All aboard for sights not seen any other way

From Denver to San Francisco
Spectacular scenery awaits right outside your window as you ride the California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Spectacular scenery awaits right outside your window as you ride the California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco.

Categories: A Summer To Remember, Special Sections

I didn’t want to go. Really, really didn’t want to go. But husband Eric, whose livelihood involves transportation, is a train geek. He’d been saying for years and years, and even more years, that he wanted to go across the country in a tin can on wheels with limited bathroom space.

When he was 7 his family took the train from Chicago to Colorado to visit Uncle Nels. Eric remembers they rode in coach, and that he ran up and down and up and down the aisles the whole way. Uncle Nels had a farm, and he could wave to the California Zephyr as it skirted his uncle’s fields each day.

We’ve been to New York on Amtrak many times and to Montreal twice, once during the spectacular fall foliage season. Many years ago, Eric had talked me into taking the overnight train to Chicago. It wasn’t the best introduction to long-distance travel on Amtrak: The train was packed, the roomette was claustrophobic, I couldn’t sleep and the diner ran out of food. When his brother couldn’t get us back to Union Station on time and we missed the train, I silently cheered.

But when it comes to trains, he is nothing if not persistent. Besides, my friend Mary is a diehard Amtrak loyalist and she put in her two cents, repeatedly. She’s taken the train across the country numerous times on different routes, and last year traveled to Nova Scotia on Via Rail, the Canadian national rail carrier.

They both worked on me, wearing me down and making points like “the service east of Chicago is not really their best” and “the sink doubles as an ice bucket.”

Between them they’d worked out the least painful itinerary for me: We’d fly to Denver and take the train from there to San Francisco, two long days but just one night. And as Mary assured me, it was one of the most scenic routes in the country.

A bedroom on the train sounds expensive, and it is. But as Mary pointed out, you don’t pay for a hotel or any meals. Then Eric said the magic words, “I’ll pay.” So I packed my bag and off we went.

Zephyr send-off

Mary and our friend Kathy were also traveling the same time, and we arranged to meet up in Denver for dinner. They were driving a rental car down from North Dakota where they had been doing some research related to the history of the city of Troy. Kathy would fly home from there the next day, while Mary was boarding a train headed east.

We flew through O’Hare to Denver, and I watched the farms and dry land and beautiful open country from the window of the plane. The new airport in Denver is a wonder. It’s bright and clean and new, but it’s miles from anywhere. It was also a construction zone while we were there, with barricades and detours. But we found the airport train, which connects to Union Station in downtown Denver. It takes about 40 minutes with a few stops.

The sparkling clean, new train took us past the University of Denver at nearly 80 miles an hour into downtown and past nearby Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies. Fans in jerseys accumulated as the train closed in on the city, and when we arrived they headed to the stadium two blocks away. We were already at our hotel.

We stayed one luxurious night at the Crawford Hotel, a landmark created from renovating and expanding the old Union Station in the heart of Denver. After a great dinner with our friends we headed to bed early; the train was leaving at 8 a.m.

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Mary and Kathy, another Amtrak devotee, saw us off. They waved as we rolled our bags past the long train cars until we found our conductor. And then we boarded the California Zephyr.

We had a full-sized room on the second floor of the train, up twisting narrow stairs and into a small space with a counter where a coffee pot was brewing. A corridor runs along one side of the train car; the rooms take up the rest of the width of the train. They’re not big, but by roomette standards are luxurious and a source of wonder. We have our own curtains! Here are the light switches, and look at the cute table and window seats. Luggage goes up on a rack. There’s a sink and vanity in the room, and behind it is our own bathroom.

The dealbreaker last time for me was the bathroom facilities in the roomette. This time, the accommodations were tiny but adequate. The whole bathroom becomes the shower. It works.

Our porter helped us settle in and as he headed off to procure some ice, we went to the dining car for breakfast.

Service, scenery

One of the best parts of Amtrak long distance travel is dining with strangers. We waited at the doorway of the diner and the person in charge assigned us seats in one of the four-person booths that line both sides of the car. Usually you’ll share a meal with complete strangers. We heard many stories and enjoyed the experience every time.

For our first meal, we were handed the all-day menus and served coffee and tea in styrofoam cups. The diner is on the second level of the car, like our room, with the kitchen below. There’s not a lot of choice but the menu has everything you need. There are five breakfast and lunch meals to choose from, and eight choices for dinner on the California Zephyr. There’s a checklist and pencils: Mark what you want and the server picks it up.

Service, and menus, can differ on different routes. The Zephyr has one of the better ones. We found they were flexible, and with sides and extras you can pretty much tailor your meal to your liking.

I had scrambled eggs with potatoes, bacon and a croissant with butter packets on signature plates. For passengers in coach whose meals are not included, it costs $8.50. Eric had Amtrak Signature French Toast, which he may have ordered just for the name. We both enjoyed our meals, as well as the conversation with the couple heading home to Reno from a wedding in North Carolina.

Even as we were finishing breakfast, the scenery was becoming interesting. The train climbs a series of switchbacks out of Denver into the Rockies. At points we could see the rail line ahead of the train. We passed camps and luxurious, secluded homes; passed through a succession of tunnels; then wilder, piney country; and rode along the edges of mountainsides with vertigo-inducing sheer drops. The resort town of Winter Park, Colorado, was the first stop. We got off and walked up and down along the train, and gaped at the expanse of plains and snow speckled mountains on the horizon.

Our books were no match for the scenery. Back in our cozy room, we sat opposite each other at the little table, opening and then closing our books as the Zephyr raced along the now larger, wilder Colorado River. We could see out both sides of the train, through the large window in our room and if we opened the door, the windows on the other side of the train.

 

The train cars are assembled in such a way to minimize traffic past the rooms. The sleeper cars are on one side of the diner and the observation car, and the coach seats are behind that. We felt comfortable leaving the door open most of the trip and we had good views out both sides of the train. There is a window in the door, with curtains you can close.

We spent much of the day just looking out at the scenery. The train goes through places you can’t get to with a car. We visited the observation lounge with wraparound windows, where volunteers in the Trails & Rails National Parks Service program offer a narrative to help passengers learn about their routes. When we approached something of note, like the Moffatt Tunnel, the narrations were broadcast to our room as well. A late afternoon thunderstorm in the Rockies provided drama, as we watched river rafters struggle to bring their inflatable boats in before the storm.

Enchanted evening

By dinner I was sold. Our porter let us know when the diner would be ready for us, and we settled into a booth and ordered little bottles of wine and chatted with a mother and daughter from Detroit, the tables covered in white linen now. I ordered the Amtrak Signature Steak ($25 for non-sleeper passengers) with mashed potatoes and string beans, a USDA Choice Black Angus flatiron steak, and they cooked it just how I liked it. It’s an OK steak, but the setting and the novelty made it seem better. Amtrak suggests you enjoy a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with your steak. Eric had the Land & Sea combo ($39), the same steak paired with a premium lump crab cake. On the table were packets of butter and Paul Newman’s salad dressings.

Dinner’s included, you pay for the drinks. And don’t forget to leave a tip for the server. About tipping: Each room and roomette has a porter who makes sure you are comfortable and have everything you need, and turns down your bed while you are at dinner and puts it up while you’re having breakfast. You can tip them as you get off the train at your destination. We hardly saw our own porter, but an enterprising young woman assigned to the next car who’d put personalized sticky notes on her passengers’ doors, and who ended up filling our ice bucket, cleaned up at the end of that trip.

Back at the room, the porter had opened up the sofa and pulled another bed down from the ceiling, and … we didn’t fit in the room. With the beds down you can hardly move around, and there was no headroom either. Besides, it was too early to sleep. So we put the second bed back up, the lower bunk was a bed and a half, large enough.

It was the most remarkable night, with a Strawberry Moon outside our window so bright we could almost read by it. It coincides with the solstice every 20 years or so and we were close — it was the 18th of June.

As we slept, the train crossed into Utah and stopped in Salt Lake City before midnight.

The next morning I headed to the diner for tea while Eric showered. Here’s a bit of advice — shower while the train is in one of the stations. There’s enough time and the train isn’t swaying. You push a button on the wall of the bathroom and the water sprays from above for a few minutes. Hit it again if you need more. There’s Amtrak soap and towels; it’s not luxurious, but it’s kind of fun.

I ordered a cheese omelet and chatted with the nice businesswoman who didn’t like to fly and knew all the Amtrak hacks — she travels with duct tape to stop rattles and knows which rooms are the quietest. Outside, it was flatter country than I’d ever seen, with only a few scrubby plants, the soil dusted white. This was Utah and the salt flats.

By late morning, the Zephyr arrived in Reno, gateway to the Sierra Nevadas, and we spent most of the day goggling at the spectacular scenery of the Sierra Nevada Mountains before descending gradually into Sacramento. We arrived at our destination a few minutes early, around 6 p.m.

Rolling into Emeryville at the end of the trip is a bit of a downer, not just because the last hour of the trip takes you past countless homeless encampments, some right alongside suburban neighborhoods. Also a letdown, a bus takes you into San Francisco, although the ride over the bridge into the city is pretty spectacular. But then you’re in San Francisco, worth a trip of its own — or two.

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We have been lucky enough to travel to many places around the world and many cities in the U.S. The California Zephyr offered many sights we’d never have seen any other way: avalanche tripwires in the wilderness of the Colorado canyons; Utah’s buttes and mesas; the six-mile-long Moffatt tunnel that cuts through the Continental Divide.

A trip on Amtrak is possible at the time of this writing, but they’ve reduced or suspended service on some routes and are following CDC guidelines regarding face coverings, as well as pursuing a whole range of other sanitizing measures. Unfortunately, meals are now carryout-only and seating in the cafe car will be closed. In the meantime, Amtrak is waiving all change and cancellation fees for reservations made by Aug. 1, and limiting ticket sales to allow for physical distancing.

We already have our next trip mapped out: After flying into Vancouver, we’ll take a train to Seattle, a four-and-a-half hour trip. We’ll visit with my nephew, Rob, and the next day board the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles, two days and a night on the train.

I can’t wait.

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