California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado by Rail

It’s been an item on my wife Vaune’s bucket list for several years:  ride the California Zephyr across the country.  

The California Zephyr.  Photo by Steve Newvine.


We did not go the entire length of Amtrak’s iconic railroad route from San Francisco to Chicago, but thanks to our new grandson we accomplished a substantial portion of that journey.

To visit our grandson and his parents, we booked a sleeper car from Sacramento to Denver.  We boarded Amtrak from the Merced station and then traveled to Stockton where we transferred to a bus that would take us to the Sacramento train station. 

From there, we boarded the Zephyr for the thirty-plus hour voyage through four states.  It was a bumpy ride at times, but such is life on a train.

The California Zephyr follows part of the trail blazed by the Donner party.  This is Donner Lake.  Photo by Steve Newvine

Heading into the Sierra Mountains, we saw our first winter snow in nearly ten years.  From our compartment window, the vistas were spectacular as we viewed much of what California has to offer for those willing to move up in elevation.  


Soon, we were in Nevada

Reno’s train line leaves little for the rail passenger to see.  That’s the Sands Hotel above.  Photo by Steve Newvine.

Early on in the mountainous region of the state, we enjoyed great scenery.   However, a stop in Reno was less than spectacular because the train station that was designed to welcome Amtrak passengers had cement walls going about two stories below ground that only allowed us to see the top of the Sands and one other hotel. 

The tourism promotion side of me scratched my head over the thought process that led to that design decision.  Reno is a great small city, but you really would not know that from what you see at the train stop.  

More mountains, pristine waterways, and wildlife followed as we headed through the western edge of Nevada.  Before long, we were in the state of Utah where a stark landscape would eventually offer some of the most spectacular color we experienced on the trip.

Utah’s Ruby Canyon is a geological wonder and an amazing cacophony of color at sunset.  Photo by Steve Newvine


Through the range of glacier-carved stone, our train window served as a high-definition viewing screen to admire a true world wonder.  Cloud cover removed a good deal of the color on our eastbound trip through Ruby Canyon. 

But on the return westbound trek, the sun offered ideal highlighting of the natural color that is a signature of this place.   Later on, our conductor called attention to two bald eagles perched in a tree.   We saw two more on the return trip as well.

 At over 8,000 feet elevation, it was a very cold but strikingly beautiful stop along our trip in Fraser, Colorado.  Photo by Steve Newvine

With about six hours to go before ending our journey, we crossed into Colorado and stopped at one of the highest points.  On our journey going east and west, we stopped at Grand Junction and the community of Fraser. 

Snow and cold is big business in this community that offers its residents and visitors many months of winter sporting activities.  The sign at the Fraser train depot read that we were at 8,565 feet above sea level.  

The final destination of our trip was Union Station in Denver.  Photo by Steve Newvine

That’s a long way from Merced both in distance and in elevation.  Most Central Valley communities are at sea levels of one or two digits.  Our conductor noted that the Zephyr reaches the highest altitude of all the Amtrak train routes in the United States.

We arrived in Denver shortly after six PM mountain-time or approximately thirty-hours after boarding the Zephyr in California.  As sleeper car passengers, our meals were included. 

At every trip to the dining car, we were seated with two other passengers to fill out a four-seat booth.  As a result, we met travelers from as far away as New Zealand, as well as passengers from such places as Canada, New Orleans, Michigan, Ohio, and even the Bay Area of California. 

The conversations were great as we learned more about why people would spend a day or two, or for some many more, on a train when we all know there are faster ways to travel. 

The answers reveal how sometimes it’s just good for the soul to kick back and take your time.

There’s an often-told saying that goes something like this:  sometimes the journey is just as important if not more so than the destination.  That certainly rang true for these travelers.  Some told us that they were tired of crowded airports and TSA screenings; others wanted the stress relief that comes from not being behind a steering wheel. 

A young woman, a recent college graduate, told us she’s glad there was no Wi-Fi available so that she and others could enjoy the ambiance that is unique to train travel. 

Amtrak made sure that no one would use a gadget to disturb the other passengers.  Earphones or earbuds were required and there were overnight quiet hours.  

An Amish man we met shared his story about accompanying his wife on a health-related journey that would eventually take them to Mexico. 

He characterized the experience aboard the train with just a few words:  “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”  I think most of his fellow travelers would agree.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.