The California Zephyr is one of Amtrak’s most popular long-distance trains – and with very good reason. It’s Amtrak’s longest route, cutting a westward track from Chicago, across the plains and the Rockies, to California. Join us as we hit the rails on a seven-day journey through the iconic American cities and scenery that line this historic route.
History Of The California Zephyr
The history of the California Zephyr stretches back far beyond the creation of Amtrak in the early 1970s. The first train that ran the train’s current route was known as the “Exposition Flyer.” It was designed to transport passengers to the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. It entered service on June 10, 1939, as part of what was supposed to be a temporary route for the exposition. But it proved so popular that the route remained for a decade afterward. It was operated in parts by three different railroads, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, Denver & Rio Grande Western, and Western Pacific.
The three railroads formalized the route in 1949 under the now-familiar California Zephyr name. It was the first-ever transcontinental train to run with dome cars, designed to maximize the amazing views along the route. The train even had its own “Zephyrettes” – college-educated young women who assisted passengers and conductors, took dinner reservations, and organized on-board entertainment. But after more than 20 years in operation, falling train passenger numbers turned the route into a money-loser. The railroads eventually shut it down in 1970.
Just over a year later, Amtrak was born. But due to the still-fragmented rail network, relaunching the California Zephyr had to wait. Despite plans to relaunch the train shortly after Amtrak’s creation, the Denver & Rio Grande Western refused to allow the new system to operate on the Zephyr’s traditional route through Colorado and Utah. Finally, in 1983, the D&RGW joined Amtrak, which relaunched the classic California Zephyr route in July.
The California Zephyr has operated along this route once a day nearly every day since. Today, it remains one of Amtrak’s most popular and talked-about long-distance routes.
California Zephyr Route Description
The California Zephyr runs east to west, from Chicago Union Station to Emeryville/San Francisco, CA. Heading west, the train quickly departs the Chicago suburbs into wide-open farm fields through much of Illinois. You’ll cross over the Mississippi River near Burlington, Iowa, and continue across the southern part of the state as darkness falls. Following evening stops in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, you’ll travel through the plains overnight.
Morning on day 2 brings an arrival in Denver before an all-day ride through perhaps the most scenic portion of any Amtrak train. You’ll climb high into the Rockies, weaving past ski resort towns and through the famous Glenwood Canyon. You’ll skirt the edge of Arches National Park as you cross over into Utah late on the train’s second day. After a short trip through the Wasatch Mountains, you’ll arrive in Salt Lake City that night.
After being whisked across Utah’s Salt Flats and Nevada’s vast, empty northeastern corner, you’ll wake up on day 3 in Reno. The California Zephyr’s final day also includes some incredible scenery as you head through the mountains of northern California and past Truckee, a popular gateway town for Lake Tahoe. By late afternoon, you’ll arrive in Emeryville, north of Oakland, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. Bus transfers are available from here into San Francisco proper.
From start to finish, the California Zephyr takes 51 hour and 20 minutes to complete its journey, making nearly three-dozen stops along the way.
Sleeper Car And Food Options On The California Zephyr
As you might expect for a two-day long ride, passengers will need to eat and sleep on the train. You’ve got several options on this front while riding the California Zephyr, depending on your budget.
Sweet Dreams…Or Not
Those looking for their own sleeper car will have two or sometimes three options on most long-distance Amtrak trains. The first is the Amtrak roomette, the smallest accommodation suitable for one or two travelers. During the day, the roughly 6-foot by 4-foot space includes two seats facing one another. At night, these seats convert to a bed. You can also fold down an upper bunk to create a second sleeping space. These can undoubtedly be a tight squeeze, and claustrophobic travelers might have a hard time on the top bunk. You’ll also need to use the shared sleeper car bathroom, which does include a private shower. This is the most affordable sleeping car option but can still add hundreds of dollars to the cost of your ticket.
Your next option is a standard Amtrak bedroom, with nearly double the space of a roomette. At approximately 7 feet by 7 feet, you’ll have more room to stretch out and your own private bathroom. During the day, your room will have a sofa and armchair, and a night, they’ll transform into two bunks. Finally, large groups or families can opt for an Amtrak family bedroom, with sleeping space for four. Two opposing sofas during the day will turn into two sets of bunks at night. Unfortunately, you’ll give up the private bathroom in exchange for the extra sleeping space. Both the standard and family bedrooms can be very expensive, depending on availability.
If sleeper cars don’t fit into your budget, you can always spend the night in coach. Standard Amtrak tickets provide you with a comfortable seat that reclines and is tolerable to sleep in if necessary. Still, with little separation from your seatmate and no protection from noisy passengers, you may not get the best rest.
Dining On The Rails
You’ve got several options for how to eat while on the train, depending on your budget, taste, and travel schedule. All passengers will have access to the café car, generally located on the lower level of the observation car. The café car sells a variety of casual meals, from breakfast pastries to pizzas, sandwiches, hot dogs, and more. You’ll also have access to tons of healthy and not-so-healthy snacks like trail mix, cheese and crackers, popcorn, and candy. Café cars also usually serve a mix of soft drinks, juices, beer, wine, and spirits. You won’t find anything fancy here, but you can almost certainly find something to fill up on between stops.
For a step up in your Amtrak food, grab a reservation in the dining car. Here, you’ll enjoy chef-prepared, multi-course breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that rival most traditional restaurants. For breakfast, enjoy omelets, French toast, and delicious pastries. Lunches include Angus burgers and artisan grilled cheese, and dinners range from the famous Amtrak steak to lobster cakes or tortellini in cream sauce. While you’ll pay more for meals here than in the café car, the quality is undoubtedly better. It’s worth treating yourself at least once during your trip. If you’re staying in a sleeper car, make sure to get there, as all of your meals are included in the price of your ticket!
Finally, you can always bring your own food when you get on the train. You may even have time to pop into a station and purchase food there during longer station stops. Just make sure you don’t miss the train as you wait for your sandwich! Many people bring their own food, but please consider the other passengers when making your food choices. While you might love that pungent Indian food or hardboiled egg, other passengers may not!