The Zephyr: Amtrak’s Most Scenic Route?

Pressed for an answer to that question, I think most people would probably say Amtrak’s Train 5, the California Zephyr. Although there are portions of other long-distance routes that are certainly interesting, I would agree with that and cast my “Most Scenic” vote for Train 5. There is lots of pretty spectacular scenery along the Zephyr’s route, but interesting man-made things to see, too.

Eagle eyes among you spotted my error. The photo of the bridge first posted here was the bridge at Fort Madison, Iowa. The above photo is the bridge the Zephyr crosses at Burlington, Iowa. My bad!

After leaving Chicago, the westbound Zephyr angles down and across the State of Illinois, passing through seemingly endless fields of corn and soy beans. Late in the afternoon, the train crosses the Mississippi River at Burlington, Iowa, on a mile-long swing bridge that helps give some perspective to the immensity of this great river.

After breakfast the next morning,  the Zephyr leaves Denver at a little over 5,000 feet elevation (Denver is the “Mile High City”, remember?) and climbs to the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel at about 9,000 feet elevation. This is the highest point on the Zephyr’s route. 

Once through the tunnel—that takes eleven minutes—the train follows the Colorado River for 120 miles through a series of canyons to Glenwood Springs.

This is a nice little town, well worth stopping off here for a day or two. There are hot springs, bubbling up from far below ground, where you can bask in the warm water while air temperatures hover at the freezing point. 

The famous gambler, gunfighter and dentist, John Henry “Doc” Holliday came here in 1887 in hopes that the resort’s hot springs would benefit his tuberculosis. They didn’t. He died here in November of 1887.

Off and on during the ride across the mountains from Winter Park to Grand Junction, the landscape opens up and small ranches appear. The river spreads out and slows down a bit, bringing out the rafters, some unable to resist the temptation to moon the train.

Day Two on the westbound California Zephyr ends after the train emerges from what I think the locals refer to as “the Western Slope” and—still in Colorado—a stop at Grand Junction. On one occasion several years ago, there were vendors on the platform when #5 came to a stop. I got off the train and bought a fresh peach from a vendor. It was the size of a softball and I remember thinking at the time that it was the single most delicious piece of fruit I had ever tasted. I still believe that to be true.

If you’re looking for a great ride, with a variety of scenery, including some that’s man-made, it’s hard to beat the California Zephyr.