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amtrak california zephyr train san francisco chicago

Remember this popular blog post about traveling across America by train for $213? It inspired me to see the West so I booked a seat on Amtrak’s mighty California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago. The route is 2,438 miles along 35 stops in places like Winnemucca, Nevada, and Ottumwa, Iowa. The total travel time is listed at 54 hours. My ticket cost was $166, although, had I booked it earlier, it would’ve been $133.

Emeryville Amtrak train San Francisco Chicago

The Zephyr starts in Emeryville, California, just outside San Francisco. Emeryville is home to my favorite group of creatives ever: Pixar. I asked them if I could do Bad Drawings in their cafeteria but they said no.

Democratic National Convention DNC water bottle chocolate

I decided to (kinda) fast during the trip. I brought two gallons of water, two 70% dark chocolate bars, and two zero-calorie Vitamin Waters. I’d never intentionally fasted before so I was pleased to make it all the way to Chicago without tearing into a microwaved cheeseburger from the train’s cafe. By the end of the trip, I’d consumed half of the chocolate bars, one package of smoked almonds, and one package of honey roasted peanuts, or about 900 calories in two days. I bought the nuts from the train’s cafe.

Amtrak singles car

They had singles cars, couples cars, and family cars. This was the singles car. I sat on the left side of the train which is recommended for its views.

California Zephyr train seats

Each seat was spacious and ostensibly comfy, and reclined to a good extended position. It also had leg rests that popped up from underneath the front of the seat. By the end of the trip, however, I was very uncomfortable. The cushioning was flimsy and it felt like sitting on a cold slate of shale.


Each seat comes with an airplane-style table which was surprisingly sturdy.

12 volt outlets train San Francisco Chicago

Outlets are available to charge your electronic devices. This was crucial as I took about 6GB of photos on my iPhone. Though Amtrak’s website denotes the Zephyr as a wireless-enabled train, we did not have any Internet access.


We’re on our way! This was the California coast outside of San Francisco. Growing up on the East Coast I’d always found songs about California to be corny: “California Dreamin,'” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “I Left My Heart in SF,” etc. But after spending some time in Cali, I can understand why so many wax poetic about this lush land.


Common sights along the route were industrial facilities, hobo camps (in Cali), old houses, train yards, farms, and endless nature.

UC Davis train stop

One of the first stops is in Davis, CA, home of UC Davis where they pepper-sprayed those students.


This was a cozy hamlet somewhere outside of Sacramento.


A discarded La-Z-Boy and mattress.

The Donner Pass Colfax California fine young cannibals

This was Colfax, CA, in Gold Rush country near the Donner Pass. I don’t have a picture of it but one peculiarity was seeing a network of PVC pipes running all over the hillsides along the train route. It looked like a miniature water coaster at a theme park. I think it had something to do with gold panning.


Climbing the Sierra Nevadas.


Big skies, lush lakes, tall trees.




Snow-capped mountains.


I was dozing in and out of sleep serenaded by the chugging of the train.


We crossed into Nevada around here.


The land flattened into rolling hills.

Reno Nevada gambling center of Amtrak trains

The first major stop was in Reno where I got out to stretch my legs. The conductor was good about telling us where we could take breaks. Half of the stops allowed us about five to ten minutes of break time. The longest break was in Denver where we had 50 minutes.

Reno casino Amtrak train San Francisco Chicago

A Reno casino behind a train yard.


Nevada was big.


The views were sweeping.


And wonderfully barren.


The house in the foreground was in the middle of nowhere and everywhere; it sat in front of the grandest backdrop.


More stunning landscapes.


The sun started setting near Winnemucca, NV, home of the National Senior Pro Rodeo Finals. The town’s motto is the same as the Transformers: there’s more than meets the eye. #nofilter


You are here. (Sidenote: Verizon had good service most of the way.)

amtrak california zephyr train cafe

After the sun set I wandered around the train. This is their cafe where you can buy snacks, frozen food (which they’ll heat up for you), and beverages like coffee and beer.

California zephyr dining menu

I didn’t eat in the dining car but I walked through it as the last customers finished eating. This is the Zephyr’s menu. You can drop in for breakfast or lunch but are recommended to make reservations for dinner. You are seated with other people depending on available space. Prices were about $10 to $30 for entrees.

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The next car was the sleeping car. I wasn’t allowed to walk in. Apparently there are different levels of sleepers. You have personal attendants and showers. Your meals and snacks are included. When I bought my ticket the cost of a sleeper was $900. If I ever do this again I would like a sleeper.


I bought a coffee from the cafe and went to the sightseer lounge car.


The lounge has comfy dining tables and individual seats for sightseeing. It offers panoramic views.

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I got a little work done around 11:00 PM (PST) while most of the train slept. This was a beautiful, surreal moment for me. There’s nothing quite like working on job assignments on a quiet night train rumbling through the deserts of the West. On another note I was surprised to see how early people went to bed. Also surprising was how long they slept. On both nights I went to sleep after most people and woke before they did.


I spent an hour reading before returning to my seat and falling asleep. The best part was no one was sitting next to me so I got to spread out. Also this book is fantastic and you should read it.

Continue to Part 2 of my train adventure.

— Paul