Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The California Zephyr

The California Zephyr arrives at Emeryville

In my quest to see as much of the country as possible, within a relatively short timeframe, I caught the Amtrak train known as the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago.
Crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains

My roomette for the next 50 odd hours
The two and a half day trip covered 2,438 miles (3,924km) across some of the most impressive landscapes in North America. The train trundled along at a relaxed pace giving me plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, eat my supply of Ghirardelli chocolate, talk with my fellow travellers, read, write and sleep.

Converted into a bed for the evenings
We left San Francisco by bus to Emeryville Saturday morning and got onto the Zephyr at 9am. I had booked a roomette; a compact room with two seats that folded down into a bed for the evenings.
Menu in the Dining Car

Lunch: crab cake sandwich and an iced tea
That first day, we travelled through the states of California and Nevada, stopping at towns and cities along the way for passengers to get on and off the train. We stopped at Sacramento, the capital city of California and then on through the Sierra Nevada fir-covered mountain range to Reno – “the Biggest Little City in the World”.

Founded in 1868, Reno really took off in the 1930s with legalised gambling and the country’s most liberal divorce laws. The Bank Club in Reno became the world’s largest casino during the 30s and 40s and saying, “I’m going to Reno.” was another way of saying, “I’m getting a divorce.”

Well-known American columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning World War II war correspondent, Ernie Pyle once wrote in one of his columns, "All the people you saw on the streets in Reno were obviously there to get divorces." (I sure that’s not the case today.)

Waking up in Utah
The second day, I woke up around 6am and looked out my window, onto the imposing desert landscape of Utah – true cowboy and Indian country. I felt as though I was on the set of the old Western movies, rerun during my 1970s childhood and that any minute Gary Cooper would ride past in pursuit of the Miller’s Gang or John Wayne would be in a gunfight with the Comancheros whilst simultaneously warding off an attack by Comanche Indians.

By 9.30am we had crossed into Colorado. The day was filled with spectacular scenery as we followed the Colorado River up through the Rocky Mountain range through numerous canyons and gorges. I kept my eyes peeled, hoping to spot a bear or two but no such luck, although I did manage to see a few moose and deer along the way.

The Colorado River is a favourite for white water rafting and kayaking with the rafters and kayakers traditionally “mooning” the California Zephyr as it makes its way past.
"Mooning" rafters

Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Short stop at Glenwood Springs, Colorado
I took the opportunity to stretch my legs on the platform at picturesque, Glenwood Springs, high up in the Rockies. The final resting place for Wild West legend, Doc Holliday of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral fame, Glenwood Springs is famous for its hot springs and mineral caves.

Colorado River
In between Glenwood Springs and Denver, we passed through the 6.2 mile (10km) long Moffat Tunnel and reached the highest elevation for the trip at 9,200 feet (2,800m) above sea level.

Colorado River
Leaving the Rockies behind
That night in the dining car, I was seated with a retired couple from Omaha and Elsa, an events manager from Chicago.

We made good time all the way to Denver, Colorado, where the train picked up more passengers and refuelled for our journey on to Chicago.
Once we hit the open plains country outside of Denver, heading towards Nebraska, the weather changed. We headed into the night with a severe weather warning slowing our progress and a spectacular light show from heavy thunderstorms lighting up my window.

East of Denver

Only a few days earlier, twin tornadoes had wrecked havoc near the small town of Pilger, Nebraska, wiping out the town's business district, obliterating its fire station and grinding 40 or 50 homes into rubble. I went to sleep hoping we wouldn’t encounter any twisters along our route that night.
Ate the last block when I still had 19 hours to go...

The next morning I woke up safe and sound although somewhat dismayed to discover I had polished off my entire supply of Ghirardelli chocolate I had bought in San Francisco.

We passed through Omaha, Nebraska, home to Warren Buffett. The Oracle of Omaha and the world’s most famous and successful stock market investor, Mr Buffett is worth a cool US$65billion or thereabouts. Call it wishful thinking but I was hoping to channel some sort of divine investment wisdom as we passed through town… I’ll let you know how that goes at a future date.

About to cross the Mississippi River on the Burlington Rail Bridge
For my last day on the California Zephyr, we crossed the states of Nebraska, Iowa and then at Burlington, we crossed the mighty Mississippi River into the state of Illinois.
The Mighty Mississippi 

Down in the dining car for breakfast, I ordered a spinach and mushroom frittata with that quintessential side dish from the American Deep South: grits. (I just wanted to say in my best American impersonation, “I’ll have some grits with that please.”) Porridge made out of ground corn, water and seasoned with butter, grits are pretty bland and mainly eaten as a breakfast dish.
Grits, bacon, frittata and a croissant for brekkie 

There had been a lot of recent heavy rain around Omaha and further east; the farming country steadily improved and we passed acres and acres of lush, green corn crops as we travelled on towards Chicago.

Talking with other passengers, I was amazed to learn the length of the summer school holidays in the US. The summer vacation, as they call it, starts at the end of May and goes through until September. (Apparently a left over tradition from the farming days of old, when the children were expected to help out on the farms over the summer.)

We finally chugged into Chicago, two and a half hours later than expected. When it comes to seeing a country in a relatively short space of time, you can’t beat a long distance train trip. So long as you’re not overly concerned about your arrival time and are prepared to be flexible, the California Zephyr offers a great way to see large tracts of North America as well as meet fellow travellers.


  1. Great post Annie, Love hearing about the Zephyr as I'd love to do that one day.
    Did you get to hop off at any stops and have a look around?


    1. Thanks Simone, it doesn't stop for long enough to look around, however, you can stop overnight at places along the way - you have to sort that all out at the time of booking. It was a great trip and has whet my appetite for more train travel.

  2. Another fab instalment on your fab USA adventure

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Kim! Thank you for taking the time to comment :)

  3. All aboard - Choo-chooo! Great travelogue, and I'm ashamed to say I've never taken the Zephyr so I was all ears and eyes during my armchair journey with you. Incredible photos, and I had a frownie face at your last piece of chocolate. More, more! (Yes, both travelogues and chocolate)

    1. Thank you for commenting, I'm so glad you are enjoying the journey too Suzette! Next stop, Baltimore... stay tuned :)