Taking the Zephyr Train from Chicago to San Francisco

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Long-distance train travel in the U.S. is not a popular choice, partly because it takes more than three days to cross our massive country, and partly because flying is cheaper and quicker. On the other hand, traveling by train can be an extraordinary and unique experience, especially when you’re talking about Amtrak’s Zephyr train.

Here’s why you should seriously consider taking the Zephyr for two full days, from Chicago to San Francisco:

The Zephyr promises one of the most beautiful train rides in North America. Starting from the lovely Beaux-Arts train station in Chicago, you’ll travel down through the rolling hills of Illinois and Iowa, crossing the Mississippi River right around sunset, then moving through the plains of Nebraska by night. In the morning you’ll wake up near Denver, and shortly after, you’ll be in some very remote parts of the Rocky Mountains.

After following the Colorado River through Gore Canyon, the landscape will slowly morph into red rock desert as you pass through Northern Utah and Nevada. Once in California, you’ll follow the Truckee River and then ascend into the Sierra Nevada, a highlight of which is emerging above Donner Lake. From there it’s a gorgeous descent toward the San Francisco Bay Area. At various points, knowledgeable conductors and National Park Service employees will teach you about each region. Try getting all that from 30,000 feet in the air, or while driving on a highway that looks identical in every state. And spending 52 hours on a Greyhound? Forget it.

Riding the Zephyr is easy. Driving demands constant attention, and traffic or no traffic, it can be just as tiring as slogging through the airport. With Amtrak there’s no long line, no security, no unpacking then repacking, no full body scan, and no enhanced pat-down. Just board the train like a human being with all the liquids you want, and then you can rest, roam, eat, sip coffee, or enjoy the scenery at your leisure. And if you have a sleeper compartment, your nights will be restful and climate-controlled. You can also opt for a private bathroom. Riding even the newest of Greyhound buses is nowhere near that comfortable.

The Zephyr brings people together. There’s something about buses and planes that makes you want to curl up and ignore the other passengers. But on the Zephyr, you won’t go long without meeting someone who’s fascinating, and that’s half the fun. Whether you’re in the dining car (where everyone shares tables), the observatory car (which has floor-to-ceiling windows), or conversing across the aisle, there’s always some common ground: everyone’s interested in the scenery and the experience of train travel. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be there.

Have you ridden the Zephyr? If so, how was your experience?

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About Author

Sarah is the North America Editor for Go! Girl Guides and she wrote the New York City guidebook. Raised in rural Texas on mesquite barbecue and barrel racing, Sarah lived in Indiana for two years before moving to New York by herself. Some of her favorite experiences in North America include snowmachining outside of Anchorage, exploring Caladesi Island off the coast of Florida, touring a Cold War bunker in West Virginia, watching the sun set over Chicago from Lake Michigan, and taking an overnight train from Montreal to Halifax.