Road Trips

California Zephyr: Chicago to San Francisco

California Zephyr train
Written by Town & Tourist

The California Zephyr Amtrak train first hit the rails in was 1949. Since then it has taken rail enthusiasts on one of the most scenic train rides in the USA! Which runs between Roseville, IL and Oakland, CA.

Other routes include Chicago to San Francisco, where you can take a connection with the Lake Shore Limited from New York or Boston to Chicago, or the Capitol Limited from Washington DC to Chicago. These are detailed in our: How to Travel Coast to Coast USA by Train for $232?

The Scenery on the California Zephyr is world renowned.  On this journey you will cross the farmlands of Nebraska, the Colorado Rockies, through the Sierra Nevada mountains before arriving at San Francisco.

Insider Tip:

Listen out for the Commentary of the most significant section of the California Zephyr route and try some classic american eggs and Bacon for breakfast in the diner carriage.

The Dome Car:

The Dome Car offers seats facing out of the windows offering panoramic views of the scenery.

The Dome cars are common on scenic routes but do fill up quickly, especially on trains like the California Zephyr which passes through the untouched areas of the Colorado Rockies. So get to the carriage early to avoid disappointment.\

amtrak-california-zephyr-onboard-dome car

amtrak-california-zephyr-onboard-dome car. Source: flickr

History of the California Zephyr:

The California Zephyr first ran jointly over three railroads:

  1. The (‘Burlington’): Chicago, Burlington & Quincy ,
  2. The (‘Rio Grande’): Denver & Rio Grande Western 
  3. The Western Pacific railway

The California Zephyr could not compete on speed with the rival Union Pacific City of San Francisco, however the incredible scenery and futuristic stainless steel carriages with four dome cars made the journey so much more popular!

The original California Zephyr ran until 1970. Amtrak then made a modern reincarnation which runs mostly the same route!

Through the breath-taking Rockies, across the badlands of Utah & Nevada, past the snow peaked Sierra Nevada Mountains. Before arriving in the Sf bay area.

How much does the California Zephyr Cost?

Route Seat Roomette
Chicago – Emeryville (San Francisco) $145 $500 – $900

How fast does the Zephyr train go?

There is a reason the train is limited to 79 mph. Believe me, you wouldn’t want it going any faster through Nebraska, Utah, or Nevada.

Can you bring snacks on the Zephyr?

You may bring your own food and beverages onboard for consumption at your seat or private Sleeping Car accommodations on amtrak.
However, you can only consume food and beverages purchased in Dining and Lounge Cars in those cars. Personal food and beverages are allowed in the upper level of Superliner Sightseer Lounges.

California Zephyr: Chicago to San Francisco Itinerary

There is approximately 2,449 miles between Chicago & San Francisco. This may seem like quite a distance but onboard americas greatest train, the California Zephyr you won’t be disappointed.

Day 1 & 2: Explore Chicago 

Before boarding the California Zephyr it would really make sense to spend at least a couple of days exploring Chicago, Illinois. The “Windy City” is a vast metropolis on the Scenic Lake Michigan.

The Skyline is punctuated with vast skyscrapers, such as the Willis Tower (Former Sears Tower) and the Legendary John Hancock Center which stands over 1,451ft high.

Chicago is also known for Chicago style pizza (Deep dish) , and Chicago hot dogs in addition to Jazz and of course the Notorious 1920s gangster Al Capone.

chicago road trip

chicago

6 Unique Things to do in Chicago: 

1. Millennium Park – FREE! 

Millennium Park  is not just a public park, its a true expression of the Chicago experience! It is the largest public space inside the 319 acres of Chicagos Grant Park, located downtown. This area includes, gardens, sculptures and attractions.

Crown Fountain: 

Crown Fountain was designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa the fountain is made up of two 50 foot glass block towers which of display rotating images of over 1000 Chicago residents.

The fountain fires water out of the giant mouth and is really popular with kids during the summer months.

Other highlights at Millennium Park include, Lure Garden and Maggie Daley Park. A large 20 acre adventure park which includes rock climbing, slides and mirror walks

Crown Fountain Chicago

Crown Fountain Chicago

Cloud Gate (The “Bean”)

A Large public sculpture weighing in at over 110tones and is over 66 feet long and 33 feet high. This is an astonishing sculpture to see and was designed by British Artist Anish Kapoor.

Cloudgate Chicago Bean

Cloudgate Chicago Bean

Where is it?

201 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60602, United States

2. Willis Tower (“Sears Tower”) 

The Willis Tower is a 110-story, 1,450-foot skyscraper in Chicago. When it was completed in 1973, it surpassed the World Trade Center in New York to become the tallest building in the world!

Skydeck Chicago offer views from 103rd floor of the former Sears Tower with clear observation boxes & views extending to four states!

chicago-view from willis tower

chicago-view from willis tower

3. Navy Pier

Navy Pier is a 3,300-foot-long pier on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Here you will find many fairground rides & attractions including a 360 Chicago, (A Premiere observation deck), Centennial Wheel (Observation Wheel)  Museum of Contemporary Art, the Childrens Museum, River Cruises and many more!

Navy Pier Chicago

Navy Pier Chicago

4. Green Mill Lounge – Can you spot Al Capone?? 

Head back to the 1940s at Chicagos Green Mill Lounge. Here you can find local Jazz Musicians, poets and was once a hangout for the Notorious Gangster Al Capone.

Green Mill Lounge Chicago Al Capones hangout

Green Mill Lounge Chicago Al Capones hangout

5. Shedd Aquarium 

Shedd Aquarium is one of the largest indoor Aquariums in the world! It was opened back in the 1930s and houses over 32,000 animals!

6. Take a river cruise! 

Taking a River Cruise through Chicago is one of the most unique ways of seeing the city! It’s a great way to learn about the downtown area and get your bearing if you’ve never been here before. To book a recommend tour follow this link HERE

Where to Eat?

Best Drive inSuperdawg – Is a throwback Chicago dining experience, which serves an immersive variation of a Chicago style hotdog. Expect thick all-beef sausage. mustard, pickled green tomato, and chopped Spanish onions.

Address: 6363 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60646

Best for Lunch: Smoque BBQ is probably the best in town! Here you will experience mouth watering, St. Louis-style ribs, tender brisket, apple-and-oak-smoked pulled pork and more.

Address: 3800 N Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60641

Best for Dinner –  Passerotto is an Asia Italian fusion restaurant which delivers modern Korean food with Italian touches.

Address: 5420 N Clark St Chicago, IL 60640

Where to Stay? 

For a recommended list of my favourite places to stay in Chicago follow the link HERE. 

Day 3: California Zephyr: Galesburg & Mississippi River

At 2pm board the California Zephyrs double deck Super liner Cars and get ready to take one of the worlds greatest train rides a 2,428 mile 2 night spectacular!

Insider Tip: 

Before Boarding sleeping-car passengers are allowed to wait in the Metropolitan Lounge, which offers complimentary tea, coffee & soft drinks.

Galesburg, Illinois: 4:30pm

A couple of hours later the California Zephyr will stop at Galesburg, Illinois. At this point you can get out and stretch your legs.

Mississippi River: 5pm 

After boarding again, head straight to the Sightseer lounge as the California Zephyr heads slowly over the vast steel bridge which disects the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa.

Views of the Mississippi River

Views of the Mississippi River

Dinner Time! 6pm

At 6pm head to the Diner Car where 3-course meals are included in the fare for sleeping-car passengers.  If your traveling in coach, it will cost you extra but its not too expensive.

Ottumwa, Iowa: 7pm

At 7pm, the California Zephyr calls at Ottumwa Iowa. This is a great place to stretch your legs after dinner.

Afterwards the train heads across the epic Nebraska flatlands and has a couple of further stops at Omaha and Lincoln.

Insider Tip:

Be sure to put your watch back an hour after entering Nebraska.

Sleep time: 10pm

You can recline your seat back now or head to your private sleeper carriage. Superliner coach seats can recline 40 degrees.  You can bring your own blanket or buy one from the cafe car.

Fun Fact: 

Up until Denver, the California Zephyr runs over the original Burlington Route tracks, which is now part of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

Day 4: Denver, Colorado

Union Station: 7AM –  As day breaks you will enter Denver, Colorado and the California Zephyr stops of for refuelling for about half an hour.  Union Station has some great palces to eat and was included in our: Epic Food Hall Road Trip USA: 21 Best Food Halls!

Fun Fact: A Mile High City, Denver is 5,280 feet above sea level!

Rocky Mountains: 9AM

The California Zephyr leaves Denver and begins to climb from the Great Plains into the Rockies.  On the ‘Big 10 Curve’, hopper cars filled with sand have been placed alongside the line as a wind break, as this part is very exposed.

Marvel at the scenery and sit back as the Zephyr snakes through the rocky mountain tunnels and we even saw some deer & elk.  In the distance, Denvers skyscrapers can be seen disappearing into the distance.

The Zephyr climbs to a maximum altitude of 9,270 feet above sea level before passing through the 6.2-mile-long Moffat Tunnel.  This tunnel opened in 1928, which cut the journey time down by 176 miles!

Insider Tip:

Colorado is also a great place to try Winter Camping

COlorado Rocky mountains view from California Zephyr

COlorado Rocky mountains view from California Zephyr. Source: shutterstock

Winter Park: 10AM

After the Moffat Tunnel, the California Zephyr calls at Winter Park for the nearby ski resort. Popular with Ski Festivals during the winter/spring

Colorado Canyons: 11:30Am

Now get ready for a treat! The California Zephyr snakes for a few hours through the scenic Colorado Canyons which are next to the river & powerful rapids.

Insider Tip:

This is a spectacular bit of Scenery so make sure you have some high quality Travel Photography gear

Lunch time in the Rockies: 12:30 

Grab yourself a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and an all american cheese burger in the dining car. Then head to the sightsee lounge for views of Fraser Canyon and Gore Canyon.

Fun Fact:

As we pasted over the Colorado River, we saw a group of Packrafters salute the train by “Mooning” , a hilarious site!

Glenwood Springs: 2pm

The California Zephyr then twists through the 12-mile-long Glenwood Canyon, before arriving at Glenwood Springs.  A popular recreational centre between the Colorado & Roaring Fork rivers.

Fun Fact: Here we saw many Amish people, these were really interesting people to chat to on the train!

For more info see: Top 13 Amish Communities in America : Culture Guide

Amish on Coach

Amish Disembarking at Glenwood springs.
They didn’t want to pose for a photo, but said I could “catch” them if I wanted.

Colorado-Utah: 4.25pm

After Grand Junction, the scenery colors change as the train enters into Utah. Ruby canyon can be seen in all its glory. Before heading via tumbling hills and past Provo, (Donny Osmonds home town!). Grand Junction was included in our: Las Vegas to Denver: Epic Road Trip!

Diner Time!: 6pm

Enjoy some grilled salmon & white wine for dinner as you take in the sights of Americans Wild Wild West!

Overnight: 10pm 

The train calls at Salt lake City and then heads from Utah to Nevada as you sleep!

Insider Tip: 

Be sure to put your watch back another hour, as the train rumbles into yet another timezone!

Day 5: Nevada, Cali & San Francisco

Nevada Desert: 8Am

Wake up as the California Zephyr speeds across the Nevada desert, at this point you can enjoy breakfast with some spectacular views. Afterwards the train calls at Elko, Winnemucca (whose known for having its local bank robbed by Butch Cassidy in 1900). Afterwards the train calls at Reno, (the biggest little city in the world)

California & Truckee: 9:30AM

After the California Zephyr speeds into California and calls at Truckee. It then takes the Central Pacific Railroad which lies between Salt Lake City and the Bay Area.

Fun Fact: 

This was part of the first trans-continental line across the United States completed in 1869.

Insider Tip: There’s a commentary between Truckee & Sacramento by an expert from the Sacramento Railroad Museum.

Sierra Nevada Mountains: 11:00AM

The California Zephyr then climbs up into the Sierra Nevada mountains, passing by Donner Lake and Donner Pass. For a 360′ view of what its like in the sightseer lounge of the California Zephyr see this link HERE. (Be sure you allow pop ups)

Bishop Sierra Nevada mountains

Bishop Sierra Nevada mountains

Lunch: 12:30pm

Grab a glass of Merlot and another all American Burger!

Sacramento: 2:30pm

Now the Zephyr calls at Sacramento home to the California State Railroad Museum.

Bay Area: 3:55pm

By 3:55pm the California Zephyr reaches the Bay Area! Before heading past Oakland.

Emeryville, California: 4:20pm

Amtrak train number 5 the California Zephyr pulls into Emeryville, California! We’ve made it coast to coast across the USA! From Atlantic to Pacific! Yehawwww! 

San Francisco, California: 5:10pm

Passengers for San Francisco board the transfer buses waiting outside the station. It was nice to see out checked in luggage being transferred over all the way from Chicago.

 The transfer bus crosses the vast 8.4 mile Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the distance. The Amtrak bus pulls up in the heart of downtown, San Francisco! We made it!

Welcome to San Francisco

Welcome to San Francisco

Where to Stay? 

For a recommended list of my favourite places to stay in San Franscisoc, follow the link HERE. 

Want the best deals when booking a train?

Try out our: Best Public Transport Booking Tools

Do you have a decent Camera??

If not, Check out our Recommended Travel Photography Gear

Photography Gear

Make sure you are equip with some great Photography Gear!

Want to know the secrets of great Hotel Deals?

See this essential post:  How to find the Best Hotel Deals??

Got everything else you need?

Check out our  Travel Essentials   (Things You can’t travel without!)

If your still not convinced by trains and would still like to rent a car Check out: Ultimate Car Rental Travel Hacks!

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About the author

Town & Tourist

A travel resource guide that has been carefully crafted and curated by travel bloggers to help you find the best places to travel to in the USA.