Hail to the Southwest Chief: All Aboard for Los Angeles

As lovers of road travel on a quest for all things Americana, it should be no surprise that we are also big fans of trains. Of course, we wish that train travel today was as glamorous and plush as it once was but are excited that it is still possible to travel across the U.S. by rail. For some time, we had discussed riding Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to Los Angeles and upon finding ourselves with a free week last April, took the opportunity to hop aboard and head west.

Not ones to miss an opportunity to add some adventure to our journey, we decided to take our trip to California and back, entirely by train. With some research and planning, we were able travel from our home in Colorado Springs to Los Angeles and back to Denver without ever getting into a car, and so we embarked on a seven-day train trip through some of the most beautiful places in the West.

Day 1: Colorado Springs to La Junta

The closest stop to our house for the Southwest Chief is in La Junta, a small town in southeast Colorado about two hours from Colorado Springs. Part of the complexity in this trip was figuring out how to leave from one train station and arrive home at another. We discussed leaving a car at one of the stations but weren’t wild about the idea. With a little detective work, we came to find that we could walk a mile from our house and pick up a bus, the Bustang, that would take us to La Junta. Knowing that we’d be doing some walking, we managed to pack everything we would need for the week into a backpack (still feeling pretty proud of that one) and caught the bus at 2:30pm on a Thursday.

After a rather peaceful two-ish hour ride to La Junta, we walked a few blocks to the Midtown Motel, where we stayed for the night. Conveniently located close to town, we walked into downtown, meandered up and down the streets, and enjoyed a very tasty dinner at the Bamboo Panda.

The next morning, we grabbed our packs and strolled back downtown to find some coffee at The Barista, before heading across the street to the train station.

Day 2: Southwest Chief
La Junta, CO to Winslow, AZ

In the days before automobiles and planes, most people traveled throughout the country by train, particularly those headed into the wide-open West. One of the most famous railroads, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) was chartered in 1859, right in the middle of the frantic push to get a transcontinental rail system built. Intended to run from Atchison and Topeka, Kansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico, it never actually made it to Santa Fe, due to rough terrain. Instead, it pushed westward from Lamy, NM, eventually making its way to Los Angeles.

In 1936, the AT&SF began running one of the more famous routes in American train history, the Super Chief. Traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles, it paralleled much of the famed (and our favorite) Route 66, and with its air conditioning, private bedrooms, and high-end amenities it was the west coast alternative to “The Most Famous Train in the World”, the 20th Century Limited, making it instantly popular with Hollywood’s stars. For the next few decades, passengers travelled in luxury, making the trip in just over 36 hours. In 1971, operation of all passenger train service in the US was taken over by Amtrak, which sadly ended the run of the Super Chief.

We began our journey at the train station in La Junta, which was built in the mid-1950s as a replacement for a Harvey House, El Otero, that once stood in its place. While we loved the mid-century styling of the station, we can only imagine what it was like back in its Harvey House days.

Arriving only 35 minutes late (this is good by Amtrak standards), we climbed aboard and found our coach seats. Before getting too settled in, we decided to check out the Observation Car, so named because it has a domed glass ceiling allowing for incredible views. As it turned out, our train was relatively empty and we ended up spending the entire day in the Observation Car, enjoying the views and meeting other travelers.

From the station in La Junta, the train heads southwest towards Trinidad, CO, closely following the route of US Highway 350, which has a treasure trove of ghost towns and abandoned buildings that we have yet to explore (as a side note, it is quite difficult to take photos from the train without getting reflections). From Trinidad, the train turns south and starts the climb over Raton Pass, which at 7,588 feet, is the highest point on the Southwest Chief line. At the southern end of the pass is Raton, NM, and the first of our “fresh air” stops, where we could get out and wander for a few minutes.

Built in 1903 in the Spanish Revival Mission style prevalent throughout New Mexico, the station in Raton feels like the perfect welcome to the first stop in the Land of Enchantment. Even though it no longer has a red tiled spire sitting atop it (gone well before our time), it is still a beautiful station only made more spectacular by the New Mexico blue sky. In addition to the regular Southwest Chief passengers, the Raton station also sees around 5,000 boy scouts each year as they pass through on their way to the nearby Philmont Ranch.

From Raton, the train makes brief stops at Las Vegas, where the newly renovated and reopened former Harvey House, Castaneda Hotel, beckons for us to come back and stay; and Lamy, where one would hop off to catch a shuttle to Santa Fe.

Shortly after boarding the train, the conductor walks from car to car taking reservations for lunch and/or dinner (depending on when and where you board). Although food and drinks are available throughout most of the day in the Cafe Car, having a meal in the dining car is an integral part of the experience and shouldn’t be missed. Reminiscent of a diner with its rows of booths, guests are seated in groups of four. If you are traveling in a party of less than four, you will be randomly seated with other passengers on the train.

On all of the trains we rode, we opted to have our meals in the dining car- enjoying one breakfast and multiple lunches and dinners. Not only were the views spectacular, but we met some interesting travelers. We shared a dinner with a mom traveling with her young daughter who was an educator and children’s book author, breakfast with a young woman from New Jersey who was riding the train to “experience new things” and see parts of the country she’d never visited before, lunch with a retired doctor and nurse couple from Oregon traveling to see family, and dinner with a college student on her way home to the Midwest after working at a ski lodge over the winter.

With a fairly limited menu that was the same for all of our train rides, we had the opportunity to try most everything offered. For our first meal, we had the Black Bean & Corn Veggie Burger and Baked Chilaquiles paired with a small bottle of Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon. Clearly, we were hungry and enjoyed our meal, as we forgot to take a picture until we were done eating.

After lunch, we once again found seats in the Observation Car and enjoyed the views en route to Albuquerque, passing by the town of Los Cerrillos, made famous in more recent times for being the filming location for the movie, Young Guns; the San Felipe and Sandia Pueblos; and the Sandia Mountains, named for watermelons, due their appearance at sunset.

Once upon a time, Albuquerque had a grand Harvey House hotel and dining room, the Alvarado, said to be the “finest railroad hotel on earth” when it opened in 1902. For 68 years, travelers and guests would enjoy the luxury and refined service provided by the Fred Harvey Company and his Harvey Girls. With the decline in train travel in the 1960s and 70s, so came the hard times that befell many stations and sadly, the Alvarado was demolished in 1970, with the site remaining just a dirt parking lot for decades. In 2002, a new station was constructed on the site of the Duke City’s former social and political hub, the Alvarado Transportation Center. Built to resemble the original Alvarado, it now houses the Amtrak station, as well the local commuter rail- the Rail Runner, and the local and Greyhound busses. Another designated “fresh air” stop, it gave us a chance to get out and briefly explore the station.

After departing Albuquerque, the tracks more or less run alongside Interstate 40 and Route 66, passing by the towns of Grants, Prewitt, Thoreau, and Continental Divide (all great places to stop when driving 66), before reaching the final stop in New Mexico in Gallup.

Opened in 1918 as the area headquarters for the Santa Fe RR, the Gallup station was built in the Mission Revival style so popular throughout California and the desert West. In 1923, El Navajo, a Harvey House hotel was constructed as an adjoining structure to the station. Like many other Harvey Houses, El Navajo was designed by Fred Harvey’s chosen architect and designer, Mary Colter, who celebrated the local tribes with Navajo sand paintings on the walls. Sadly, the hotel and its sand paintings were demolished when Route 66 was widened in 1957.

After leaving Gallup, with the tracks continuing to run alongside Interstate 40, we were treated to a spectacular desert sunset. One of the final glimpses we caught before dark was the historic Route 66 Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ (a not-to-be missed experience!).

After our twelve-hour journey, we arrived on time in Winslow, AZ, where we hopped off the train for our overnight stay at La Posada. Just steps from the platform to the hotel, it was a chance to experience train travel as it was before cars, highways, and chain motels.

La Posada Hotel- Winslow, AZ

By 1876, many people were traveling across the country by train, which led to a need for decent food and lodging. Enter Fred Harvey, creator of the first restaurant chain in the country. For nearly 100 years, his Harvey Houses served passengers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, with facilities from Kansas to Los Angeles, some of which were full-service hotels, while others were just a lunchroom. Regardless of where passengers stopped, they knew exactly what to expect- quality meals and impeccable service from his Harvey Girls (if you love old musicals, check out the Judy Garland movie from 1946). As travel transitioned from train to automobile during the mid 20th Century, Harvey Houses became obsolete and the Fred Harvey Company was eventually sold in 1968, signifying the true end of an era.

At one time, there were more than 80 Harvey House hotels, restaurants, and lunch rooms along the AT&SF route. Sadly, only a few remain and of those, there are even fewer in which you can spend the night as travelers did back in the day- La Posada in Winslow, AZ, the Castaneda in Las Vegas, NM, and La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe.

Opened in 1930, La Posada was the last of the Fred Harvey/Santa Fe RR hotels to open. A popular destination for many famous celebrities (from actors to presidents), the hotel closed after just 27 years and the space became offices for the Santa Fe. After the railroad moved out in the early 1990s, there were plans to demolish the building; however, it was saved by a dedicated couple that renovated and reopened the hotel and its restaurant, The Turquoise Room.

After getting settled into Room 244 (the Janet Napolitano Room), a large room with a king bed, couch, huge whirlpool tub, and window overlooking the front garden planted in the shape of the AT&SF logo, we hurried down to the Turquoise Room and managed to grab a table before the 9:00 pm closing time. Based on the time we were due to arrive in Winslow, we had opted to skip dinner on the train, figuring we could wait until 8:00pm or so without much issue. Something we forgot to account for was the time change. Based on the time of year during which we traveled, Arizona was on Pacific Daylight Time and Colorado was on Mountain Daylight Time, which meant that we didn’t actually get to dinner until after 9:00pm our time. Something to remember, if you do happen to travel during the time of year when the time changes while on the train.

The Turquoise Room, La Posada

Back in the glamorous days of rail travel, trains would have a dining car, not like the current diner-style on modern Amtrak trains, but akin to a five-star, white tablecloth dining experience. Beginning in 1936, the Santa Fe Super Chief provided meals in a lounge-dining car called the Pleasure Dome. In addition to the seating and lounge areas, there was a private dining room in each Pleasure Dome, called the Turquoise Room. For nearly four decades, passengers had the opportunity to dine in the “first private dining room on rails.” In 1971, Amtrak took over operation of the Super Chief and eventually discontinued the use of the Pleasure Domes. Although no longer on wheels, the fine dining tradition carries on the with the Turquoise Room restaurant located inside La Posada. Opened in 2000, it serves meals using local ingredients and the occasional throwback menu item from the railway dining days.

We started the meal with the Piki Bread with Hopi Hummus. Flaky and almost paper like in texture, piki bread is made from blue corn meal, ash, and water, and cooked on a rock at a nearby Hopi reservation. It tasted mostly of blue corn and felt as though it melted in your mouth. Paired with the house made hummus, which had a nice mustard note, it was a truly special bite and quite the start to our meal.

For our entrees, we had the Grilled Chicken Breast with Tomatillo Sauce, black beans, and a cornbread crumble and the Wild Wild Platter, a meat-stravaganza with crispy fried quail, elk medallions, and a tamale topped with bison, elk, and wild boar chili. Both were good, but the chicken dish was the standout and the best thing we ate during all of our meals at the Turquoise Room. For dessert, we shared a slice of The Fred Harvey Pie- apple blackberry topped with whipped cream. In a word, amazing.

Day 3: Southwest Chief
Winslow, AZ to Los Angeles, CA

The third day of our trip began with breakfast in the Turquoise Room. In addition to serving traditional breakfast options, the menu also offers baked egg dishes. Originally found in the East, these dishes found their way west back in the day via railroad stops. Baked egg dishes consist of two eggs prepared in a deep dish and then loaded up with various toppings and baked in the oven. We tried the Corn Maiden’s Delight, a bowl of yellow corn polenta topped with two poached eggs, fresh spinach, fire roasted tomatoes, corn salsa, and jalapeño jack cheese. It was spectacular and we suggest not missing it.

After breakfast, we wandered around the property before checking out of our room. With nearly a whole day to fill until we caught the train to Los Angeles, we opted to walk into downtown Winslow (the front desk was kind enough to let us store our bags there for the day).

Just a few blocks from the hotel is, perhaps, the most famous corner on Route 66. Chances are, you’re familiar with the lyrics in the 1972 Eagle’s tune, “Take It Easy“- “Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see.” Created in 1999 as a tribute to the song which made a nation aware of the small Route 66 town in Arizona, Standin’ On the Corner Park is a hopping place. Having stopped here on our Route 66 trip with Finley, we didn’t feel the need to pose ourselves, but jumped on the opportunity to grab a rare photo with no one in it.

We continued our exploration of Winslow, stopping at the officially recognized “smallest church on Route 66” and self-proclaimed “world’s smallest church”, the Tiny Church of the Mother Road. As we strolled along Route 66 through town, we also grabbed some photos of a former Texaco station and perused the lovely displays at the Old Trails Museum, which include displays of Route 66, the AT&SF, and Harvey Girls memorabilia.

After a lunch at the Sipp Shoppe in downtown Winslow, which included cherry and lime phosphates, we headed back to La Posada. A gorgeous sprawling facility reminiscent of an old hacienda, you could spend hours exploring the grounds, galleries, and unique spaces in the hotel. Grab a chair and read a book in the Sunken Garden, peruse the funky art of co-owner Tina Mion in the multiple galleries throughout the hotel, or do as we did and grab a cocktail from the Martini Lounge in the Turquoise Room to enjoy on the lawn while playing a game of croquet as the freight trains rumble by.

With our train not due to arrive until 7:25 pm, the timing was perfect for us to enjoy one last meal in the Turquoise Room, before walking the few steps out back to catch the train to Los Angeles. As luck would have it, the menu had changed for the season and we had the opportunity to try some new dishes. We enjoyed the Elk Short Ribs (good) and Elk Pie (great), with a slice of Chocolate Pecan – Agave Pie for dessert (best part of the meal).

Post dinner, we wandered outside and enjoyed the sunset from one of the two seating areas that overlook the train platform until our train rolled in (on time, again!) and we hopped aboard Car 330.

We’ll be honest, we were a bit nervous about the sleeper room accommodations both from a size and a quality standpoint. In doing research for the trip, we’d come across some very mixed reviews, but were pleasantly surprised to find our Superliner Bedroom had enough space for both of us to sit comfortably; and after having lived in an Airstream for three months, we found the wet bath (shower and toilet) practically roomy.

Jay is lucky, he can sleep anywhere…and through anything. Needless to say, he wasn’t worried about spending the night on the train. Jen, on the other hand, is more of a light sleeper and was fully prepared to be up most of the night. Unexpectedly, both of us actually slept relatively well. Only waking up a few times during the night, we were lucky enough during one of those times to catch a glimpse of the famous Route 66 desert outpost, Roy’s, as we passed through Amboy.

After a warm shower in the small, but effective, wet bath, we watched some of California’s historic and beautiful train stations roll by as we headed into Los Angeles. The ride into L.A. is mostly between and behind buildings and doesn’t offer much in the way of views, but we were still mesmerized by the passing urban scenery.

The fourth day of our train trip adventure brought us to Los Angeles, where we planned to spend the next 24 hours exploring downtown, before hopping aboard the Coast Starlight to the Bay Area. Continue following our adventure in part two of our journey: From the City to the Sea: L.A. in a Day & the Coast Starlight.