The California Zephyr: Despite Significant Delays, We Still Enjoyed America’s Most Scenic Train RidePhoto courtesy of Amtrak Travel Features california zephyr
“Get Out There” is a monthly column for itchy footed humans written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although weird now, travel is still worthwhile—especially to these open borders.
The California Zephyr is known for being the most beautiful train ride in all of North America. Operated by Amtrak with daily service between Chicago and Oakland, the Zephyr crosses 2,400 miles and takes 52 hours to complete. Having enjoyed rail travel on other continents, this fabled route through my own backyard has been on my bucket list for years.
My family first attempted to travel the full Zephyr in sleeper cars last year for Amtrak’s 50th anniversary. But the “more expensive than flying” price tag initially kept us away. This year, instead, we booked a 13 hour passage on the “best of the best” section through the mile-high Rockies from Denver to Provo where we stashed our car the day before.
We boarded the train at 8:00 am from Denver’s historic Union Station and headed straight to the double-decker observation car (aka the lounge or “sightseer” car), which fills up fast. After a brief 30 minute delay, we were off. There was visible and audible excitement among the mostly older crowd that filled the booths and lounge chairs—almost as if we were heading to Hogwarts instead of California.
For the best views, we sat facing south, which lived up to the hype for being the more scenic and wide-open sides. Both sides are terrific, however, and feature tall windows that extend into the ceiling for maximum viewing.
Due to unseasonably warm weather, we didn’t spot snow until two hours later after we were well into the mountains. Just before reaching the 10-minute Moffat Tunnel, however, the train suddenly stopped. A freighter had broken down in front of us and required repairs. Little did we know those repairs would take nearly four hours to complete, so we kept on playing cards, snacked on finger foods, and bought goodies from the cafe car.
After resuming our ride, which elicited passenger applause, 20 minutes later the train stopped again for reasons that were never explained. Thus, a journey that was supposed to take over 13 hours to complete had slowly ballooned over 18. We expected a slow-going experience before we boarded, but not this slow.
Still, we enjoyed the outstanding views of mountain peaks, narrow canyons, the frozen Colorado River, elk, bald eagles, and deer as much as we could. Because of the extended delay, however, nightfall came early, which prevented us from seeing the remaining views under normal conditions.
At this point, every passenger was rolling with the punches and taking the delay in stride. But by dinner, many of us were all fatigued and feeling restless while moving in the dark. Because we didn’t pay for a sleeper car, our party wasn’t allowed to eat in the dining car. Instead, we subsisted on the packed foods and snacks we had brought, in addition to microwaved meals from the cafe car that were better than expected but still on par from what you would get at a modern convenience store.
After dinner, I caught a sudden and nasty bug that hit me hard, causing full body aches and drowsiness. I retired to the coach car to sleep it off in first-class-like chairs that recline waaaaaay back. Falling in and out of sleep, I remember thinking how soothing the slow rocking train felt.
The most annoying part of the trip was a passive aggressive conductor that was slightly rude and so serious about federal mask mandates that he nearly deboarded a nice old man that failed to keep his mask above his nose on more than one occasion. Two other attendants were nearly as cantankerous with other passengers, which felt out of place in such a scenic setting. Admittedly this reduced the surrounding beauty a little as onlooking passengers exchanged awkward glances.
Of course, the “new normal” nuisance never took away from meeting and conversing with several Amish passengers traveling west to avoid air travel. Or the nice Michigan couple who were just as excited about the trip as we were. Or the many other passengers and attendants who clearly appreciated the journey more than the destination.
Speaking of destinations, we arrived at ours nearly five hours late. It was an exhausting finish to what could have been a magical trip. Would I ride the Zephyr again under different circumstances? I might hesitate for a moment, but the answer is “yes.” Even with the above delays, it was a worthwhile adventure. As one friendly passenger explained, “I’ve ridden the Zephyr nearly 30 times,” he said. “60% of the time it stays on schedule. 20% of the time it’s delayed by an hour or two. The other 20% is a multi hour delay like this, but it’s always worth it.”
Now you know.
Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with an adolescent family and their “bullador beagle.”