First Time on the California Zephyr: The Rails Less Traveled
Our Amtrak Stories are a series created by special guests sharing their travel experience. In this piece, journalist Colleen Heavens shares her first-time experience riding the California Zephyr.
Fourteen-hundred miles of track and thirty-three hours of views… Now that’s what I call enjoying the journey.
A few weeks ago, I rode Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco. To say I enjoyed the journey would be an understatement. Inspiring, transformative, once in a lifetime—those are probably more accurate descriptions. My two-day excursion through the peaks and plains of the great American West was nothing short of incredible. It was also nothing I could have experienced via any route but rail.
Before I allow my post-travel buzz (and all-embracing train nerdery) to take over, I should pause. This trip is a real, rustic experience. A chance to get off the grid and have an authentic adventure through the American wilderness. It is less about getting somewhere, and more about being somewhere. And that somewhere has some pretty stellar views along the way.
Still on board? Here were my favorite things about my first-ever ride on the California Zephyr.
The Zephyr cuts through the center of the country, all the way from Chicago to California. I hopped on in Denver, with a final destination of San Francisco. We corkscrewed through the Rockies (yes, literally through them), past the Great Continental Divide, into the red cliffs of Utah, through the plateaus of Nevada, up and around the Sierra Nevadas, and into California. Amazing, right? Which leads me to my most important highlight…
Umm, have I mentioned the views yet? I’ve always loved public transit for the sightline it offers—a window-sized frame of different places and people, for just a moment in time. The Zephyr brought this to a whole other level. Snow-capped mountains. River-carved canyons. Tree-dotted cliffs. The sights were nonstop, and every window was like a real-life painting of the most beautiful pieces of our country.
The Observation Car
I spent the majority of my ride here, watching the horizon change from morning to sunset. Floor-to-ceiling windows allowed me to look up and out, and social seating allowed me to meet and chat with fellow riders. I quickly figured out I wouldn’t be touching the book I brought on board or popping in my headphones, the occasional John Denver playlist aside. There was too much to take in, and I wanted to soak up every minute.
The Dining Car
This was the ideal trip to take solo, with seated meal times that placed four travelers at each table. The menu was surprisingly diverse, from classic bacon and eggs for breakfast, to sweet potato gnocchi in a kale sauce for dinner. My three meals a day were covered by my sleeper car ticket, which was more than enough food for my time on board. Beverage-wise, I treated myself to the occasional Sierra Nevada—for obvious thematic reasons—and reveled in my bottomless coffee in the morning light.
Eating meals with strangers was a new thing for me, but I was excited for the full experience. I talked to folks who had been riding this line for 40 years, and others, like me, who were riding for the very first time. Some taught me about the geography and history of the land we passed through, and others told me about their lives back at home. Twenty-somethings, eighty-somethings, Midwesterners, Europeans—it was such a delightful community of travelers. New friends exchanged addresses and everyone shared stories. The spirit on board truly embodied what makes train travel so special.
My cozy quarters in Sleeping Car 0533 were perfect for a night on the rails. I was on the lower level of the double-decker Superliner, with access to shared bathrooms and a shower. My private space included two comfy seats that folded down into a bed, where I fell asleep to the soundtrack of every train lover’s dreams. The chugging engine, the rattling tracks, its whistle in the distance. Surely I was living in some type of mid-century novel. It was only topped by waking up to the sun rising over the mountains outside my window. Certainly a moment I’ll never forget.
Unplugging from the online world can seem a bit daunting. I was a little nervous myself, and wondered if I would get antsy. But as the hours passed and the miles went by, I felt nothing but grateful for every vista seen and story heard. I occasionally opened my laptop to do some writing, inspired by the people I was meeting and the landscapes I was in awe of. It was all part of the journey—vintage vibes and new perspectives that I could never find on a screen.
About the author: Colleen Heavens is a Philadelphia-based writer who loves all-things travel and transit.