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.
Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains over 18,500 route miles serving 39 states and the District of Columbia.
An Amtrak long-distance train typically consists of sleeper cars, coach cars, a diner car and/or a lounge car.
There are 45 station stops on the Empire Builder — the most of any Amtrak route.
by Antoinette Charles
Takoma Park, Maryland
I knew I wanted to celebrate my birthday in a big way. I was turning 50. I remember reading an article in the travel section of the Washington Post about riding the California Zephyr. It was such a great article that I tucked the idea in the back of my mind, thinking, one day, maybe.
I planned a couple of trips outside the country and planned a big party for friends and family. The first trip to the islands was great, then came the party. All went well. Then I got the news that the second trip to Italy was cancelled. I was disappointed, but I immediately remembered the Amtrak article. So I decided to take a trip across the country in the fall.
I called Amtrak told them what I want to do and with their help booked myself on the Capitol Limited and the California Zephyr to Emeryville, CA. As I started thinking about this trip, I considered a stop in Utah, so I called a friend there and that was it, I arranged to stop over for five days.
The official trip for my 50th birthday was planned. I was going across the country, by myself on the train. I created a Facebook event on my page and invited friends to follow my journey on Amtrak.
On October 15th, 2012 I boarded the Capital Limited to Chicago, IL, where I took a quick visit to the Willis Tower and surrounding area. After taking photos and grabbing a bite, I boarded the California Zephyr. My heart was beating so fast as I anticipated the journey. Go west girl, I thought and I laughed at myself. I knew I was going on an unforgettable adventure.
I am a photographer by trade. So I had gear: two cameras, four lenses, my tripod, laptop and tons of memory cards. I began documenting my journey as soon as I arrived at the Amtrak station in Washington and never stopped. I captured the landscapes of the states we travelled thru and the stations we stopped in. Crossing the Mississippi River was spectacular at sunset. The mountains in Colorado were breathtaking and photographing the fall foliage along the river was a good challenge for me. Arriving into Utah and seeing that amazing landscabe was a treat and a delight for my eye and my lens.
In Utah I visited Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. I witnessed the breathtaking sunrise in each location. Then it was time to continue my journey to California.
I met lots of people on the train but one woman in particular asked about my journey and I mentioned that I was heading to California for five days then back on the train to go home. She implored me to continue my adventure by going up to Washington State and then taking the Empire Builder back to Chicago. I loved the idea and book the extension up to Washington. That was one of the best decisions I made on that trip.
My most magical moment was truly the ride from Utah to California, specifically thru the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The landscape was beautiful and made even more beautiful by the fresh snow which fell the night before. I could not believe my eyes — I felt like I was in a movie. I did not want this portion of the journey to end. I remained in the Sightseer Car the entire day. Taking photos, meeting new people as they came and went and savoring the beauty that was unfolding before my eyes.
My stay in California was memorable for many reasons. The World Series was just starting and the Bay area was in a festive mood. I visited many locations in San Francisco, Sausalito, Monterey and Carmel by the Sea. I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and panicked in the middle of the bridge, thinking what I would do if there was an earthquake. I kept crossing the bridge as I felt silly about my fears — silly me thinking California would have an earthquake while I was there.
My biggest adventure was renting a car and driving on California 1 from Monterey to Big Sur. That was exhilarating. I never knew the roads were so winding, I drove 15 mph most of the drive — but the views were out of this world. The McQuay Falls was well worth the drive to Julia Phifer Burns State Park. A visit to Pebble Beach Golf course and lunch in the club house topped off my visit to Monterey. Then it was back to Emeryville to board the Coast Starlight to Seattle.
I was able to visit friends in Olympia for an impromptu overnight stay. It was a fantastic addition to the trip. I was given a welcome dinner and then toured Seattle, visiting the Space Needle and Pikes Place Market. Then it was on the train again, this time the Empire Builder crossing the country back to Chicago.
Thank goodness I booked a Roomette for this portion of my trip. I knew It was going to be three long day on the train and I was so glad I was able to have a bed to sleep in. My meals were great and I met some interesting people on that ride home. The special treat of the wine and cheese tasting for the passengers in the Sleeping Cars was a welcome break in the ride home.
I never knew Montana was so big – 701 miles east to west, give or take a mile. I took tons of photos during this leg of the trip, slept a lot and I edited some of my photos and posted them online. Thank goodness for my hotspot.
My train arrived in Chicago on time and then it was back on the Capitol Limited to Washington DC. After 19 days away from home, travel through 19 states, 153 hours and approximately 6,971 miles by train, 22 hours and 1,050 car and motorcoach miles, lots of motels and hotels and having created memories for a lifetime, I finally arrived home.
The value of my Amtrak adventure — priceless.