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Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

Edinburgh
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Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

As my husband loves scenic train journeys, I love big cities and we both love Vegas, I have a vague plan to combine all three, but I need a little bit of guidance...

Thinking of going to Chicago for a few days, then taking the Amtrak California Zephyr from Chicago to Salt Lake (or possibly Reno) then hopping on a short flight to Vegas. I'm quite fond of scenic train journeys myself but I don't want to spend hours and hours and hours on a train just waiting for the good bits. So, can you tell me if the journey between Chicago and Denver is especially good, or does all the fantastic scenery happen after Denver when you hit the Rockies (in which case would it be worth just flying to Denver and boarding the train there)?

I don't really want to take the train all the way to SF, so I guess the options are getting off at Salt Lake, staying over and then flying to Vegas the next day, or possibly train all the way to Reno then flight to Vegas (actually, I typed that then realised I don't even know if Reno has an airport ...). Is there fantastic scenery west of SLC that we shouldn't miss?

Finally, from what I've read the sleeping arrangements are not hugely comfortable on the train so it might be better to stop off and sleep in a hotel.

So... in a very long-winded way, I guess I'm asking: to see the best scenery and enjoy the maximum comfort, should we do Chicago - Denver - SLC or Reno, just Denver - SLC/Reno, or something else? And which stopping-off points for a night or two would be good?

Thanks for your patience with my very unfinalised plan ...

Illinois
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1. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

You might want to post your question here - http://discuss.amtraktrains.com/

Edinburgh
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2. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

ah, good idea, thanks!

Chicago, IL
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3. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

The train between Chicago and Denver is not particularly scenic. You get a good perspective on the vastness of the country, but I can't recommend it given the reasonable airfare normally available.

Edinburgh
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4. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

That's kind of what I was thinking. Thanks for your advice - looks like the prettiest part of the journey will be from Denver onwards so possibly no need to sit on a train all the way there...

Rensselaer, Indiana
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5. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

The Great Plains are great - and flat, flat, flat. As a friend of mine said recently, the highpoint of his trip through Kansas (or was it Nebraska?) was seeing a single lonely tree after driving through many miles of fields. Anyway, you get the picture.

That being said, the California Zephyr rail route is supposed to be one of the most scenic in the U.S. (I plan on going on it next year.)

Almost two years ago, I took the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Flagstaff (AZ) with an intermediate stay in Albuquerque and a side trip up north to Sante Fe. The least visually stimulating parts of the trip (i.e., those miles and miles of fields through the Plains) were timed to be mostly traveled at night. It appears that is also the case with the California Zephyr, as you arrive in Denver the next morning approx. 7:15 a.m. their time.

One of the stops of the Southwest Chief is Williams, AZ. You can visit the Grand Canyon from that area. You can also go south from Flagstaff to Sedona (with the use of a rental car or the shuttle bus in the area) for a day trip. The shuttle goes down Route #89A from the top of the Colorado Plateau (the Mogollon Rim) down into Oak Creek Canyon - descending via sharp switchbacks (hairpin turns) into picturesque red rock territory within 15 minutes. (Flagstaff's elevation is 7,000 - Sedona is 4,500.) This sounds pretty scary but it really isn't (I'm not afraid of heights, though), as long as you stick strictly to the posted speed limit. The hardest part will be for the driver to keep his eyes on the road because the scenery is so breathtaking. This is a simply amazing drive to take from Flagstaff to Sedona.* BTW, there is an overlook right at the top, in the middle of the pinion pine forests, before you start the descent where local Native Americans sell their wares.

Now, if you are talking about fantastic scenery and you have never been to either place...

BTW, Vegas is something like a 4.5-5 hour drive from the Grand Canyon.

Would that be of any interest to you?

*I myself have driven Route #89A, both north to south and south to north a couple of times. During the last train trip I mentioned, I did take the shuttle to Sedona, which was quite convenient.

Chicago, Illinois
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6. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

This is my favorite Amtrak route. You've chosen well. I take this train 3 times a year and actually just got back from California last week. A lot of posters will tell you what they've heard or what they surmise. Airplane aficionados just don't get why one would want to take his or her time to enjoy the country. They only think point A to point B ASAP. You will be told that the Great Plains aren't exactly interesting, O.K., but you have to take into account that you are traversing them at night: you will be asleep! Heading west, the California Zephyr (Train 5) leaves Chicago at 2:00 pm. The first 1/2 day out is across the Illinois cornfields and through small farming communities. You cross the Mississippi River around Sunset (5:30) and go into the State of Iowa. I don't particularly find this boring, in fact Iowa has gotten a bad rap as far as I'm concerned, The rolling hills and farms are quite picturesque during the growing season. Wintertime is a bit frigid but still not ugly. Besides, it's only a matter of 6 hours from train time to dusk. You will have dinner in the diner and be asleep before you get to Nebraska and will wake up in Denver. You sleep through the boring scenery so you don't have to worry about looking at it. The second day is through the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Grand Junction Colorado. You touch on the Wasatch mountains around Helper and Provo Utah and will be sound asleep by Salt Lake City. You sleep across the Great Salt Flats and the Utah desert. The last day you will wake up in Reno (8:30am). You might want to get off in the "Biggest Little City in the World" and gamble there instead of flying to Las Vegas but that is your call (Reno has an airport). If you wanted to stop off for a day enroute I would suggest Reno but remember that the train comes through once a day at the same time. I would highly recommend that you travel all the way to San Francisco however. You will miss a lot of wonderful scenery if you get off in Reno. The last day (only 7 hours) is spent going through the Sierra Nevada mountains from Reno, Donner Pass, the Calif gold country, and down the Sacramento River delta through the Suisun Straights and along the east side of the Carquinas Straight and the S.F.Bay into Emeryville where you catch the dedicated Amtrak bus into SF. You get in around 4:00pm. Emeryville is on the east side of the Oakland SF Bay Bridge - the train doesn't go into the city - never did. The Amtrak coach makes four stops in the city: at the Ferry Building (Amtrak's ticket office in SF), Pier 39 (Ghiradelli Square), Union Square and - oh. heck, one other place. If you get off the train at any one point (i.e. Salt Lake City) you have to catch the next day's train 24 hours later to continue your journey so it won't help you as far as sleeping on the train versus a hotel. There is one train a day. The bedroom accommodations are necessary on a two night trip. The roomette will work for 2 people IF you pack for it. It is a small room with facing seats that do recline (somewhat) and it makes into a bunk-bed sleeping configuration at night. It is no larger or smaller than it has been for the last 60 years. I don't know what people expect in a train car that is only 12' wide! Pack a small overnight bag, your purse and cosmetic case to take into your roomette with you. You can also carry on one larger bag that you may leave in the downstairs luggage rack. Any extra baggage may be checked from your beginning station to your end station. There are 14 roomettes per Sleeper car. You want roomettes 1-10 which are upstairs. Each car has 4 toilet rooms and 1 shower/changing room for the roomette passengers. There are also 5 deluxe bedrooms which are twice the size of a roomette with a couch and side chair, private bath/shower combination. The Deluxe Bedrooms also have bunk-bed sleeping configuration. Each sleeping car has 1 dedicated attendant who will assist you. All meals in the dining car are included with your bedroom ticket price. The long-distance trains all have a Sightseer Lounge car available to the whole train with an a la carte cafe downstairs. This car has huge windows and sofa-like seating and 8 four-top tables. At to Las Vegas, it is inconveniently located in the middle of the desert and miles away from anywhere. You have to fly (or drive) to Vegas so it doesn't matter which airport you start out at. SF has wonderful public transportation and you can easily get to the airport on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). The great thing about train travel is that you are able to get up from your seat and walk around. Bring a good book (or a bad one) and an ipod (with headphones) and a scrabble game or cards and relax.

P.S. Spend more than just a few of days here in Chicago. Give yourself 4 days here and 3 days in S.F.

ireland
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7. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

I am also intrested in this we are going to chicago for 5 nights in June next year and are undescided between doing the zephyer or New Orleans and Miami but just hate all the airpots.

Soif we do this journey can we stop for a night in Denver and also reno and then rejoin the following morning.

Chicago, Illinois
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8. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

The New Orleans to Jacksonville Florida section of the Sunset Limited stopped after hurricane Katrina and has yet to be reinstated, although Amtrak said recently that it is top priority to get it back running. The two Florida Trains are east coast (New York to Miami/Tampa) routes. They are the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star (two trains a day). There is also the Autotrain but you have to have a car to get aboard. You may stop anywhere along an Amtrak route and the next train will come through 24 hours later. Denver is enjoying a renaissance of late... you night want to spend a couple of days in that city. The same with Reno: you arrive at 8:30 am and gamble away the day and half the night. Just get yourself to the train station (which is downtown within walking distance of Harrah's and other casinos) the next morning at 8:30am to continue on your journey. A word of advice: Plan ahead. I just tried to get a roomette on the Calif Zephyr for next month and they are sold out. In order to get to San Diego this time I have to take the Empire Builder to Seattle and the Coast Starlight south to LA. Summertime is a very busy time for Amtrak. Americans are finding out about train travel being part of their vacations after decades of flying over the country. It's a traveling hotel with ever changing scenery.

Bournemouth, United...
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9. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

we are off to Chicago for 4 nights in september, then taking the CZ to San Fran for 6 nights, having been to both these cities in the past 6 years, i certainly would spend more time in San Fran than chicago, don't forget u have places like the wine country, pacific coast highway, and many other fab areas to vist in and around San Fran, that take up whole day trips, so at least 6 nights there is a great way to catch the CALIFORNIA VIBE !!!

Pittsburgh
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10. Re: Amtrak California Zephyr starting in Chicago

My wife and I are flying to Chicago in October and then taking the Zephyr to Salt Lake City. Folks said the best scenery is from Denver going west. This will be our first time overnight on Amtrak. Is the food pretty good? What are the roomettes like? Any helpful hints will be appreciated. After we get to SLC, we fly to Las Vegas for three nights then return to Pittsburgh by air.

Reviews so far are really good.

Thanks