denver to san francisco on the california zephyr


The crown jewel in long-distance Amtrak travel is the California Zephyr (also called “The Silver Lady”), which runs from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean, crossing both the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas in the process.   I picked up the Zephyr at Denver’s historic Union Station, which opened in 1881.

Unfortunately, the Zephyr wouldn’t be traveling through the Rockies on this trip because the tracks through the mountains were being repaired.  Instead the train traveled north through Wyoming, entering Salt Lake City from the east and then resuming it’s normal course.  The neat thing about this route is that at least some of the section through Wyoming uses the original Union Pacific tracks that formed the eastern leg of the First Transcontinental Railroad.  We were going to be spending a good stretch of time on some deeply historical rails.

One of the most interesting things about riding trains is the fact that they always travel through the metaphorical backyards of cities,  a view that reveals what’s going on behind the facades that have been erected with the gazing eye of the automobile in mind.  Here’s a bit from the notebook that I carried with me on the Zephyr:

Leaving Denver we pass long lines of trains filled with scrap metal parked at one of the train yards.  Perhaps going to the recyclers to be melted down so it can take a new shape?  Taking the train reveals unseen routes of production — areas of the U.S. where things are made, scrapped, stored, and moved around, not simply sold as idealized objects that come out of nowhere.  These back trackways also reveal traces of the history of production and the signs of the passing of older economic regimes.  Also, you can see the squat and small housing of workers and the urban poor, located far from the newly manufactured suburban zones that popped up during the housing boom.  These homes are small and minimal, and yet somehow also a rejoinder to the super-sized plainness that everyone seems to be buying into these days.

Just passed some sort of refinery plant, all silver stacks and pipes.  And then a scrapyard full of junk metal, all in heaps, being stirred around by someone driving a backhoe.  In fact, the five piles of metal each have their own individual backhoe operator and the whole think kind of ends up looking like deep-sea lobsters or crabs, clawing through piles of food.  Then the train passes a steelworks where giant pipes are being welded together, and then a gravel yard heaped with mountains of pebbles.

It’s a bit unfortunate, really — we just passed through Greeley, Colorado, and out into farmland, but the haze from the Southern California wildfires is so thick that it’s impossible to see the horizon.  This must be what the so-called “yellow season” in Korea is like.  As my grandmother quipped about the fires when we first began hearing about them, “It’s a wonder they have any plants at all left to burn down there.”

10:00 a.m. — Not sure if we’re still in Colorado, or in Wyoming.  Out the window there are low hills and golden prairies, some scrub, and groups of buffalo off to the right.

12:00 p.m. — This part of Wyoming truly is land that is empty of all people.  We’ve been riding the train for hours, and there’s virtually no sign of inhabitation.  Many of the towns that we do pass through have fewer than 100 buildings.  Crispian, a fellow passenger, says, “You know how you know it’s actually a town?  It’s got a water tower.”  The Wyoming prairies are full of color.  Utterly beautiful.  Clouds too, forming a kind of vapor landscape that acts as a compliment to the actual landscape.

3:00 — The layered sandstone mesas in Wyoming (or are we in Utah now?) are absolutely beautiful.  Their pink and grey striation combines with the blue sky and the cotton clouds so that it feels strangely like traveling through one of Wayne Thiebaud’s pastel-hued cake paintings.

This is the viewing car, located somewhere near the middle of the train.  There were only 33 passengers on the entire train for this trip, so there was more than enough room to lounge around, sit with a cup of coffee, and relax and enjoy the view.  It’s easy to sit for hours and hours, just watching the landscape change shape outside the window.  As Ross, a fellow passenger who had been on the train since Philadelphia, put it, “I’ve been on the train for three days now, but everything is so interesting that it feels like it’s taking no time at all.  If I was on an eight-hour flight from coast to coast I think it almost might feel longer than this train trip has.”

If you’re a smoker riding the Zephyr, you’re pretty much doomed.  There’s absolutely no smoking allowed on the train and there’s a hefty fine if you’re caught (there’s also some vague threat of being let off the train in the middle of nowhere if you’re causing truly serious problems).  Smoke breaks only happen once every four hours or so, when the train halts for ten or fifteen minutes at one of the stations along the route.  I don’t smoke, but I like to get out of the train and stretch my legs when I get a chance.  I’m glad I did, because it gave me the chance to get a shot of these amazing cotton-candy clouds.

When I was younger, I always used to wonder why Brigham Young chose the Salt Lake area as the site for the recently founded Mormon religious community and why anyone took him seriously when he suggested it.  The Salt Lake is, after all, an enormous body of undrinkable water — not exactly hospitable to human habitation (or so ran my line of deductive reasoning).  The ‘correctness’ of my way of thinking was further verified for me when I took a cross-country trip with my family and we spent hours and hours driving through a desert populated by tumbleweeds, and then several more hours driving through the beautiful, but lifeless, salt flats before arriving at Salt Lake City.  This truly seemed to be a city in the middle of a horribly benighted patch of nowhere.

But this point of view was based on the experience of traveling from west to east, and then turning south at Salt Lake City to head for Denver.  I had never spent time on the other side of the mountains to the east of Salt Lake City, and this area is positively beautiful.  The rolling hills that the train passes through as it heads west to the Salt Lake area are covered with gold-green grasses; it’s an ideal area for grazing animals, and even at the end of summer there seems to be more than enough water in the rivers and streams running down from the mountains.  Crossing through the mountains and down toward the Great Salt Lake itself, the rivers become even more powerful.  As it turns out, there’s plenty of fresh water in the Salt Lake area — it just needs to be accessed before it reaches the lake itself, that great endorheic body of saltier-than-seawater water.

Now it makes perfect sense to me why Brigham Young chose this as his whistle stop.

The train is early to Salt Lake City, so we have a chance to deboard and explore for a few hours.  A group of us decide to walk up to the Salt Lake Temple and the Temple Square area, where the headquarters of the Church of Latter Day Saints is located.  The temple building itself was finished in 1893 and is considered sacred by Mormons, so there are no public tours.  The grounds around the Temple are entirely accessible though.

Although my great-grandmother was a Mormon (a smoking, cussing, caffeine-drinking Mormon), and although I used to spend time with Mormon friends when I was younger, I’ve always had a major problem with the views of the church toward homosexuality and I was downright disgusted with the role that Mormons played in the passing of Proposition 8, California’s bigoted interdiction on same-sex marriage.  I’m also pretty prone to a pro-libertine stance when it comes to personal lifestyle choices, so the culture of Mormonism was never likely to sit comfortably with me.  In any case, I found walking around the temple grounds at night to be, personally, both a fascinating and a slightly eerie experience — as if I were a Capulet among the Montagues.

The Salt Lake Temple is eerie and gothic-looking at night, as if it has stepped straight out of The Castle of Otranto.  Ross says it looks a bit like Disneyland — not something that feels imbued with history, but something that’s already strangely a simulation of itself.  Off in the distance at the North Visitors’ Center the whiter than whiteness (whiter than the salt flats, even) replica of The Christus floats among the planets.  The fountain smells of chlorine, and everything is a bit too clean.  The only real signs of life come from the Mormon Tabernacle, where the choir is practicing.  It’s a strange thing to walk through the night and then come across the choir, singing in high voice.  It’s almost like stepping unseen into another person’s life.

Unfortunately, the train passes through the magnificent salt flats at night, so our view of them is mostly lost, although there is enough moon in the sky to get some sort of glimpse as we travel by:

Before sleep, looking out the window, the salt flats are illuminated by the moon like fields of snow.

There’s plenty of flat desert scrub to see the next day as the train travels through Nevada, however.  There are wispy clouds in the skies and the desert flatness is always impressive.  Never let anyone tell you that there is ‘nothing there’ in a desert view.

As the train finally starts its ascent through the Sierra Nevadas, it’s impossible for me to get Zeppelin’s “Going to California” out of my head.

Spend my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine
Made up my mind, make a new start
Goin’ to California with an achin’ in my heart
Someone told me there’s a girl out there
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair

Took my chances on a big jet-plane
Never let ’em tell ya that they’re aw-ooh-all the same
Hoh, the sea was red and the sky was grey
I wonder how tomorrow could ever follow today-hee
Mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake
The children of the sun begin to awake
Watch out

It seems that the wrath of the gods got a punch on the nose
And it’s startin’ to flow, I think I might be sinkin’
Throw me a line, if I reach it in time
Meet you up there where the path runs straight and high

Find a queen without a king
They say she plays guitar and cries and sings, la-la-la-la
Ride a white mare in the footsteps of dawn
Tryin’ to find a woman who’s never, never, never been born
Standin’ on a hill in the mountain of dreams
Tellin’ myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems

On the stretch between Reno, Nevada, and San Francisco a pair of volunteer historians in the observation car narrate an account of early Sierra Nevada history and point out sites of interest.   It’s an incredibly interesting account, although I find the bit about the Donner Party to be a bit disappointing.  As the train makes it’s way around Donner Lake (stunning views) the volunteers explain that the Donner Party was a group of emigrants bound for California who got caught in the winter snows, leading to the deaths of close to half of the original party of 87.  This is all true, of course, but the speakers have left out the most important part; as every California schoolchild knows, the important thing about the Donner Party is that some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism.  I suppose the Zephyr is just a bit too gentile for these kinds of cold, hard facts.

Finally, as the train rolls into the San Francisco Bay Area, the conductor tells us to take to our seats for the last hour or so of the trip.  This is fine since there are really fine views of San Pablo Bay as the train makes its way past the C&H Sugar plant in Crockett, and then past the dozens of oil and gas refineries that dot Contra Costa County.  It’s strange knowing that the trip is coming to an end soon, after being on the train for so long.  It’s almost hard to get used to the idea of physically moving through space rather than, as it feels like while riding the train, having space move around you while you remain relatively still.

As the train nears the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, we’re greeted with this incredible sky.  Something straight out of a Whistler painting.

14 Responses to “denver to san francisco on the california zephyr”

  1. Great, great post. The last train one, too. Really makes me want to ride the train back home. Going to keep it in mind, for sure.

  2. 2 Trane DeVore

    Daniel —

    I don’t know what part of the States you call home, but I really recommend taking Amtrak. It’s pretty expensive if you reserve a sleeper car, however, so I recommend camping out in coach. They provide a pillow, but you have to remember to bring your own blanket! (I bought a cheap one at an army surplus store to keep me warm.) It’s kind of like taking the night bus, but not nearly as bad.

  3. Terrific descriptions of your ride. Thank you for the write up.

    • 4 Trane DeVore

      Thanks for the comment — I’m glad you liked the account of my trip on the Zephyr. It was a really incredible trip, and the views west of Denver are nothing short of spectacular. I can’t recommend this particular train enough.

  4. 5 Bea

    Hi! I know this is a belated comment since this post is from February, but I just came across it as I am planning on taking the Zephyr this fall! I am planning a road trip that is part car part train, and am so excited to follow in your tracks (hah!). I’m wondering how long the train stops at each station? Is it just for boarding or is there time to explore a little bit…I’m being hopeful here and think I already know the answer. Would love to hear from you!

    All the best,

    • 6 Trane DeVore

      Hi Bea —

      The train doesn’t really stop long enough at any stop to get out and explore. Sometimes the train will stop for 15 minutes or so at a station to allow passengers to have a smoke break (there’s no smoking on train), but it’s not really long enough to do anything except get out and stretch your legs a little bit. The one exception to that was the three hours we had in Salt Lake City, and that was a result of the train being unexpectedly early. If you want to explore cities on the way I would check into getting an Amtrak pass of some sort (I think they have them) and stopping off and staying overnight in whatever city you want to explore and then picking up the train again the next day.

      Enjoy your trip!

  5. 7 siddharthajoshi

    This is so awesome, I am actually planning to do this in the spring break, and possibly all alone. Any suggestions?

    Btw I love all the pics here, and you write really well too! Great post :)

  6. 8 siddharthajoshi

    Hooked to the trip now, no ‘not-doing-it-this-time’ now :)
    Thanks so much for this wonderful post dude!

    • 9 Trane DeVore

      That’s great that you’re going — I think it’s an absolutely beautiful trip, and well worth the couple of days that it takes to get from San Francisco to Denver (or vice versa). Think of it as slow, dreamy adventuring. Here’s my biggest recommendation — bring a blanket or a sleeping bag, because they’re not provided with your seat. The seat reclines far enough that it’s possible to sleep, but I found that earplugs were a big help in keeping out the noise. Also, bring a good book — there’s lots of reading time on the train, and it’s a great place to read. Enjoy your trip.

      • 10 siddharthajoshi

        Thanks a lot man, I really appreciate your help!

        Btw you have a wonderful blog here :)

  7. Hey Trane I am back from one of the most memorable trips in the California Zephyr, and I thought its only right to thank you as I got convinced about the trip only after reading this blog post :)

    I have a series of posts on the trip, and some are online now. This one is a post on the onward journey –

    • 12 Trane DeVore

      Hi Siddhartha — Sorry to take a million years to get back to you, but I’ve been busy with my own move back to Japan and it’s been hard to find time to keep up with the Notebook. I’m glad to hear that you took the California Zephyr — I really enjoyed my trip, and I encourage anyone who enjoys slow-paced living and beautiful views to give it a try. It was great to read the post about your own trip — I met a lot of interesting people on the train as well, and the scenery is simply tremendous. I’m a bit jealous of all the snow that you got to see, however! I’ll have to take the trip in winter one of these days.

      • 13 siddharthajoshi

        Japan sounds good, its also a dream destination for me…have a great time there :)

  8. Nice post,
    This reminds me of the three times we crossed the country with the kids on the train.
    I’m not sure if I’ve posted them on line yet
    I’ll look for them later and send you a link.
    I love transcontinental trains.

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