I first published this in the Trip Reports section of the MILES forum. Seems it would be better placed here.
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In the planning stages, this journey began as a day trip up to Winter Park aboard the old Rio Grande Ski Train. Winter Park is a popular Colorado ski area and The Ski Train has been serving it for sixty three years. I hadn’t skied at Winter Park since the mid-eighties and so was looking forward to both the ride and the slopes. Roundtrip rail fare for the Ski Train’s two hour 58 mile run between Denver and Winter Park runs $45.00 for Coach and $70.00 for Club Class seating. However, whilst pondering a reservation in Club Class, I got sidetracked and wandered over to amtrak.com to check out their weekly Rail Sale page.
Amtrak Rail Sale
A month ago, Amtrak was offering a great deal between Denver and Chicago for only $19.00 each way. Unfortunately, I was unable to take advantage of it at that time. Now, however, I have five free days and… what’s this?!! Denver to Sacramento aboard the California Zephyr for only $38.80 each way? California, Here I Come!
California Zephyr Route Map
I like riding trains. I’ve ridden every Amtrak train in the country serving routes longer than 400 miles. I’ve ridden along this route out to California many times as well, but – like I said – I like riding trains, and I just felt like going somewhere. This $38.80 fare was actually good between Western Colorado and anywhere west of Reno along the route of The California Zephyr. I picked Sacramento for two reasons – The California Rail Museum and a chance to stay a night in Sacramento's old Llewellyn Williams Mansion, which has now been converted into a youth hostel.
As museums go, you’d be hard pressed to find a finer railroad museum in America than the California Rail Museum. It’s been on my list of places to visit for awhile now and that’s a list I just love to add and subtract from.
Last year, I flew over 240,000 miles. Any of you who’ve read my Trip Reports have no doubt surmised by now that I enjoy flight. However, unless you really enjoy just being up in the air, well – aside from any amenities and services that might contribute to the enjoyment of the inflight experience, flying anywhere basically means you’re stuck in a small metal tube for a few hours. Unless you’re flying Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic, there’s no bar or lounge to go to. No dining car is available to stroll into for a nice sit down meal. Your meal – if you get one at all - usually comes on a tray or in a bag. Short of an interesting seatmate, a good book or an inflight emergency, there’s very little to break the monotony of your average flight. Despite all this, I still love to fly.
In a more general sense, I enjoy travel. Period. I’ve always looked forward to going there every bit as much as being there. So - all that love of flight notwithstanding, if I have the time and the price is right, I’d much rather drive or take the train than I would fly. The pace is slower and more relaxed, I get to see and enjoy the country I’m traveling through rather than over, and, should I so choose, I’ve got the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people along the way. In this regard, trains are an excellent way to travel. I may or may not have a seatmate but if I want to socialize, I can always head for the Lounge Car.
Of course, train journeys around America are generally much longer than those aboard airplanes. Chicago to anywhere on the West Coast is a two day journey. Chicago to anywhere on the East Coast is at least as long or longer than the world’s longest flight ~ EWR-HKG. Over that time frame, who wants to sit in their seat the whole time when there’s the option of strolling up to the Lounge Car to meet, drink beer and trade stories with your fellow travelers? The ambience in a railroad lounge car is far more conducive to this than being stuck in a seat on an airplane. I enjoy hearing other traveler’s tales as well as adding my own to the mix. And, if I want something to eat, I can wander up to the Dining Car or, for lighter fare, head downstairs to the Snack Bar. Seating in the diner is communal and, as the dining car steward put it this morning – you’ll start out as strangers but you may end up as friends. Either way, these aspects of train travel not only contribute to making the journey more enjoyable but also making it seem shorter.
A ride on a train can be an integral and enjoyable part of the journey whereas a flight on a plane is usually just a flight. Unless, of course, you’re flying in First Class on a select few airlines and you’re not too jaded to appreciate the services and amenities offered.
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I considered hitch hiking up to Glenwood Springs and catching the train from there. It’s just 90 miles up Interstate 70 and only a ride or two away. However, the most dramatic scenery along the California Zephyr’s route lies between Denver and Glenwood, so I made arrangements to catch the 5:00am Greyhound down to Denver. I could have driven down to Denver but parking at or near the train station is both unsafe and expensive so at only $9.85 one way, riding “The Dog” seemed the more prudent choice. I reckon I’ll get off in Glenwood on the way back and hitch back to Dillon from there.
I’m sharing a house this winter with seven people and four dogs. Two of my housemates go off to work at 4:30am and 5:00am respectively so I had no problem getting a ride over to the bus station in Frisco, just four miles away. I was dropped off at the station at 4:50am. At such an early hour, the station was closed. Myself and one other guy had to wait outside in the cold. Thankfully, it wasn’t all that cold – maybe in the mid-twenties. Cathay Pacific First Class this ain’t. 5:00am came and went without any sign of the bus. Finally, the bus arrived a half hour late at 5:30am, (Actually, Carfield, it was 5:32am!) and about twenty people hurried off and immediately attended to their nicotine addictions. The driver apologized for the delay, explaining that heavy snow out of Steamboat Springs had made the going slow. As well, the Chain Law was in effect going up to the Eisenhower Tunnel, so we’d be further delayed while he chained up. No problem! Even delayed by an hour, I’d still have plenty of time to get over to the train station for my 8:30am departure. Of course, all the smokers were positively ecstatic for the opportunity to have not just one, but TWO cigarettes! Yowzah!!
As we crested Floyd Hill and dropped into Denver, it became obvious that Denver was in the throes of an inversion. Whereas high in the Rockies it was clear and cold, down on the plains it was cold, damp and foggy. We pulled into Denver at 7:45am and I walked three blocks over to the 16th Street Mall where I caught a shuttle down to the train station.
Denver Union Station
Denver’s Union Station was first built in 1881 at a cost of $525,000.00. At the time, it was the largest building in Colorado! In 1894, a fire destroyed most the station. It was quickly rebuilt employing more stone than wood and, other than the loss of its clock tower in 1914, remains essentially unchanged today. While not on the scale of New York’s Grand Central Station, Denver’s Union Station is still an architecturally classic railroad station. Like many big city railroad stations, it is indeed a monument to not just train travel but transportation in general, reflecting an era when travel in any form was an exciting and adventurous endeavor. Inside, the plaster arches that line the walls of the central waiting room have 2300 carved Columbine flowers in them.
Back in the 1920s and 30s, Union Station served up to eighty passenger trains a day. Up until 1958, the station served more travelers than Stapleton Airport. Ah, but then jets and Interstate Highways arrived in Denver and rail service to the Mile High City, like elsewhere in the nation, began a slow but steady decline.
Over the next thirty years, the station suffered from neglect and disinterest as train departures dwindled to just two per day. It was almost torn down in the mid-Eighties! The future thankfully looks much brighter. The revitalization of Denver’s Lower Downtown District, or LoDo, has made great inroads towards cleaning up once dirty and dangerous areas, resulting in the return of shops, hotels and visitors to the area. Coors Field, home of baseball’s Rockies, is located just a short walk from Union Station. The city has also brought together a team of architects, engineers, urban designers and transportation experts known as the "Union Station Alliance" and charged them with transforming Union Station into a regional transportation center that will ultimately serve buses, light rail, commuter rail and hopefully, Amtrak. I’ve contributed $200.00 myself to a fund to revitalize Union Station (Which means I’ll get a brick with my name on it in the pavement in front of the station) and will look forward to this project’s completion.
Hey! There’s the boarding call! Track One. Let’s boogie!
To begin with, I’m traveling aboard a train called “The California Zephyr”. The name alone suggests a gentle Western breeze carrying you all the way out to The Promised Land. For many folks, this is a prospect as comforting as it is exciting. By comparison, United’s flights between Denver and Sacramento offer you a seat aboard a nameless 737-300 or an Airbus. Indeed, when it comes to train names, the railroads have it all over the airlines. I mean, consider the prospect of a trip aboard the “Twentieth Century Limited
”, the “City of New Orleans
” or the “Coast Starlight
” as opposed to a ride on an “Airbus”, a “Jumbojet” or a “767 Luxuryliner” upon which true luxury is extended to only a small fraction of its total passengers.
I first rode the California Zephyr as a twelve year old on my way to a river rafting camp outside Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The Zephyr was in its final year of operation prior to the nationalization of the nation’s passenger railroads and the creation of Amtrak. From its inception, it was a train as beautiful and storied as the land it traveled through. For any of you out there interested in the history of the California Zephyr, here’s a link:
History Of The California Zephyr
Here – check out those dome cars!
California Zephyr In Glenwood Canyon
Dome Observation Car
When the Rio Grande finally ceased operating passenger service in 1983, Amtrak’s California Zephyr returned to its traditional and vastly more scenic route through the Colorado Rockies. I remember that day well. April 24th, 1983. The day before, the Rio Grande operated its final RGZ. The next day, Amtrak’s California Zephyr, complete with the new double level Superliner Cars, returned to the “Mainline Through The Rockies”. I was up at the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel with a big crowd of rail buffs and I’m quite certain that over that two day period, Kodak stock must have risen at least a point for all the pictures that were taken.
Alright then, back to the present. Boarding was pretty casual. There were no silly security questions while we checked in. Nor were there any white shirted TSA agents awaiting us as we exited the station and headed out to the train. My car, 512, was the last coach car on the train. Since the train had backed into the station at Denver, this meant it was the first car I came to. Marcella, our car attendant, greeted me at the door and directed me where to store my backpack before I headed upstairs to find a seat.
On its long distance Western trains, (Chicago to the West Coast or Texas) Amtrak offers Reserved Coach seating and First Class Sleeper service featuring three different sizes of bedrooms. Ignore that business about Viewliner rooms. They’re back east, not out west.
There is no First Class seating as is often available on many trains overseas. Even so, Coach seating aboard Amtrak’s long distance trains is comparable to First Class seating most anywhere else in the world. Including Europe. The seats are arranged 2-2 and are about as wide as the First Class seats on American's Fokker 100s. They are well padded and, to me at least, very comfortable. Seat pitch is about 50” with decent though not great recline. Legrests and footrests are provided. The side walls, bulkheads and overhead luggage racks are carpeted and each large window has double sliding curtains. I don’t think there’s a more comfortable or spacious Coach train car anywhere in the world.
Spacious Coach Class Seating
I hadn’t ridden in Coach on one of Amtrak’s Superliner fleet since taking the train from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida back in 1994. The oldest Superliners are now 20 years old and beginning to show their age. Although my car was generally in pretty good shape, many seats showed stains on the fabric and some of the seams were frayed. Downstairs in the restrooms, the water pressure was minimal and one of the toilets had very obvious caulking where its back molding had begun to separate from the main wall.
My car was only about half full, which meant I got a row of seats to myself. I also managed to locate one of the few seats with an electrical outlet in the sidewall. While many of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and Talgo trains offer plug-in laptop outlets at every seat, the Superliner cars do not. So far as I know, the plugs are there to assist the car cleaners in powering their cleaning equipment. Even so, they deliver 120 volt AC and work just fine in powering my laptop.
The first sign that departure was imminent was when the air conditioning came on. This was followed soon after by a jolt as the engine powered up and stretched out all the couplers between cars. Then, almost imperceptibly we began to glide out of Union Station.
Now, I’m not gonna give y’all a blow by blow accounting of the scenery along the way but in a more general sense I’ll tell you it’s not long after leaving Denver that the train begins to wind its way up into the foothills northwest of Denver, heading up Boulder Creek just above Eldorado Springs and continuing to climb whilst passing through 28 tunnels enroute to The Big One – The Moffat Tunnel – 6.2 miles long at an elevation of about 9200 feet. Prior to the tunnel’s opening in 1928, trains had to climb up over Rollins Pass. You can clearly see the old railbed up the side of the mountain above the East Portal. The top of Rollins Pass is at 11000 feet and it used to take trains about five hours to get over the pass and down to the town of Fraser on the west side. Now, it takes about 10 minutes to get through the Moffat Tunnel and another 10 minutes to get to Fraser.
Through the rest of the Rockies, the scenery is spectacular as the route follows the Colorado River for over 200 miles through Byers, Gore, Glenwood and Ruby Canyons before leaving the Colorado and heading up to Salt Lake City. Here’s some photos I found on the web of parts of the journey through the Rockies:
Colorado River Through Gore Canyon
Colorado River near Bond, Colorado
The Station At Glenwood Springs
During this time, I sauntered up to the Lounge Car and found myself a seat.
Amtrak's Superliner Lounge Car
Amtrak’s Bi-Level Sightseer lounge cars are wonderful creations! As you can see from the link above, windows are everywhere, starting at knee level and continuing overhead. They are perfect for this route in particular with its deep canyons and towering rock walls above. The car looks to seat about 60 people upstairs. Many of the seats swivel 360 degrees so that if the scenery’s better on the other side of the train, you won’t miss it. As well, seats can swivel to face the TVs at each end of the car. Movies are shown in the evenings. Tonight’s choices were announced as “Sweet Home Alabama” and “The Tuxedo”.
A snack bar is located downstairs. The attendant, Mike, was a big happy guy who reminded me of Bill Nunn’s character “Bradley” in the movie Regarding Henry
with Harrison Ford. The menu offered a variety of hot and cold sandwiches, cheese pizza, rice bowls, soup, candy, peanuts, and all manner of soft and hard drinks. While I thought the prices for the food items were quite reasonable, (Sandwiches cost $2.75-$5.00, soup $1.50) Amtrak’s beer selection is basic and expensive – a simple can of Budweiser will run you $3.50. That’s railway robbery!! It’s a 32 hour journey out to Sacramento and there are no federal grants available to offset the costs of my beer requirements for such a journey. So, yesterday I picked up a 12 Pack of Molsons, specifically for this trip. At $10.50 for the lot, that represented quite a savings – not to mention a jump in quality - over those Buds. Before leaving the house early this morning, I grabbed three garbage bags. In Denver, while walking from the Greyhound Station to the train station, I stopped at a downtown 7-11 and picked up a bag of ice and a large paper bag. Now I had the makings of a workable and discrete cooler. Although Amtrak allows its First Class Sleeper passengers to bring aboard their own alcohol, I don’t believe this privilege is extended to this traveling in Coach. As such, discretion was the order of the day.
One of the best differences between train and plane travel is the lounge and its ever changing population of visitors over the course of a long trip. Unlike an airplane which quickly takes you nonstop from Denver to Sacramento in a mere two hours, the California Zephyr makes 15 stops along the way, picking up and dropping off all manner of fresh visitors for the lounge. Two elderly couples seated across from me had brought an atlas along and were excitedly debating where exactly we were and where we’d be going. A young girl gazed out at the passing scenery as she listened to her Walkman. Many people had movie cameras and were filming the ever changing panorama of the canyon scenery.
As I sat savoring my beer and the view, I couldn’t help but overhear a group of four commenting about various features of the landscape and animals. It quickly became obvious that they’d not spent much time in the west. Amongst the comments overheard:
On looking at some 12-13,000 foot tall peaks: “Lookit those mountains over there! How high you reckon they are? 15, 16 thousand feet?”
While looking for wildlife: “I was told we could see antelope from this train!”
Observed a couple of times while looking at open space or snow covered meadows: “Is that a golf course? It must be! That flat area’s where the greens would go.”
While looking at a couple of Mule Deer: “Look! Elk!!”
Finally, I could take no more. Those are actually Mule Deer, I explained. But keep an eye out because there are plenty of elk in the area. Sure enough, a guy on the other side of the train later spotted a group of about 30 elk lying down on a snowy hillside, soaking up the late winter sun. We also saw three bald eagles, a couple more deer and numerous cattle. As for 15000 foot mountains, the tallest mountain in the state is Mt. Elbert and it’s “only” 14,431 feet. We do have some antelope in the state but not here in the mountains. From the train you might see them in Eastern Colorado.
We got to chatting a bit and I found out that the couple making all the mis-observations were from Iowa while their friends were from Wisconsin. All of them were heading out to Utah before continuing on to California. They’d be gone for about two weeks and were all excited to finally be on their way. They’d been planning this trip for a year! The Iowa couple had never been west of Iowa. They ran a pig ranch though! 3000 pigs. I asked what do you call a bunch of pigs – a herd, a pack, a mess of pigs? We debated it a bit without resolution before Wade, one of the Wisconsin guys, offered to buy us all a beer. Well, ya, sure – you betcha! Make mine a Bud!
And so it went for the next four hours. Another guy, Jerry, showed up as we were heading out of Glenwood Springs. He’d just gotten on there and told us all about the great skiing at Aspen and the fun time he’d had at Doc Holliday’s Saloon in Glenwood the night before. He was a carpenter out of Visalia, California and had come to Colorado to visit friends in Carbondale and get in a couple of days of skiing in Aspen.
Darkness descended right about the time we left Ruby Canyon. In the spring and summer, coursing through the Utah desert at sunset, you get excellent views of the Book Cliffs, part of the longest line of cliffs in North America. It was close to 7:00pm and many folks were heading off for dinner in the diner.
Amtrak's Superliner Dining car
I wish I could join them, for I’ve always considered dining aboard a train as one of life’s nicer pleasures. Unfortunately, Amtrak has chosen to inflate prices while shrinking portions and I just don’t feel the lunch and dinner entrees represent good value for money. As an example, a 6 oz. filet mignon is offered at $18.50. A quarter chicken with barbecue sauce on the side will run you $12.50. Meanwhile, in the Snack Bar I found a filling rice and chicken in salsa bowl for just $4.25.
The first movie started at about 7:00pm. It was Sweet Home Alabama and, although I’d love to watch it someday, I decided to return to my car and read for a bit. I’ve been reading Stephen Hunter’s latest book, Pale Horse Coming, and it was beginning to get quite interesting.
About 10:30pm, I put the book down and decided to get some sleep. When traveling Coach aboard Amtrak, I’ve learned it’s a good idea to bring along your own pillow and a blanket. Amtrak supplies pillows for its Coach passengers but they’re the small airline style pillows and, while better than nothing, are nowhere near as nice as a real pillow. I’d brought a full sized pillow along with my sleeping bag. Over the course of the evening, I employed two different sleeping positions. I started out curled up on my side atop the two seats. With both leg rests fully extended, I had a reasonably sizeable and comfortable sleeping platform. That got me through the first three or four hours. Later, I switched to upright, both seats fully reclined as I leaned into the window and otherwise sprawled over both seats.
I awoke about 8:00am by my watch, though in fact it was only 7:00am as we’d crossed into the Pacific Time Zone. We were making good time across the Nevada desert, speeding along at what looked to be about 70 mph. Even so, I later found out that we were running about an hour late. Something must’ve delayed us while I was asleep. After washing up a bit and changing shirts, it was time for a proper cup of coffee. No, not Amtrak coffee. My very own coffee. I have my own special mixture of Sumatran base with just a hint of Chocolate Macadamia Nut flavored beans. I’ve been traveling with my own coffee for years. If you love good coffee as I do, it’s worth the time and effort to bring your own. My “Coffee Bag” included a Zip Lock baggie filled with my previously ground up coffee blend along with baggies of creamer and sugar. Throw in a few Melitta #2 filters and a cup sized plastic filter cone and I was just about ready. For hot water, I’d brought along a small electric Hot Pot. This I simply plugged into an outlet in one of the bathrooms and 5 minutes later I had boiling water. By the way, I would recommend against drinking the water provided in the train cars. Although many people do, I don’t think it tastes all that good and I have some reservations over just how clean those 20 year old holding tanks really are. My advice is to bring or purchase bottled water along the way. Amtrak sells plenty in the Snack bar.
Fresh, delicious coffee in hand, I headed up to the Sightseer lounge car where I received a hearty “Good Morning!” from Mike. I purchased a Danish and sat down with a copy of yesterday’s Salt Lake City paper . We were about three hours out of Reno and the scenery, while pleasant, was hardly awe inspiring. The dining car steward announced over the PA that the dining car was open and in fact had been open since 6:30am. Everyone was cordially invited to come on up for a nice hot breakfast. A hot breakfast sounded good to me. As I entered the diner, I was greeted by the steward himself and shown to an empty table. Coffee was offered and I was handed a menu. Within a couple of minutes I was joined by Gene, a retired self professed Jack Of All Trades who’d last run a bottling plant in Kansas City. At present, he and his wife lived outside of Albany, New York and were off to visit friends in Oceanside, California for three weeks of sun and fun.
I’d been looking forward to a plate of fried eggs or an omelet but was informed that the eggs had frozen last night and so scrambled was the only style available. I opted for some pancakes instead. For $6.50, I received three 6” wide pancakes, with syrup provided in those little PC containers. Alas, both portion size and presentation were disappointing. In years past, coffee and juice were included in the price of your breakfast entrée. No more. Now coffee is an additional $1.50.
Meanwhile, Gene had ordered the continental breakfast and received, I think, the much better deal. For the same $6.50 I paid, he received a decent sized bowl of Raisin Bran, a serving of fresh fruit, a tub of yogurt and a biscuit. For some reason, toast was not available.
So, over all, I shelled out $10.00 (including tip) for three dinky pancakes and some coffee. At least our server was diligent about keeping my cup topped off.
At Reno, we picked up a big boisterous group of middle aged drinkers and smokers who’d gone out to Reno for a couple nights of gambling. They were seated in my car and even at 11:00am, some of them were still going hard on the booze and smokes. Although they were a bit loud, they were a fun bunch and I enjoyed seeing so many people having such a good time. It’s worth noting that for smokers, Amtrak provides a room down in the bottom of one of the Coach cars. Aside from stepping off the train at a station stop, this room is the only place for anyone to smoke, regardless of whether they’re in a sleeper or a coach. Although smoking is not allowed in the upstairs portion of this car, the smell of smoke is still strong.
Out of Reno, the we commenced a gradual climb up into the Sierras. After a brief stop in Truckee, we began to encounter lots of snow on the ground as we gained elevation and headed toward the summit of Donner Pass. Unfortunately, we’d only gotten about half way to the top when we came to a stop and were informed that a freight train had broken down in front of us and a best case scenario wouldn’t have us on our way for at least two hours. Good thing I had plenty of books and beers to entertain myself with. Truth be known, I went back to my seat, plugged in my laptop and set to work on this report.
We actually resumed our journey almost three hours later, crossing over the American River and finally arriving at Sacramento’s Southern Pacific Station at just after 6:00pm. I watched an absolutely fantastic sunset as we approached Sacramento and regretted that I didn’t have a camera. It was that good!
Based upon this trip, I’m sorry to report that Amtrak’s long distance services appear to have slipped quite a bit. This was particularly apparent in the diner where cost cutting measures have decimated a once decent dining experience. The older cars in the Superliner fleet are definitely beginning to show their age. The best thing Amtrak has going for it is its employees. From telephone reservation agents to ticket agents to on board personnel, everyone I encountered was friendly and competent.