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    California Zephyr: the legendary train that runs from Chicago to San Francisco

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    Lluis Enric Mayans

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    An epic car-free journey through the United States: have you ever thought about it? Well, we know that in America the charm of an on the road is inimitable, but there are also other ways that allow you to enjoy the boundless landscapes, the incredible naturalistic beauties and the characteristic American cities, without necessarily having to rent a car.

    Rail connections in America they are few, if compared to the dense network of tracks that intersect in our Europe, but they are not non-existent. Indeed, it is possible to create a large number of really interesting itineraries using only the train. One of the most famous routes is that of California Zephyr, which in a single line it crosses 7 states.

    Can't or don't want to drive? Do you simply love train travel? You want to find out a part of the United States other than the most popular routes? Here is the perfect trip for you!


    • Why a trip on the California Zephyr?
      • The California Zephyr between history and legend
    • Detailed route and best stages
      • Recommended stops in Illinois
      • Recommended stages in Iowa
      • Recommended stops in Nebraska
      • Recommended stops in Colorado
      • Recommended stops in Utah
      • Recommended stages in Nevada
      • Recommended stops in California
    • How much does it cost and where to buy tickets
    • Recommended itineraries
      • 15-day California Zephyr itinerary
      • 7-day California Zephyr itinerary
    • USA coast to coast by train: from New York to San Francisco with the California Zephyr

    Why a trip on the California Zephyr?

    Panoramic wagon. Photo by Fred Garz.

    The California Zephyr is perhaps the most famous US railroad and deserves all its fame. Running on the tracks from Chicago to San Francisco it means crossing landscapes that change from hour to hour. Between Lake Michigan and the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, they alternate boundless plains and majestic mountains, to be admired with the nose attached to the window or to be explored by getting off at the various stops.

    You may wonder why a journey like this is worth taking: the answers are many. First of all, not everyone likes to drive (or for various reasons they cannot). If you fall into this category, a long train ride is the ideal solution to be able to admire those views that make crossing the United States so incredible.

    The second reason concerns the places touched by the railway. Some of the areas crossed by the California Zephyr, in particular those of Iowa, Nebraska and Nevada, are little traveled by mass tourism and far from the more classic routes. Traveling the same routes by car involves a large waste of time and energy, while the train allows you to visit them effortlessly.

    Ma the real added value, which only a train journey can give, concerns the relationship with other people. Compared to the car, the train offers a possibility: during the journey it is possible interact with other passengers. In so many hours on board, you will surely make friends with someone, receive some advice from local passengers on the best things to do and see, on the best restaurants to dine in as soon as you get off at the next station. In short, all that remains is to take the ticket!

    The California Zephyr between history and legend

    Postcard representing an old California Zephyr train. Photo by Loco Steve.

    The train that we can take today to cross a large part of the North American continent has one almost a century long history. It all began in 1939, when the San Francisco Bay saw the opening of the Golden Gate International Exposition. To facilitate the participation of citizens of other states, a temporary passenger train was thought of, theexhibition flyer.

    The popularity of this treats then prompted in the following years to make it official e in 1949 the new California Zephyr made its first voyage. For the maiden voyage, each woman on board received a gift of orange and silver orchids (the two colors of the convoy), which had arrived especially for the occasion from Hawaii.

    A curiosity concerns the Zephyrette, who served from 1949 to 1970. In practice, they were hostesses who worked on board trains, but who had a number of tasks higher than the hostesses we are used to interfacing with today on airplanes. The Zephyrette were real tour guides, who told passengers about the beauties to admire along the way, but they also babysat looking after children and da nurse in case of need.

    The original line was canceled in 1970 and for a time it was possible to make the journey only on two different lines: the "Denver Zephyr" between Chicago and Denver and the "City of San Francisco" between Denver and San Francisco. Today's trafficking, very similar to the initial one, is operated by Amtrak since 1983. Even today it is one of the most interesting train journeys that can be made in the United States, given that, despite the passing of the years, there have not been many modernizations. An example? The newest carriages are from 1996!

    Detailed route and best stages

    The California Zephyr in Utah. Photo by Loco Steve.

    The California Zephyr crosses 7 states and performs 35 stops along i 3924 kilometers of the railway. Let's see in detail every train stop, state by state, in order of passage. Keep in mind that, in the direction of Chicago, the stops are the same in reverse.

    From Illinois to California landscapes and cities change. There are many alternatives to choose from and it is natural to ask: where to stop? Before proposing a couple of itineraries I will therefore try to highlight in the next paragraphs those that are undoubtedly the most interesting stages, both because they are beautiful cities to visit, and because they are located near important naturalistic attractions. It goes without saying that the two terminus, Chicago ed Emeryville (from which it is reached San Francisco with local public transport) are already included as milestones.

    All California Zephyr stops
    • Illinois:
      • Chicago
      • naperville
      • Princeton
      • Galesburg
    • Iowa:
      • Burlington
      • Mount pleasant
      • Ottumwa
      • Osceola
      • Creston
    • Nebraska:
      • Omaha
      • Lincoln
      • Hastings
      • Holdrege
      • McCook
    • Colorado:
      • Fort morgan
      • Denver
      • Fraser-Winter Park
      • Granby
      • Glenwood springs
      • Grand junction
    • Utah:
      • Green River
      • helper
      • Provo
      • Salt Lake City
    • Nevada:
      • Elko
      • Winnemucca
      • Reindeer
    • California:
      • Truckee
      • Colfax
      • Roseville
      • Sacramento
      • Davis
      • Martinez
      • Richmond
      • Emeryville

    Recommended stops in Illinois

    In Illinois there aren't any particularly good stops beyond Chicago, but if you're traveling in June take that into consideration Galesburg. If you undertake this journey you cannot fail to be passionate about trains and the Railroad Days are held every year in June in this town. On the other hand, trains are a real attraction in Galesburg, which also has a museum dedicated to railways.

    Advice on where to sleep in Chicago

    Find accommodation in Galesburg

    Recommended stages in Iowa

    Snake Alley, Burlington, Iowa. Photo by Loco Steve

    Burlington, the first stop in Iowa it is small but curious. This town of just over 25 inhabitants has many stories to tell despite its small size: if one of its hills was long called Vinegar Hill for a vinegar factory that stood above it, the city itself carried the nickname of Porkopolis due to the production of pork.

    It is worth stopping here for two reasons above all. The first is that it rises on the banks of the Mississippi, which forms the border between the two states and on which it is possible to take beautiful walks in the parks that surround it and paddle in a kayak. The second is that it is here Snake Alley: the crookedest street in the world. In comparison, San Francisco's more famous Lombard Street is nothing.

    Find accommodation in Burlington

    Recommended stops in Nebraska

    Even the first stop in Nebraska, Omaha is a stop not to be missed. Omaha is also a border town, and it too overlooks one of America's most famous rivers: the Missouri. Here you can learn a little about the history of the Mormon pioneers at the Mormon Trail Center, or visit an old-time station at Durham Museum, where Art Deco meets the world of railways.

    Go to Joslyn Castle and don't forget to take a photo of the Kenefic Park locomotives - on the other hand, you're on an epic train ride! On this page you will find all the activities to do in Omaha.

    The other best stop in Nebraska is the small state capital: Lincoln. But bear in mind that there aren't many attractions other than the impressive government building and the local history museum.

    Find accommodation in Omaha

    Find accommodation in Lincoln

    Recommended stops in Colorado

    Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

    How not to stop in Denver, Colorado? The "Mile High City" is a vibrant city where modern skyscrapers are overlooked by the magnificent peaks of the Rocky Mountains. In our Denver article, you'll find tips on everything there is to see and do in the Colorado capital, from quirky museums to magnificent parks.

    But the main reason why it is worth stopping here is the Rockies. Don't miss out on a half-day trip to appreciate some of the stunning views they have to offer.

    Half day excursion to the Rocky Mountains

    Advice on where to sleep in Denver

    Winter Park is 2780 meters away above sea level and it is a very small village that comes alive especially in winter for the ski season. Many ski slopes start from Winter Park and if you take the route in winter you could also consider a sporting stop for a day or two. The train stops in Fraser below, which is well connected to Winter Park. On the other hand, if you are traveling in the summer, stop by at Glenwood springs, venturing into the mountains with a rafting or by bike through the scenographic Glenwood Canyon along the banks of the Colorado River.

    Find accommodation in Glenwood Springs

    Grand junction it is the last stop on the train in Colorado, before crossing the border into Utah. The Colorado national monument. Unfortunately there are no buses or organized tours to visit it - the only way is to rent a car in Grand Junction.

    If you have at least a couple of days to spare, you can use Grand Junction as a home base for some interesting ones excursions between Colorado and Utah. Points of interest less than a two-hour drive from Grand Junction abound. Very close, in addition to the Colorado National Monument, there is the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.

    You can take the scenic route of Gateway or the spectacular UT-128 on the shores of Colorado, at the ends of which the ghost town of Cisco and Castle Valley. If you have enough time, the national parks of Arches e Canyonlands are among the must-see natural wonders in Utah.

    Find accommodation in Grand Junction

    Recommended stops in Utah

    Antelope Island State Park, Utah

    In Utah, get off the train in Salt Lake City. Green River would be close to the attractions mentioned in the case of Grand Junction, but unlike the previous city, there are no car rentals available here: you will not be able to visit any park or locality in the surroundings. The other stops are uninteresting, while Salt Lake City looks like a pleasant city to get around in a day and is also the gateway to the great salt lake that gives it its name.

    One day tour to the great salt lake

    Among the main attractions there are Antelope Island (here you will find the reference tour) and the largest copper mine in the world (here you will find the reference tour). You may also want to consider an organized day tour to one of Utah's great parks from here.

    Our tips for sleeping in Salt Lake City

    Recommended stages in Nevada

    In Nevada, the towns in the middle of the desert crossed by the railway do not have great attractions. I recommend them only if you have enough time to plan a large number of stops, or if you prefer to make an extra stop in one city and spend less time on the nature attractions mentioned for Colorado and Utah.

    In particular, Elko it is known as one of the main "Western Towns" in the area and my suggestion is to stop here if your trip is planned for January. In fact, in the first month of the year, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is held here, a real celebration of the western lifestyle. All year round, if you get off the train at Elko, don't miss a visit to the Western Folklife Center: the cowboy lifestyle museum.

    Find accommodation in Elko

    Are you traveling in February? Then stop at Winnemucca to watch the biggest rodeo in Nevada, a very special experience if that's your thing. If ghost towns inspire you, however, rent a car to discover the ghost towns around Winnemucca.

    Reindeer instead, nicknamed “The Greatest Little City in the World”, it could be a stopover option if you want to experience gambling before exiting the Las Vegas state borders.

    Find accommodation in Winnemucca

    Find accommodation in Reno

    Recommended stops in California

    Sacramento, California

    Finally, in California stop in Sacramento. The capital of the sunny state is worth a day's visit before reaching the railroad terminus. Read our dedicated article to discover the old town, the museums and all the attractions of this city. To stay on the railway theme, don't miss the Sacramento River Train: a 3 hour tour on an old diesel train in an old west setting.

    Our tips for sleeping in Sacramento

    Once you get off at Emeryville station, you will be at Oakland. In our dedicated article you will find all the details for a visit to this interesting town, but often ignored by tourists because it is overshadowed by nearby San Francisco. Then getting to the city of the Golden Gate is very simple.

    How to travel from Emeryville / Oakland to San Francisco

    Our tips for sleeping in San Francisco

    How much does it cost and where to buy tickets

    The Chicago-Emeryville direct route departs from base price of $ 141. But beware: we are talking about 51 consecutive hours of travel, in a normal seat. The seats are reclining and it is therefore also possible to spend the night there, but if you are not used to traveling in a manner on public transport at night you may find it difficult to sleep.

    The price obviously changes if you want a berth in which you can sleep peacefully. The standard two-seat cabin it costs $ 1000, so $ 500 each. In the cabin you will have greater comfort and intimacy, but there is also the possibility to move around in the other carriages of the train, especially in those that offer catering service.

    Your trip is highly likely it will not be all on the seat, nor all in the bunk. By scheduling stops along the way, you can in fact save money for shorter routes by staying in the normal coach wagon and perhaps opt for the greater comfort of the berth on long routes that involve the night. Depending on how many and which stops you will make, the sum of the train tickets will cost you a little more or a little less, but staying within the range $ 140-500 each.

    To buy tickets you can do a search on the site indicated in the button below, remembering that, among the results, the California Zephyr is the one with 0 changes. Clicking on the details will also show the name of the California Zephyr train. Tickets are fully refundable if canceled within 8 days of departure, while a 25% cancellation fee is charged if canceled later.

    Look for tickets to the California Zephyr

    Recommended itineraries

    We have seen which are the train stops and which of these are the best stops, but how long does it take to make a trip on the California Zephyr that allows you to see all the best along the way? I thought to 2 routes, respectively for two weeks and a week, which you can follow to the letter or easily reshape to your liking, for tailor the trip to your needs specifics and your personal tastes in terms of cities to visit, natural beauties to explore, time available.

    15-day California Zephyr itinerary

    California Zephyr on the border of Utah and Colorado. Photo by Loco Steve.

    To better enjoy all the beauties scattered along the route of this mythical railway the ideal is two full weeks. I propose below an itinerary that can be comfortably lengthened or shortened, simply by deciding to stay several days in a specific city or to cancel it from the program.

    • Days 1 and 2: Chicago. The great metropolis on Lake Michigan has so many things to see and do. One day is not much and I recommend that you dedicate at least one full day in addition to that of your landing after your flight from Spain. Advice on what to see in Chicago
    • Day 3: Chicago to Burlington. After a last morning in Chicago, at 14 pm board the California Zephyr heading for Burlington; you will arrive at 17.25pm ​​after crossing Illinois and passing over the waters of the Mississippi. A stroll downtown before having dinner and overnight in the border town, which you can explore the next morning.
    • Day 4: gives Burlington to Omaha. Most of the day you will be in Burlinton, take the opportunity to take a tour of Snake Street and discover the Mississippi. At 17.25pm, take the train to Omaha, where you will arrive at 22.55pm. It will be an opportunity to dine in the dining car (or, buy dinner in town before boarding). Given the timetable, look for accommodation in Omaha near the station.
    • Day 5: gives Omaha to Denver. Waking up in Omaha, you will have the whole day to visit it. Then in the evening you will experience the first night on board the train, taking it at 23.05 pm towards Denver. Advice on what to see in Denver
    • Days 6 and 7: Devner e le Rocky Mountains. The train arrives in Denver at 7.15am. Dedicate the day to the city, spend the night here, and the next day take a hike in the Rocky Mountains. Also spend the night of the second day in Denver: you will have the train early in the morning. Advice on what to see in the Rocky Mountain park
    • Days 8, 9 and 10: Grand Junction and the parks between Colorado and Utah. The train departs Denver at 8.05am and arrives at Grand Junction at 15.57pm. During the afternoon you have time to rent a car and start your short but incredible on the road through one of the most spectacular areas, from a naturalistic point of view, in the United States (see the paragraph dedicated to this area above for more details).
    • Day 11: Grand Junction to Salt Lake City. Make sure you get back to Grand Junction in time to board the train which departs at 16.10pm. You will arrive in Salt Lake City at 23.05 pm: the time is not optimal, but there is no shortage of accommodation in the city and it is not difficult to find one near the train station.
    • Day 10: Salt Lake City. A full day is enough to visit the city. If you intend to go hiking in the surrounding area, simply add a day to the overall itinerary or leave a day earlier from Grand Junction. The day ends at 23.30pm when the train departs Salt Lake City for Sacramento. Advice on what to see in Salt Lake City
    • Day 11: Salt Lake City to Sacramento. The night and the morning are spent on board the train: you will arrive in Sacramento at 14.13pm. Spend the afternoon in the Californian capital, finding an overnight hotel here. Advice on what to see in Sacramento
    • Day 12: from Sacramento to San Francisco. It sounds strange, but it is not possible to get on the California Zephyr in Sacramento, the city in which only disembarkation from the train is allowed. On the other hand, there are many local trains between Sacramento and the terminus of the route: Emeryville, in Oakland. At the time you see fit, take a train to Emeryville and from there one of the various means to San Francisco. Advice on what to see in Oakland
    • Days 13 and 14: San Francisco. Two days is the minimum to visit San Francisco. There is so much to see and do that it will seem too few. Travel Guide to San Francisco
    • Day 15: return to Spain.

    7-day California Zephyr itinerary

    The California Zephyr in Colorado. Photo by Loco Steve.

    If you don't have enough time to follow the two-week itinerary recommended above, consider that you can too travel this route in a week, while making a number of interesting stops.

    The proposal I make below concerns stops in the cities that are worth visiting in themselves. Nothing prevents you from making different stops according to your interest, or to cancel some of them in order to be able to dedicate time to visits to the natural parks mentioned in the previous paragraphs starting from Grand Junction.

    • Day 1: Chicago. If time is running out, even a big city like Chicago must be visited more quickly. If your flight lands in the morning, you will have a good part of this day as well as the morning of day 2. If, on the other hand, you land late and are interested in seeing Chicago well, you can simply cancel one of the following stops. Advice on what to see in Chicago
    • Day 2: Chicago to Denver. After the morning in Chicago, take the train at 14pm. Passing through Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, you will arrive in Colorado at 7.15am the next morning.
    • Day 3: Denver. Dedicate the day to visiting the city and spend the night here. Advice on what to see in Denver
    • Day 4: Denver to Salt Lake City. At 8.05 am get on the train: you will travel the whole day admiring from the window the natural wonders that Colorado and Utah have to offer even to those who are just passing through. You will arrive at 23.05 pm, ready to sleep in a new city.
    • Day 5: Salt Lake City. Spend the day visiting the city. In the evening, at 23.30pm, take the train to Emeryville. Advice on what to see in Salt Lake City
    • Day 6: Salt Lake City to San Francisco. You will wake up on the train and continue to travel on the tracks until 16.10pm, at which time the train stops at the terminus: Emeryville. You will easily find a way to reach San Francisco from here.
    • Day 7: San Francisco. As in the case of Chicago, San Francisco is also worth a multi-day visit. Depending on your flight times and how many additional days you can have available, you can choose whether to cancel one or more intermediate stages. Travel Guide to San Francisco

    USA coast to coast by train: from New York to San Francisco with the California Zephyr

    And if we wanted to make a real one Coast to Coast of the United States completely by train? As we have seen, this railway line connects Chicago with Emeryville, from which you can easily reach San Francisco and therefore the Pacific Ocean. The question is: how is Chicago connected with the Atlantic coast?

    The possibilities would be many, but the fastest director on rails is the one that puts Chicago in contact with New York City. From the Big Apple it takes about 19 hours by train (departure at 15.40 pm, arrival at 9.50 am the next day) to arrive in Chicago. The ticket price starts at $ 90. Also in this case the journey can easily be broken into several stages, depending on your needs.

    Train to New York and Chicago

    An alternative that I propose is to leave (or arrive, if the departure is planned from San Francisco) to Boston. The Boston-Chicago train takes 22 hours: it departs at 12.50 and arrives at 9.50 the next morning. Tickets start at $ 96. The arrival time is the same as for the train leaving from New York, because it is in fact the same train. In practice, the two trains depart from Boston and New York respectively and meet in Albany, where the wagons are joined and continue as a single train.

    Train to Boston and Chicago

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