Chicago to the San Francisco Bay, by train

Even as the crow flies, there’s already 1800 miles between Chicago and San Francisco. The meandering train tracks add another 600, and slow-going across mountains means you’re looking at 52 hours aboard even without delays. (Spoiler: there will be delays). But it’s hard to put those numbers into context – the enormity of the task only really sunk in when I was looking at a wall-sized network map at Chicago Union Station. Reproducing it here on a computer screen doesn’t really do it justice either! Whilst falling short of a true coast-to-coast, I am still comfortable describing this adventure as transcontinental:

The route of the California Zephyr

Fortunately, I would be tackling the route in slightly more manageable portions – although it still resembled a six course banquet rather than a bite-size tasting menu. I had designed my itinerary to link one state to the next, picking an interesting stop in each rather than hopping off as soon as I crossed a border. This also allowed me to mix and match my accommodation to suit individual journeys. Here’s what I ended up with:

Or, if you’d prefer a photo tour to my waffling, a selection of scenic highlights are in this gallery.

Chicago, IL to Mount Pleasant, IA


Scheduled: 2pm CST Mon Jan 3rd – 5:59pm CST Mon Jan 3rd (3h59)
Coach Seat, $42

Great Hall, Chicago Union Station.

In the Great Hall of Chicago’s Union Station I find a towering Christmas tree decorated with the logos of classic railroads and routes – this fantastic architecture and these storied names perfectly setting the mood for my upcoming adventure. Sadly modern journeys are instead launched from a cramped, underground maze the other side of the road – where I spent rather longer than planned whilst they searched for a full set of carriages to form our train.

An inauspicious start, then, departing about an hour later than scheduled. But I seem to have lucked out with my seat assignment – a front row window spot – and the views soon revive the sense of adventure. Whilst not a particularly scenic stretch by the standards of this route, our transition from megacity to suburbs to farmland is made more pleasing by a dusting of snow and the soft light of an already sinking sun.

Illinois farmland

Once the sun had set, however, there was little to report. In an unexpected COVID twist, coach passengers such as myself are no longer allowed to take meals in the dining car. Thus I settle for a microwaved hotdog from the observation car café to celebrate the crossing of the Mississippi, which I last saw over a decade ago in New Orleans. This also marked my arrival into Iowa, the second of six new states I would be visiting on this trip. The train stopped almost immediately, in Burlington, which would have been a more obvious destination. Instead, I had picked the next one to disembark and explore – one of just a handful of passengers to hop out into the deep snow of Mount Pleasant.

Running Totals Miles 233 Time on trains 4h21 Delays 1h22

Mount Pleasant, IA to Omaha, NE


Scheduled: 5:59pm CST Tues Jan 4th – 10:55pm CST Tues Jan 4th (4h56)
Coach Seat, $46

Mt. Pleasant station

As I arrived two hours early, whereas the Zephyr arrived two hours late, I spent far longer than anyone should in Mount Pleasant’s faintly ecclesiastical waiting room. Freight trains rolling through provide novelty by their sheer scale: despite moving at significant speed, the longest takes fully two and a half minutes to pass. But all this activity is also the cause of our delay, as through policy or practicality Amtrak’s smaller passenger trains have to give way to their enormous cousins.

Once finally aboard, I immediately seek out another sling-and-ding masterpiece from the café – mac and cheese, this time – before settling in for my second / last stint in coach. Once more I have been fortunate with seat assignment, getting a pair to myself.

Of the route there is even less to share than yesterday, as we cross the fields of Iowa in often total darkness. Life in coach is correspondingly uneventful – and at 10pm, quiet time comes into effect, each approaching station going unremarked. (Provided you stick to your assigned seat, train staff will find – and, if necessary, wake – you if you are due to leave).

A little after midnight I enter my third state in as many days; once again, the border is one of America’s great waterways, this time the Missouri. Crossing at Plattsmouth, it’s another half hour north to Omaha, where I arrive at an exhausting 00:45.

Running Totals Miles 500 Time on trains 9h2 Delays 3h16

Omaha, NE to Glenwood Springs, CO


Scheduled: 11:05pm CST Weds Jan 5th – 1:46pm MST Thurs Jan 6th (15h31)
Family Bedroom, $448

Arriving into an impossibly cold Omaha deeply tired, I had begun questioning this whole plan – an unintended consequence of my hop on, hop off itinerary being that I effectively compounded each train’s delays.

Fortunately after a day of largely railway-related attractions that I’d have been sad to have passed by in the dead of night, I had recalibrated my expectations somewhat. If all this were easy, it wouldn’t be an adventure! Amtrak has long held a reputation for delays, and although earlier experiences had gone smoothly, I was now learning that a take-it-as-it-goes attitude is indeed necessary. Nowhere is that more true than for this ambitious next leg, crossing the Colorado Rockies in winter…

Coming from the UK, it was hard to appreciate just how isolated trains navigating these mountain passes are. I had read that some of the scenery we’d be seeing is accessible only by rail or river, but hadn’t appreciated what that meant for support – or lack thereof – when things go wrong. Detector wires alongside the track offer some warning of an upcoming hazard, but not the severity. When tripped, the Zephyr has to drop to a slow enough pace for the driver to eyeball the size of any debris: a task not helped by fresh snowfall. If indeed the line is blocked, there’s no maintenance team to call – it’s down to the crew to hop out and clear the way (“Amtrak 1, Rock 0”, our conductor proudly declared after one such mission). Technical issues are also a risk: we lost an hour to an – ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to chisel the ice off a frozen switch.

Typical winter scenes on a January run of the California Zephyr

And yet, I didn’t mind at all – for the recent snowstorms which were responsible for all this mayhem had also created a winter wonderland to admire out my window. Or windows, as from now on I was travelling in sleeper class, and had started in style with a family bedroom which spanned the full width of the car. Our restricted pace just allowed more time to enjoy an exclusive tour along mostly frozen, and sometimes entirely buried, rivers; with similarly snow-covered mountains looming on either side of the valley.

My upgraded accommodation had softened the blow of another hour’s delay at Omaha, as once aboard I was able to head straight to bed. I thus missed the exact moment I entered my fourth new state – and a new timezone – instead getting my first glimpse of Colorado in Fort Morgan after a solid seven hours of sleep. First class also opened the doors to the dining car, so I was able to start the day with a hearty breakfast: a vegetable three egg omelette, potatoes and a croissant. Had I been a little more awake, I could have loaded on a side of bacon too…

Despite Denver’s status as the mile high city, from there we continued to climb ever upwards via a series of switchbacks, a massive freight train providing a reference point as it swung from window to window. Also to be seen was a variety of wildlife – elk, moose, and (according to the conductor) even a mountain lion. The views are punctuated by sudden (and total) darkness whenever we encountered a tunnel; the longest, the Moffat tunnel, takes a full ten minutes to traverse. It also marks the high-point of the route, at least physically, some 9270 feet above sea level. Fortunately I experience no ill effects from the altitude, and happily jump out at the next stop, Fraser – Winter Park, to crunch through snow – and clear some from my window.

Decidedly chilly conditions at Fraser – Winter Park

At precisely midday I join the first call for lunch, and this time am seated with another diner. They turn out to be good company, and we chat away for a good hour whilst enjoying the scenery – and the dessert course!

Lunch on the California Zephyr
(Savory chilli on a jacket potato, and Philadelphia cheesecake)

From the dining car I head to the sightseer lounge as the views continue to delight, settling there for a couple of hours. It’s in this stretch that we encounter the most problems, including the aforementioned frozen points and stray boulder. Thus by the time we swing around Dotsero and enter one last canyon, the remnants of the day’s light catch only the top of its walls. The crew are hoping they can make Grand Junction before they time out, but I only need them to get me as far as Glenwood Springs. We arrive there with the sunset, three hours late.

Sunset arrival at Glenwood Springs

Whilst this is the worst delay of the westbound services I’d been tracking, it could have been far worse: yesterday’s eastbound service was “a disaster”, reaching Denver fully 24 hours late. My newfound zen allows me to shrug off today’s slippage, but a disruption that large could cause mayhem for my complicated plans. To that end, I had built in some breathing space here in Colorado – at roughly the midpoint of the route, I break my journey for two nights to recharge in the hot springs.

Running Totals Miles 1223 Time on trains 26h24 Delays 6h27

Glenwood Springs, CO to Salt Lake City, UT


Scheduled: 1:53pm MST Sat Jan 8th – 11:05pm MST Sat Jan 8th (9h12)
Family Bedroom, $302

This turned out (by pure luck) to be a good choice – had I continued on Friday, I’d have been waiting seven and a half hours for the Zephyr to arrive, and a further half hour would be lost en route to Salt Lake City. Instead, I was thoroughly reinvigorated for the second half of the project.

Today’s westbound Zephyr was, unsurprisingly, carrying over an hour of delay – but the eastbound, normally due at midday, was having an even tougher time of it. So ours was the first of the two trains to put in an appearance… only to roll through without stopping. Fortunately once the larger group of train 6 passengers had been dispatched, the few of us headed west on train 5 were treated to the spectacle of it reversing back to the station.

I was once again in a family bedroom; definitely more than I needed for this daytime segment! Not least because the observation car was fairly quiet, so I had no problem claiming a space, although our 4pm departure only allowed an hour or so of photography before sundown.

A shame – with a crew change at Grand Junction, the outgoing conductor could only apologise that we will miss what he considers to be one of the most scenic sections, the upcoming Ruby Canyon. Historically, the only options for seeing it are the Zephyr or by rafting down the Colorado River. However, the operator of the luxury Rocky Mountaineer trains in Canada has picked this stretch for their first US route, so perhaps one day I can return and see it in style.

Fading light on the way out of Colorado

As I hadn’t been aboard when dinner reservations were taken, the only remaining slots were 5:30 or 7pm. I picked the latter, which – seated alone and with nothing to see in the dark – was a short experience, although I enjoyed the main course of pesto tortellini after upgrading it with chicken. The most memorable part of the meal, however, was the awful COVID catchphrase “take a sip, cover your lip, and enjoy your trip!” Amtrak’s strict interpretation of the mask mandate is that you should replace yours between every mouthful. I suspect fussing that much with a mask does more harm than good, but dare not risk a ban a thousand miles from either end of the route…

To try and remedy the lack of interaction over dinner, I head back up to the sightseer lounge, which now functions as more of a social area. As hoped, I soon find myself in a free-wheeling conversation with (including myself) six people from four different groups. I even manage to talk them into a board game – the push-your-luck Deep Sea Adventure – I’ve been carrying around for just such an opportunity!

10pm is quiet time, so we are subjected to a closing barrage of announcements. These include some dire warnings on the risks of shoelessness (loss of a toe) or smoking (immediate ejection, wherever we may be). For once, the progress update is good news – although still running late, we’ve made up a good chunk of time. Sure enough, arrival at Salt Lake City is only half an hour behind schedule.

Running Totals Miles 1608 Time on trains 34h22 Delays 7h3

Salt Lake City, UT to Reno, NV


Scheduled: 11:30pm MST Sun Jan 9th – 8:25am PST Mon Jan 10th (9h55)
Roomette, $275

Salt Lake City’s Amtrak station is of the holding box rather than great hall variety – and this evening it was packed. This turned out to be due to Greyhound dropping service between Salt Lake City and Reno, and rebooking their passengers onto the Zephyr (an unusual reversal from the UK, where typically it’s rail cancellations that dump you onto a bus).

At least, that’s the theory; one distraught young woman had not been issued a replacement ticket, and was far short of the $94 she needed to get to Sacramento. Fortunately another passenger covered her fare, sharing his address for repayment by cheque and nudging my faith in the kindness of strangers up a few notches. In another heart-warming tale, we boarded ahead of schedule, and set off just five minutes late.

For the rest of the trip I’m back to the familiar roomette. Tonight’s was already in solo sleeper mode, so with midnight approaching I stashed my luggage on the upper bunk, got changed down in the shower room, and settled in for the second overnight stage of the trip.

~

I sleep well (winning another hour from a second timezone change), but wake early to a sliver of daylight through the curtains, and decide to investigate rather than roll back over. Thus my first glimpse of state number six, Nevada, is a stunning desert sunrise:

Sunrise over the desert

My breakfast companions – two being allowed as they comprise a single travel party – are on an even more epic rail journey than my own, swapping to trains after storms disrupted their flight from Buffalo to San Francisco. They are amused by my interest in the terrain rolling by – admittedly, it is far less picturesque now the sun has actually risen, but compared to the UK it’s practically another planet:

Nevada

Soon we are approaching Reno – which doesn’t improve the views any. The conductor explains to those of us departing how to escape the station, as the tracks run beneath downtown in a massive trench. Any Greyhound passengers who have taken a liking to the Zephyr are reminded that even if it serves their eventual destination, they must now detrain and wait for a coach. Which should arrive in about two hours. Whilst I have far more affection for America’s trains than many Americans, all evidence suggests I should heed their disdain for long distance buses.

Reno is a brief stop: those planning and entitled to continue are advised to resist the siren call of the casinos, lest they lose both their money and their ride. Fortune, however, seems to already be smiling on me – for once, we arrive on time.

Running Totals Miles 2202 Time on trains 44h17 Delays 7h3

Reno, NV to Emeryville, CA


Scheduled: 8:36am PST Tues Jan 11th – 4:10pm PST Tues Jan 11th (7h34)
Roomette, $165

I am a little sad to be joining the Zephyr one last time, but Emeryville is now just a day’s work away, so all good things must come to an end. To get there we’ll cross the Sierra Nevada before descending into California’s central valley and across to the San Francisco bay. Thus it promises to be an impressive finale – and the inevitable is staved off by a couple of hours delay…

Emerging from the trench the initial landscape is one of roads, rubble and residences. But soon white-capped mountains claim the horizon, whilst closer to the tracks the cold makes itself known first as frozen pools, then steadily deeper snow. We make our way west across Nevada with the rails just one strand of an interwoven braid with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Highway and Truckee river; all three diving south just before the final border.

Following the river and road

When we finally cross, it’s to a California that is very unlike my previous coastal experiences, snow continuing to pile up as we climb into Tahoe National Forest. First stop of the state is Truckee – technically also our second and third stop, after some complicated railroading – and we reach the landmark of Donner Lake around midday. From there, we tunnel and wind our way through the mountainous terrain, but the experience is quite different from Colorado – now we are often on an elevated contour, rather than nestled in a canyon.

Travel through the Sierra Nevada

Lunch is on a first come, first served basis; my resolve lasts all of half an hour. The fridges on this train having failed earlier in the trip, various menu items are absent or altered. Salad is no loss, but I had hoped for one more cheesecake…

By Auburn there is not a trace of snow to be found, and instead the landscape fits my mental map of the state: orange groves, vineyards, palm and cypress trees, cacti, back garden swimming pools. Sadly, it’s not all Hollywood glam, with a seemingly endless collection of tents and ramshackle structures providing trackside shelter to a presumably huge number of otherwise homeless people.

Sacramento serves up one last fresh air break, and the realisation that we should have reached Emeryville by now. Since we haven’t, I decide it is finally time to sample the pride of the café car: the Angus cheeseburger. Like everything else, it is microwaved up to temperature, a process that does nothing for its visual appeal. But credit where it’s due: this was indeed packed with flavour, of the guilty-pleasure kind.

California has gone in for Amtrak in a big way, with the most used and highest frequency services outside of the northeastern states. So when a freighter breaks down ahead, ours is just one of a queue of trains waiting to pass it. Thus I watch most of the sunset parked somewhere near Travis AFB, but we get moving just in time for some beautiful reflections off a series of lakes:

San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

This does make the very final stretch something of an anti-climax, ticking off stations in the dark as we work around the bay. Our eventual arrival into Emeryville is at 6:25; a tight connection to a bus to Oakland allows only a hasty victory shot at the station. And, just like that, my time with the California Zephyr was up.

Running Totals Miles 2438 Time on trains 52h28 Delays 9h18

The end of the line, Emeryville