“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road
The biggest regret I have from all my travels is that I do not get an opportunity to travel slowly. All my travels till date invariably ends being a mad rush to try see all the places at once. I am still happy since I have seen more places than most people I know personally and I have to be happy since this is the career choice I made. But this time, I wanted at least some time for myself and to take life as it comes.
We are a generation besotted with American movies. Route 66 has the notoriety of being one of the best road trips in the World. Even though only parts of the iconic Route 66 exist these days, it has inspired many a traveler to relive the days of a forgotten era. But driving all the way from Chicago to San Francisco all by myself was not a practical option for me. Life is strange that way. It gives you opportunities and takes it away from you in a heartbeat.
Even though my heart wanted to do it, I knew it was a futile task trying to convince anyone, myself included. So I did not even try. As I was scouring the Internet for what to do in the spare time I had, I came across something interesting, the California Zephyr.
California Zephyr: Train Travel in USA
It was not what I wanted but it was still perfect. It was an Amtrak train that ran from Chicago to San Francisco every day. The journey time was around 50 hours and it took me between the points I wanted to travel. I was anyway between two sets of friends and I had time.
While booking I realized that the charges for booking a shared roomette (berth) at the last moment was around 900$ which was ridiculous since I paid only a little over that for my flight tickets from India to US and back. I finally decided to book a coach seat for around 220$.
Whatever said and done, it was an unforgettable experience and you should travel by train in America if you ever get the chance. You must be wondering that I say this about everything. Yes, that is because the World is such a beautiful place and all experiences are ingrained in your heart and soul.
I left Chicago on a Tuesday afternoon. Since all Amtrak trains leave from the Union station, we were asked to be there at least an hour before the departure time. The check-in procedure is very similar to an airline. You can check in your luggage (up to 2 checked in luggage) at the counter and then you are asked to wait in the grand hall (for Coach Seats).
15 minutes before departure, someone will call your train number and you are asked to form a queue. Then the same person will take you to the train and you are assigned seats based on the order in which you are standing. Luckily I got a window seat that day.
I spent the first hour reading. I was quite familiar with this route since I was staying in the suburbs of Chicago and had taken the same route via the Metra system almost every day. As we left the Suburbs of Chicago, the scenery slowly started to change. It was soon replaced by the never ending corn fields. You do not see a single soul out there and then you realize the enormity of this country.
From then, it was such an amazing journey filled with scenic routes. California Zephyr is equipped with an observatory car and the views from this is unparalleled. You are stunned at every turn at the beauty of the place. Gorgeous sunsets, unending farm fields, beautiful mountains, gorgeous rivers and streams, you get it all.
How much I loved the tunnels. At one point you pass through countless tunnels.Those cute little farm houses, the majestic looking horses, even those big cows, those water towers. Everything adds to the beauty of the journey.
The highlights of the trip include Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevadas, Ruby Canyons, Truckee River, Donner Pass, Colorado River, Moffat Tunnel, Glenwood Canyons, Book Cliffs. The list is endless. One minute you may be struck by the beauty of the majestic mountains and the next minute you will be staring at the Ruby canyons. It passes through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California.
But the best part of the whole journey were the conversations. You meet a variety of people from all walks of life. An 84 year old doctor who was travelling with his 45 year old adopted son, a grandmother traveling with her two teenage grandkids, a hippie traveler, Amish folks, a twice divorced man trying to find some closure, a recently retired couple trying to do their bit to see the World, a teacher on his summer break trying to do a train journey around America, a railway food attender who has been doing this journey for so many years.
How I loved the conversations and the best part of it all was that there were no strings attached. They were your best friends for those two days, your only contact with the human world and the next day you cannot even remember their names.
Being Indians, we are accustomed to always being surrounded by too many people. But that is the beauty of train and solo travel. If you want to talk to someone, you can always find someone. But if you want to be left alone in your own thoughts, then no one ever comes in your way. You are left to day dream, read or just gaze out into the unknown. I think that solitude is something that will always be precious to me.
I spent close to 52 hours on that train. But I wanted it to never stop. Doing nothing can be addictive. You do not even have to take a shower since that option is not there for the coach seats. But you forget all that. You just want to be lost in that perfect moment for however long you can.
You cannot however live in that perfect moment for long. Even though we were delayed by a couple of hours, we were soon on our way to Emeryville. The last train station is Emeryville and then you are taken by bus to San Francisco city center. The bubble you are living in had to burst.
California Zephyr is one of the longest train journeys of the world. So how many have you been on?
You can see the beauty of this train travel through the frames that I captured. Do let me know me know of your feedback and comments below.
Read my other USA posts:
- Washington DC In A Day
- Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida
- 2 days in Tampa, Florida
- 3 days in Chicago
- 4 days in San Francisco
- One day Trip to Niagara Falls
- 3 day New York Itinerary
Find my recommendations for guide books on USA.
Guidebooks for USA
Traveling to USA and need more guidance on which books to read? These are our recommendations for you to read before you go.
Looking to book your trip now? Find some of my favorite resources I use while booking my trip. You can also find my travel gear here.
Book Your Flight
I am a Skyscanner fan when it comes to booking international flights. I use Makemytrip and Yatra for domestic flights.
Booking is my go to resource for booking hotel accommodation and I use Airbnb for booking my homestays. I also compare prices on Tripadvisor always. Another one I always use is Expedia.
As an Indian, I prefer ICICILombard and I am always insured when I am traveling outside India. In addition, I have used World Nomads and SafetyWing for some of my trips.
I do go on a lot of day tours especially when I am traveling solo. Depending on convenience, my choices are Viator or Getyourguide.
21 thoughts on “Across America’s Heartland by Train in 2023”
Super story! We're planning a trip around the States next year and this is golddust resource for our planning 🙂 Favourite culinary prize you tried you recommend to us?
Well I am a Vegetarian and hence I am not sure if I am the right person to recommend food. Nevertheless I tried so many new cuisines and I loved so many of them. I loved Thai Cuisine the best.
I have never been a fan of train travel, but your pictures and this amazing post makes me want to jump on that train immediately! Great post 🙂
I am skeptical to do it in India too. But this was a nice experience. And thank you. 🙂
Beautiful! I would love to do this. I love kind of enjoy train travel. The experience feels more "authentic" since I get to meet more locals.
Very nice and memorable experience , though i do not think to be possible in India
Great experience you had there. Love to do this one day 🙂
Thanks Sonal. Yes it was awesome talking to the locals and that is why I loved the conversations.
Thanks Sadhvi. Yes as an Indian woman, I do not think train travel would be as memorable in India.
Thanks Danik. You definitely should do it once.
We love traveling by train – in India, Thailand, Canada, Germany, China – such a great way to see the country. Next would be the US, so that will come handy – thank you! Patricia – ZeWanderingFrogs.com
Thank You Patricia.
This looks like a fabulous way to see so much of America in one long trip. I went on an Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Francisco about twenty years ago and still remember being glued to the window and the views the whole time 🙂
I know Stephanie. It is so addictive to just stare out of the windows. Such an amazing scenery.
Congratulations! Your blog post was selected for Tangy Tuesday Picks edition on November 24, 2015 at BlogAdda.
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My family of 16-20 is planning to take this trip next summer. We are considering flying out to Denver from Philadelphia, and starting our journey there after a few days of sightseeing. As I looked over the possible places to stop, I am considering one stop in Glenwood Springs to see the caverns and go rafting. Are there any other stops you’d suggest. We are taking another train to L.A. and catching the Southwest Chief back east to maybe Albuquerque before flying back home. Any input would be very welcome.
I actually did not stop anywhere on the way. But I have been to sections of Sierra Nevada before and I loved it. Donner pass is also gorgeous. Glenwood canyon is anyway on your list. Hope you have fun during this trip.
I’ve only taken short journeys on the trains here (Chicago to Milwaukee, Seattle to Vancouver) I am intrigued by the idea, but I think I prefer to drive myself and my dog!
I am so glad I came across your story. My husband and I will be celebrating our one year anniversary and decided to take a train ride. We weren’t sure if we’d like it, so we are going from Nebraska to Colorado just to try it out. We leave in 5 days and I am so excited. Thank you for taking the time to post your experience.
A great option to tour the USA by train, how many days does it take to travel from coast to coast?