Ride Like the Wind: On the California Zephyr to Denver

The third and final portion of our train trip was aboard the California Zephyr, traveling from the Bay Area to the Mile High City. In case you missed the earlier part of our train travels, you can catch up with our ride on the Southwest Chief in Hail to the Southwest Chief: All Aboard for Los Angeles; and our day in Los Angeles and ride on the Coast Starlight in From the City to the Sea: L.A. in a Day & the Coast Starlight.

Days 6 & 7: California Zephyr
Emeryville, CA to Denver, CO

Perhaps the most scenic route on the entire Amtrak line, the California Zephyr is well-known to many Coloradans, us included. When we owned our winery in Palisade, we also owned fifty acres of land, which included thirty-two acres of vineyard. Our property and vineyards were split almost exactly in half by tracks owned by Union Pacific, which also happened to be the route for the California Zephyr. Twice a day (one westbound, one eastbound) for years and years, we watched, and frequently waved at the passing Zephyr. We had the opportunity to ride the Zephyr from Grand Junction to Denver back in 2014 and thoroughly enjoyed the trip, but had spent much more time driving alongside the train on I-70 than we had riding it, so we were excited to have an opportunity to ride the Zephyr from its western terminus in Emeryville to Denver.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr is the second iteration of the train that runs from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay area. The first Zephyr began in 1939 as the Exposition Flyer, with the goal to bring visitors to the Golden Gate International Exposition. At the time, many more railroads still existed, and the train was operated by three different railway companies. From Chicago to Denver, the Flyer was operated by the Chicago, Quincy & Burlington Railroad; from Denver to Salt Lake City, the Denver and Rio Grande Western (D&RGW) operated the train; and from Salt Lake City to Oakland, Western Pacific was the operator. In 1949, the Exposition Flyer was replaced by the California Zephyr. The California Zephyr ran for 21 years and 2 days, officially retiring on March 22, 1970. Throughout those two decades, passengers enjoyed some of the most beautiful views in the West, and had their needs attended to by Zephyrettes, hostesses who provided everything from dinner reservations to first aid to parlor games.

Created in 1971 to operate all passenger rail service in the country, Amtrak intended on resurrecting the California Zephyr, planning to operate it via Burlington Northern, D&RGW, and Southern Pacific lines. The D&RGW however, opted not to join Amtrak and the line was forced to move north to Union Pacific rails through Southern Wyoming. This initially led to passengers having to ride two trains to travel from Chicago to the Bay Area- the daily Denver Zephyr and the thrice-weekly City of San Francisco. Eventually, the two lines were combined into one and called the San Francisco Zephyr. Not until 1983, when the D&RGW finally decided to join Amtrak was the California Zephyr rerouted to its current, though not quite original, route.

On a beautiful, sunny Tuesday morning, we grabbed our packs and headed across the tracks from our room at the Hyatt House to the train station to catch the #6 Eastbound California Zephyr. After boarding Car 632, we found our way to Room C and settled in for our 36-hour ride to Denver. Our experience in a Superliner Bedroom on our Southwest Chief trip was quite pleasant, so we were thrilled to find that the rooms on the Zephyr were even nicer. With higher end finishes that appeared a little less worn, a larger bathroom, more headroom in the top bunk, and an unexpected treat of candy and water left by our friendly car attendant, we ended up spending almost the entire trip from Emeryville to Denver in our cozy room.

From the station in Emeryville, the train travels north along San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait; continues through the town where the martini was most likely invented, Martinez; alongside Suisun Marsh, the largest brackish marsh on the West Coast; through the quaint gold mining town of Colfax; and makes brief stops at the historic stations in Davis, Sacramento, and the newer, though still styled after the original, station in Roseville.

As the train rolls east, it begins to climb into the mountains towards the infamous Donner Pass. Before cresting the summit of Donner Pass, the train crosses Emigrant Gap, a pass so steep it’s rumored that pioneers crossing the gap in the mid-1800s had to lower their wagons by rope. As it continues over the pass, the train passes Donner Lake before making a brief stop in former logging and railroad town, now outdoor adventure hotspot, Truckee.

As afternoon turned to evening, we transitioned from mountains to desert. After a fresh air stop in Winnemucca, NV, we enjoyed yet another beautiful sunset as we continued east.

A bit more of a rougher and bouncier ride than our night on the Chief, we both managed to sleep relatively well and woke up with the sun, shortly before stopping in Green River, UT. At 4,078 feet, Green River has the distinction of being the lowest point on the route between Salt Lake City and Denver. Leaving Green River, the tracks run alongside the Book Cliffs, so named because they look like books on shelves, before traveling through the appropriately named Ruby Canyon and on to the next stop in our former hometown, Grand Junction, CO.

Built in 1906 by the Denver & Rio Grande Western RR, Grand Junction’s Italian Renaissance-style Union Station opened on the very same day that San Francisco’s great quake occurred, making its first arrivals residents fleeing from the Bay Area. The station remained operational until 1992; however, since that time the building has been vacant, sadly left to deteriorate in Western Colorado’s hot, desert climate. Purchased a few years ago with the new owner intent on refurbishing it, things are progressing slowly as the project has run into a number of speed bumps, but we hope to see it shining proudly once again someday.

After a twenty-ish minute stop in Grand Junction, the train travels alongside and through the orchards and vineyards that make the area, known as the Grand Valley, an agricultural destination in Colorado. Just before leaving the valley floor and entering Debeque Canyon, the Zephyr passes through the land and vineyard that we used to own in Palisade.

From Palisade, the scenery gets more and more beautiful. After a brief stop in Glenwood Springs, the train winds through Glenwood Canyon, just across the river from Interstate 70. An engineering feat, it took 12 years to construct the 12.5-mile-long stretch of interstate, which is made up of three tunnels, 15 miles of retaining walls, and 40 bridges and viaducts. Upon its completion in 1992, this stretch of highway symbolized the completion of the original U.S. Interstate System begun in 1956 and was one of the country’s most expensive rural highways per mile to build. Engineering marvel aside, it is a gorgeous stretch of Colorado and Zephyr scenery.

Near Dotsero, the train heads north following the path of the Colorado River into Gore Canyon. According to our conductor, the stretch of track between Gore Canyon and Golden is one of the most beautiful in all rail systems and the location of the photo below has been used in railroad marketing for more than 100 years. We haven’t ridden every train, but its got to be hard to beat this view!

After winding through Gore Canyon, which is only accessible by train or kayak, the Zephyr heads to Fraser/Winter Park Ski Resort. Known as the “Icebox of the Nation”, Fraser claims to be the coldest incorporated town in the lower 48 states. With an average mean temperature of 32.5 degrees, it has more than 300 nights below freezing and a growing season of 4-7 days. Yes, days.

Just past Winter Park is the western portal of the Moffat Tunnel. The 6.2-mile tunnel was built to keep trains from traveling over Rollins Pass and when it was opened in 1928, shortened the trip from Salt Lake City to Denver by more than 170 miles. Unlike most tunnels that we pass through today, there are no lights in the Moffat Tunnel, which means that you ride for six miles through total darkness, which is super cool and provides a sort-of sensory deprivation experience.

Emerging from the Moffat Tunnel near Rollinsville, the train enters the Tunnel District. Including the Moffat Tunnel, 29 tunnels along a 2% grade in South Boulder Canyon guide the train as it makes the final descent into Denver.

On the final stretch before arriving at Union Station in Denver, the train travels along the Big 10 Curve, passing cars full of sand permanently welded to the tracks to help protect the freight and passenger trains from winds, which can reach up to 100 mph. If you’ve ever spent any time on Colorado’s Front Range in Spring or Fall and had the pleasure of experiencing one of our windy days, this doesn’t sound unrealistic at all.

After seven days traveling by train through some of the most beautiful places in the West, we arrived in Denver. For the final night of our trip, we stayed at the Crawford Hotel located just a few steps away from the train platform inside Union Station. We’ve stayed at the Crawford before, but as it is one of our favorites and it just so happened that there was no available bus back to Colorado Springs until the next morning, we took advantage of the opportunity to stay again.

Denver’s Union Station underwent a complete renovation from 2012 to 2014, creating a vibrant space filled with restaurants and shops. One of our favorite restaurants in Denver, Stoic and Genuine, happens to be located in Union Station and was just steps away from our room. After settling in to our very large and stylish room (thanks to a complimentary upgrade!), we headed down to enjoy a meal of oysters, crudo, cornbread, and strangely enough, french fries. For the entire trip, we craved french fries and our final dinner was the very first place where they were available- and they were so good, that it was worth the wait.

After a relaxing night in our spacious room, complete with a giant wall-mounted Scrabble board, we spent the morning enjoying coffee and donuts from Pigtrain Coffee, sitting at the fountain outside the station, and wandering through the shops before catching our Bustang ride at 12:00pm. Less than two hours later, we were home. We had traveled more than 3,300 miles through seven states, from the mountains to the sea, and never once driven a car. What a truly incredible experience.

We’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel through much of the country by car. We have seen and experienced many different places, with each trip full of new discoveries leaving us with great new memories. This trip was particularly special because it was an entirely new experience that allowed us to imagine how travel was in the past, even before cars. As the hours and miles rolled by on the train, we found ourselves looking out the windows, rather than nose down into devices. We talked about the things we were excited to see, those we had already seen, and Finley. With his loss so fresh, we spent much of the quiet time thinking about and missing our best friend. We were sad for much of the trip, but we made sure to focus on the experiences and scenery, as he would have wanted us to do. We like to think he was riding along in spirit.

2 thoughts on “Ride Like the Wind: On the California Zephyr to Denver

  1. Rob Reply

    Great story! I miss Finley, too. I spotted him on the catwalk above operations at Canyon Winds and imagined that he was overseeing the whole process!!