The California Zephyr – Chicago to San Francisco

Distance travelled: 1038 miles (Chicago to Denver), 1400 miles (Denver to San Francisco)

Journey duration: 18 hours (Chi to Denver), 33 hours (Denver to SF)

States travelled through: Ilinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California

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The California Zephyr is a famous American train, first entering service in 1949 when the attendants were called ‘Zephyrettes.’ It ended up being my favourite train journey of all, even though it was one of the longest. The scenery is SPECTACULAR (capital letters are justified here) and I was fairly open mouthed the whole way. This was one journey where I was determined not to miss a second of the view and I stared out of the window until darkness fell, somewhere in Utah.

For the first part of the journey from Chicago to Denver, the terrain is fairly flat and expansive through Iowa but starts to become more scenic into Nebraska and then into Colorado.

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Sunrise over Colorado

Denver Union station was the second beautiful railroad building I encountered (New Orleans being the first), and I thought it was a shame that Americans don’t travel by rail as much as they do by car. I’d say a sizeable proportion of Brits have travelled by rail but I wondered how many Americans have even been inside a railroad station (such is the US love affair with the car.)

Denver sits next to the Rockies and I loved the views from many of the taller buildings in the city – I had cocktails at the Hyatt Regency which provides a spectacular vista over the mountains.

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The main reason for my stopping off in Denver was to see one of my favourite bands, M83 in concert at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre, located to the south west of the city in Morrison. It is a stunning venue with loads of history and if you ever get the chance to go to a gig there, grab the opportunity.

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Red Rocks Amphitheatre

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M83 playing, with the Denver city lights in the background

It was the journey from Denver to San Francisco which left me gobsmacked, and I can’t adequately describe it using words, so I’ll say it with pictures. This section of the route uses volunteer rangers from the National Park service to provide commentary as the train leaves Denver and goes on a very long climb along the mountainside up the Rockies to over 9,000 feet.

While the train was following the path of the Colorado river, I saw lots of men in boats trying to catch fish, father/son camping trips, families with their RVs parked next to the river enjoying the view – essentially the great American outdoors, depicted in so many Hollywood films. As we passed one stretch of the river, I happened to see three men in a boat who, upon seeing the train passing by, pulled their shorts down and mooned everyone. Little pockets of laughter rang out from up and down the carriage, meaning you could tell who was looking out of the window at the time and who wasn’t. So thanks, guys – you made a lot of people laugh.

 

This part of the route is also jam packed with history, as early settlers travelled west to find fortune and the country’s rich natural resources begun to be exploited. We passed through the tiny town of New Castle in Colorado, which houses a coal seam that has been burning for over 100 years, due to mining explosions. Thankfully it is underground and out of sight, but every year the town holds the Burning Mountain festival to commemorate this.

We stopped in the old wild west town of Helper in Utah, where Butch Cassidy had stayed prior to robbing a nearby coal company. One of the train conductors informed us of this over tannoy and being a huge fan of the film ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ this made it feel very real. I knew they were real people, but actually going to a place they once visited brings on a bit of a fangirl moment.

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Helper, Utah.

 

One of the more macabre points of interest on the journey is the infamous Donner Pass, where the Donner party became trapped in the harsh winter of 1846 and started to eat each other. I ended up missing most of this part of the route because I’d decided that I needed to have a proper meal in the Amtrak dining car and where better to do it than on the California Zephyr? The attendants will seat you next to other passengers so you can chat to them, and I’m very glad they did this. I was seated next to an elderly lady who was ‘done with flying’ and preferred to take the train. She had done many of the long-distance Amtrak trains and I was fascinated by her stories, including coyotes stood on a rock watching the train pass by, and Amtrak halting a journey due to extreme temperatures and worries about derailing.

After nearly 33 hours, the train finally pulled into San Francisco – or technically, Emeryville. There is no railroad across the bay to the city, so you have to get off the train and get onto a bus where they pop you over the water and drop you off where you need to be. What’s an extra half an hour after more than a day’s travel?

True to form, as the bus travelled over the Bay bridge, the city was beautifully clear while the famous fog hugged the Golden Gate Bridge tightly like a comfort blanket. I hadn’t been to San Francisco in over a decade and I was very pleased to see it.

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The City by the Bay

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