Just recently, we had to take a trip from California to Chicago. Rather than flying, we thought we’d check out the much-hyped California Zephyr train, and give our readers the lowdown on this once in a lifetime experience. For the uninitiated, the California Zephyr is the name given to the multi-day sleeper service that runs from California all the way to Chicago. A full trip one way takes a whopping 54 hours! However, fresh off our thoroughly satisfying trip on the Coast Starlight, we had a feeling the time would fly by. We’ve written up a detailed, blow by blow of our journey here so you’ll know what to expect if you’re going to take this train ride. Let’s get into it!
My trip on the California Zephyr was starting in Sacramento, at 11:09am. I arrived at the station to find that the service was running bang on time (not something you can always take for granted with Amtrak!). I had booked a sleeper car for the trip – for 2 days, I needed the personal space. As one of the perks that came with my ‘Roomette’ I was able to wait in a private lounge area until boarding time. Around twenty minutes before the train arrived, a member of the Amtrak team had us walk out to his luggage cart, and drove us out to where we needed to be. He also pointed out where each sleeper car would stop, so each of us knew where to board after he dropped us off. Great service!
Once the train arrived, I was waved aboard and into my sleeper cabin. After everyone was aboard, I got a very helpful briefing from the attendant assigned to my train car. She showed me how everything in the cabin worked, as well as explaining how to get to the dining and observation cars.
After sitting in my cabin for a little bit, a call comes out over the announcer for lunch. I could definitely eat, so I start making my way to the dining car. It’s first come first served, with Amtrak offering up a ‘dinner roulette’ service. That means they seat you at the first place that has an available seat. For a solo traveller, this means you’ll be making new friends over your meal. My lunch companions were an air force veteran and a young man travelling on business. Between us, there were lots of stories to tell and the conversation was certainly lively!
For my meal, I ordered up the Angus Burger, which was served with some chips on the side. The food was good – nothing to write home about, but definitely better than most airline meals. I also ordered a desert (chocolate pudding with cream) and a soda – all included as part of my room package. The only thing not included with a sleeper cabin is alcoholic beverages, which you can pay for separately using cash or card.
Before I know it, I’ve been talking to my lunch companions for nearly 3 hours! I decide it’s time to go take a quick break. Before leaving the dining car, I have the option to make a dinner reservation. The times are 5pm, 6:15pm or 7:30pm – I went for the latest sitting. Heading back to my cabin, I grab a change of clothes and decide to go for a quick shower. The shower is easy to use, but can feel a little hairy if the train is moving at speed.
There is a handrail to steady yourself though, and they do provide sleeper guests with both towels and soap to use. Unfortunately, what my shower didn’t have was hot water! I muddled through with lukewarm water, got dressed and informed the attendant of the problem. She was very apologetic, promising to get the shower looked at during the next lengthy stop. In the meantime, I was told to feel free to use the sleeper cabin showers in the cars to either side of mine, which both had hot water.
At a little after 4 we got a break stop in Reno, Nevada. We’re only stopped for a few minutes, but I’m glad of the chance for some fresh air. Not every stop on the California Zephyr allows you to get off the train, so you learn to take advantage of those where you can. I settle back into my cabin, and watch some pre-downloaded Netflix on my tablet for a while. Pre-downloaded Netflix is super important on a ride this long.
At around 7:15 I’m called in for my dinner sitting. I went for the chicken breast, served with mashed potatoes and green beans. It was okay, but nothing special. I was sat with 3 ladies, and as we all got talking about our respective plans I got great tips from a few of them about fun things to do in Chicago.
After dinner, I start to feel a little tired. Not only that, but I need to set my watch forward an hour to prepare for mountain time tomorrow. Since it’s later than I think and I’m rubbing my eyes, I decide to turn in. When I get back to my cabin, I find that the sleeper car attendant has made my bed up while I was away – awesome!
I drift off to sleep easier than I thought I would, considering I’m on a moving train. The only thing that bothered me during the night was the cold. The temperature gets pretty low in Nevada at night, and I hadn’t adjusted the heat settings in my room to compensate. My bad, but now I know to do so for the next evening.
I’m woken up by an announcement that breakfast is currently being served. Even though I had a late dinner yesterday, I feel hungry so I drag myself out of bed. There was barely a soul in the dining car that early in the morning – I even got a table to myself. I ordered the buttermilk pancakes, with bacon on the side and a cup of tea. It was delicious – easily as good as you’d get in your favourite waffle house or pancake place!
After breakfast, I decided it was time to hit up the observation car. After all, day 2 of the trip was supposed to have the most spectacular views on the California Zephyr. Utah, Colorado and Nebraska were all coming up. And believe me – it did not disappoint! The views from the observation car were absolutely stunning. And those floor to ceiling windows really give you a great opportunity for photographs. I stay in this car for a while – reading the news, chatting with people and taking some photos. I’ve included a selection of the pictures I took in the gallery below. All of them were taken from the observation car.
Time for lunch! This time I’m sat with a fun young couple, who are not only Amtrak veterans but had done plenty of Inter-railing across Europe too. I ordered the veggie burger (corn and black bean), which was actually better than I expected. No desert this time – trying to rein in my sweet tooth.
After lunch, I head back to the observation car for a while. What really surprised me on the California Zephyr is how eager everyone is to make friends and connect. I talked to several people that afternoon who said that one of their main reasons for taking the train was to ‘unplug’ for a bit. Mobile and WiFi signal is patchy at best, and you’ll find lots of people connecting the old fashioned way on this train. I even met someone who had found a new customer for their business on the California Zephyr!
We get another fresh air stop, this time just outside of Denver. It is COLD outside. I didn’t realise quite how good the train was at keeping us all protected from the bitter elements until now.
We’re arriving into Denver early, so I plump for an earlier dinner reservation, hoping I will have time to get off at the station. This time I’m sat with a charming older couple, who are going to visit their son (“He’s a doctor!”) in Illinois, and a software engineer on a business trip. I ordered the steak, which came served with mashed potatoes and green beans. It was again a fine meal, but nothing to write home about. I managed to get off and stretch my legs at Denver, which would be the last major stop for the night. I head back to my cabin and put my feet up for a bit. A few hours of Netflix, and I’m about ready to call it a night.
Around 8pm, the attendant in my car comes by to make up the bed for me. The two chairs inside the roomette fold down into a single bed at night. There’s also a top bunk which folds down if there are two of you in the room. When the bed is made up, it’s actually surprisingly roomy. I’m 6′ tall and never had a problem my feet touching the ends or having to curl up.
The clocks are moving forward again tonight for central time, and I want to arrive refreshed in Chicago the next day. So I brush my teeth and go to bed, drifting off to a podcast. As I’m going to sleep I realise I’ve left my cabin curtain open, and – through it – I got a beautiful, no light pollution view of the stars. A nice little unexpected perk.
I’m woken up again by a breakfast call, but I feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep. I head on down to the dining car again assuming that this may be my last meal on the train. We’re due into Chicago at around 2:30pm, so I get the feeling lunch might be truncated or may not happen at all. I go for scrambled eggs with bacon, grits and a croissant on the side. It’s nice enough, but I sure regret not getting the pancakes again. I had a table all to myself again, as the dining car wasn’t very busy.
I head back to my cabin for a bit, and start packing my things away. I also check in with the outside world in one of those rare, brief moments when I have some signal!
We get a leg stretch stop in Ottumwa, Iowa. It’s going to be the last one for a while, and the buzz about the train is that we might be getting to Chicago – whisper it – early.
The dining car staff make an early call for lunch at 11:15, to try and get everyone fed before our final destination. I’m still feeling pretty full from breakfast, and – noticing the still untouched bag of snacks that I brought on board – decide to give it a miss. I settle down to some work (Netflix).
The very last fresh air break before Chicago comes at Burlington, Iowa. The conductor informs us that the rumours are false, and we’re expected to get to Chicago either on time or a few minutes late. I don’t much mind, as I’ve had a very fun ride and the end is in sight.
After a few more hours relaxing in my cabin, we are pulling into Chicago. It’s been a long ride, but actually it feels shorter than I expected. In fact, I left with a similar feeling to that which I had on the Coast Starlight. I’m ready to get off, but certainly not desperate to.
Verdict: The California Zephyr is an awesome way to travel!
So, that was that – I’d travelled two thirds of the way across the country in a little over 48 hours. And I’d done it in a peaceful, relaxed and friendly environment. I was able to socialise when I wanted, but also have my own private space. I worked, played, and saw some incredible scenery along the way too. Was the California Zephyr Better than flying? Hell yes.
A quick note on the Amtrak staff, too.They were, in a word: wonderful. Always helpful, patient and friendly, even though I knew some were on their feet for 18 hours some days. Truly, the trip wouldn’t be the same experience without them. Many of them take the time to get to know you by name, talk to you and make you feel welcome and included. I made sure to give each of them a tip before I disembarked to show my appreciation for all their hard work!
Well folks, I hope you enjoyed this review of the California Zephyr. If you like this kind of thing, why not see what else we’ve been up to on the blog. And don’t forget you can follow us on Facebook too! Until next time.