A few years ago, we attended a conference for frequent travelers. (Yes, there actually is such a thing.) One of the seminars talked about the places you can go with Amtrak on points. Never ones to fear new travel experiences, we opened a couple of credit cards and racked up the points necessary for a few trips. Although Stephanie had done some overnight train travel as a kid, I never had, and so I was looking forward to it. Our first long distance rail journey took us from Denver to Los Angeles aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr.
Our train left Denver at 8:05am. We left ourselves a nice window to get there, but Denver rush hour traffic had other ideas. We got to the train station with about 15 minutes to spare and no idea where we were headed. As we puffed up to the train with our gear, they told us to relax, that we had plenty of time. The attendant on our car directed us to our spot, and suggested we visit the dining car.
Thanks to the aforementioned credit card points, we were able to do this journey in a sleeper car. We opted for what Amtrak calls a “roomette,” but used to be called a compartment when cross-country train travel was more popular. Our private roomette had two nice, wide, reclining seats that face each other, and then fold flat for sleeping at night (or whenever, actually), and of course, a door that closes, with curtains that can be drawn from the inside. The sleepers are also considered first class, and as such, food is included. I was gonna like this!
So what exactly comes in a roomette? In addition to the two fold-down seats, there’s an upper bunk. I guess one person is expected to climb up, but Stephanie and I did our standard stuff-two-people-into-a-single-bed thing. There is a closet in case you have a burning desire to hang stuff up. We had climate control, overhead lights, reading lights and nightlights. The upper bunk contained a mattress to lay over the lower seats once folded down, and it was already made up with sheets for our sleeping pleasure.
There was a waiting list for breakfast, and so we went to wait in the “sightseer lounge car.” All the cars were “superliners,” which meant they were all double-deckers. The dining car, the lounge car and our roomette were all on the upper level, and the views were amazing wherever we went. The lounge also had curved upper windows so you could basically look right out the roof, and get a beautiful panoramic view.
The first few hours’ worth of landscape after Denver is one of Amtrak’s most scenic journeys, and so we didn’t mind waiting for breakfast at all. Train tracks are something one sees all over America, but it wasn’t until this trip that I realized that they often go where cars don’t: over mountains, through canyons, along twisty rivers, and past tiny towns.
So… having never traveled by train before, I had some questions. I’m sure you do too, so here are some answers…
1) Are there showers on board?
Yes, there are shared showers, but for only a 36 hour trip, we didn’t bother.
2) Can you check your luggage?
Yes, but again, we didn’t bother. Since we travel light, we just used the self-storage area in our car.
3) Can you get off the train?
At some of the stations, we were there long enough to get off the train and stretch our legs, and so we did.
4) Is there Wi-Fi on board?
4a) Did I care?
Not really. There was so much to see. I don’t think I’ve spent several hours looking out a window at moving scenery since I was a kid.
5) What’s the food situation like?
Ah yes, the food. The dining car only has limited seating, so it’s first come, first serve, except for dinner which is by reservation only. If you’re a party of two, they will put you at a table with two other people and let you make friends, which always suits us. The food itself was surprisingly good. Breakfast was a hot cooked meal – eggs and potatoes and biscuits, etc… We were off to a good start. Dinner turned out to be a little on the salty side, but given how much we were saving by having our meals included, we weren’t complaining. In fact, we were surprised at the sophistication of the menu. We were also relieved that the prices didn’t apply to us.
So where was I? Oh yes! After the stunning vistas of the Rockies, we were joined on our westward journey by the Colorado River. The river kept trading sides with us – first on our left, then on our right – as it bubbled through canyons and valleys. We saw many rafts of course, but we also saw kayaks, fishing boats and even stand-up paddle boarders. We resolved to do a multi-day rafting trip one of these days.
After a while, the river wandered off to the south. Or maybe we just wandered north towards Salt Lake City and Nevada. Either way, the scenery leveled out and got more desert-like. Traveling by train, you could almost imagine that you were in the Old West. I kept hoping to spot a stagecoach or a paddle wheel steamer, but no such luck. The scenery, however, still did not disappoint.
That night, I was excited to try the whole sleeping thing. I think it took all of 30 seconds for the swaying of the train and the surprisingly quiet sounds of train travel to lull me to sleep. Stephanie woke up before me the next morning, and snuck off to get some beautiful early morning shots of Nevada.
The scenery changed again as we climbed through the Sierra Nevadas; through Nevada’s silver country, and into California’s gold country. We went through the famed Donner Pass, and were relieved that no one on our train ate anyone else.
The first part of our train journey ended in Sacramento. From there, we hopped on Amtrak’s San Joaquin to Bakersfield. The San Joaquin has no sleeper section and is more like a commuter train, so there are no interesting photos. We did see a sunset over California’s wine country, though.
From Bakersfield, the trip was even less interesting. Amtrak put us on a bus to L.A.’s beautiful Union Station. Our L.A. adventures are the subject of another post, but it’s safe to say we both absolutely loved our first long-distance train trip. We have another one coming up, and we expect it to be even more amazing.