I’ve just come to the end of an epic Amtrak adventure. I travelled just under 2,000 miles by rail over the course of a week, passing through four states and stopping off in four cities.
It was – without doubt – the best journey I’ve ever made.
I came across this blog post a couple of years ago about travelling all the way from the West Coast to the East Coast of the USA by train. The idea of seeing America in this way really stuck in my head. I love train travel: sitting back with a cup of coffee while the world rolls by is my idea of fun, and I tend to get a lot of writing done on long-distance train journeys. (This is a very good thing – I have 80,000 words to write before the end of 2019, and leisurely writing sessions are much nicer than deadline-induced panic-writing sessions.) I kept the idea of a US train adventure in the back of my mind as a future travel possibility.
Just before Christmas, I was fortunate to be awarded funding by Midlands3Cities (my PhD funding body) to attend the 2018 Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) conference in Los Angeles. I realised while planning my conference trip that I was going to be pretty close to the start-point for the epic cross-country train journey I’d read about. My diary was empty for the week or two following the conference.
It was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Leg 1: Los Angeles to San Francisco
After looking at options for flying north to board the famous California Zephyr, I found there was an equally awesome train route (the Coast Starlight) that originated at Los Angeles and passed by San Francisco on its way to Seattle, WA. The California Zephyr and the Coast Starlight are considered to be two of the most beautiful train routes in the world. I booked my tickets and got ready to put these claims to the test.
The Coast Starlight route starts out by running north along the Pacific coastline before heading inland, passing through places like Santa Barbara, Salinas, and San Jose. During the 12-hour journey to Emeryville (near San Francisco), the train travels past fabulous beaches and towns, rolling hills, and agricultural landscapes.
I chose to sit in the train’s sightseer car, which allows for incredible views of the passing scenery. I had the car almost to myself at times, but the seats got pretty full once the sun came out further along the coastline.
The snack bar located on the lower level of this car sells cold beer and Californian wines, hot sandwiches, and various other things for surprisingly reasonable prices. There’s also a dining car for slightly pricier sit-down meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner times.
I arrived into Emeryville, CA just before 10pm – 12 hours after leaving Los Angeles – and got a taxi to my Airbnb in San Francisco. (That taxi journey was probably the most terrifying part of the whole trip, but that’s a story for another day.) I had a much-needed night’s sleep before heading out to explore the city.
I managed to cross most things off my San Francisco sightseeing list during the two days I was in town. I caught a cable car from Union Square (where I was staying) to Fisherman’s Wharf and spent an hour or two walking along the harbour before going on a spontaneous boat tour of the bay. For $15 I got to cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz, as well seeing the city from the water. That was probably the highlight of my time in San Francisco. After that, I had some Pinterest-worthy clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl and walked over to Lombard Street (‘the crookedest street in the world’). I had dinner in Chinatown and headed back to my Airbnb to rest.
On my second day, I caught a bus to the Mission District to look at the famous street art and explore the neighbourhood. I spent the afternoon walking around Golden Gate Park and checked out the Painted Ladies in Alamo Park on my way back to the city centre.
Leg 2: San Francisco to Salt Lake City
The California Zephyr route turned out to be even more picturesque than the Coast Starlight. We left Emeryville at around 10am, and within a few hours we were climbing through Tahoe National Forest at an altitude of around 7,000 feet. The scenery was incredible.
We then snaked down the other side of the mountains, and the landscape gradually changed from snowy forest to arid desert. We crossed the state line into Nevada at around 5:30pm.
I treated myself a plate of thyme roast chicken and mashed potato in the dining car as the sun set over the desert plains, then headed back to my reclining coach seat for a few hours of sleep before our 3am arrival into Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake City was a great place for a stop-off. The city is pretty quiet and very friendly, and there are so many places to get good coffee, beer, and food. I spent my first day looking around Temple Square (my knowledge of Mormonism comes primarily from The Book of Mormon musical, so it was interesting to learn more about the religion and culture IRL). I actually wrote the majority of this post in a hipster coffee shop on day 2 of my SLC stop-off, fuelled by some of the best coffee (and the most unusual toast) I’ve ever had. It was just the recharge I needed before hopping back on the California Zephyr at 3:30am the next day.
Leg 3: Salt Lake City to Denver
I’d heard that the journey from Salt Lake City, UT to Denver, CO was the best part of the California Zephyr route. My expectations were high.
The rumours turned out to be true.
After enjoying some great conversation and pancakes in the dining car at breakfast time, I headed to the sightseer car to watch as the train became surrounded by the most incredible rock formations.
As we got close to the Utah-Colorado state line, the train route lined up with the Colorado River. The fabulous scenery was peppered with the bare bottoms of passing rafters. (Apparently it’s a tradition to moon the train as it passes by…) I documented my surroundings as best I could.
Later in the afternoon, the train started to climb up through the Rocky Mountains. This was probably the most spectacular part of the trip. The canyons we passed through are reachable only by train; no highways run anywhere close to the parts of the mountain range we travelled through. We lost phone signal for 2-3 hours, and the train conductor told us about the history of the railroad over the tannoy. He also set us a train-route-inspired riddle (which I failed to solve). I chatted to my fellow passengers in the sightseer car as we spotted bald eagles and wild deer in the surrounding landscape.
We travelled through the ‘tunnel district’ – a part of the route that features a total of 27 tunnels – as we descended on the other side of the Rockies. In between each tunnel were mind-blowingly amazing views of the national park. I sipped at a whisky cocktail while marvelling at the beauty of the world.
We arrived into Denver ahead of schedule, and I bid the California Zephyr a fond farewell as it prepared to continue its journey on to Chicago, IL.
How much did it cost?
The total cost of my three train journeys came in at exactly $200 (£143 at the time I bought the tickets).
You can make long-distance journeys on Amtrak without stops and sleep on the train (either on the recliner coach seats, or by upgrading to a sleeper cabin for roughly 4-5 times the price). Many of the people I met were making the journey as a vacation, and had treated themselves to a sleeper cabin to make the most of the experience. Because I decided to break up my journey with stop-offs along the way, I spent extra on Airbnb rooms. The cost of train travel plus accommodation came in at £577 (not including flights, food, or taxi/public transport fares).
Travelling by train was a wonderful way to see America. I’ll never forget the incredible scenery I saw, or the new friends I made along the way. There were times when I felt anxious or lonely – travelling alone can be tough – but on the whole it was a brilliant trip. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.