USA: On board the California Zephyr

USA: On board the California Zephyr
Photo Credit: Amtrak California Zephyr

One of the most iconic train journeys from Denver in Colorado to Emeryville in California

Gitanjali Prasad
January 28 , 2016
09 Min Read

We hail a cab to take us to the Union Station on a bright, sunny morning in Denver. We are to board the California Zephyr for one of the most iconic train journeys anywhere in the world. It will take us from Denver in Colorado to Emeryville in California, a 3,924km journey past the Rocky and the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges; the Gore, Byers and Glenwood canyons; the Winter Park resort; the Truckee river and the Donner lake; and the heritage town of Martinez (which claims to be the birthplace of the martini).

The century-old Union Station was recently refurbished into an elegant and passenger-friendly facility. We reach there to find that the train is an hour late. But the cheerful attendant who checks-in our large bags assures us that we will be in Emeryville on time. There are online reviews of the train that men­tion substantial delays, so we are a little concerned by this development, but as it happens we arrive at Emeryville a whole half hour ahead of schedule.

To begin at the beginning, the train rolls in, the longest double-decker train one can hope to see, and every passenger queues up in an orderly fashion to board. It’s fascinating to observe the diversity of our fellow passengers. I am particu­larly intrigued by a girl with rainbow-coloured hair, holding a guitar in her hand (later, we have a most interest­ing conversation with her). As we have booked a roomette, an attendant escorts us to a tiny compartment with two seats that convert into beds for the night. There are large picture windows, and just enough space for small bags, bottles of water, some reading material and so on. To put it in perspective: it’s far more comfortable than a first class airline seat.


An attendant makes up our beds when required, and meals are served in the dining room with a small but interesting menu that includes six entrées, steaks, chicken dishes, seafood, vegetarian pas­tas, fresh salads and rolls, alongside low-calorie options. The cheesecake, one of the dessert options, is particularly good. Breakfasts are hearty and comparable to what’s served in hotels: juice, cereal, eggs, sausages and bacon, corn grits, pancakes and so forth. The dining car takes reserva­tions for all meals but breakfast.

Four people are expected to sit at every table, which means that you get to talk to other people at every meal. Since complimentary meals are only served to those who have booked roomettes or bedrooms, other passengers can either buy meals or use the cafeteria for a range of beverages and fast foods that include burgers and pizzas.

Though, of course, the reason to board the California Zephyr is what lies outside the train, rather than anything inside!


From Denver, for the first 300 kilometres, the train travels along the Colorado river with the majestic Rockies in the background. This year, apparently, there’s unprecedented activ­ity on the water, a result of better than usual rainfall followed by warmer than normal temperatures in the summer—so there are sports enthusiasts of all ages swimming, kayaking, boating and fishing. There are also plenty of young people who think it’s worth their while to ‘moon the passengers’ as the train chugs past. This is greeted with much good humour and lots of photography among the passengers.

This is also the Wild West. It’s here that the immortal outlaws Butch Cassidy (Robert Leroy Parker) and the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh) committed several train robberies. We get a sense of small town America as the train heads for the Continental Divide, which sepa­rates the water that runs into the Pacific Ocean from the water that goes to the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico. There are large expanses of land, small houses, cars and caravans, and horses and cows. It looks a lot like a scene from a Western! However, to en­sure that the almost bucolic charm of the landscape does not become boring, every so often it turns pitch dark as the Zephyr enters a tunnel. There are 31 tunnels be­tween Denver and Winter Park, and they add undeniable drama to the experience of the journey.

After the train passes Fernley, which has the distinction of being the distri­bution headquarters of (which occupies a staggering 750,000 square feet), we are moving away from the open spaces of the west and ap­proaching Reno, Nevada. Better known for its casinos and liberal divorce laws today, Reno started out as a small town where gold was mined, and then silver was discovered here in 1859. But per­haps, it should be best known today as the town where rivets for jeans were invented by a tailor called Jacob Davis, who had the foresight to apply for a patent before he contacted Levi Strauss. The rest, as they say, is history.

A companion for much of the train ride is the Truckee river, on which rainbow and brook trout, and German browns, are reported to travel up and down by means of a fish ladder (a series of step-like pools built to enable migra­tion). The Truckee, it turns out, has absolutely nothing to do with trucks, but is instead named after the Paiute Indian chief Trukizo, who apparently shouted the Paiute word ‘trokay’ in greeting to the white man when he first came here. Actually, it’s this juxtaposition of con­temporary America with the America of myth and legend that makes this journey such a richly fulfilling experience.

To fully round off the experience, there are the conversations with an incredible medley of people. The girl with the rainbow-coloured hair turned out to be a highly intelligent individual who had turned her back on a Mormon upbringing to become a musician, and with her boyfriend is part of a band that’s com­mitted to world peace. The hair was meant to distract from her beauty so that the focus would be on her message! Then, there was an African American working for the Amtrak train company whose compelling joie de vivre made every moment we shared with him a delight. And to offset him, a Vietnam war veteran who felt he had been used and abused by the state, and a highly-placed woman engineer who was uncharacteristi­cally and deeply into spirituality. There were also the atten­dants with their irreverent declarations (so different from the prosaic announcements one normally hears), urging us not to stray too far from the train at a stop because, if you cannot make it back in time: “I won’t feel bad as we steam off, leaving you behind, I won’t feel bad,” as one of them explained gener­ously, “because I did warn you!” This warning did not stop us, or many other passengers, from disembarking to buy messily juicy Palisade peaches.

Online reviews are mixed on the quality of food and service aboard the California Zephyr, but we were well pleased with both. Actually, what’s most interesting about this journey was that we got to see a slice of American life that we would never have otherwise, both by way of scenery (many places we went by had no roads) and in interactions with ordinary Americans. With the US elections not too far away, passion­ately held views were aired. Independent US Senator Bernie Sanders had the most vocal support amongst those we spoke to, while Hillary Clinton had the least, followed closely by the inimitable Donald Trump. Though it’s highly likely that the elections will show our train companions were way off the mark, it was such a privilege to hear views that we would probably never have heard elsewhere.

On your next trip to the United States, take a ride on the California Zephyr. The entire journey from Chicago to Emeryville is a formidable 51 hours and 20 min­utes, with two nights on board the train, but as the scenery becomes interesting only after Denver, you can cut the journey to a far more comfortable 33 hours with one night and almost two days on the train that’s named for a gentle wind from the west. Whatever distance you choose to travel on it though, you will have the time of your life.


The information

Getting there
There are several hopping flights from India to Denver. Round-trip economy class tickets ex-Delhi cost about â?¹55,000.

The train
Rates for the journey on California Zephyr are higher in summer. However, if you have flexible travel dates, you may land a very good deal. The Amtrak website ( california-zephyr-train) is very user friendly and gives precise and detailed information on the costs and facilities available with every class of travel.

Sleeper accommodation includes bedrooms and roomettes, both with complimentary meals, linen and toiletries for the duration of the journey. They also offer lounge facilities at selected stations. Bedrooms have attached bathrooms, with a very small toilet and shower. There are three toilets and one fairly reasonably-sized shower to service a very small number of roomettes. We never had to wait to use either and both were always spotlessly clean, so I would recommend the roomette (from $350 for the summer of 2016). However, do book early as roomettes and bedrooms are sold out very fast. Some people actually book a year in advance.

Apply online via process can take up to three weeks and costs $160 (about â?¹10,800).

1 USD = â?¹66 (approx)

Where to stay
Denver has a range of hotels across budgets. If you’re taking a sightseeing tour, pick a hotel with a pick-up and drop facility. If you wish to take the California Zephyr, then proximity to the Union Station is helpful, as the train leaves Denver at 8am. We stayed at the Denver Marriott City Center(from $180; because it met both criteria. Another option is the Hotel Monaco Denver (from $150; monaco-denver. com), less than a kilometre from the station.

Top tip
Check in your baggage at the station; even a large overnight bag may be placed in the luggage hold. Carry no more than a backpack on you as there’s very little space on the train.


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