by Stephen Oliveri
New Orleans, Louisiana
The California Zephyr is, in my opinion, the most scenic train ride in the United States. I have been on the train three times previously, but never in the winter. So, with that being said, about a month ago, I found myself booking a one-way Chicago to Emeryville trip to experience the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains during "snow season."
I was in Coach class all the way this time, which was fine, as I got to mingle with fellow passengers, as well as enjoy the views from the rear of the train. It wasn't a totally full train so I ended up with two seats to myself, which made it easy to stretch out. As a veteran Amtrak rider, it doesn't matter to me if I'm in Coach or a Sleeper — being on the train is the only thing that really matters.
We departed Chicago on time at 2 pm and once we departed Naperville, our first stop, the snow started to fall, and it didn't stop falling until we were well into mid-Colorado. It was a surreal experience, cruising through the fields of Illinois and Iowa, looking at all the cars on the road next to us struggling to get through the snow, while we were cruising along as if the weather was fine.
After a restful sleep as we made our way through the flat lands of Nebraska, we arrived in snowy and cold Denver nearly an hour early. I stepped off for a moment to experience the chill in the air before returning to the warmth and comfort of the train. I then found a seat in the Sightseer Lounge Car — "the" place to be as the train departs Denver and climbs through the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains.
The ride through the snow-covered Rockies was spectacular, and the day passed by all too quickly. Along the way I managed to see several bald Eagles as well as deer and other wildlife. In my opinion, the journey from Denver to Grand Junction is a ride that everyone should experience at least once in their lives. It has it all: tunnels, canyons, valleys, rivers and everything in between.
I fell asleep after we departed Salt Lake City that night and awoke the next morning to find us in the sublime beauty of the Nevada desert, cruising past dry lake beds with high cliffs on either side of the train. Several hours later we departed Reno, and slowly began our journey through the scenic Sierra Nevada range, crossing Donner Pass along the way. Like our crossing of the Rockies, it ended all too soon.
Before I knew it, we were crossing the drawbridge into Martinez, California, and then hugged the bay for the final 30 minutes of the ride before arriving at the Emeryville station just about on time. I then boarded the convenient Amtrak Thruway bus for the short ride to downtown San Francisco where my friend picked me up. Needless to say, I once again let him know how great of an experience I had on Amtrak.
It was a spectacular trip filled with great memories. The train crew was outstanding and I got to meet several interesting people along the way. I hope to take the Zephyr again some day. It truly is the only way to travel between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area.