Good Train Journeys – Amtrak California Zephyr

Ah! The romance of rail. The gentle sway of a train gliding across the rails. Air travel has a purpose, but to my mind train travel gives you time to appreciate the land and to accurately fathom the distance you travel.

There are some very special train journeys in the world, one of which is the Amtrak California Zephyr, which runs between Chicago and San Francisco. Although to be accurate, the western terminal is at Emeryville, near Oakland, California.

The California Zephyr runs daily in either direction, and on the East to West journey it starts its run from Union Station, an engineering marvel which dates back to 1880 and the beginning of the trains 2,422 mile trek to California which will take 51 hours and 20 minutes.

There’s more to do on the Zephyr than watch the countryside slip by. They have on-board movies, an evening hospitality hour in the lounge car and games to play. They even have free Wi-Fi on board so you can browse whilst travelling.

Some of the highlights of the trip include crossing the mighty Mississippi River near Burlington, Iowa and crossing the Missouri River into Nebraska and then on into Colorado before stopping to refuel at Denver. From Denver the train begins to climb the Rocky Mountains and the scenery changes quite dramatically.

The Amtrak California Zephyr crosses the Continental Divide via the Moffat Tunnel which reaches a height over 9,000 feet. On the west side, the old train tracks that crossed Rollins Pass can be seen above. This route was called the “Giant’s Ladder,” which reached a height of 11,000 ft. The journey around James Peak used to take more than 5 hours until the Moffat Tunnel was built, cutting the travel time to just over 10 minutes. The tunnel, 6.2 miles long, took 5 years to construct, opening in 1928. From there the train follows the Colorado River for several hours and you can watch it change from a narrow, turbulent whitewater torrent into a wide and graceful stream.

Once into Utah, and after leaving Salt Lake City, the scenery makes another dramatic change as the train along the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake and also past the Bonneville Salt Flats before entering Nevada and following the Humboldt River then crossing the Forty Mile Desert and entering the Sierra Nevada to negotiate several passes. Finally, the Zephyr drops down into the Central California Valley to end its journey at Emeryville.

It’s a great trip on an historic train and a truly excellent way to see the heart of America.

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