The California Zephyr: Amtrak’s Most Scenic Train.
If we’re talking scenery, the California Zephyr has to be Number One. It runs daily in both directions between Chicago and Emeryville, right across the bay from San Francisco. I’ve taken this train in both directions several times and do think the westbound train is the better choice. If the eastbound train runs late, you can miss the spectacular descent from Winter Park into the Denver area. (In fact, that’s the very scene I chose for the cover photo on the 4th edition of my book.)
After leaving Chicago in the mid-afternoon, the Zephyr heads southwest through Illinois farmland and crosses the Mississippi River about the time folks in the first seating for dinner in the dining car are trying to decide between the flatiron steak or the baked half chicken.
The next morning, minutes after leaving Denver, the Zephyr begins its climb into the Rocky Mountains, with the view back towards Denver getting more and more spectacular as the train gains elevation. By the time the Zephyr emerges from the the nine-mile long Moffat Tunnel–the last of 27 tunnels–it has climbed from mile-high Denver to 9,000 feet. For the next few hours, the train follows the Colorado River–sometimes placid, sometimes white water rapids–through a series of gorges to Glenwood Springs.
Salt Lake City comes and goes around midnight and you wake up the next morning crossing the Nevada desert. An hour after a stop in Reno, the train begins its climb over the Sierra Nevada mountains by way of Donner Pass, named for the unfortunate party of settlers who attempted to cross the mountains in the Fall of 1846 and became trapped by an early onset of winter with record snowfall. (When the Spring thaw melted the snow, stumps of trees they cut down for firewood were 12 feet high.) The Zephyr’s descent from Donner Pass into Sacramento through thick forested areas is one of the prettiest parts of the whole ride. Then it’s on into the Bay Area.
If you’re looking for a scenic long distance train ride, this is the one to take. For somewhat lower fares, consider traveling outside of the summer months which are the most popular. This is a very popular train, so book sleeping car space as far in advance as your planning will permit. But do it! You won’t be sorry.