Amtrak California Zephyr Train San Francisco to Chicago
After riding the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle, I was hooked on the idea of traveling by train. This time I convinced my mom to join me for an adventure on the California Zephyr. We were able to book a Sleeper Bedroom during an Amtrak sale and combined it with a trip to the Bay Area. The ticket in a sleeper car (Room or Roomette) includes all meals (which you can read about here).
We departed Emeryville, CA on Tuesday, February 18 on the East bound Amtrak #6 and arrived in Chicago on Thursday, February 20. The 51 hour route covers 2,438 miles and is the longest daily Amtrak route.
Day 1: Emeryville, CA to Elko, NV
The western most stop of the California Zephyr is Emeryville, CA. Located just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, Emeryville is sandwiched between Oakland and Berkley.
We stayed the night before at the Hyatt House which is just across the tracks from the station. There is an overpass in the parking lot that takes you to the station platform. The station doesn’t offer much in terms of amenities.
The train departed at 9:10am and began the journey heading north along the San Francisco Bay. Downtown could be spotted in the distance.
We soon pass fields of almond trees once we are out of the urban Bay Area.
The route heads up to Davis, CA and across the Sacramento River into the state capital.
Lunch was called just after Sacramento in the dining car. Over lunch we climbed up the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The American River Valley could be seen just north of Colfax, CA.
Pretty soon we climbed higher into the snow covered Tahoe National Forest west of Lake Tahoe. We passed the west bound California Zephyr and made our way through a number of tunnels.
Soon we crossed the Donner Pass and Lake, fortunately not succumbing to the same fate as the namesake as we stopped in Truckee, CA
Just past Truckee we passed into Nevada and were soon at Reno where a good number of the passengers detrained. I had just enough time to run up to street level for a photo of Harrah’s Reno.
Having departed Reno shortly after 4:00pm, we watched the sun set over the dusty landscape of western Nevada. It was getting dark just round the time we were called to dinner at 5:30pm.
Around midnight the train crossed into Utah but I was fast asleep.
Day 2: Salt Lake City, UT to McCook, NE
The California Zephyr makes a 3:00am stop in Salt Lake City, UT. The sun rose as we headed south east across dinosaur land of central Utah.
The train snaked around beautiful rock formations in eastern Utah just north of Arches National Park. I spotted a couple of young antelope or deer running alongside the train.
Later in the morning we met up with the Colorado River just before entering into Colorado. We followed the river into the Rocky Mountains. We had a fresh air break in Grand Junction, CO.
As the track snakes along the Colorado River, it passes through the dramatic canyons of Ruby, Byers, and Glenwood. Most would agree this is the most visually stunning hours of the journey.
Many elk and bald eagle sightings were made by passengers in the Observation Car.
Towards the top of the Rockies we made a stop at Fraser Winter Park before our journey down through the Red Rocks.
We arrived in Denver early around 6:00pm and had about an hour to explore the beautiful Union Station.
The train departed Denver at 7:10pm and traveled through the night across easter Colorado and into Nebraska.
Day 3: Iron Horse, NE to Chicago, IL
An early morning stop in Omaha started the third day of the journey as Nebraska passed by while passengers slept. Once the sun came out we were in the farm lands of rural Iowa.
An early lunch was called at 10:30am as we passed over the icy Mississippi and into the state of Illinois.
After a few hours we arrived in the Chicago Amtrak yard a little after 2:00pm. We had made it to the Eastern terminus of the California Zephyr route.
Two nights on a train is a lot. If I were to do it again I would want to take breaks along the way (but that drives up the price of the ticket). We had a great cabin attendant that had been working on trains for 36 years. It is fun to see the different people on the train. The best part is the scenery, a lot of which you cannot see any other way. It is a good reminder of the sheer size of the United States.