52 Hours on the California Zephyr
When it came time to plan a fall trip, the question was not “Where do we want to go?” it was “What train do we want to take?” Our choices were between the Empire Builder, the Southwest Chief, and the California Zephyr; we chose the latter, the longest of the three and the train with the best mountain views.
Our train departed California’s Emeryville Station with us in the final car of the train, which turned out to be advantageous, allowing us to see the entire train as it snaked through the mountains, the first of which was the Sierra Nevada range, which was a few hours outside Emeryville.
This part of our journey was a little after noon, which made it the perfect time to exit our room and walk down a few cars to take in the view in the gallery car. With windows up to the ceiling offering panoramic views, booths with tables to play cards, and chairs facing outward, this car was going to be where we spent a lot of the day. This car would introduce us to a woman from Germany traveling to see friends in Denver, a gentleman from India traveling around the country via rail, as well as a few Amish families on the return journey of an epic train trip that included Seattle and San Francisco.
The weather for this leg of the trip was amazing, bright sunshine, perfect for seeing the valleys and mountains as we zipped up until we reached Donner Pass, Donner Lake, eventually heading down into Reno.
After Reno, the daylight faded and it was time to retire to our room, which I would suggest to anyone. The roommette is the perfect for accommodation for long-distance trains. We had a late night stop in Salt Lake City followed by daylight breaking in the middle of Utah. Watching the sunrise over the desert is stunning.
Shortly before noon the tracks met up with the Colorado River and entered Ruby Canyon, a red sandstone canyon on the Utah/Colorado border. This part of the journey was my absolute favorite, following the Colorado River up through three canyons, Glenwood, Gore, and Byers Canyons, as well as the “tunnel district,” where you can see three tunnels you are about to go through. In addition to this, the train passes into the 6.2 mile long Moffat Tunnel going under the continental divide.
As the train traces the Colorado River, kayakers, rafters, and paddle boarders populate the river, waving in their unique and imaginative ways to the passing train.
The rest of the ride into Denver is a scenic wonder, still following the Colorado River but entering the Rocky Mountains. Our views in the mountains were accompanied by a mist, giving us an almost surreal view of the tree spotted mountain side.
Our train arrived early into Denver, giving us time to explore their gorgeous station and a few blocks of their downtown area. A walk back to the train, and a new set of passengers saw us out of the station on time and onward to the corn covered plains and flat expanse that is Nebraska and Iowa. The night was a good sleep and the sunrise over the cornfields was beautiful, which happened a few hours outside of Chicago.
With this leg of our trip coming to an end, 52 hours of seeing the country 10 feet above the rails, 25 rolls of film, countless stories, and every type of scenery the USA has to offer behind us, there is no question that this is the best way to travel. Our next trip? We’ll be heading south, seeking another unique and beautiful ride on the rails.
About the Author: Hogarth Ferguson is a Baltimore-based film photographer and world traveler. He lives with his wife and three dogs. You can see more of his work at www.hogarthferguson.com.