start a school. These intrepid naturalists have spent two years in the Himalayas in Kashmir where they embraced the lifestyle of the rural Buddhist population.
Across from them are two computer engineers from the Silicon Valley. Max and Will are escaping their San Francisco routines for a getaway in Denver, a day and a half’s journey ahead.
Traveling east from Sacramento, the beauty outside demands attention. The six-car Zephyr climbs into the Sierras reaching for Tahoe and Reno. Volunteer historians have come aboard to provide historical perspective as the sights grow more spectacular the higher we climb.
“Here,” says docent Bill Schuldt, “is where members of the Donner Party perished in an early winter blizzard that blocked their wagons and left them snowbound in 1846.” Here also, he explains, on this track in 1952, a premier Southern Pacific train with 226 aboard was immobilized by drifting snow and stuck for three days.
Arriving in Reno in early evening, two dozen travelers disembark. Their places are taken by others, most headed for Denver. Travelers who have splurged for a roomette will sleep lying down in a snug compartment with facilities, including a shower, close by.
It’s a treat to awake anticipating breakfast in the diner. Breakfast is the best meal on the Zephyr; on this morning it’s pancakes with sausage.
The morning has dawned sunny and this second day on the Zephyr is perfect for observing the reddened buttes and mesas outside. As we climb, the landscape evolves from arid to green. Rushing streams and snow signal our arrival in the Rocky Mountains.
By midday we’re high in the Rockies. Every seat in the observation car is filled. By late afternoon the Zephyr descends from the highest elevations as it approaches Denver. At 6 p.m., on time, the Zephyr backs into Denver’s beautifully restored Union Station.
There is no Wi-Fi on the Zephyr, but its absence prompts few complaints as passengers adjust to the slower rhythms of train travel.
The next day, the Zephyr arrives in Chicago on time at 2:50 p.m. I join the several dozen passengers boarding an overnight train bound for D.C.
My advice to would-be train travelers? Do it now, these wonderful trains can’t last forever. Keep in mind that the journey is not cheap. My roomette fare from Davis, Calif., to D.C. was $1,000, but that included all meals.
Breakfast aboard Amtrak’s Capitol Limited is served on linen tablecloths.