This 2,438-mile Train Trip From California to Chicago Offers Views of the Rockies and Sierra Mountains Like You've Never Seen Before

The 51-hour California Zephyr train journey also stops in Salt Lake City, Denver, and Omaha.

With a reputation for being one of the most beautiful train routes in North America, Amtrak’s California Zephyr travels daily between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area on a 51-hour, 20-minute trip traversing 2,437 miles.

"The California Zephyr passes through two mountain ranges that are gorgeous," Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari told Travel + Leisure, referring to the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevadas. "In some places, you can see views that can't be seen from the road because a lot of the railroad tracks were there well before cars were invented and roads were paved."

Passengers can take any portion of the route during its daily journeys through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, which include stops in major cities like Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Grand Junction, Salt Lake City, and Reno, as well as Naperville, Lincoln, Fraser, Glenwood Springs, Davis, and Truckee. Although the Bay Area stop is on the East Bay in Emeryville, connections to both Oakland and San Francisco are available on the Thruway bus service.

An Amtrak train on the California Zephyr Line

Courtesy of Amtrak

Throughout the journey, there are plenty of stunning viewpoints. "Climbing out of Denver, you can look down from the train and be above the Mile High City as you first make your way through a whole series of tunnels that bring you up to a place called Fraser and Winter Park," Magliari said. "The train continues on winding its way through the mountain. You pass through Salt Lake City in darkness, but pop out in time to be through Reno when you're in the Sierras."

During this stretch, he said the charm comes in riding on the hand-built railroad between Reno and Sacramento, which is "part of the original transcontinental railroad route built during the Civil War to unite the country." That’s not the only historical aspect of the route — the name California Zephyr also dates back to the train that ran from 1949 to 1970, before Amtrak even began.

Amtrak's California Zephyr passes a plateau during its daily 2,438-mile trip to Emeryville/San Francisco from Chicago that takes roughly 52 hours on March 24, 2017 in Helper, Utah

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Amtrak Train 5 leaves Chicago’s Union Station at 2 p.m. each day and pulls into Emeryville at 4:10 p.m. two days later, while Train 6 departs Emeryville daily at 9:10 a.m. and arrives in Chicago at 2:50 p.m. two days later. Both have lunch and dinner service the first day, three meals the middle day, and breakfast and lunch the third. 

Travelers can choose from a variety of accommodations aboard the train, from coach seats to bedroom suites. Five types of Superliner rooms are available across two levels, starting with the Roomette, measuring between six-foot-six to six-foot-eight in length and three-foot-six wide. It has two seats by day that are transformed into an upper and lower bed at night, with access to a shared restroom and shower in the car. 

Those craving more space and a private bathroom can upgrade to the Bedroom with twice as much space, at seven-foot-one to seven-foot-six long by six-foot-six to six-foot-eight wide. Sleeping two adults, this space has a sofa and separate chair that turn into an upper and lower bed at night, as well as an in-room sink, restroom, and shower.

Families can even go twice as big with the Bedroom Suite, which can sleep up to four adults. This is basically two Bedrooms attached, offering two of everything in the standard size. There’s also a Family Room, designed for two adults and two children, with seating for four during the day and two upper beds and two lower beds at night, plus a private restroom and shower. Passengers with disabilities can book the Accessible Bedroom, which can sleep two adults in an upper and lower bed. These accommodations have accessible features in the private restroom, as well as more space, with rooms as long as nine-foot-five and wide as six-foot-nine. 

Across all the Superliner rooms, the beds have newly upgraded bedding, pillows, towels, and linens, and customers also have a dedicated first-class attendant, lounge access, and priority boarding. 

For those who prefer more standard seating, Amtrak’s coach class is available, with reclining seats that have tray tables, reading lights, and electric outlets — and with two-by-two seating, there are no middle seats. 

Those staying in private rooms also get all meals included in the dining room, with seasonal menus featuring a variety of entrees, like omelets and quesadillas for breakfast and burgers and salads for lunch. The three-course dinners, which include wine, come with appetizers like caprese skewers and coconut shrimp, entrees like flat-iron steak and Atlantic salmon, and dessert like chocolate toffee mousse and lemon cake. Depending on availability, coach passengers may also be able to purchase dining car access once on board. Guests can choose to have the meals in their rooms, too.

All passengers have access to the cafe, which offers food a la carte, from breakfast items to burgers, tamales, and hot dogs throughout the day.

The California Zephyr also offers checked baggage service and trainside checked bicycles, and allows small cats and dogs on board (check for restrictions). 

No matter what portion of the route you take, the California Zephyr offers a way to experience America's landscape like no other, especially through some of the nation’s greatest mountain ranges, making it a glorious experience. Magliari said, "The difference between the California Zephyr and some of the other Western routes is simply more miles in the mountains."

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