From Chicago to San Francisco with the California Zephyr

Crossing the American continent by train, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, is a fantastic experience that I completed in October 2022.

In this article, I recount the second part of my trip, from Chicago to San Francisco, with the California Zephyr.

Crossing the United States by train: a childhood dream

Going from the Atlantic to the Pacific by train: a childhood dream that I was finally able to realize in 2022! I’d heard that the landscapes crossed by train are extraordinary and that the service provided by Amtrak, the American rail company, was top-notch.

I’ve been to the U.S. many times, but like almost everyone else, I’ve traveled around the country either by car on the boring “interstates” or by plane, which is efficient but not necessarily fun. So I wanted to experience train travel for myself!

My journey took me from Washington DC to San Francisco via Chicago. It was an extraordinary train journey, which I describe in two articles:

Chicago being a must-see, I’ve written an article to give you some pointers for visiting Chicago in a few hours or two or three days.

Practical tips for organizing your train journey are listed at the end of this article.

This transcontinental trip was sponsored! Not by Amtrak, but by my family and friends, who offered me this trip for my change of decade. Thanks to all of them.

Crossing the United States gave me a much better idea of its vastness than I’d ever had by plane.

All texts in color coral indicate an internal or external link.

The California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco

After a three-day stopover in Chicago, I return to Union Station to catch the California Zephyr. I chose it because it runs on the most spectacular train line in the United States. So I’m off to conquer the West in the footsteps of Lucky Luke!

I will cover 3924 km to the Pacific coast at an average speed of 75 km / h. A journey that ranks the California Zephyr among the world’s longest rail distances.

California Zephyr schedule
California Zephyr route map

Union station in Chicago

I take a little time to explore Union Station, but except for the vast central hall, the station is largely underground and not very attractive. Curiously, the station is not connected to any metro station.. The nearest is 400 m away via a bridge over the Chicago River.

Union Station is Amtrak’s major hub. Chicago is the only city in the USA with direct connections to the whole country, except to Florida, where you have to change trains in Washington DC.

The Empire Builder to Seattle, the Lake Shore Limited to New York and Boston, or the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles are just some of the prestigious trains departing from Chicago.

Chicago station timetable display

Being a little early, I take a rest in Amtrak’s First Class passenger lounge, accessible to sleeper ticket holders. It’s large and comfortable, with a very American decor. However, there’s no buffet like in airline VIP lounges. Only soft drinks, coffee, and tea are available free of charge.

Chicago Union Station
Amtrak VIP lounge in Chicago
Chicago Union Station

The California Zephyra dream train

What a lovely name Zephyr, meaning a gentle, pleasant wind! It’s a great promise for this trip.

This train is truly mythical. In the ’50s, it offered luxury rail service with the famous vista-domes still found on Canadian transcontinental trains. Looking at the sales brochure of the time is a dream come true.

Pub California Zephyr 1950

Today, this luxury train belongs to the past. But the route it took remains extraordinary, making the California Zephyr an exceptional train, even if it’s the same Superliner I rode from Washington DC to Chicago.

Inherited from the vista-domes, we’ll find an additional panoramic coffee car. It is remarkable for its windows that rise to the roof. It will be very busy as we cross the Rocky Mountains to appreciate the spectacular scenery.

I settle into a roomette very similar to the one in the first section, which I described in detail in my article on the Capitol Limited. But this time the journey will take two days and four hours!

Perfect if you’re traveling alone, but for two, a Bedroom is preferable.I explain why in my article on Capitol Limited.

If you are not very concerned about your comfort or have limited means, you can try the adventure in the coach class!

To Denver across the plains of the Midwest

At 2.00 pm, we left Chicago in the pouring rain to cross the states of Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. We’re in conservative agricultural America. The one that voted for Donald Trump!

I was a little apprehensive about this part of the trip, telling myself that the journey across the vast plains of the Midwest would be monotonous. In fact, I never saw the time go by. That’s the advantage of novelty: you’re more attentive and observant.

Rain on departure Chicago
MidWest
MidWest
MidWest

Discover the panoramic car

I take advantage of this first afternoon of the trip to wander around the train.

The panorama car is located after the dining car and is accessible to all train passengers on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s the successor to the cars of yesteryear and their vistadomes. The windows are large and rise to the ceiling, giving a very wide view of the landscapes we pass through.

The panorama car is only available on Pacific-bound trains.

It’s also a place to socialize and meet fellow travelers.

After the panoramic car come the coach cars which I describe in detail in the first article devoted to the Capitol Limited.

Panoramic car

Fresh air stops

During the journey, we are informed by announcements of “fresh air stops”, which are slightly longer stops where we can stretch our legs for a few minutes on the platform.

These are pleasant moments when we feel the atmosphere of the town or village we’ve passed through. The most amazing thing was to feel the outside temperature, which varied a lot along the way.

Fresh air stop

Just before sunset, in Burlington, we pass over the Mississippi, which, although still a long way from its mouth in Louisiana, is already impressively wide.

Mississippi to Burlington
Sunset in the MidWest

It’s time for the famous diner !

Amtrak is renowned for the quality of its catering. All meals are included in the ticket.

From Chicago to San Francisco, the dining car is reserved for sleeper passengers.

In the evening we enjoy a three-course dinner served on a white tablecloth. Two seatings are scheduled at 5:30 PM and 7:00 PM.

3-course Amtrak menu

So it’s with great pleasure that I rush off to my first real Amtrak dinner. As I’m traveling alone, I’m asked if I’d like to share my table with someone else. It’s strange to be face-to-face with a stranger, but the easy-going nature of the Americans meant I really enjoyed the experience. My first-night guest is a former engineer who once worked for Cunard, the company that still operates transatlantic liners.

I choose coconut-breaded shrimp followed by salmon, all washed down with a Cabernet Sauvignon.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed, but my expectations must have been too high. Although we dined on cloth tablecloths, the service was rather rushed and the car was a bit of a mess, with piles of disposable crockery.

The food itself is decent, but not exceptional. For example, my salmon was overcooked and tasteless, and the dessert was too rich and creamy. But the expectations of Americans are not the same as those of the Frenchman that I am! My guests seemed very satisfied. The wine, on the other hand, was good!

Breakfast and lunch are simpler but hearty. It is therefore not necessary to bring in any provisions. With what Amtrak is serving us, I wasn’t hungry!

One last detail: I was quite shocked by the amount of disposable crockery used throughout the trip. Sustainable development considerations obviously don’t have the same importance as in Europe.

Breaded shrimps
Dessert
Salmon
Mess in the restaurant car

Our train is two hours late!

The next morning we arrive in Denver at 9.15 am instead of 7.15 am. We’re two hours late, which is very common for transcontinental trains.

In fact, the networks west of Chicago are owned by freight railways that give their trains priority over Amtrak’s, in defiance of a law that gives passenger trains priority.

Freight trains

By June 2022, only 12% of California Zephyr trains were on time! For this reason, Amtrak has launched a campaign to inform its customers so that they too can put pressure on their representatives in Congress. A very American approach.

We passed a few freight trains, and their length is impressive – up to two or three kilometers! For this reason, their speed is even slower than Amtrak’s, and since for much of the journey we’re on a single track, it’s easy to understand why there are delays.

Arrival in Denver, the Mile-high city

Denver is the first major city we reach. It still feels like we’re on the plains, but overnight we’ve already climbed to 1,609 m above sea level, hence the city’s nickname: Mile-high city.

Because of the altitude, the landscape has become more austere. The forests of the Midwest have been replaced by a horizon somewhat reminiscent of tundra or Asian steppes, and in the distance, I can make out the Rocky Mountains.

Arrival in Denver
The Rockies in the distance

The stop in Denver, at nearly an hour, is the longest on the line.

Firstly, because the train is turned around, as the station is in a cul-de-sac. It’s a time-consuming maneuver.

Several maintenance operations are then carried out during the shutdown. The windows are all washed! The cleanliness of the windows is something the SNCF, the French railways company, should emulate on many of its older trains, such as intercities.

I take this opportunity to explore the station, also called Union. It has been converted into a hotel while retaining the setting of its former salle des pas perdus. It’s a great success, and unlike other stations in the east of the country, the platforms are modern and airy.

Denver could be an opportunity for a few days off. Not to visit the city, which is of limited interest, but the nearby mountains. In this case, you’ll need to hire a car.

Denver hall Union Station
Boarding in Denver

A slow crossing of the Rocky Mountains

We set off again at 10 a.m. to conquer the Rockies. Many people rush into the panoramic coffee car to make sure they don’t miss out on the show! Places are at a premium and it’s best to be among the first. Throughout the journey, the ticket inspector will inform us about the sights on the line.

We climb slowly up the mountain via the big 10 curve. The name comes from the radius of the curve, which is only 10° to make a turn of more than 180°. At least that’s my understanding. If you have another explanation, let me know in the comments! The result is a very wide and spectacular bend in the mountainside.

The big 10 curve
The big 10 curve

The initially arid landscapes are gradually becoming wooded with pine forests. Tunnels and bends follow one another in an increasingly mountainous environment.

To the Rockies

Climbing in the Rockies

Rocky Mountains

At the end of the train, I discover one of my favorite parts of the California Zephyr: the back of the last car, with a glass door that lets you watch the railroad tracks go by while you daydream.

Tunnel

We then pass Gross reservoir, an artificial lake with a dam, which plays an important role in supplying the Denver metropolitan area with drinking water.

Gross Reservoir
Gross Reservoir

The Moffat Tunnel and the Colorado River

Then we arrive at the Moffat tunnel, 10 km long. At an altitude of 2816 m, it is the highest in North America and the highest point on our route. We climbed 1200 m from Denver. The tunnel lies on the continental divide between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific.

As we emerged from the tunnel, we were totally surprised to discover a snow-covered winter landscape! We catch a brief glimpse of a ski resort before stopping at Fraser. An impromptu snowball fight ensues between the travelers, all excited by the sight of the first snow of the season!

Fraser
Fraser
Author at Fraser
Fraser station

We resume our journey along the Fraser River just before lunch. I choose a good American burger with a Coke and a creamy cake. Not dietetic but pretty good!

Lunch on board Amtrak

We then enter a canyon we’ll be following for a long time: the Colorado River, which runs all the way to the Grand Canyon. Simply magnificent.

The impression of isolation is total, as most of the time we pass through roadless landscapes. And because our track is unique, the railroad track is barely visible.

In summer, we would have seen rafters and hikers. When they see the train coming, the custom is… to show their buttocks: mooning! Unfortunately, I didn’t see any mooning in October. The summer tourists had all left.

Colorado
Restaurant car
Colorado
Colorado
Colorado
Landscape seen from the train
Train along the Colorado River
Colorado
Village in the Rockies
Herding in the Rockies
Gypsum

The powerful locomotives of the California Zephyr

At the Gleenwood Springs stop I take the opportunity to admire the two huge diesel locomotives towing us from Chicago. They’re monsters! I can’t imagine the fuel consumption and CO2 emissions on our journey. Trains in the USA are not as environmentally friendly as in Europe, where the network is much more electrified.

Our journey is punctuated by the incessant sirens of the locomotives signaling our passage.

Locomotive P42
Locomotive P42

Utah and its desert landscapes

Before reaching Grand Junction, the landscape widens. Rocky cliffs, the Book Cliffs, rise at the end of vast plains, increasingly deserted. At this time of year, the landscape is austere and harsh. Since we’re so far behind schedule, we can’t see much of Utah’s landscape.

We’re heading towards Salt Lake City, home of the Mormons, where we’ll arrive late in the evening after I’ve gone to bed.

Surroundings of Grand Junction
Utah
environments around Grand Junction
Utah

The Sierra Nevada

After a second good night’s sleep, we wake up in Nevada feeling like we’re in the middle of a western movie. All that’s missing are cowboys and Indians.

Sunrise over Nevada

After Reno, we climb back up into the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Donner Pass at 2151 m. Just ahead of us, we stop in Truckee, a pretty California town that looks quite cheerful after crossing the Rockies.

We then drive along Donner Lake, one of the highlights of our trip.

Verdi Nevada
Sierra Nevada
Truckee
Sierra Nevada
Donner Lake

California at high speed

Sacramento, the capital of California, is our last major station. We’re now out on the plains, and the train picks up speed as if in a hurry to arrive, with San Francisco Bay heralding the end of our journey.

Curiously, we’ve made up a good part of our delay, which is now only 30 minutes, whereas the previous evening we were more than two hours behind.

The sight of boats in the bay heralds our approach to the Pacific!

California
San Francisco Bay

Emeryville is our almost final destination!

The California Zephyr’s final destination is not San Francisco, but Emeryville! A city in the Oakland suburbs on the other side of the bay.

Looking at a map, it’s easy to see why, as San Francisco is a peninsula surrounded by the famous bay.

Specially chartered Amtrak buses take us over the magnificent Bay Bridge to San Francisco in just half an hour.

From Emeryville to San Francisco

Emeryville
Bus to San Francisco
Oakland Bay Bridge

Encounters on board Amtrak trains

Traveling on Amtrak trains is a great way to meet people. This is one of the benefits of this type of travel that has been lost in air travel, with passengers now riveted to their entertainment screens and completely unaware of their fellow passengers.

Who are the travelers on the California Zephyr?

Meeting and chatting with passengers on American trains is easy.

The best moments are during meals or afternoons in the panoramic car. I met a waitress from Pittsburgh who was taking the train for the first time to visit her daughter in Grand Junction, and a technology professor who had traveled from San Francisco to Boston and back for a conference.

In October, foreign tourists are rare. All I saw was an Englishwoman traveling with her teenage son.

In sleeping cars, the average age is rather high, which is not surprising given the high prices and slow journey times.

The young people are mostly in coach. I also saw several Amish, a religious community that seeks a simple, rural life away from progress. They’re easily recognizable by their 19th-century look. Thanks to a high birth rate, the community is growing fast and will number almost 370,000 by 2022. I didn’t dare approach them, but if you’re less shy than I am, please do, as I think they’re very sociable.

Most travelers only make part of the journey. Few people go from Chicago to San Francisco, and even fewer from the Atlantic coast. The purpose of the trip for many of them seems to be family visits, and the common trait of all travelers is to have time on their hands. Students and retirees are therefore over-represented. No stressed-out businessmen or women aboard Amtrak’s transcontinental trains!

Throughout the journey, I found the occupancy rate to be quite high. The California Zephyr is popular!

Amish
Amish
Passengers panoramic car

Amtrak staff: for better or worse!

Amtrak’s personnel department is heterogeneous, to say the least.

From Chicago to San Francisco, the steward who looked after my sleeper was a young man with less than six months’ seniority. He was enthusiastic and very attentive.

Steward

During the fifty-hour journey, I can confirm that he had his hands full. Each time a customer left, he had to rush to get his cabin back in shape, ready for his successor. It was he who brought the meal to customers who wished to dine in their compartment. He didn’t have much time to rest on the way.

Conversely, during my trip, the waiters in the dining car were more concerned with the efficiency of the service than with the well-being of the travelers. For example, dessert was served at the same time as the main course, with an indifferent air. Once the meal had been dispatched, they spent long hours on their smartphones or chatting amongst themselves, with no discretion towards customers.

A legacy from the past: tipping. Unlike airline staff, Amtrak employees are hoping for one. I have made enquiries of American travellers and the amounts expected are far from negligible:

  • 20 dollars per night for the sleeping car steward
  • 3 dollars for breakfast,
  • 5 dollars for lunch
  • 10 dollars for dinner

A trip from Chicago to San Francisco costs $76 for one person just for tipping. With two people, staff expect double the amount, and of course, this amount is modulated according to the quality of the service received. It is therefore not negligible. For my part, I’ve always found it hard to accept this American custom of “tipping”, which implies a service relationship based on rewarding the customer, but that would be a long debate!

What do I take away from this train journey across the United States?

For a lover of night trains, as I am, this was a fantastic experience that I warmly recommend.

A true rail cruise

I loved the feeling of a rail cruise, which is still a real passenger train and not just for tourists, unlike the transcontinentals in Australia which have become mere tourist attractions, or the ultra-luxurious agency trains in Europe like the Orient-Express, with their exorbitant prices.

This slow-travel experience, a magnificent land-trip, gives an idea of the size of the United States and its many vast, sparsely-populated spaces.

Last but not least, the simple, warm contact with the Americans throughout the trip was a pleasure.

Back to the 80s and 90s

The Superliner’s interior design, however, is quite faded and reflects its thirty years of age. Even so, for such old trains, I found maintenance to be good, as the original materials must have been of high quality.

One detail: all the functions of both the seats and the beds are mechanical.

Overall, Superliners are well-designed for very long-distance travel. As the train never travels very fast, the noise level on board is very acceptable. After my trip from Chicago to San Francisco, I felt rested and had slept very well. This is not always the case in Europe after an overnight train journey.

A train that could inspire European railways

Amtrak doesn’t benefit from a high-quality network like the European companies. It’s very extensive, but not very dense, and essentially designed for freight transport.

Amtrak’s strength lies in its ability to create a genuine slow travel concept that could inspire those who want to revive the overnight train in Europe.

So the reintroduction of the dining car on European trains would be a fantastic enhancement to the customer experience. It’s part of the charm of Amtrak trains.

The Roomette concept is also interesting in terms of space optimization.

Last but not least, the panoramic car is very popular with travelers.

California Zephyr at Gleenwood Springs

Practical tips for your train journey in the United States!

Book your trip

It’s easy to book your own trip on the Amtrak website, but it’s important to know what’s on offer to make the right choice. The resulting travel experience can be very different.

Please note that cancellation and modification conditions are fairly restrictive.

The cheapest way: seated travel

The most economical option is to travel in coach class, in wide, comfortable seats that resemble the business-class seats offered by airlines some twenty years ago. Fine for a few hours or even a night, but difficult for a trip lasting several days!

On the other hand, the price is moderate: $251 per person from Washington DC to San Francisco by the end of 2022.

Sleeping car travel is comfortable, but you have to pay the price

Amtrak offers sleeper compartments, almost all of which are designed for one or two people, with two levels of comfort: Roomettes and the more spacious Bedroomswith a private toilet and shower.

From Washington DC to San Francisco, prices at the end of 2022 were as follows:

  • Roomettes $1,529 for one person and $1,844 for two people
  • Bedrooms 3205 dollars for one person and 3520 dollars for two people

An important detail: the cabin is always private. If you are traveling alone, you must rent the entire cabin. There’s no risk of having to share your night with a stranger, as on European night trains. This explains why the price of a cabin is almost the same whether you’re alone or with a partner.

Prices may vary according to the number of stops on the route.

An important tip: book your cabin well in advance, as transcontinental trains fill up quickly, especially for Bedrooms.

On the other hand, unlike the Acela, the fast train between Boston and Washington DC, I didn’t notice any major variation depending on whether you bought your cabin in advance or at the last minute. Traveling by sleeping car is very expensive all the time!

On board, the windows don’t open, but the temperature can be adjusted by a few degrees to suit your comfort. An American electrical outlet, provided you don’t forget your adapter, allows you to recharge your electronic tools.

Remember to bring earplugs, an eye mask and slippers or sandals for added comfort.

Amtrak.com

For weather in the USA, the reference site is The Weather Channel . Originally, it was the first TV channel to program only the weather.

Weather.com

As a citizen of the European Union, you need an ESTA to travel to the United States. You need to request it in advance on the federal government’s official website.

Esta

Accommodation in the United States, especially in large cities, can be very expensive. It’s best to plan ahead and do a lot of research on the Internet. AirBnB and Booking are the two benchmark sites.

airbnb.com

booking.com

To avoid excessive roaming charges, order an eSim from Ubigi to use 4G in the USA. There is no wifi on board the Superliners.

You should also ask your operator if they don’t offer an attractive package.

Ubigi.com

An important precaution: make sure you have good quality assistance for the USA. Medical costs are exorbitant.

My blog selection :

There are lots of blog posts about California Zephyr, but most of them are very superficial. If there’s only one site to consult, it’s Mark’s, the Wikipedia of rail transport.

Seat61

Thibaut Constant is a train fan. Every week, he releases a video about a train journey on his Simply railway Youtube channel. Of course, he covered the California Zephyr.

His video complements my articles.

Simply Railway – California Zephyr

Have a nice trip!

Bon voyage!

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