California Zephyr


I’ve always loved travelling by train. It’s such a nice way to travel, but coming form Ireland, the options for travelling long-distance by train don’t exist. You can’t even get to certain parts of the country by train.

In Europe the options really start to open up, and, while the US isn’t famed for its love of train travel — a real shame — a country of its size offers plenty of opportunity to travel great distances by train.

One of these long-distance trips I have always wanted to take is the California Zephyr. During my planning, I learned that a zephyr is a wind from the west. I finally know what Madonna was on about.

Leaving from Chicago, it travels through seven states, covering 3,924km (that’s 2,438 miles) over two full days or, fifty-one hours and twenty minutes. At lest that’s how long it’s supposed to take.

Map of the United States with Amtrak long-distance lines. The California Zephyr route is highlighted. It goes westwards from Chicago to San Francisco.
California Zephyr route map


Delays on Amtrak are part of the experience and to be expected. This is because most of the train tracks in the US are owned by freight companies and they take priority over passenger services.

Keep this in mind when planning any activities or connections based on the scheduled arrival time. It’s almost certain you’ll arrive later than planned. Give yourself plenty of buffer time for whatever you have planned after you arrive.

On Board

I booked a roomette which meant that I had a small cabin to myself with two seats that transform into a bed, as well as a fold-down bed above. So it’s quite comfortable enough for two people.

As luck would have it, my room was upstairs and on the left side of the sleeper car. One of the crew told me that when heading to California, this was the best side to be on going through the mountains. He was right, the views were spectacular.

Food on board was really good. Surprisingly good. When you book a sleeper car ticket, either a room or a roomette, all of your meals are included in the price. During the meals I got to sit with lots of different people and meet all sorts of folks doing the trip for all kinds of different reasons. That was really fun and I met some really lovely people.

Picture of the Roomette
The roomette in its usual configuration
Roomette with its bed setup
The roomette in bed mode


Here’s a selection of photos I took along the way. Crossing that part of the country meant seeing everything from great open prairies to mountains, deserts, more mountains, snow, ancient rocks, tunnels and so much more. Some of the scenery was truly breathtaking.

Would I do it again?

Absolutely. I might not do the Zephyr again but I would love to try some of Amtrak’s other long-distance services. Next on the list might be the Coast Starlight which goes from LA to Seattle or the Empire Builder which goes from Chicago to Seattle.