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Rob Stroud/Staff

Three days and two nights spent on a train might seem like a long time, but it goes by pretty quickly as a sleeping car passenger on Amtrak’s California Zephyr route.

Last month, I rediscovered how fast this long stretch of travel time goes by when I took my second trip on the Zephyr, with the first having taken place in 2009. My daughter and I accompanied my mother and sister on a round-trip journey from Galesburg to Sacramento, Calif., to visit family.

Much of any passenger’s time is spent gazing at the scenery as the Zephyr makes its way through seven states, passing through both the Rocky and the Sierra Nevada mountains along the way.

The panoramic windows of the Sightseer Lounge/Cafe car offer an ideal vantage point as the train winds its way up switchback curves on the front range of the Rockies just west of Denver. The relatively flat terrain of eastern Colorado stretches out below as far as the eye can see.

Soon after climbing into the Rockies, the Zephyr passes through approximately 30 mountain tunnels. The longest is the 6.2-mile long Moffat Tunnel, which opened in 1928. My 6-year-old daughter and other children in the Sightseer car excitedly chattered as a blanket of darkness descended over the train during our 10 minutes in this tunnel.

As our eyes readjusted to daylight upon exiting the Moffat Tunnel, we saw skiers gliding down the slopes at the Winter Park Ski Resort. The Zephyr’s staff later told us to keep watch for bald eagles in the Colorado River’s canyons. I never saw any eagles, but I did glimpse a heard of elk and a pair of wild Nevada mustangs during the trip.

Other sights that we took in were mountain-ringed Donner Lake (where the infamous Donner Party incident took place) near Truckee, Calif.; red sandstone cliffs in Ruby Canyon near the Utah and Colorado boarder; and brightly lit casinos in Reno, Nev.

California State Railroad Museum volunteers regularly serve as tour guides between Reno and their Sacramento home base. They use the train’s public address system to share information about the region’s history.

There are also some opportunities to step off of the train for a limited amount of time during extended stops and to explore the area around the depots.

We played in snow drifts at Winter Park; purchased polished stone pendants from the Rockun & Gemun gift shop at the Grand Junction, Colo., depot and a giant cinnamon roll from the nearby Pufferbelly Station Restaurant; and saw a 14-foot-tall, multilevel fountain that was built in 1908 to serve Reno residents and their dogs.

On board the train, one of the main attractions is the dining car. This restaurant on the rails is open to all passengers, with the meals being included in the accommodation charges for those staying in the sleeping cars. We spent every breakfast, lunch and dinner in this car, visiting with each other and with fellow passengers.

Some of the delicious food that we tried during the course of a round trip include steak, barbecued ribs, roasted chicken, Angus cheese burgers and lobster bisque, plus tiramisu parfait for desert. My 6-year-old daughter stuck with her traditional chicken strips and pizza for the most part but did discover that she likes crab cakes.

We also lounged around a lot in our private rooms inside the sleeping car. The Superliner roommate that my daughter and I shared was equipped with reclining chairs. The chairs can be converted into a bottom bunk bed and the top bunk folded down from the wall.

The attendant for our sleeping car kept coffee brewing and bottled water on ice for his passengers throughout the trip. He also brought us a newspaper every morning, sometimes the USA Today and sometimes regional newspapers such as Omaha World-Herald from the Zephyr’s station stops.

Our room offered an electrical outlet where we could charge cell phones or plug in a portable DVD player. My daughter spent her evenings watching DVD cartoons, as well as completing homework assignments and playing with toys on the little fold-out table in the room.

All of the great amenities on the train and the terrific scenery along the route made both our westbound journey to California and our eastbound trip back home enjoyable. The train was more than just a means of transportation for us. The Zephyr provided a relaxing way to spend our travel time.

This column and previous entries in the series also can be read at

Rob Stroud is a staff writer for the JG-TC. Contact him at or 238-6861.


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