Chronicles of a Cross-Country Trek: Amtrak’s California Zephyr

October 27, 2023

I have loved trains for as long as I can remember. I grew up with Thomas the Tank Engine, and one of my earliest memories is of a scenic ride aboard the Tennessee Valley Railroad — the ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo.’ Despite Atlanta’s history as the country’s preeminent rail hub, everyday train ridership was never something I was able to do as much as I would have liked. In college, I commuted regularly on the MBTA and rode Amtrak’s Northeast Regional (or the Acela if I could swing it) from Boston to New York to visit my grandparents. It solidified my love and appreciation for trains — it was so much better than owning a car and driving in Boston traffic, easier and more pleasant than flying over shorter distances.

Since moving back to Atlanta, the quantity of train travel in my day-to-day life has once again diminished. I’ll take MARTA to the airport when I can, but it’s not as convenient as it should be (I could write another blog post about why that’s the case, but I digress…), and Amtrak has just one train per day through Atlanta. So it was time.



I met up with my brother in Chicago for a jam-packed weekend of architecture tours, bird walks, museums, and the finest cuisine the Windy City has to offer (Chicago-style hot dogs, deep-dish pizza, and Italian beef sandwiches). 

Then, at 2 p.m. on Monday, we boarded the Zephyr.

The passage of time is something that I think about probably more than most people. My work as a motion graphic designer and video editor is governed extensively by the ways in which people experience time. If a video is too long, people won’t watch it. If a sound byte is too brief, people might miss it. A five-minute video might seem long in the era of 60-second TikToks, but if it’s engaging enough, it will feel much quicker.

This was very much the case aboard the Zephyr — I had downloaded hours of TV and movies (Murder on the Orient Express, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Snowpiercer, amongst others) to watch if boredom set in. I had two books and several card games packed.

We didn’t need them. For nearly two full days, from sunrise to sunset, we looked out the window. Time, like the countryside and towns we moved through, flew by.



One of my favorite fun facts is that time zones were invented because of the transcontinental railroad. Each station used to keep its own time, which was exactly as confusing as it sounds. So a national system of timekeeping was implemented. 

I don’t think I fully appreciated the elegance of this nearly invisible system until my trip aboard the Zephyr. Amtrak does not necessarily have a stellar reputation for timeliness, but our journey was as smooth as can be. Despite an extended stop to swap locomotives with another train, we stuck to the timetable almost exactly, and traversing the Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones felt seamless.



The Zephyr is one of, if not the, most scenic routes Amtrak offers. It goes through the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevadas, past Donner Lake (yes, that Donner lake), and through the Sacramento Valley.

If I had to name my favorite aspect of the journey, it would undoubtedly be the numerous railroad towns we passed through: station stops at Ottumwa, Fraser Park, Helper, to name a few. There were even more that we didn’t stop at — towns with populations smaller than my high school, towns that only exist in the first place because of the railroad. We rolled past fields of corn and wheat and soybeans, past quarries and oil refineries, past homes, and very nearly through people’s backyards.



We got off for a day in Denver, which required booking two separate itineraries with Amtrak (ugh), but it was worth it to stretch our legs and experience more of this particularly beautiful part of the country. We drove up to the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King to write The Shining, and saw flocks of migrating geese and herds of elk in nearby Estes Park.



As we made our way to the observation car for the final leg of our trip, from Sacramento to Emeryville just north of my brother’s home in Oakland, I couldn’t help feeling like the journey was ending too soon. This isin stark comparison to how I felt the last time I took a ~20-hour plane ride, which was that I never wanted to go on a plane again. 

It is true that trains are not the most efficient way to travel, but I think they have to be one of the most delightful. The beds in our sleeper car were more spacious than I expected (at least on the bottom bunk) and the food onboard was impressive. The meals and conversations shared with strangers were an experience unique to train travel, and we enjoyed sights only seeable by rail. 

It is my sincere hope that train travel will become more commonplace in my lifetime. It is far more sustainable than air travel, and if we could build high-speed rail on par with what other countries have accomplished, it could be comparable in terms of time as well. In the meantime, I will go out of my way to take as many trains as I can. 


– – – ITINERARY – – – 

Oct. 5

Arr. 9:30 PM — DL 1035 ATL – ORD

Oct. 6

10:30 AM — Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio Tour

Lunch — J. P. Graziano Grocery

2:30 PM — Chicago’s First Skyscrapers tour

Dinner — Jade Court

Oct. 7

8:00 AM — Jackson Park Wooded Island bird walk

10:00 AM — Museum of Science & Industry

Lunch — Global Menu @ McDonald’s Headquarters

3:30 PM — Art Institute of Chicago

Dinner — Al’s #1 Italian Beef

Oct. 8

10:00 AM — Chicago Architecture Center

11:00 AM — Elevated Architecture: Downtown ‘L’ Train Tour

Lunch — The Northman

3:00 — Chicago Architecture Center River Cruise

Dinner — Lou Malnati’s

Oct. 9

7:00 AM — Sunrise birding @ Montrose Point

Lunch — Taqueria El Asadero

Dep. Chicago Union Station 2:00 PM — Train No. 5

Stn. Stops @ Galesburg, IL; Ottumwa, IA; Omaha, NB.

Oct. 10

Arr. Denver Union Station 7:00 AM

Breakfast — Sam’s No. 3

12:00 PM – Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge 

3:00 PM — Stanley Hotel, Estes Park

5:00 — Matthews Reeser Bird Sanctuary

Dinner — The Kitchen Bistro

Oct. 11

Dep. Denver Union Station 8:25 AM — Train No. 5

Stn. Stops @ Fraser Park, CO; Glenwood Springs, CO; Grand Junction, CO; Helper, UT; Salt Lake City, UT.

Oct. 12

Stn Stops @ Elko, NV; Reno, NV; Truckee, CA; Sacramento, CA.

Arr. Emeryville, CA 4:00 PM

Dinner — Daytrip

Oct. 13

Breakfast — Poppy Bagels

11:00 AM — Bike rental @ Sports Basement, Berkeley, CA

Lunch — Tamaleria Azteca

8:00 PM — Bike Party

Late Nite Dinner — Afghan Burrito

Oct. 14

Breakfast — Golden Gate Donuts

1:30 PM — Winchester House tour, San Jose, CA

Lunch — Berryessa Flea Market

4:00 PM — Apple Park Visitor Center

Dinner — Wursthall

Oct. 15

Dep. 3:15 PM — DL 324 SFO – ATL


One thought on “Chronicles of a Cross-Country Trek: Amtrak’s California Zephyr”

  1. I love that birding is baked into almost every day! Amazing recount of your trip Jake – I felt like I was there.

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