The California Zephyr is a daily long-distance Amtrak train connecting downtown Chicago to the San Francisco Bay area (Emeryville, near Oakland), and widely considered to be Amtrak's flagship service. The journey takes about 51 hours, making it the second longest passenger train route in America and one of the longer ones in the world. Equipment used is common to most Amtrak long-distance routes, with two-level Superliner passenger cars, sleeper cars, dining cars, an observation/snack bar car, and possibly several baggage/expedited cargo cars.
The California Zephyr begins its westbound journey at Chicago's Union Station. Passengers see the Chicago River and central Chicago as the train eases out of the station. The train soon leaves the urban zone behind, and crosses the open prairie of central Illinois, southern Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado. The following morning, the train pulls into Denver's Union Station.
After Denver, the California Zephyr climbs the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, passing through resort towns like Winter Park and Glenwood Springs as it follows the path of the Colorado River. Soon, the East- and West-bound trains pass each other, high in the mountains. The train continues following the increasingly-larger Colorado River, leaving the Rockies behind. The train crosses into Utah after sunset, and stops in Salt Lake City (typically before Midnight).
The bulk of the night passes as the train clears the salt flats west of Salt Lake City before entering the Great Basin of northern Nevada. In the late morning, after passing through dry desert landscapes, the train arrives in Reno, gateway to the Sierra Nevadas. Early afternoon of day three, the train goes through the extraordinary scenery of the Sierra Nevada mountains, gradually descending to Sacramento. A couple of hours later (approximately 6PM) the California Zephyr arrives in Emeryville.
Passengers continuing on to San Francisco can use an Amtrak-provided bus or connect to public transit (AC Transit buses or BART commuter rail) out of Oakland via a free shuttle out of Emeryville.
The California Zephyr is timed so passengers will see the most-scenic points of the Sierras and Rockies, regardless of direction traveled (provided there are no delays).
Total route length is just over 2,400 mi (3,900 km).
The American Industry Tour, an itinerary which features the industrialization of the United States, ending in mid-20th century Chicago, is a good prelude to the California Zephyr. Similarly, those who wish to retrace the entire route of the original transcontinental journey might want to consider transferring to or from Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, which plies the journey between either New York City and Chicago overnight, with beautiful views of the Hudson River on its way into or out of New York City. See Across the United States by train for more details.
From east to west:
- Chicago, Illinois – one of America's great cities and a major train hub; connections are available to many other Amtrak lines.
- Naperville, Illinois
- Princeton, Illinois
- Galesburg, Illinois
- Burlington, Iowa
- Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
- Ottumwa, Iowa
- Osceola, Iowa
- Creston, Iowa
- Omaha, Nebraska
- Lincoln, Nebraska
- Hastings, Nebraska
- Holdrege, Nebraska
- McCook, Nebraska
- Fort Morgan, Colorado
- Denver, Colorado
- Fraser, Colorado
- Granby, Colorado
- Glenwood Springs, Colorado
- Grand Junction, Colorado
- Green River, Utah
- Helper, Utah
- Provo, Utah
- Salt Lake City, Utah
- Elko, Nevada
- Winnemucca, Nevada – an Old West railroad town turned mining hub in the middle of northern Nevada.
- Reno, Nevada – gateway to the Sierra Nevada and a popular destination for Californians. The train is likely to be more crowded west of Reno than east of it, with passengers traveling back and forth between here and Sacramento or the Bay Area.
- For much of the way between Reno and Truckee, the train follows the attractive Truckee River; there are good views on both sides of the train.
- Truckee, California – a popular resort town near Lake Tahoe (the lake itself can't be seen from the train).
- Between Truckee and Colfax you'll have beautiful views of the Sierra Nevada: mountains, valleys, pine forests, and a dramatic view of Donner Lake. The scenery is better on the north side of the train at this part of the route.
- Colfax, California – cute historic town with old storefronts visible from the train.
- Roseville, California
- Sacramento, California – the state capital, home to the California State Railroad Museum among others
- Davis, California – a major college town in the middle of farm country. The scenery around here is California's agricultural Central Valley.
- Martinez, California
- Between Martinez and Richmond the train passes lovely views of the bay.
- Richmond, California – connections to BART, with rapid transit access to other parts of the Bay Area.
- Emeryville, California
From the last three stations, Amtrak provides bus or train connections to other parts of the Bay Area (San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, Petaluma, Santa Rosa) and elsewhere in California (Fresno, Bakersfield). Book these connections as part of your ticket and it'll tell you which station to get off the train at.
There are various options available depending on the distance traveled, with group discounts also available. Alternatively it might make sense to buy a "USA Rail Pass" which covers up to 10 segments(trips) in 30 days, and in 2021 the price for an adult was $499. The prices for the child (2-12) version is half of the respective full fare. Unlike some other rail passes (e.g. Interrail), prices are not calculated by distance or "zones" but by "segments". During the time of validity of your pass you are entitled to a maximum number of segments as determined by your type of pass. In most cases one segment begins every time you enter a train and ends every time you exit one. Thus the same route can be two segments if a change of train is involved and one if you take a direct train. Some more details that are too special to be covered here in detail can be found out at Amtrak's website or in person with the sales agent you get the pass from. Also keep in mind that all passes are second (coach) class only and do not entitle you to use the sleeper accommodation. However, if there is room, you can buy an "upgrade" to sleeper class on the train. As the California Zephyr is a rather popular train - especially in the summer - you should not rely on this being possible, however.
All sleeper car passengers have meals in the dining car included in the price of their tickets. Passengers in coach class may be able to eat at the dining car, but sleeper car passengers get priority and the meal price for coach passengers is steep: $25 for lunch and $45 for dinner (2023). Dining car meals usually include a few vegetarian options and may include a couple of vegan options, but you might want to call in advance to be sure. For kosher meals, you can call Amtrak to make arrangements no later than 72 hours before your train's scheduled departure. If you're not eating in a party of four, you may be seated with other passengers as tables are limited.
The café car is open to all passengers and is much cheaper than individual meals in the dining car. The offerings on the California Zephyr's café are not nearly as ample as those found in Northeast Corridor trains. Passengers in coach might consider bringing their own packaged food. The cafe car has a few vegetarian and vegan options (though food can sell out, especially towards the end of the line). Hot water is available in the cafe car for free.
Beyond the dining car and the cafe car, your only other option is to bring food with you – the train's scheduled stops are generally not long enough to get food at the stations.
There's no shower available for coach tickets. Passengers should bring a wash cloth, towel and soap or upgrade for a portion of the trip to get a room with a private shower.
During the Colorado portion of the trip the train reaches altitudes close to 11,000 ft (3,400 m) above sea level. Even in summer, this can be quite cold. Passengers who are sensitive to cold should bring sufficient outerwear. Passengers in coach will probably need to bring some kind of blanket to keep them warm during the nights when the train is at high altitudes.
In new trains, there are electrical outlets at each seat (though they might be hard to access from an aisle seat) and in the lounge car. On the older cars electrical outlets are only to be found in the observation car.
Unlike some of Amtrak's routes, the California Zephyr does not have wifi.
This route is long and shares a lot of tracks with slow freight trains, so expect delays. Running an hour or two late is common, and delays of more than 8 hours are unusual but not unheard of. Think of it as part of the adventure.