Across the States by Rail: Amtrak's California Zephyr at Winter Park
 

The California Zephyr at Winter Park...

 

Click here for a detailed Amtrak route map

Crossing the United States by train, from just $212...

Without a doubt, crossing the United States by train from coast to coast is one of the world's great travel experiences.  Amazingly, it's also one of the world's great travel bargains, as a 3,000 mile 4-day trip on Amtrak can cost as little as $212 (135) booked online at www.amtrak.com.  There are daily departures and half a dozen possible routes to choose from.  What's a 3-day coast-to-coast train journey actually like?  This page will show you in pictures, using arguably the most scenic route via Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago and the famous California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco.  The Train Travel in the United States page will explain the practicalities of which cross-country route to choose, train schedules, prices and how to buy tickets.  It also explains what the trains themselves are like, and what type of seat or sleeper to choose.

A journey across America in pictures...

  New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited

  Changing trains in Chicago

  Chicago to San Francisco on the California Zephyr

Practical information...

  Amtrak train schedules, prices & how to buy tickets   

  Amtrak on-board accommodation & facilities

Sponsored links...

 

Day 1:  New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited.

The first part of this epic 3,397-mile 3-night coast to coast train ride is from New York to Chicago aboard Amtrak's 'Lake Shore Limited'.  This is a 959 mile trip taking 1 night.  The Lake Shore has Viewliner sleeping-cars, Amfleet reclining seats cars & heritage dining-car.

The Lake Shore Limited follows much the same route as the fabled 'Twentieth Century Limited' (1906-1967), once one of the world's most famous trains.  One big difference is that the 'Century' would have left from track 34 or 35 of New York's beautiful Grand Central Terminal (pictured, right, with the Chrysler Building in the background).  Today's Lake Shore Limited leaves from the rival Pennsylvania Station.  An underground connecting line was built in the early 1990s, allowing trains to & from the Albany direction to access Penn Station, and all Amtrak long-distance trains now depart from the somewhat less beautiful Penn Station.  Only suburban trains now serve Grand Central Terminal.

We booked our New York to San Francisco tickets in advance at www.amtrak.com, and collected the tickets from the self-service machines at Penn Station by placing the barcode on our booking printout under the machine's scanner.  Easy!  So here goes...

 

New York Grand Central station

Boarding the train at Penn Station...

Taxis outside New York's Penn Station   New York Penn Station, main concourse

Day 1, 3.00pm:  Our journey starts at New York's Pennsylvania Station in the heart of Manhattan.  The original station building was demolished decades ago, and today's Penn Station is an unremarkable modern building with its concourse underground.  But it's the starting point for some of the world's greatest train rides.  For an idea of what the old Penn Station would have looked like, see its twin, the post office building next door. 

Baggage check-in, New York Penn Station   The Lake Shore Limited to Chicago boarding in New York

Checking in your bags.  You can check in your heavy luggage all the way to San Francisco, leaving you free to enjoy the journey.

 

3.30pm:  Boarding the Lake Shore Limited.  American stations tend to hide the trains away, and Penn Station is no exception with the trains on underground tracks.  The Lake Shore leaves daily at 3.45pm.

A scenic ride along the Hudson River Valley...

Storm King Mountain on the Hudson River valley, seen from the Lake Shore Limited train to Chicago   Scenery along the Hudson River between New York & Chicago by train

The Lake Shore Limited heads out of New York's Penn Station and soon emerges into the daylight alongside the Hudson River.  It follows the scenic Hudson River Valley all the way to Albany in up-state New York, with the rails often right next to the river.  Wonderful!  Pictured above left, Storm King Mountain.  Film fans may recognise the scenery from the train scenes with Cary Grant & Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest.  Those scenes are set on the Twentieth Century Limited over this very route...

West Point Academy, see from Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited New York to Chicago train   Bannerman's Island, seen from the New York to Chicago train.

5.00pm:  West Point Military Academy can be seen on the far bank of the Hudson...

 

Bannerman's Island with its ruined house is another local landmark.

Bridges over the Hudson, seen from the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago.   The Lake Shore Limited crosses the Hudson at Albany

You'll see a series of huge road bridges spanning the Hudson as the Lake Shore Limited heads along the river to Albany.  You'll also see small commuter towns, marinas, marshland and countryside...

 

6.45pm:  Crossing the Hudson.  The Lake Shore Limited crosses the Hudson at Albany, with great views of Albany to the left.

Dinner in the diner on the train to Chicago, en route from New York to San Francisco by train   Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited at Albany

Dinner in the dining car...  Salad, main course and dessert.

 

7.00pm, Albany:  At Albany Rensselaer, a chance to stretch your legs.  The Boston-Chicago portion is attached here...

Chicken & rice dinner on Amtrak.   A reclining seat on the Amtrak train from New York to Chicago   Viewliner 'roomette' sleeper on the New York to Chicago train

Chicken & rice for dinner, washed down with a nice half bottle of Merlot.  Although certainly not gourmet, food on Amtrak's long distance trains hits the spot...

 

Overnight in a seat or sleeper...  Sleep the night away in your reclining seat (above left, 40 degree recline, you can bring a blanket or buy one from the cafe car) or if you can afford it, a sleeper.  More information about the sleeper options on the Lake Shore Limited.

A bit of history...  We're following the classic New York Central Railroad route from New York to Chicago, from Grand Central Terminal (or these days Penn Station) north along the Hudson to Albany then west along Lake Erie and Lake Michigan via Cleveland, Rochester & Syracuse to Chicago.  Marketed for years as 'The Water Level Route - You Can Sleep', this was a jibe at the rival Pennsylvania Railroad's shorter but far more steeply-graded route from New York Penn Station to Chicago via Philadelphia & Pittsburgh through the Allegheny Mountains.  In its heyday, the Pennsy's premier train, the 'Broadway Limited' ran to the same schedule as the Central's 'Twentieth Century Limited' (New York depart 6pm, Chicago arrive 9am) but it never achieved quite the same fame.  Today's Lake Shore Limited perpetuates the name of one of the New York Central's other New York to Chicago trains.

Wake in the farmlands of Indiana...

Indiana farmland seen from Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited   Elkhart railroad museum

Day 2, 8:20am:  The train crosses Ohio and enters Indiana.  Above right, as the Lake Shore Limited stops at Elkhart, an old New York Central diesel from the 1950s is seen at Elkhart's railroad museum.

Hello Chicago!

Breakfast on the New York to Chicago train.   Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited train arrived in Chicago.

Great, egg & bacon for breakfast in the dining-car!  You've an extra hour to spare - you must put your watch back an hour as you enter Illinois, shortly before arriving in Chicago...

 

9.45am:  The Lake Shore Limited arrives at Chicago Union station at 9.45am, in this case just 10 minutes late.


Day 2:  Changing trains at Chicago Union station...

Arriving on the Lake Shore Limited at 9:45am, you've a morning to explore Chicago until the California Zephyr leaves at 2.00pm.

Chicago Union Station, exterior   Chicago Union Station, interior

Union Station:  Chicago's Union Station is a historic landmark in its own right, perfectly located in downtown Chicago.  You emerge from the underground concourse into the great hall, a magnificent space with steps up to Canal Street.

The steps at Chicago Union Station featured in the pram scene in The Untouchables

The Untouchables...  Film fans will recognise these steps at Chicago union station from the famous pram scene in 'The Untouchables'.  Actually, there are two identical flights of steps up to Canal Street.  After years wondering which set were used, I'm now told it's the southern steps...

  The Sears Tower (Willis Tower) in Chicago   The vertigo-inducing glass 'pods' on the Sears Tower SkyDeck
 

The Sears Tower:  You've enough time in Chicago to climb the Sears Tower (now re-branded the Willis Tower) to the SkyDeck (www.theskydeck.com) for great views over Chicago & Lake Michigan.


Day 2:  Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak's California Zephyr.

The second leg of this coast-to-coast trip is a 2-night, 2,438-mile journey aboard one of the world's greatest trains, the California Zephyr.  A train called the California Zephyr first took to the rails in 1949, run jointly by the three railroads over which it ran, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (the 'Burlington'), the Denver & Rio Grande Western ('Rio Grande') and the Western Pacific.  It couldn't compete on speed with the rival Union Pacific 'City of San Francisco' but it more than made up for that with superb scenery and gleaming stainless steel carriages which featured no fewer than four 'vista domes' for sightseeing.  This original 'CZ' ran until 1970.  Amtrak's modern incarnation of the California Zephyr follows much of the same route, though superb scenery in the Rockies, across the arid country of Utah and Nevada, and through the snow-capped Sierra Nevada in California to the Bay Area.  It's probably the most scenic and historic of all the Amtrak train routes across the United States.  When you step off this train in California, you'll have seen more of America than many Americans!  Don't forget to watch the video, too!

Boarding in Chicago...

Amtrak's Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station   Amtrak's California Zephyr boarding in Chicago.

Metropolitan Lounge...  At Chicago, sleeping-car passengers may wait in the Metropolitan Lounge, with complimentary tea, coffee & soft drinks

 

Day 2, 2.00pm:  All aboard the California Zephyr!  Passengers join the double-deck Superliner cars for the classic 2,438 mile 2-night journey to the Pacific Coast, on one of the world's great train rides.

Galesburg, Illinois...

The California Zephyr at Galesburg   Galesburg station

4.30pm: The California Zephyr stops at Galesburg.  You can normally stretch your legs at most stops, even if for only 10 minutes.  As far as Denver, the California Zephyr runs over the original Burlington Route tracks, after various mergers now part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

Crossing the Mississippi...

Amtrak's California Zephyr crosses the Mississippi.   The Mississippi River, seen from the train

5.00pm:  Passengers in the Sightseer lounge are literally on the edge of their seats as the California Zephyr rumbles slowly over the huge steel bridge across the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa.  It's official, you're now in America's Wild West!

Dinner in the diner...

Dinner on the California Zephyr   Amtrak food:  A tasty New York steak

6.00pm:  3-course meals are included in the fare for sleeping-car passengers.  Meals cost extra for coach class passengers, but are not expensive.  There are several sittings from 5pm to 8pm, but everyone who wants gets fed.  More information about food & dining car service.

Ottumwa, Iowa...

Ottumwa station, Iowa   Amtrak's California Zephyr at Ottumwa

6.55pm:  Another chance to stretch your legs, the California Zephyr calls at Ottumwa, home of fictional character Radar O'Reilly from M*A*S*H.  After Iowa, the train crosses the vast Nebraska flatlands, with stops at Omaha & Lincoln.  remember to put your watch back an hour after entering Nebraska.

Superliner coach class reclining seats on the California Zephyr   Superliner family bedroom on the California Zephyr.

Overnight in your reclining seat or private sleeper...  Passengers settle down for the night, either in a sleeper or a coach class reclining seat.  Above left, Superliner coach seats recline 40 degrees.  You can bring your own blanket or buy one from the cafe car.  Pictured right, chaos in the Smith's family bedroom on the bottom deck of a Superliner sleeping-car.  More information about the seat & sleeper options on this train.

Denver, the Mile High City...

The Zephyr about to leave Denver   The California Zephyr at Denver Union Station   Denver's Union Station

Day 3, 7.15am:  The Zephyr stops for half an hour for refuelling and servicing at Denver's historic Union Station.  Once the station had many platforms, now it has just two.  A private car is attached to the Zephyr, perhaps the ultimate way to travel by train across the States!  The Mile High City, at Denver we're already 5,280 feet above sea level.

The Big Climb into the Rocky Mountains...

Wind-break wagons   The California Zephyr climbs into the Rockies from Denver

9.00am:  Now for a real treat!  The California Zephyr leaves Denver and starts the long climb out of the Great Plains into the Rockies.  On the exposed 'Big 10 Curve', hopper cars filled with sand have been placed alongside the line to act as a wind break.

In the Rockies, the Zephyr passes through a series of tunnels carved from the rock.   The California Zephyr in the Rockies

Climbing, climbing, up, up, up, through a succession of tunnels carved from the rock...  In places, you can glimpse Denver's skyscrapers rising from the plain spread out below.  You may see deer or even elk on this part of the route. 

Scenery on the climb into the Rockies   Gross Reservoir seen from the California Zephyr in the Rockies

At times, you can look forward and see the front of the train snaking round the mountainside.  The train reaches a maximum altitude of 9,270 feet above sea level as it passes through the 6.2-mile-long Moffat Tunnel.  The tunnel opened in 1928, shaving 176 miles off the journey to the Pacific.

Winter Park...

Amtrak's California Zephyr stops at Winter Park   The California Zephyr at Winter Park

10.10am: Winter Park...  Just after the Moffat Tunnel, the California Zephyr calls at Winter Park for the nearby ski resort.

Those beautiful Colorado Canyons...

Scenery in the Colorado canyons seen from the California Zephyr   Scenery in the Colorado canyons seen from the California Zephyr   Scenery in the Colorado canyons seen from the California Zephyr

11.30am:  Now it gets even better.  The California Zephyr snakes for hours through beautiful Colorado canyons, right alongside the river and its many swirling rapids.  This is where you start to realise that Americans who fly across the States and never take the train are quite possibly insane.

More Colorado scenery seen from the California Zephyr   More Colorado scenery seen over lunch on the California Zephyr

12.30pm:  Lunch in Colorado, with scenery like this over your half-bottle of Californian cabernet sauvignon & (rather good, in fact) all-American cheeseburger in the dining car.  The Fraser Canyon is followed by the Gore Canyon...

More Colorado scenery   More Colorado scenery

Yet more Colorado scenery.  Mile after mile, it just keeps on coming...

Dining car table laid for lunch on the California Zephyr  

Relaxing in the Sightseer lounge car

After lunch, retire to the Sightseer observation-lounge car and put those wrap-around sightseeing windows to good use!

More Colorado scenery   Yet more Colorado scenery

And yet more Colorado scenery.  The landscape changes as the day progresses, as you can see from the rock colour...

'Moon' River...

Rafters moon the train!.   Those roof windows in the lounge car help you see more of the scenery!

1.00pm:  Oh no, we're being mooned!  Rafters on the Colorado moon the passing train.  The concept of 'mooning' needs to be explained to 4 year old Nate, after which he thinks it's the funniest thing ever.  He's very disappointed when another group of rafters fails to moon...

Glenwood Canyon & Glenwood Springs...

Glenwood Canyon, seen from the California Zephyr   The Zephyr calls at Glenwood Springs.

2.00pm:  Glenwood Springs...  The California Zephyr snakes through the 12-mile-long Glenwood Canyon, shared on the opposite bank with an interstate Highway, and arrives at Glenwood Springs.  A major recreational centre where the Colorado & Roaring Fork rivers meet, Doc Holliday of Gunfight at the OK Corral fame spent the last years of his life here.

The California Zephyr at Glenwood Springs   Glenwood Canyon, seen from the California Zephyr

The many Amish people travelling on our train get off at Glenwood Springs, see the bottom left corner of this photo.  Just for the record, the Amish people we talked to on the train were friendly, very real & down-to-Earth.  The photo shows the Sightseer Lounge car, with a cafe downstairs, an observation lounge above.

 

4.20pm:  Crossings the Colorado-Utah State Line.  After calling at Grand Junction, the train enters Utah, marked with white letters on the sandstone cliffs in Ruby Canyon.  These also feature steps carved by early native Americans...

Fabulous scenery in Utah...

Glenwood Canyon, seen from the California Zephyr   Dinner in Utah

4.30pm:  The scenery changes again.  At the edge of an open plain, the Zephyr runs along a range of arid hills.  The train calls at Helper ('helper' engines would be attached to eastbound trains here) and Provo, home town of Donny Osmond.

Salmon for dinner on the train   Scenery in Utah seen from the California zephyr

5.30pm:  Time for an early dinner with tasty salmon & white wine, with breathtaking scenery like this speeding past the window, a ground level tour right across the American Wild West.

More scenery in Utah from the California zephyr   Settling down for the night on the train

7.00pm:  Overnight in a seat or sleeper. Pyjama time for certain small passengers (above right), the second night on the Zephyr.  The train calls at Salt Lake City (11.05pm) and during the night it crosses from Utah to Nevada.  Remember to put your watch back another hour, as you enter yet another time zone...

Breakfast in Nevada...

Breakfast in Nevada   Desert scenery in Nevada, seen from the California Zephyr

Day 4, 8.00am:  The California Zephyr races across the Nevada desert.  The train calls at Elko, Winnemucca (whose claim to fame is having its local bank robbed by Butch Cassidy in 1900) & Sparks.  At 8:36am the train calls at Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World.

California Dreamin'...

The Zephyr enters California   Truckee, California

9.30am:  The California Zephyr enters California and calls at Truckee, named after a Paiute chief called Trukizo and the Pauite tribe's word for hello, 'Tro-kay'.  Between Salt Lake City & the Bay Area, the California Zephyr travels over the Central Pacific Railroad (now part of Union Pacific), part of the first trans-continental line across the United States completed in 1869.  There's a commentary between Truckee & Sacramento by an expert from the Sacramento Railroad Museum.

High Sierra...

The Donner Lake, seen from the California Zephyr   The train passes a track maintenance crew.

10.30am:  The Zephyr has yet another scenic treat in store, as she climbs high into the fir-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada.  The Zephyr passes the Donner Lake and heads through the Donner Pass, where the Donner Party were stranded in the winter of 1846-7.  Some of the party of 87 resorted to cannibalism, only 48 survived.

The California Zephyr climbs into the Sierra Nevada   Snow-capped mountains in California

Even in July, there's snow on the highest peaks...

The final run to the Bay Area...

Lunch - another tasy Amtrak burger   The train arrives at Sacramento

12.45pm:  Lunch - another glass or two of the merlot, and I can't resist another classic Amtrak burger...

 

2.15pm, Sacramento.  The Zephyr calls at California's state capital and home to the California State Railroad Museum.

The California Zephyr runs along the Pacific approaching the Bay Area   We've crossed the States!

3.50pm:  We've done it, we've crossed America!!  The California Zephyr reaches the Bay Area, and for a short stretch approaching Oakland it runs alongside the glistening waters.  It's a sense of elation that airline passengers will never know.  We've done it, we've crossed a continent from coast to coast, from New York to California, from the Atlantic to the Pacific...

The train arrives at Emeryville   The California Zephyr at the end of its run, at Emeryville

4.10pm, Emeryville, California:  Ten minutes ahead of schedule with its locomotive bell clanging, Amtrak train number 5 the California Zephyr pulls into Emeryville. Passengers for San Francisco board the transfer buses waiting outside the station.  And yes, we saw our checked bags being loaded safely onto the bus, checked through all the way from New York!

San Francisco!

San Francisco skyline, seen from the Amtrak Thruway bus crossing the Bay Bridge   Arrival at San Francsico Ferry Building

5.00pm:  San Francisco!  The transfer bus crosses the impressive 8.4 mile Bay Bridge, opened in 1936.  The San Francisco skyline appearing through the mist, with the prison island of Alcatraz visible on the right and the Golden Gate Bridge in the far distance.  The Amtrak bus drops us at the Ferry Building in the heart of downtown San Francisco.


Watch the video...

A 6-minute snapshot of a trip on the California Zephyr...

Compare the modern-day trip on this page with the 1950s train in this 1950s promotional video for the original California Zephyr.  It's amazing how similar the journey is today!


So how can you book a trip like this?

We booked our New York to San Francisco tickets online at www.amtrak.com.  You pay online and collect your tickets from the self-service machines at any main Amtrak station, just by placing the barcode on your booking printout under the scanner.  Easy!

You'll find timetables, advice and practical information on the Train travel in the United States page.

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