#5 California Zephyr

When I booked my train ticket from Denver to Sacramento, I figured I’d be in for a pretty scenic train ride. I had no idea the California Zephyr would be as glorious as it turned out to be. I also had no idea it would be as long as it turned out to be. The thing about trains is they stop a lot. A handful of towns rely on the trains so regular stops are to be expected. And also a crazy guy might unexpectedly cause delays, running across the track and narrowly getting missed by the Zephyr!

Riding the train requires a relatively flexible schedule and plenty of patience. The west is still wild.

One of the reasons I prefer driving over flying is being able to soak everything in. That and minimal turbulence. Traveling by plane is a guarantee that you’re going to miss out on sights in remote areas of the country that you probably would never have business being in otherwise and will appreciate even if you’re racing across the country on little sleep and a whole lot of coffee.

The Zephyr takes that visual satisfaction of driving and ramps it up by a factor of a thousand and then guess what? You can just chill. And yeah, that means it takes longer to get from CO to CA, but that’s what iPods are for! And if you aren’t traveling with a few solid playlists to begin with, that’s mistake number one.

The California Zephyr from Denver to Sacramento has to be some of the best track ever laid here or abroad. I’ve been on trains in Europe and here in the United States… but I was just a little guy and antsy and didn’t have the same appreciation for getting from A to B (and C, D, E, etc) then that I have now, or I just slept the whole time, because none are very memorable. Taking the Zephyr calls for that appreciation of not being “somewhere” but getting there. And this time I slept very little and remember very much.

With the mountains visible from Denver to begin with, it doesn’t take long on the Zephyr for things to get appealing. Mountains, tunnels, the Colorado River and if you’re lucky snow. The Amtrak employees are awesome, super friendly and will share facts about the Zephyr for those interested, awake or sober enough to listen. One of the towns the Zephyr passes through in Utah is the hometown of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and another the place where the Donner Party got trapped for a winter, ironically one of the more placid portions of the trip.

Ever since my first drive through the west, I’ve been fascinated with the people who first decided to make the trek and the Zephyr was a good way to absorb the significance of that determined push to the Pacific.

I feel like I keep saying it, but this year has been the most spontaneous of my life. However, things have happened in a hurry. My patience hasn’t had time to be tested. I may not be in full control yet, but at least I’ve mostly been in the driver’s seat. It seems simple but taking the California Zephyr was a refreshing break from always trying to anticipate what’s next and instead let someone else take the wheel or in this case, the lever.

Author: Eric White

Eric graduated Ohio University in 2012 with a degree in Advertising and immediately went out to San Diego, California to start not using his degree. At the start of 2013, Eric quit his job, let his lease run out and started backpacking North America. Eric has worked with Amtrak, Crowdtap, HootSuite and others, and currently lives in Los Angeles, CA... when not on the road.

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  1. This footage is breathtaking! Bravo Eric, can’t wait to see more.

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    • Thanks a lot Kenzie! All I had to do was set up the Hero… practically made itself.

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  2. Amazing. Make more videos. Stat

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    • I’m making them as fast as I can man! Haha, just kidding. I appreciate it brotha.

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  3. Some rad footage! Much more wintry than I expected. Agreed about trains – train rides in Israel were always beautiful, and with my (then iPod) they were my absolute favorite way to travel.

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    • Yeah the Hero shots turned out gnarly, glad you liked it! I can only imagine how awesome train rides in Israel are… but yeah, def my favorite way to go now.

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  4. Terrific video and documentary! I look forward to your next adventure.

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  5. Amazing video, the Zephyr is indeed one of the most amazing trips Amtrak offers. Two other recommendations that you have to ride:
    –The Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. The best stuff starts west of Havre, MT. Unfortunately, unlike the Zephyr, you can’t fly in and start mid-way since almost all of the cities (except Minot, ND) are so small, not only do they have no airline service, but no bus service as well! The trip west from Havre into Glacier National Park is breathtaking. Then the next morning you have the choice of riding on to Seattle through the Cascade Mountains or head southwest to Portland down the Columbia River Gorge (the train splits in half at Spokane for Seattle and Portland). Be sure to do it during Daylight Savings Time to maximize the Rocky Mountain views.
    –The Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles. Amtrak’s premiere long distance train. From what I see you usually ride in coach but this is the route to splurge for Sleeping Cars. Besides the amazing scenery, this is the only Amtrak train that has a special lounge car for Sleeping Car passengers. The Pacific Parlour Car is literally a throwback to the golden age of railroading. The cars were built in the 1950’s for the Santa Fe Railroad and have been meticulously restored by Amtrak to serve–as the name indicates–as a Parlor Car. There’s even a movie theater downstairs. On board amenities aside, you climb two mountain ranges on your way down the coast and from Oakland/San Jose south to LA, you spend most of the day hugging the Pacific Ocean. The trip south of San Louis Obispo is the best part–not only are you on the ocean, but you go around the “back” of Vanderburg Airforce Base and see scenery that no one else can see.

    A fellow traveler posted this video about traveling on the Coast Starlight….

    (for the record, the Arcade Car has been mercifully retired!)

    Keep up the good work, and happy travels! If you ever make it to DC, let me know. Would be glad to give you a tour of a much less glamorous rail service, the MARC Train Commuter Rail between Washington and Baltimore.

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    • Yeah, planning on taking the west coast tracks pretty soon probably! Thanks for the tips. America’s rail system is always glorious.

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  6. I’ve taken the Zephyr. Amazing ride. The train hit a deer in the mountains and we were stuck in the incredible snowy wonderland (with no power) for a couple of hours. Gorgeous and intensely quiet. You really captured it perfectly and brought back the best memories. Thank you.

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  7. Looks amazing! Thanks for the information about the Zephyer! Do you have any suggestions for someone looking to ‘hop on – hop off’? What places would be good to stop at and have a look around? I’d be taking the Zephyer from Chicago to San Fransisco.

    Thank you in advance for any help!

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    • Unfortunately I have no suggestions if you’re looking to hop off! The train doesn’t stop for long though so if that’s your plan, you’ll need to be very attentive with your schedule. Have fun!

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