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The scenic California Zephyr route is 2,438 miles long and boasts views of the upper Colorado River valley in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

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Knocking Items off the Bucket List

From Wine Country to Chicago via the California Zephyr

by Gary Hellmann

Dayton, Ohio

Photo: Patricia Crosstown

Looking forward to a much needed and relaxing vacation, my wife Donna and I planned a trip to California wine country in Sonoma and Napa. To get there we braved the hassles of flying and flew to San Francisco where we spent a delightful weekend touring the city.

The late September harvest time was an ideal time to take in all that the wine country north of San Francisco has to offer. But alas, as all fine things eventually come to an end, it was time to leave and head south where the next day we boarded the California Zephyr for our trip home.

Other than taking the commuter trains into Chicago and New York City, neither one of us had any real train travel experience, but traveling on one of the Amtrak long distance trains was certainly an experience we wanted to try. Arriving at the Emeryville Amtrak station and picking up our tickets was very quick and easy. The ticket agent explained that the departing and arriving trains would be announced and advised us to take a seat and enjoy our wait until the arrival of the California Zephyr.

As it turned out, we ended up taking seats next to a couple who were not only avid Amtrak travelers but also just happened to be on the California Zephyr and in our Sleeping Car. Kenneth and Bonnie gave us the lowdown on what to expect and told us to just follow them to the right car. When it was time for lunch they invited us to eat with them in the Dining Car which turned out to be the first of many enjoyable meals we had onboard - good food and plenty of interesting conversations.

Our bedroom turned out to be the last one on the last car of the California Zephyr that day. From our perspective this was a very fortunate stroke of luck since it allowed us to keep our door open all the time we were in the room with the only passengers walking past were from our car on their way to sightsee out the rear door window for a few minutes.

We quickly became acquainted with our "next door neighbors," Trish and Warrick, from Australia who were traveling America coast to coast via Amtrak. What fun they were already having.

From the very beginning, the scenery was just outstanding. Passing through the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain ranges, following the Truckee and Colorado Rivers in the early fall, and seeing sights where no car could ever take us was just awe inspiring.

Our only complaint was that you just couldn't ask the engineer to pull over to let us out to take pictures. To go along with the great scenery from Emeryville to Reno was a docent from the California State Railroad Museum who provided a constant flow of interesting commentary on what we would be seeing.

Besides taking in the wonderful scenery, our second favorite time on the train was spent over meals in the Dining Car. We enjoyed the manner in which we were seated by the staff - unless you came in as a group of four you never knew who you would be seated with. We ate with couples from England, Sweden, Australia, and all across America. Everyone had an interesting story: traveling to or from seeing relatives; returning home following a 50 year class reunion; or just vacationing like us, and all enjoying a relaxing no-stress way of traveling.

Oh, and by the way, the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners were really pretty good, especially the steak dinner I had on our last night on the train. The Dining Car staff was friendly and fast but they never rushed us allowing us time to savor the conversation while watching the world go by.

As we neared Chicago's Union Station we looked back over the last three days and thought what a great experience it was. No hassles, beautiful scenery, great conversation with visitors from around the world, friendly staff and pretty good food. We were sold on Amtrak as the way to travel. Rookies no more.

Next up for us will be the Empire Builder to Seattle and the Cardinal to visit our daughter in New Jersey. Amtrak, you did good.