Review of California Zephyr
Emerson said, “life is a journey, not a destination.” When I heard about cross-country train trips, I knew I had to go. My dad, mom, sister and I spent three vacation days taking an Amtrak train across the US (well, almost).
It began by telling my dad plans to take a solo train trip from Pittsburgh to San Francisco on the California Zephyr and evolved into a week-long family ski trip (don’t ask me how – it escalated very quickly and included an atlas). Rather than ride the track the entire way to San Francisco, we decided to hop off in Utah to ski. I wanted to experience the magic of train travel; my family was mostly interested in the travel after the train.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr officially runs from Chicago to San Francisco. A one-way coach ticket will cost you about $200, while a ticket for a sleeper car costs double that, though does have meals included. Amtrak’s website can be tricky to navigate – you don’t buy a “Zephyr ticket”, but simply input your departure and arrival stations (train speak!) and it’ll calculate the cost.
We found it was only $10 more to include the leg from Pittsburgh to Chicago so we purchased Amtrak tickets from Pittsburgh, PA to Provo, Utah. We opted to get off at Provo for two reasons: it has fantastic skiing and it let us ride through the majority of the Rockies (thanks, atlas).
Our 2,000 mile trip included a daunting 43 hours of train travel from start to finish (9 hours from Pitt to Chicago, with a 5 hour layover, then 34 continuous hours from Chicago to Provo). When my mom convinced my sister to come with us, she mistakenly told her the trip was 28 hours. It wasn’t until day two that she found out it was much longer. Needless to say, she was not happy.
We arrived at the Pittsburgh Amtrak station two hours before our train departed since Father Bill likes to be early. I was unprepared for how casual the boarding process was. You wait in an indoor boarding area (similar to an airport gate), then a few minutes before you’re ready to board, you take your bags and walk onto the train platform. Someone scanned our tickets, assigned us four seats, we walked what felt like 5 blocks to a passenger car and were off. Simple as that.
Amtrak wasn’t strict on their carry-on or luggage policy. We had two large suitcases and each had two carry-ons. Again, super casual – you carry on your luggage, stow on the bottom car, then find your seat on the upper level.
We left Pittsburgh at midnight and arrived at Chicago a little after 9:45am. This was poor planning on our part (though the cheapest option) since this meant we essentially slept on the train and didn’t get to do/see anything until we arrived in the Windy City the following morning. Sleeping on a train isn’t bad, but it’s not good. The chairs recline 45 degrees and have two foot rests (the bottom of your seat extends and the other is a bar that pulls down from the chair in front of you). Still, not ideal and my sister and I traded taking shots of Zzzquil to help us sleep. But for $10, it beat having to fly to Chicago. We brought pillows and “train blankets” and settled in for the ride.
I’d been to Chicago years ago and was excited to show my family the city. We only had a 5 hour layover but took advantage of the time. We checked our bags at the station ($18 for 24 hours) then walked from Union Station to Millennium Park to see the iconic Bean. It was freezing out (9 degrees!), but the 1 mile walk was refreshing. Afterwards, we enjoyed deep dish pizza before walking to the oldest library in the city. We explored the historic building, shopped a bit, then Uber’d back to the station.
We barely made it back in time since we got our track number wrong (Track #5, not Train #5!), but thanks to Amtrak’s lax boarding policies, we ran up to the platform, had our tickets scanned, boarded and 10 minutes later, we were on our way out West. Close one. Father Bill was sweating.
The first 20 hours of the second leg weren’t exciting. We headed from Chicago into Iowa, through Nevada and towards Denver. The land we could see for 3 hours until the sunset was flat and uninteresting. After that, it was darkness and a restless night’s sleep until we got to Denver.
The train arrived at the Denver station a little before 8am. My sister and I woke up from our Zzzquil-induced stupor to the train loudspeaker announcing this was a ‘fresh air’ stop. We immediately started mapping a route to the nearest Starbucks.
We arrived in Denver, bounded off the train, asked a man for directions as we jogged out of the station (“You can trust him because he’s wearing Patagonia,” asserted my sister) and found a Starbucks three blocks away. My mother did not support our coffee dreams and said if the train left, we were on our own. We made it back with a few minutes to spare and didn’t even show tickets as we walked around the corner of the train station building and back onto the train. Nothing stands in our way when coffee’s on the line.
Our hop-off, hop-on stunt made me feel a bit like a hobo, but like Michael Bluth says, you’ve got to watch for hop-ons… cause you’ll get hop-ons.
After Denver, the scenery started to get interesting. We immediately began our ascent through the Rockies, going through what someone said were 26 little tunnels as the train slowly increased its altitude. We spotted a large herd of elk in the hills beyond Denver and were enthralled with the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. I don’t know if it was the flatness we endured in Iowa, but I was loving the views. They were incredible. This is the reason you take a cross-country train trip.
My dad and I spent a few hours in the sightseeing car and took in the endless snow-covered mountains. Anna and my mom soon joined. We’d point out mule deer or coyotes as our eyes scanned the breath-taking landscape. At one point, my father turned to me and said, “Thank you for taking me on this trip. It’s incredible.” Those are powerful words coming from an engineer. When trying to get my sister to appreciate the same views, she said “Jayna, I have been looking at the same rocks for the past five hours. I don’t want to look.”
The sun set behind the red hills of Colorado and it was amazing having nothing but mountains surrounding you for miles.
It was close to 11pm when our train halted to a quick stop in Provo, Utah. We said goodbye to our metallic home for the past two and a half days and hailed an Uber. We couldn’t get to our horizontal hotel beds fast enough, no Zzzquil needed.
Having read a few articles beforehand, we went in with the assumption that train food was unappetizing and expensive, so we packed snacks for our journey. My thoughtful mother brought chocolate (of course), granola bars, nuts, PB&J sandwiches, water and lots of fruit. We had enough food to last us during our two days on the train, but did break down and bought hot dogs ($5) the last little part of the the trip.
- Two outlets at each seat
- Reclining chairs with plenty of leg room
- Sightseeing car, dining car, sleeper cars and coach seating for the paupers
- Four bathrooms per coach car
- No showers, no wifi, intermittent cell service
Not a luxury ride (we didn’t spring for the sleeper cars), but a lot better than expected. We passed the time talking, sleeping, reading, walking through the sliding train cars and taking in the landscape.
If you’re considering taking an extended Amtrak trip, DO IT. It’s an experience. It’s slow, it’s soothing and it’s unlike any other form of “modern” travel. You’ll adopt a new standard of hygiene (we wore the same clothes for three days) but you’ll get to see the heartland of America.
My friend sent me this horrifying article detailing the perils of Amtak travel the day before we left (thanks, Mel), but we found it to be an overall great experience. Bathrooms weren’t horrible, the ride was relatively smooth and the train people (conductors?) were friendly.
9 out of 10 we’d do it again.
The Final Leg
After saying goodbye to the train, my dad, sister and I skied at Robert Redford’s getaway, Sundance Mountain Resort, and enjoyed the steep hills and notoriously fresh powder of western US skiing. My sister rated it one of the best days of her life.
From there, we drove to Salt Lake City, flew to Denver, rented a car and drove 2 hours to Vail, CO. We stayed at an Air BnB, then skied the following day in Vail (conditions were a little worse than Sundance and the mountain drive treacherous), but when you come that close to Vail, you ski Vail.
Our trip ended in an uneventful drive back to Denver and evening flight to Pittsburgh. My sister expressed her gratitude (multiple times) that we were not taking the train back and I’ll admit it was nice to cover 1,500 miles in 3 hours instead of 40.
Overall, it was an action-packed family vacation. We got to travel through small towns, sweeping mountains and secluded forests. Moral of the story is that if you’re considering taking a cross-country train trip of any length on an Amtrak, GO! One thing that’s certain is you’ll have an adventure.