Route of the CA Zephyr

The route of the CA Zephyr runs between Chicago and San Francisco and takes the passenger across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. It’s a trip to open your eyes about the splendors of America.

When you board the California Zephyr at 2 PM in Chicago (Eastern time), you get to see a lot of Illinois during the afternoon, and a couple of hundred miles of Iowa in the evening. When the sun sets, you can sleep through all of Nebraska and the plains of eastern Colorado. Of course you miss the famous Sand Hills with all of their hypnotizing monotony because the railroad is located further south. A sleeper car is not the same as your bed at home, but it’s clean and flat and takes the kinks out of traveling

About the time you’re ready to order breakfast in the diner the next morning, you can see that formidable wall of Rocky Mountains with Denver framed in front of it. Somehow the rail line finds it’s way through them, reaching an altitude of 9, 239 feet at Moffat Tunnel where the skiers disembark by 10 AM in the wintertime. (Incidentally, if you’ve driven I-70 over the Colorado Rockies, you exited the Eisenhower Tunnel at 11, 158 feet elevation with ears a-poppin’.)

Throughout the morning the vistas are gorgeous. The tunnels and twists of the high Rockies train track are better than a roller-coaster ride. Unfortunately, there’s only one Dome car and it fills up very quickly. The upper level coach seats, however, offer a wide viewing area.

CA Zephyr at Glenwood Springs, CO - photo by Loco Steve via

CA Zephyr at Glenwood Springs, CO – photo by Loco Steve via

The western slope of the Rockies from Glenwood Springs onward takes you from lush forest into increasingly more barren terrain until you reach Grand Junction, the mid-way point of the California Zephyr trip. A few miles out of town the train passes through lovely red rock Ruby Canyon, only accessible via Amtrak or a float trip down the Colorado River.

From there, the great basin of ancient Lake Bonneville is a no-man’s land of weird shapes, scrub bush, and the occasional herd of antelope. About the time the train enters Price Canyon for the pull up over Soldier Summit, it’s nighttime and you miss some fine mountain scenery.

The reward of nighttime, however, is that you miss the non-descript landscape of eastern Nevada. And about the time you’re ready to eat breakfast in the diner on the third day, you’re heading into the beautiful vistas of Lake Tahoe. From there the terrain has scenic moments and points of interest throughout California until the train arrives at its final destination in Emeryville, just north of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

If you don’t get off the train anywhere along the way, you’ll arrive i a little over two days after you began the trip–52 hours and 10 minutes, to be exact–at about 4:30 PM Pacific Time. If you’re a senior, it will have cost you about $271 if you sleep in your Coach chair. If you took a double sleeper, the fare jumps to $888.

Now let’s suppose you’re a skier, it’s winter, and the powder is deep in the Rocky Mountains.

You could get off at Winter Park, Colorado, at 10 AM on the second day and be on the slopes by lunch time. Stay for whatever length of time is your bliss. Get on the California Zephyr again and spend a leisurely day relaxing until you reach Salt Lake City, Utah. 

California Zephyr at SLC - photo by Loco Steve via

California Zephyr at SLC – photo by Loco Steve via

The train doesn’t arrive until after 11:00 PM, which is a pain, but the resorts of the Wasatch Mountains such as Park City, Deer Valley, Snowbird, Solitude, Alta, Brighton, Sundance, and Canyons Resort are amazing.

Of course, that means when you get back on the train a few days or weeks later to continue your westward journey, it’ll be close to midnight with the nothing of eastern Nevada to sleep through. Your only decision is whether to arrange for sleeper accommodation or take your chances sleeping in the big comfy Coach chairs. They lay back with footrests and tray tables and an electric strip down the sides of the train for your electronics. The next morning you’ll have just enough time for breakfast before you arrive in Lake Tahoe.

Now, if that isn’t a skier’s bliss, I don’t know what would be!

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