GUEST ARTICLE: Catch the Amtrak California Zephyr train service and experience a cross section of the real America without being stuck behind the wheel or up in the clouds for hours on end.
Flying across America is fast and cheap, but what do you actually see apart from runways and clouds? Driving isn’t for everyone either, particularly solo travelers on a tight budget and those that get freaked out by left hand drive automobiles.
This is where the Amtrak California Zephyr train service comes in.
Mention Amtrak to most Americans and they’ll either laugh or apologise profusely. It happened to me every time.
Amtrak runs a number of train services across America. Many are crippled by chronic under investment and lengthy delays. The California Zephyr is different.
Sure, it isn’t always on time as it shares the track with freight trains but any delays are more than made up for by the views. Check out Amtrak Delays to find out more about train reliability.
The California Zephyr cuts through the heart of the Rocky Mountains, follows the Colorado River and climbs through the Sierra Nevada, making the ride from San Francisco to Denver the scenic highlight of the journey.
Scenic highlights along the journey to Denver include:
- Donner Lake emerging through the woods on the border of California and Nevada
- Vast red earth and rock formations of Utah
- Mountains, canyons and rivers alongside Glenwood Springs
- Approach from the 6.2 mile Moffat tunnel into Denver, “the Mile High City” lit up at night at an elevation of over 9000 feet
Depending on your ticket, you can break your journey in a number of places such as Reno, Nevada (known as “The Biggest Little City in the World”) for some action on the roulette tables or hit the ski resorts in Salt Lake City for some world class skiing.
Alternatively, if you want to take in the entire experience, from the comfort of your seat, compartment, the sightseer lounge/café car or the dining car, you can book a ticket that takes you from San Francisco’s Emeryville station to Chicago Union station – all possible in about 60 hours, or 2 1/2 days.
The “sightseer lounge” features large panoramic windows and some seats that spin 360 degrees. This allows you to take in the view from both sides of the track.
You’ll be able to take plenty of good photos as the train ambles along at a leisurely pace.
To optimize your shots, find a clean window and wipe the glass down with a clean cloth to remove smears. Turn the camera flash off, select a fast shutter speed and keep your lens on or as close to the window as possible. Use a polarizing filter to eliminate any remaining glare and reflections.
You’re bound to run out of snacks as your eyes and camera are fixed on the natural scenery outside the window, so put your name down early to reserve a spot in the dining car or head down to the café car.
The Dining Car Steward will allocate a seat for you, which makes sure you mingle with other passengers. You’ll end up meeting a good mix of locals from many parts of the States, many eager to share their story.
Many passengers I spoke to had never known that their country was so beautiful, as their previous trips were confined to endless stretches of tarmac or clouds in the sky.
If you want some privacy and a bit of comfort, book a Superliner Roomette. It includes two seats, two pillows, a flip out table and a mini coat cupboard. It is a very small compartment but breakfast, lunch and dinner served in the dining car are included in the ticket price.
The Sleeping Car Attendant will convert your seat into a full-length flat bed in the evening and will assist in making your journey comfortable. Don’t forget to leave them a small tip to show your appreciation (at least US$ 5).
Find out how you too can Get on board the Amtrak California Zephyr train.
This article has been written by Pranav Bhatt. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Economics and Business at Sydney University. He has an interest in world travel, cricket, politics, technology and the media.
If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution