The California Zephyr is an Amtrak passenger train that runs from Emeryville, CA to Chicago, IL via Denver, CO, and Omaha, NE. The Zephyr provides great views of the Colorado River and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, as well as access to many major US cities including Denver and Chicago, with free bus service between Cheyenne, WY, and Ogden, UT connecting with the line into Salt Lake City. The California Zephyr was introduced in 1949 as one of the most beautiful train rides in America.
I first heard about the California Zephyr train in my junior year of college, and I knew it was something I had to do. My parents were hesitant at first, but they eventually gave me their blessing, and off I went. The train left Chicago at 10 PM on a Friday night, and after an overnight ride, we arrived in Emeryville, CA (near Oakland) at 8 AM the next morning. Emeryville is just a few miles from San Francisco, so we easily took BART into town. It would have been almost impossible to get there without taking BART; the walk would have taken hours!
Boarding the California Zephyr
Boarding the California Zephyr train is an entirely different experience. We lined up and showed our tickets, then boarded the train, finding out seats and settling in for a three-day journey. We grabbed dinner on board and later tucked ourselves in for the night. It was dark outside with only a sliver of the moon peeking through clouds when we arrived at the station in Emeryville just before midnight.
Stopping in Reno, NV
Reno is famous for its casinos, but it’s also a great stop for travelers because of its proximity to the Sierra Nevada mountains. From here, you can take day trips or multi-day backpacking trips. If you want to stay closer to Reno without getting in too deep with the gambling culture, check out nearby Virginia City, California Zephyr which has plenty of Victorian buildings and museums.
The West Desert and Ely, NV
There are many places to visit on the train, but the West Desert and Ely, Nevada hold a special place in my heart. We used to take this train from Chicago to San Francisco when I was younger, and it was always a treat. The West Desert is where I got my first taste of what the American West is all about. There’s nothing but sagebrush and sand dunes as far as you can see in every direction – it’s really something to see. Ely, Nevada is one of those rare towns that feels like an old Western town. You can’t get much more Old West than a town near the Utah border that’s still serviced by stagecoaches! California Zephyr
The Scenic Route from Winnemucca to Battle Mountain, NV
Don’t be fooled by the name. Winnemucca is a small town in the heart of rural Nevada, but it’s a central hub for travelers who want to take the scenic route to one of the most remote parts of the country. From here, you can catch Amtrak’s California Zephyr up through Reno and Truckee and into Tahoe (a trip that will take about two hours). If you’re more interested in spending your time exploring some of Nevada’s most impressive natural sites, this is also a great way to do it.
Geothermal features of Battle Mountain
You will not want to miss the Aurora Geothermal Area, which is located just off of the highway about two miles from Battle Mountain. As you pull up to it, you will see a small pond and steam rising from the ground. This area is fed by geothermal water that bubbles up from beneath the earth’s surface at a constant temperature of around 127 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
As we walked around this area, we noticed some people throwing snowballs at each other in order to try and create an artificial snowstorm. Apparently, this happens because as they throw snowballs on top of themselves, California Zephyr they are actually releasing moisture into the air which causes things to get really cold really fast.
The long wait for a train in Wellington, NV.
It was a cool November day and I had made the decision to take the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Seattle, WA to Los Angeles, CA. I got on the train at 11 am and it didn’t depart until 1 pm. So for an hour and a half, I found myself waiting for my train in Wellington, NV a population of about 150 people.
Fortunately for me, there was a general store where I could buy some snacks and water bottles before boarding. While waiting, there were other passengers who were trying to board too and they would all wait in line while two Amtrak employees checked tickets at the door of the store. They also sold Amtrak tickets inside which is convenient if you don’t want to wait in line outside California Zephyr with all of your luggage.
After two days on the rails, the Amtrak California Zephyr will take you from Chicago to San Francisco. Along the way, you’ll cross bridges and tunnels, and see vast fields of farmland and historic sites like Independence Hall in Philadelphia. You’ll see a changing landscape as you travel through Kansas and Colorado, then visit Utah’s Monument Valley before finally arriving in San Francisco. I recommend taking the train- it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.