Its been a while since I’ve written about my travel experiences since I didn’t find any trip in US deserving of being categorized as a true adventure worth sharing on my blog. However, my cross country train ride from Baltimore, MD to San Francisco, CA is an exception that urged me to share my experiences and highly encourage you try it out. (I solemnly swear that I am no agent of Amtrak, nor have I received any sponsorship or benefit from them). This is the story of my 3270 mile (5232 km), 78 hour solo train journey through sun, rain and snow, covering 13 states, 4 time zones, farmlands, Rocky mountains, the Great plains, canyons, gorges, deserts, snow capped Sierra Nevada, forests, cities, historic towns, gold rush… In other words, One Heck of a Ride.
“Reading is the journey of those who cannot take the train – Francis de Croisset”
Before I begin, let me clarify that California Zephyr is not a cross country train, as it takes you from the windy city of Chicago to the City by the Golden Gate, San Francisco through stunning Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the airy deserts of Utah and the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountains. My cross country ride commenced from Baltimore Penn Station on the sunny afternoon of Nov 19th 2016, with the first train to Union Station in DC followed by the acclaimed Capitol Limited to Chicago. Although this train follows the historic B&O line, Harpers Ferry and Alleghany mountains, I must confess, I did not get to see anything even though I had a window seat, owing to the early sunset of the fall. However, I did get to see the light snowfall in Pittsburg, and the white snow with a radiant golden tinge thanks to the illumination on the streets.
After the 17 hour ride, I spend a few hours walking around the Millennium Park in Chicago before I boarded the legendary California Zephyr at 1.30 pm. Just a tip, legacy pass in Chicago station ($20) will give you access to the lounge and preferential boarding (Don’t miss the window seats) if you’re travelling on the coach car.
The best part about Amtrak superliners, is that they have no Wi-Fi (Trust me, its a good thing). The coach car that was empty initially, slowly filled up as the journey began. That’s when I met Darrell, a retired accountant and train lover. The highlight of any solo journey is the people you meet en voyage. Even though I befriended a few people in Capitol Limited, Darrell was special. We had a great time chatting and enjoying the vast fields of Illinois, Sunset over Iowa and the Mississippi river. I made it a point to get off the train at least once per state (of course, its to add to my state tally). After walking around Omaha Station at Nebraska (there’s absolutely nothing around), I decided to call it a day at 11 pm. Since I took a coach class ticket, all I had was my reclining seat to sleep on. If unlike me, you have a problem sleeping on a reclining chair (for 2 nights), you better take a roomette or a sleeper car (It might put a hole in your wallet).
Do you know why its better to take a westbound train rather than an eastbound one? When you wake up in the morning, you get to turn back your watch by an hour and sleep for another hour! (Sweet!! Is it not?). Looking forward to the highlight of my trip, I found myself in the sightseer car with a cup of coffee from the cafe. Oh yeah, if you don’t wanna spend big bucks in the diner car (free if you’re on roomette or sleeper class), there a small cafe in the lower deck of the sightseer car. A tip for the initiated : make sure you get yourself a seat in the observation deck before the train departs Denver. (I’d recommend left side for westbound train- you can thank me later). Something interesting about Denver station is that the train backs into the station, and crew clean the windows of sightseer car, to give you a clear and unobstructed view of breathtaking beauty awaiting your arrival. Darrell got off at Denver after enlightening me as to what to watch out for in this trip.
Following the departure from Denver at 8 am, the train slowly entered the tunnel district. This is one of the highlights of the journey, with a total of 43 tunnels including the renowned Moffat tunnel , of which 27 tunnels are traversed in 30 minutes. The train climbs to an altitude of over 9000ft while crossing the Rockies. Since it is early winter, the hills were covered in golden brown grass peppered with snow. The loco pilot gave a pretty good commentary about the sights and a brief history of the bygone golden era of American railroads. On the left, you get to see the Gross reservoir dam. After a while you reach the South Boulder Canyon, with the Boulder Creek flowing by the tracks. The view changes considerably after every tunnel in the tunnel district from half frozen brooks, small mountain villages, snow capped pine trees. Delightful! Since the journey is uphill, the train travels pretty slow (around 30mph) which is ideal for sightseeing. The Moffat tunnel is 6.2 miles long and takes 10 minutes to cross. Immediately after the dark tunnel, are the slopes of ski resort in Winter Park to the right. After Winter Park, the route isn’t uphill. If you don’t have the patience for the entire journey, you can get a ticket from Denver and get off at Glennwood Springs which’d allow you to enjoy the best of Rockies in a day. Red and brown bushes, frozen streams, golden rocks with snow capped mountains as backdrop can bewitch anyone. If you’re a keen observer, you’d see that the direction of the brook changed to West ensuing the South Boulder Canyon, instead of East as seen earlier.
The view keeps changing every minute, reminding me of a slideshow of portraying the indescribable allure of nature. Early winter weather gives it an ethereal feel. If you’re a Steven Seagal fan, you’d recognize this route from the movie Under Siege 2 (Yeah, that is the route followed by the hijacked train). Watch out for bald eagles gliding gracefully with the train and don’t miss the notorious Deadman’s curve (9 car crashes, and you can see some wreckage as well).Colorado river flows parallel to the route and the canyon walls are covered with rocks of various colors and I-70 runs along the tracks (Definitely an excellent road trip option). After lunch in the dining car (~$15-20), I took a nap for 2 hours. When I woke up,I found that the terrain changed significantly to flatlands with black bushes with huge red rock formations like walls. The drawback of traveling in winter is that the sun sets at around 4-4.30 pm. You don’t get to see anything except dark wilderness following the sunset. In the evening I had a good time chatting with Atri a Chicago based insurance employee and Yorgi, from LA, a Chemistry/accounts graduate with a passion for stock market and vlogs. The train stopped for about 30 mins in Salt Lake city and I took this opportunity to take a sneak peak at the station only to be disappointed and drenched in the light rain. At 12, its good night!
6:15 am, rise and shine!! Guess what, turn back the watch by another hour (hurray!!). The vast deserts of Utah with a few mountains gleam in the hue of morning sun with the ground shielded by fog, the I-80 and the tiny towns scattered around the vast expanse is an exciting view to wake up to. The temperature was around 20F (Snow covered Rockies were in 40s). Following the stop at Reno, NV, began the next focal point of the journey – Sierra Nevada!! And to make things better, few volunteers from Sacramento Railroad Museum boarded the train and took charge as the tourist guides, reciting the history of the great Gold rush that tamed the wild West, reminiscing the sacrifice and hardwork of thousands of workers who contributed to the golden age of American railroad – A bygone era. The sweat and blood of hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers accomplished the formidable task of laying rail tracks on the hostile, cold and rugged mountains of the Sierra Nevada in the 1860s. As the train train passed through the snow covered pine trees and dozens of tunnels, I was reminded of the idiom “where there is a will, there is a way!” Or rather where there is money and strong motive (with cheap labor), human resilience knows no bounds.
The central pacific railroad goes through some of the coldest parts of California (with over 35ft annual snow) and over 7000ft altitude. The pine trees cloaked in snow that surrounds the slopes of the valley gave me a sublime appreciation of the beauty of the Golden State. The famous (or infamous) Donner lake along with the Summit Tunnel, is another one of the highlights of the journey, a vestige of the Gold Rush and a testament of perseverance of the explorers and immigrants hoping for a new life in California. After Donner lake, the tracks goes downhill through dense pine forests. During the last part of Sierra Nevada, Jimmy, a graduate student from University of Delaware kept me company. Following the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, the terrain transforms into an urban landscape with a few farmlands and orchards. This incredible journey is almost coming to an end after Sacramento, where the train goes along marshlands and subsequently follows the coast as it enters into San Francisco. The last stop of my train pilgrimage is Emeryville (that’s the station in SF) and the Amtrak shuttle bus took me to my quarters at Fisherman’s Wharf. I spent 3 more days in SF before flying back to Baltimore.
Taking a train, in my opinion, is the safest, cheapest and the most comfortable way to do a cross country ride since the great visionaries of the country paved the tracks through the most beautiful location of the country. If I had more time, I would’ve taken a day or two in Denver and Salt Lake city. And the important part – the cost of the train ticket was $232 (From Baltimore to SF). Its a tad bit higher than flight fares, but its totally worth it.
PS: The pics of the train taken from outside were sent to me by Darrell.
PPS: This blog post is dedicated to the all the men and women, especially the Chinese and Irish immigrants,and the civil war veterans, immortalized by the legacy of Union and Central Pacific railroads.