California Zephyr: Amtrak's Finest RouteAug 1, 2001 Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line The California Zephyr is a SPECTACULAR train trip. Everyone should ride it, at least once.
If you can only take one long distance train trip, this THE one to take. You will not regret it since the scenery is fabulous. The California Zephyr travels from Chicago to San Francisco via the heart of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains. The train does not actually enter San Francisco. The station is in Emeryville, CA. However, there is a bus that transports passengers to several points in San Francisco. We were lucky enough to be able to take this train from Chicago to Grand Junction, Colorado.
The California Zephyr currently runs seven days a week. Each day one train departs from Chicago while another train departs from Emeryville every evening. For the remainder of this epinion, I am going to describe the route starting at Chicago and ending at Emeryville. Our train left Union Station in downtown Chicago at approximately 3 p.m. We had a room in the sleeping car (which I HIGHLY recommend) so we spent the first 20 minutes or so getting adjusted to our room. By this time, we had exited the underground area of the station and was able to see some breathtaking views of the Chicago skyline. Within about 30 minutes the train bustled past some of the most boring farmlands in Northern Illinois. The one thing I did note was how extremely dark the rich soil was in this area. While we were eating our dinner, the train crossed the Mississippi River, heading into Iowa. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at the "Mighty Mississip' ".
Iowa & Nebraska
Iowa looked just like Illinois and was just as boring. So, we just decided to read until it was time to watch the evening's movie. I don't remember which movie we watched. However, it was one that had recently been released onto tape. I thought that it was a great one for a general audience. Just before I fell asleep at around midnight, we into Omaha, Nebraska. I was grateful that we were able to sleep through the endless plains. When I awoke at about 6 a.m., I was surprised to discover that we were still in Nebraska.
Eastern Colorado (Colorado Plains). While we were eating breakfast, one of the servers announced to us that we had just crossed into both Colorado and into Mountain Standard Time. So, we set our watches back one hour. At this point everyone seemed to be at a point of nervous anticipation, just like children are on Christmas Eve. We knew that BEAUTIFUL SCENERY was ahead and we couldn't wait to get there.
Denver. From approximately 8 a.m. until 9:30 a.m., all passengers were asked to deboard the train while it was cleaned. We were instructed to stay in the station just in case the train was to depart early. However, my children really wanted to see the U.S. Mint. So, we took a cab to the Mint, let the children get out and touch the Mint, and then went back to the station. I do NOT recommend doing this, though.
As soon as they let you back onto the train, head IMMEDIATELY for the dome car. If you either go back to your seat, to your room, or to the restroom for even a minute, you will NOT be able to get a seat in the prized dome car. The dome has HUGE windows on it that almost completely cover the sides and top of the car allowing passengers to more readily view the exquisite scenery. The best views as the train ascends the mountains can be seen from the LEFT side of this car. As the train rises into the mountains, you will get a MAGNIFICENT view of both Denver and the plains, providing a sharp contrast to the majestic mountains.
Ascending into the Rocky Mountains. Within about two hours, the train will cross the continental divide via the Moffett Tunnel. This tunnel is nine miles long. As the train enters the tunnel, you will be cautioned not to exit the car you are in. Head this warning otherwise other passengers will clobber you. They will do this because while the train is in a tunnel, the exhaust fumes do not dissipate into the air. So when the doors between the cars are opened, carbon monoxide will enter the cars. One lady was bound and determined to go into the next car. She held the door open while a bunch of passengers told her to shut the door and stay in the car. She just stood there with the door open. So, a few of the passengers panicked, grabbed her, and threw her away from the door before she knew what hit.
At this point, no matter how warn it was in Denver, it will probably be quite chilly up here. There was a brief stop in Granby, Colorado. The conductors let us get off of the train for a few minutes. I can remember having fun throwing snowballs. It was great. The scenery in this area is a combination of snow and greenery. However, the train will start following the Green River into the canyons of Western Colorado.
As we traveled through this extremely rural area, I was in absolute awe. The train was going through areas where no car or other vehicle ever could. We were able to see the mountains from a perspective that one just does not get from a car. The remoteness of the area really fascinated me. Whenever we saw a very remote cabin, I wondered about the people who may have lived there. I wondered, "How is their life different from mine?" I also wondered, "How do they survive?" Having grown up with niceties like electricity and running water, I find it difficult to comprehend how I could live without these.
Glenwood Springs. The train stopped briefly in Glenwood Springs Colorado. Someday I will have to go back there for a visit. Glenwood Springs is noted for its natural hot springs. There is a two-block long pool that is warmed by the hot springs. This pool is visible from the train. Since the water is so warm, people swim in it year round. You have NOT lived until you have swam in a hot springs pool in the winter! It is GREAT! I will have to try this pool someday.
As the train travels through the canyons in this area, you will know why they put windows in the TOP of the dome car. The reason is that you will have to look up through the glass ceiling to see the tops of the canyon walls. The canyon walls on the side seem so close that I thought that if I could open a window, I could touch the rocks! The colors in this area are golden yellow and red. I am not joking when I say red. The rocks are RED. The greenery has been left behind miles ago. There was one point where we saw a car that was stuck half way down the cliff. I really wondered if there was someone in that car who needed help. When I brought this to the attention of one of the train crew, I was told, that the car had been there for over 10 years. So, don't freak if you see that car. When I saw that car, I thought about medical care in remote areas. The next doctor may be 100 miles away. Also, rescuing people from the side of a cliff is much different from having an ambulance pull up to one's home to get them.
As the train nears Grand Junction, the train exits the canyons, you know that you are in the desert. However, mountains can be seen in the distance. The two predominant mountains are the Grand Mesa and the Book Cliff Mountains. We decided to end our train trip in Grand Junction. I would have LOVED to travel on to Emeryville; however, we did not have the time.
The Remaining Portion of the California Zephyr Route
I am going to only briefly discuss the rest of this route because we did not venture any further than Grand Junction. By midnight the train was due to reach Salt Lake City. During the late nighttime hours, the train was to traverse the very boring Salt Lake Basin and the deserts of Nevada. This route, unlike other Amtrak routes, was designed so that the most scenic areas are transversed during daylight hours.
The second morning of the route, the train stops at Reno then follows the Donner Pass. This is where the infamous Donner party was stranded one winter and resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. By evening the train was to end in Emeryville, just outside of San Francisco. Passengers are then shuttled by busses to various points in San Francisco, in time to eat dinner at their favorite Chinese Restaurant.
Frequency of Train This train departs daily from both Chicago and Emeryville. Even though it departs daily, I'd STRONGLY suggest making your reservations well in advance. One of the Amtrak crew members told me that this train is typically filled to capacity. If you would like a room in the sleeper car, I'd recommend reserving that room several months in advance since these rooms fill up quickly.
I can't speak for all runs of the train; just the ones I have been on. The trains I have been on were very long. I counted 14 passenger cars on the last train I took through this area. This train was a double decker one. Of these 14 cars, two were sleeper cars, two were café/observation cars, one was a diner, and the rest were coaches.
The sleeper cars each have one large family bedroom (sleeps 2 adults and 2-3 children), about 14 standard bedrooms (sleeps 2 people), 4 deluxe bedrooms (sleeps 2 people), and one bedroom for persons with disabilities. There were 2 or 3 bathrooms on the lower level in addition to a shower room. Boy, was that shower NICE.
The café/observation cars had a café on the lower level and an observation area on the upper level. The observation area had numerous comfortable, wide seats scattered throughout the car. Windows extended up the side of the car and into the room. The dining car had a nice restaurant on the upper level and the kitchen was on the lower level. I was always impressed with the quality of the food in the dining car and wonder how on earth they can make so much food in such cramped quarters. In contrast, I never cared for the food in the café car. The sandwiches are kept in plastic containers until ready to be microwaved. To me, they tasted like radiated plastic. However, except for drinks, I just tried to avoid this car.
The coach cars were the place where most people called "home" during this trip. Each coach car had two bathrooms. However, there was no shower and coach passengers are not allowed into the sleeper cars. If at all possible, get a room in the sleeper car rather than coach.
I have found the crew on this route to be very friendly and helpful. However, most of the time, the crews (except the engineer) work six days in a row. They will do an entire round trip in a six day period. They exist on very little sleep. For example, one crew member is assigned to working in each of the café cars. So, the entire time the café car is open (about 18 hours), that crew member is working. As you can guess, the crew looks a little rugged as the end of their shift approaches. Naturally, one cannot expect them to be a jovial at their six day slave stunt as at the beginning. I don't know if this is true all of the time, but it seemed like their six day work period began and ended in Chicago.
NIGHTLIFE ON THE TRAIN
There is no nightlife on the train. The cafe car (which serves drinks) closes before midnight. If you are a night owl, you will be bored to death at night. EVERYTHING closes early so you are stuck either in your seat or in your sleeping compartment from about 11 or 12 p.m. on. So, bring a book if you plan to stay up late.
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