Amtrak: Coast to Coast

Amtrak: Coast to Coast

Our Trip

The Start

We have taken trains all over the world, across Egypt, through Europe, in South America, overnights in China, yet somehow we have never taken trips across the vast and beautiful United States. The more people I tell about our trip, the more common the response "there is a train that goes across the country" becomes. To answer, "Yes", there is a train cross country, four of them as a matter of fact. A northern route, to Seattle, a middle route to San Francisco, and little more southern route to Los Angeles, and finally one starting in New Orleans that goes to Los Angeles. Each route is unique, with different scenery, stops, and travel times. With the exception of the most southern route, all of these trains start in Chicago. We decided to do the middle route, but in reverse; Emeryville, Ca (just over the bridge from San Francisco) to Chicago, and then continue on to Baltimore from Chicago. 

Our original plan was to take the train from Baltimore to Chicago, then Chicago on to Sacramento, then change again to a train to Klamath Falls to see Crater Lake, but my sick dog decided otherwise. Instead we flew to California and trained it back, which turned out to be better in the end anyway. 

Our train and our supplies

Our train and our supplies

California Zephyr-The Journey

Amtrak Volunteer at Emeryville

Amtrak Volunteer at Emeryville

The California Zephyr is the longest route on Amtrak, clocking in at 2,438 miles, it is also widely considered to be the most scenic route on the system. Aside from two end stations, major stops include Sacramento, Salt Lake City,  and Denver, with many stops in between. 

I had specifically chosen this route because of some speculation that it might be discontinued, owing to the fact that much of the route is through major coal areas, and with dwindling coal, the major railroads would not keep the line up. I have not heard an update to this, it was probably just wild speculation, either way, I'm glad we did it. 

Our train arrived late out of the yard, setting the pace for our trip eastward, we had a short connection to the Cardinal in Chicago, so we were worried, but it turned out we did not need to be, as we made up the time en-route. 

Our train did not have any scenic areas that the average person would enjoy until the Sierra Nevada range, which is where we got our first meal onboard. Through central California, there were lots of trains and flat areas, which I enjoyed very much. 

The Dome car provides panoramic scenic views

The train crests the Sierra Nevada range through Donner Pass, which was absolutely beautiful. The scenery was spectacular, especially in the dome car. Each long distance train headed west from Chicago has a dome car, which provides almost complete panoramic views; the car also has tables and chairs, with the chairs facing out and the tables setup as a booth. Here people play cards, talk, read, or just hangout. 

Our next major stop after passing through the Sierra Nevada range was Reno, which was also the first stop outside of California. The station here is almost new, as they excavated the entire thing to eliminate almost all grade crossings in the city. It was nice, just not very architecturally appealing. 

The station at Reno is a long, dug out trench through the city. 

After Reno it was a long slog through Nevada, which was mostly flat, as one might imagine. This was a good time to talk to people, or just hangout in our room, which we did a fair amount of. This part of the ride is where day becomes night and you really can't see much anyway. We stopped at Salt Lake City at 3am or something, I took a photo or two right outside the train then went back to sleep. 

Boarding the train in Salt Lake City

The way Amtrak sets their schedules on the long distance trains is very good for scenery. The train mostly travels through the desert at night, and the mountain ranges in the day, which was wonderful. The day did include long stretches east of Salt Lake that were in the day, but they were still pretty.  

I would say I woke up somewhere after Provo, UT, where the train heads south until meeting up with Interstate-70, which we drove the length of last year. You can see that post here

This part of the ride was just desert, but I did recognize a lot of the scenery from when we had passed the previous year. We eventually got into Colorado and started following the Colorado River. Just as a warning, there are a lot of people on the river, and quite a few of them like to moon the train. It is a fun tradition, so enjoy it. 

The train starts to climb into the Rockies and the scenery becomes breathtaking. The train follows the river as it winds through the canyons, through man-made tunnels, and between mountain peaks. The scenery here was so amazing that an employee had to remind people in the lounge car to get up periodically to allow others to enjoy the views. 

From our car, the last on the train, you can see 3 tunnels we are about to pass through

The westbound California Zephyr passes as our conductor waves at theirs

It was along this stretch of winding, ascent and descents that we came across our counterpart train, the westbound California Zephyr. For some reason, instead of putting us in a siding, they routed us into a wye, which meant we would have to back out of the track before continuing forward. This is a popular meeting place, and where the two trains usually meet. I asked why it was here, instead of somewhere we could just pull into and out of, without reversing, and was told this was the best place without making either train wait for a long time. 

Our train continued east, so we went right along with it. After meeting our counterpart, we continued to climb on our way to Denver, winding our way and passed the continental divide, passing through the Moffat Tunnel, a 6.2 mile tunnel through the rockies. No picture here, it would be just black, so try to imagine that. Between the tunnel and Denver I took my favorite photo of the trip. 

Passing through the Rockies on the California Zephyr

Our train at the Denver station

Our train at the Denver station

Our arrival at Denver was a nice chance to get out and walk around. The train is in town for a grand total of 30 minutes, but we made it before scheduled, so we had a little longer. The station here is beautiful and new. Colorado, having legalized weed, has been spending that massive influx of tax dollars on infrastructure upgrades, one of which includes a massive commuter and light rail expansion; the station was upgraded to a completely modern facility. Getting the train into the station was a complicated forward and reverse maneuver through the yard and a long backing up of the train. We walked around the city for a little while and then headed back to the station, ready to continue our eastward journey. 

Ottumwa, Iowa. The video game capital of the world

East of Denver, the trip was fairly uneventful, the trip is mostly flat, traversing corn fields and flat country. A highlight for me was stopping Ottumwa, Iowa. Ottumwa is the video game capital of the world! I know this because a few documentaries about video games featured Ottumwa. The station is not that exciting, but personally, it was fun. We had 20 minutes or so to mill about, so I did. 

Another night spent on the train as we made our way through Nebraska. This part of the ride was so uneventful, we crossed some rivers, followed some highways, saw some corn. As we pulled into Illinois it started to look like we were getting into some more exciting territory, with Chicago's Metra trains becoming visible at stations and on tracks. 

Backing into Chicago, the Sears Tower towering over everything

As we starting to get into Chicago proper, the Sears Tower (I'm never calling it the Willis Tower) was visible over the skyline. We also passed our sister train, the next day's westbound California Zephyr. As with Denver, we had to pull forward, hit a switch, and back into the station. This was the end of our ride. It was absolutely amazing, the people were wonderful (keep scrolling, I'll talk about a few of them), the scenery was beautiful, and it was very relaxing. We spent a few hours around Chicago, then got on our next train, the Cardinal. 


Sleeping and Eating

We booked a roomette, and if you're considering doing a trip like this, you should as well. Our original train ride had our room up top, when we had to rebook, we were put on the bottom. I was upset at this to begin with, in the end it turned out better, as the bottom has less foot traffic.  The roomette is not big, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it is cozy. Two lounge style chairs for the occupants to sit in while the train is zipping along are comfy, and spaced out enough your legs aren't jamming on each other; these fold down in the evening, or whenever you want them to, and you are provided with a mattress pad and sheets, a pillow, and a blanket to make a bed. There is a top bunk that folds down on top of this to make the room good for two people to sleep. Our first night, passing through Nevada and Utah, was not that comfortable because I kept my camera up top; the next night, however, was much better. There is storage outside the rooms for larger luggage, a small "closet" for things you want to hang up in the room, and storage for very small bags or backpacks under the seats. We pack very lightly, so we kept all our luggage in the room.

The roomette, this render does not really show the size very well. 

One huge advantage to booking a room, other than the bed and privacy, is that meals are included in the price. There are three meals a day, and on the routes with superliners, each train has a full kitchen, so the meals are pretty good. We did bring snacks, sodas, bread, and other things to eat in the room, as well, you should, too. And yes, they do have vegetarian options.

The People

One may argue that the real treat of the train is not the way you see the country, but who you see it with.  Our train was packed with interesting, fun, funny, and nice people. When you eat, your are sat in a booth, next to each other if you're a couple, which means another couple has to sit down with you. At first, this can be a little jarring- "Why can't I just eat with my wife" is what you may think. My wife was clearly thinking along these lines, but I was ready for it. 

Dining car seating

We met an immigration lawyer on our first meal who was traveling back to Denver with her family. She told us all about her travels through Central America when she was younger. I do not have a picture of her, which I regret, but the memory is enough. 

The Amish also take the train, apparently. Our train had quite a few groups of them, and they were super friendly. I met a couple, Wayne and Katie, who I spoke with for states and states of distance. We even swapped information, and when we landed in Chile for a recent trip, guess who gave me a call? Wayne. I sent him some postcards, and will continue to do so. 

The people in the room across from ours were a mother and daughter traveling back from California to Wisconsin. They were just wonderful people, the daughter had a great sense of humor, and we have stayed in touch via facebook since then. 

Terence, the man, the myth, the legend. 

One person who deserves plenty of mention is Terence. Each sleeper car has an attendant, and ours was Terence. He was so personable and helpful, he made our ride even better than it already was. If every ride had a Terence, you would be guaranteed a good ride. This photo is him in Sacramento, only an hour or so into our ride, and already he looks happy as a clam and like we have been friends for years, which, I hope to be. 

Ok, let's talk Cardinal. 

The Cardinal-The Journey

After a few hours in Chicago with a friend, it was back to the Amtrak station to board our next train, The Cardinal. When we had to change from a westward trip to an eastward trip, our trains changed, which meant we could take this train, which is tri-weekly. I was extremely happy with this change, simply because a direct DC-Chicago train is cheaper and faster, whereas this is slower, more expensive, but way more scenic, and the single level cars are much nicer. 

The Cardinal takes one out of Chicago and heads south to Indianapolis and on to the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, and the wild white-water rivers of West Virginia, and is one of the most scenic routes. While the ride itself was very scenic, our ride was not entirely photogenic, as it was raining most of the way. 


Sleeping and Eating

Besides the route, the major difference between this ride and the previous was the food and the rooms. The food I would call a downgrade, because the train does not have a full kitchen onboard, so most of the food is microwaved, the diner is also smaller. Where you lose on the food, you gain on the room. 

The Amtrak Viewliner in a single level with double windows

The viewliner roomette 

The viewliner roomette 

The roomette on this train was more spacious, and had more windows. I really enjoyed this ride for this very reason, and was able to sleep like a baby on this route. The Superliner roomette's top bunk does not have a window; the viewliner roomette's top bunk has a window, as the car is only a single level, so both occupants can lay down the whole way! In addition, the car being only single level, each room has storage space above the hallway, meaning you can put all your luggage in the room without losing any space. The roomette on the viewliner also has a toilet and sink; I'm told the toilets are being removed, which is fine as it really did not get used, and each car has a toilet on the ends.

Our car attendant on this trip was no Terence, but he was also a great guy, very personable, and he collects records, so the wife and he were able to have some good discussions. We met a couple who was doing what we were doing, just riding the rails. We also met a couple who were immigrants from Hong Kong who also travel all over whenever they want, and they were fantastic. 

Our car attendant on this route did not like photos, so this was the best I could do. 

The final stop that is unique to this train is Clifton Forge, WV, the following station is Charlottesville, which is a station also used by the Crescent. From here on up, I have taken this route on trips to and from Atlanta. The most interesting thing to happen is in Washington DC where the diesel units are swapped for electric units for the rest of the run up to New York. This change takes about 30 minutes and you're on the way. 

Engine Change in DC

I would gladly do this ride again, maybe in the other direction and try to plan with less rain, but there are no promises. The ride was on time, and beautiful, albeit wet outside. 

Final Thoughts

Ride Amtrak. See the country by rail, it might be the absolute best way to go about seeing our vast and beautiful country. You get to meet people you'd likely never run across anywhere else, you get to sleep comfortably, eat good food, and you don't have to fly, which no one really likes. Our total ride, from West Coast to East took 76 hours, we met countless people, some who I still talk to, some who I send postcards to, and most who I will remember for a long time. It is well worth the time it takes to get where you're going. 

You can see more photos from this trip in my gallery, here

Our final stop, Baltimore

Costs were as follows,

Trains with rooms-$1183.00
Southwest one-way flight-$249.00
Metro and Marc and Lightrail-$20.00

Total $1452 for both

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