(Last Updated On: February 5, 2024)

The Amtrak California Zephyr train ride is on the bucket list for many of us!  It is a 52 hour ride from Emeryville, California to Chicago, Illinois.  The route has stops in Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Omaha (along with 30+ other stops).  This route is one of the most beautiful in the US, particularly the views of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Read on for my raw honest observations, tips and warnings!

Scenery

The scenery is the number one reason to make this journey!  It was truly wonderous going across America’s vast open spaces and seeing of all variety of landscapes.  Each landscape type beautiful in its own way. Simply amazing seeing places I would never otherwise see, and thinking of all the people who worked digging through mountains and in all sorts of dangerous conditions to lay those train tracks!

One of my favorite parts of the trip was staring out the window at the scenery, listening to Simon and Garfunkel! Somehow their music (especially their song “America”) just seemed to match the changing scenery perfectly!

There is an observation room on the train which offers wonderful views! It fills up quickly though so sometimes it was hard to find a seat.

Please note that my pictures below don’t accurately represent how beautiful the sights were! Also missed getting pictures of many more incredible sights!

Accommodations

I stayed in a “Roomette”. As a solo traveller this seemed the best option to be able to have privacy and my own bed. At about $1200 this was much more affordable than the next step up, a bedroom at about $2000. Coach seats are around $350. When you book a Roomette or bedroom it includes all of your meals, by the way. Coach does not.

My roomette during the day on the left, and the right shows the chairs folded down to a bed. If you have 2 people in the roomette there is a top bunk they can pull down. Maybe for one night 2 very close people would be ok in a roomette.  But any longer would be a trial I think!

The Good:

  • The chairs and bed were pretty comfortable. Dimensions of the roomette is 3’6′ X 6’6. Length of the bed worked fine for me at 5’7″, but might be cramped for someone taller.
  • Windows are very large, perfect for seeing the amazing sights!
  • The bedroom/roomette cars each have their own attendant. Ours was excellent! Very friendly, happy to help with any questions or needs. There is a call button in the room whenever you need her. She made up the bed and put it back to chairs each evening/ morning. She also had a little coffee bar set up and you could help yourself at any time.
  • There is a place to hang a couple of items. This came in more handy than I’d expected. The storage space is so limited, there’s lots of planning of what to keep out of your suitcase, then how to Tetris-style arrange what you have out.  Also, the main storage is on the 2 steps for the upper bunk.  If someone was actually using the upper bunk and needed those steps there’s nearly zero storage. (You can check your larger luggage or there is a shelving area near the bathrooms where larger luggage can go. I had my small carry on in my roomette with me).
  • There is a small built in garbage can!
  • There are curtains on the door and windows of the roomette for privacy, and you can lock the door from the inside. You cannot lock it from the outside though, so you need to bring valuables with you when you leave, hide them and/ or trust your fellow train people! I did all three at various points.
  • Bathrooms and Shower: There are 3 bathrooms and one shower for 8 people in my area.  I never had to wait.
    • Bathrooms are tiny!  I think smaller than airplane ones.  They are kept pretty clean by the car’s attendant.  One negative was the water pressure coming out of the sink faucet.. it was like trying to wash your hands with a power washer!  No matter how lightly I tried to press the lever for the faucet, water bounced off my hands and the sink, onto the mirror, counter, floor and me!
    • Showers have just enough room to do what you need to do:  A small “dressing area” with a bench and hooks, and the shower with a plastic curtain.  Small individual bars of soap, shampoo and conditioner are provided, as are wash clothes and towels.  Water pressure was OK and plenty hot!

*Late breaking news! In the last hour of my trip the bathrooms in my car stopped working for some reason and we had to use the bathrooms in the sleeper car next door. I was shocked to see that that car had much more modern bathroom and shower fixtures and they were bigger! The car I was in was 631, so you can try to avoid that one! 😀

The Bad:

  • My roomette was too hot!  Be sure to bring a small fan!! I had read this suggestion before my trip, but figured it would probably be ok. IT WASN’T! I had to sleep with my door open, I was so hot at night.
  • Roomettes have only one electric outlet.  Be sure to bring a powerstrip so you can plug in more than one thing. I did this, but my outlet was finicky. I never quite figured out the right position to wiggle the plug into. I’d get a charge connecting and try not to jostle anything.
  • Speaking of jostling… trying to sleep with all of the noise and movement was very difficult! I don’t think of myself as a particularly sensitive sleeper. I thought the train sounds and slight rocking would be fine. Unfortunately it was much noisier and rockier than I’d imagined. For noise, there is the train horn which sometimes goes off constantly depending on where we were, I guess. Also, when we’d go past another train, it was so loud it scared me to death! I think the shaking, violent jolts and shuddering were what made sleep near impossible for me though. Think of the worst airplane turbulence you’ve been through, plus the worst earthquake you’ve experienced and you will start to get my drift! I’m only sort of kidding! I was on the lower level (room 11), and I’ve since read that the upper level rooms are quieter, so there’s another tip for you when booking!
  • Don’t expect “newness”.  Bring cleaning wipes for your table and surfaces.  Though I think the crew does a great job, it did make me feel better to know I’d disinfected everything ( and I’m not usually very concerned about stuff like that).
  • The roomette has lots of nooks and crannies to lose things in!  Be careful with small items.  There are many cracks where a phone or earbud can slip down, and it will take tearing the whole roomette apart to find the lost item!  My earbuds, in their case, fell down behind the seat after my bed was turned down.  I tried, but there was no way to get them (or even try to look for them) without disassembling the entire bed/chairs.  It took the room attendant and I quite a while the next morning trying to take the chair apart to find them.

Dining

The Good:

The food was pretty good!  I’d say a few notches above pretty good airplane food! Dinner included a starter, main course, dessert and beverage.

You can have any meal delivered to your room if you don’t want to go to the dining car. You just tell your car attendant.

You are seated when you enter the dining room, and are placed with other diners to fill up each table to 4 people.  It was fun getting to know some people on the train to have someone to say hi to and chit chat with when you’d run into them during the trip. I met some very nice people.

The Bad:

The Dining Room host makes you sit with other passengers! One breakfast I came up quite bleary eyed and catatonic after a bad night of little sleep. I asked the host if I coud sit on my own because I was really tired and would be terrible company.  He said (in front of all) “No, we can’t accommodate separate seating!”  The dining room was about 1/4 occupied.  There were many open tables. Annoying and embarrassing! 

I ended up having quite a few meals in my room. As I said, I did enjoy meeting some other folks on the train, but going through the same getting to know each other chit chat with different people 3x a day was just too much for me.

Additional thoughts

Altitude

It didn’t occur to me before booking this trip, but it runs the gamut as far as altitude goes! Sea level to over 9,000ft and back down within 2 days. I definitely felt it, getting a little headachy. So prepare yourself for that.

Stops

Though the train stops over 30 times you cannot get off the train for most of them. There are maybe 10 stops where you can get off for 5 to 10 minutes for fresh air (or to smoke!)

At Reno we had a 10 minute stop and I was challenged to gamble during the stop! So I ran into the station, up 3 flights of stairs to the station lobby trying to find a slot machine. There isn’t one. When I turned to run back to board the train I was faced with the hoards of people (and all their luggage) who had disembarked in Reno, coming up those 3 flights of stairs! I had to fight my way through them back to the train. Luckily I made it in time! So there’s something for you to try! It gets your heart rate up. I challenge you! 😀

The other exciting stop on the trip was in Grand Junction Colorado. The conductor announced that we could get off the train for 15 minutes and there was a little shop at the train station which donates proceeds back to Amtrak. A bunch of us excitedly flooded out to the shop! It turned out to just sell what they have in the onboard snack shop…drinks, snacks, some sundries. I bought a cookie just because it was exciting to buy something someplace else! haha

Doors

As you walk between cars you can open the doors with your hand OR foot! It took me a little bit to realize this and it made life much easier to use my foot!

List of stuff to bring

  • Cash to tip the dining car servers and your room attendant
  • Snacks (I brought Kind Bars)
  • Disinfectant wipes for your roomette/seat surfaces
  • Motion sickness pills (I ended up taking them to help me sleep)
  • Coffee mug (only small paper cups are available on board)
  • Sweats/clothes to sleep in since you need to go out “in public” to use the bathroom
  • Flip flops for the shower
  • Power strip so you can plug in more than one thing at a time
  • Small electric fan

In Summary

I am really glad that I went on the California Zephyr! The chance to see that sort of scenery was just amazing. If I was to do it over again, I would certainly bring a small fan to make sure that I didn’t get too hot while trying to sleep. I would also bring some sort of a sleep aid medication or just Benadryl to help me fall asleep easier.
Also, I would probably only go for one night. I would start in Emeryville, California and get off in Denver, Colorado. Everything after that was pretty much flatlands. Not super exciting to look at (though still pretty in many cases).

Please let me know what you thought of the California Zephyr or let me know if you have any questions! Thanks for reading!