A Ride on Amtrak's California Zephyr
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
My dad has been wanting to ride the train across the country. We decided to start with a shorter route from Indianapolis to Grand Junction, Colorado. Our goal was to see the Utah National Parks and the Grand Canyon. We worked with Amtrak to create our itinerary. We did have to rent a car for part of the trip to see the Utah parks and to get to the Grand Canyon. Williams, AZ is the departure point for the Grand Canyon Railway that travels to the South Rim Village. It leaves at 9:30 am and returns at 5:45 pm. We decided not to take this train as our rental car gave us more flexibility to spend more time exploring the Canyon.
The California Zephyr travels from Chicago to San Francisco with major stops in Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Sacramento. The most scenic portion of our trip was the Colorado portion. The train winds up through the Rockies reaching an altitude of 9600 feet. Elderly folks might have a little bit of difficulty breathing at that altitude, but my dad and his friend didn’t have too much trouble. The train travels at that altitude for only a short time. The path through the Rockies is an engineering marvel. There are numerous tunnels, the longest of which is six miles long and takes more than 10 minutes to traverse. There are no roads along that part of the route so you see places that can be seen by no other means.
We booked roomettes, which are small two-person rooms with a lower and upper bunk. One of dad’s friends also joined us so we booked three rooms so no one would have to climb up to the upper bunk. During the day, the roomettes have seating for two and a small table for dining or working. They are small and there is not much room for more than a small carry-on bag, but they maximize the space with clothing hooks, small cubbies, and wall plugs. Our room did not have USB ports but I had brought a wall plug with multiple USB ports so that wasn’t an issue. The biggest problem was there is no Wi-Fi in the sleeping cars. Wi-Fi is only available in the dining cars and observation car. There were restrooms with showers at either end of the car that served the approximately 20 rooms on our floor of the car. They are a little larger than airport restrooms but function in a similar fashion. Since we only spend one night on the train, we didn’t use the shower.
By booking the roomettes, all the food on the train was free. A steward was available to assist as well. Ours was great. She put the beds down at night and reset the seats in the morning. My father had some difficulty walking on the moving train. We were in the last sleeping car which was five or six cars from the dining car. That was too far for him to walk so she took our food orders and brought our meals to our room.
The dining car worked on a reservation system and used communal seating, so you were able to meet your fellow travelers. For dinner, the dining staff came through the sleeping cars to provide menus and reservation times. Breakfast and lunch were first-come, first-serve. The food was pretty good. There were several entrée choices including beef, fish, and vegetarian options. Lunch was burgers, salads, and other sandwiches. Breakfast was pretty typical – pancakes, omelets, etc.
There are larger rooms available which would accommodate larger groups. They had sinks in the rooms and larger sitting areas so that more people could gather and enjoy the ride. If you chose not to book a room, the general seats did recline and had footstools and more room than airplane seats so that you could get some sleep. There was a café car where passengers who didn’t book rooms could buy food. It carried mostly snacks, sandwiches, and breakfast items like muffins. Many people brought their own food.
The observation car provided amazing views of the trip. Seats there are first-come, first-serve but train staff did ask people to rotate in and out to allow more people to enjoy the views.
You can bring more luggage on the train than you can on a plane. We were allowed to check two bags and carry on two bags plus a personal item. Checked bags were inaccessible during the trip. There was storage space for larger carry-ons downstairs (our rooms were on the 2nd floor) and we were able to access them easily.
My father needed wheelchairs at the train stations, and they were free and readily available. There are also a few handicap-accessible rooms on the train that have in-room toilets and sinks, but they try to keep them available for wheelchair-dependent passengers. Since my father only needs a wheelchair occasionally, they didn’t allow us to book one of these rooms.
All in all, we had a good time on the train. If you are not in a hurry to get to your destination, it is a relaxing way to travel.
Contract me if you are ready to begin your rail adventure.