Amtrak adventure to the American West aboard the California Zephyr – Part I
By Kathy Witt
There are four things to know before boarding Amtrak’s California Zephyr for a spectacularly scenic ride into the American West: ignore the train’s timetable (and your watch and/or phone); leave your dust-and-dirt detecting white gloves at home; recognize that your 18 inches of personal space will be seriously compromised; and expect to get mooned.
The payoff? You’ll get to drink in some of the most magnificent landscapes America has to offer; meet some extraordinary world travelers – many of them die-hard trainiacs; enjoy a menu of delicious meals served on linen-draped tables; and bring home enough photos to fill several memory books, including ones featuring the, uh, “moons” rising over the Colorado River.
Departing either Chicago or Emeryville (San Francisco), the California Zephyr rolls through seven states – Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California – chugging through a tunnel that plunges everything into darkness for a full 15 minutes and crossing the Continental Divide, and is considered one of the most breathtaking routes in North America.
It offers up ever-changing tableaux, from the Nevada prairielands and the Rocky Mountains’ craggy red face, alpine lakes and waterfalls to the snow-capped peaks of Winter Park, rivers dotted with white water rafters, mountain towns straight out of the Old West, treacherous roads uncurling along sheer cliffs, like Dead Man’s Curve in Colorado, the blue waters of Donner Lake (yes, that Donner), a tidal estuary in northern California and more.
All aboard for adventure
Amtrak has several different types of sleeping accommodations, including roomettes – with or without a toilet, depending on whether it is a Viewliner or Superliner car; bedrooms with in-room toilet and shower; bedroom suites, which are two rooms combined and include toilet and shower; family bedrooms with picture window but no toilet or shower; and accessible bedrooms – again, with or without a toilet, depending on the type of car.
Rooms are compact to the extreme, the space ingeniously designed with seating that converts to beds, shelves that double as steps for climbing to the top bunk and tables that fold up and tuck into their own storage compartment. Sleeping car occupants can tune out the world by sliding their door closed and drawing its curtain while watching the scenery unfold outside large picture windows. In addition to rocking passengers to sleep as the train jostles along, sleeping cars come with several perks: breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, evening turn-down, fresh linens and towels, complimentary bottled water and access to ClubAcela and Amtrak Metropolitan lounges at select stations.
Meals are served at set (and announced) times, with reservations required for dinner. Wake up in a different state and new landmarks on the horizon, like the steep walls of Glenwood Canyon, with tasty cheese quesadillas topped with scrambled eggs and covered in tomatillo sauce and served with salsa and a croissant. Munch a grilled angus beef burger on a buttery brioche bun and tricked out with lettuce, tomato and red onion while passing the Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-topped mountain, and Colorado’s Palisades wine country. Relax over garden salad, grilled steak and baked potato as the sun sets on the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
Train devotees especially know that much of the fun and adventure of riding the rails is simply losing track of time, pun intended, and reveling in a chance to be in the moment – swapping train and other travel tales with new friends; exploring Denver’s stunning and bustling Union Station during the 30-minute stop – just enough time to select a good read from the delightful Tattered Cover Book Store; or spotting bald eagles, mule deer and other wildlife in the picture-perfect setting of layered mountains beneath a blue sky stretching to forever and stepping down to a river splashing heartily over boulders.