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Travel - Go West!... With Amtrak From Chicago To San Francisco

by Ron Meijer in Travel and weekendtrips , 18 juli 2007

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

With Amtrak from Chicago to San Francisco is probably the best train trip in the United States. You travel through the country of the Amish community, through the endless farmlands of the Midwest, along powerful rivers like the Colorado, through deep canyons and straight across the impressive Rocky Mountains, which is the absolute highlight of the trip. The world famous train “California Zephyr” is taking you from Chicago to San Francisco.


Whoever plans to travel the U.S. will think of taking planes or a car first. But a train trip in this gigantic country with over 40,000 kilometers of rail track is an experience in itself, and surely the best and most relaxed way to familiarize yourself with the country and its people. Amtrak trains take you along the best routes to over five-hundred different destinations.

The carriages are spacious and comfortable and the atmosphere is very friendly so you easily make contact with your fellow travelers.

The ticket prices are reasonable especially if you use a rail pass, you have the option of a comfortable sleeper as well. In the old days there were many competing train companies, but since 1971 they’ve been combined into one national company: Amtrak, in their recognizable silver carriages with a red-white-blue band.

Depending on the region and the distance of a trip Amtrak uses various carriage types, such as the Superliners, Viewliners, Single-level Fleet and Acela Express. They often sport names that enhance the romantic aspect of traveling.


Compared to the Dutch trains the Amtrak material is much more spacious and comfortable. The distances are much greater though too. From Chicago to San Francisco is about 4,000 kilometers and will take you three days! On all big destinations in the West of the U.S., and also on the routes Chicago / San Francisco and Washington / Chicago Amtrak uses Superliners. These are very comfortable double level trains of about five meters high. The Superliners have a special panorama carriage with large windows so that you can fully enjoy the landscape. On the lower deck is the bar. Meals are served in the dining carriage. Travel times are often arranged so that the most beautiful parts of the journey are done during the day.

The comfortable seats (Coach Class) are adjustable with feet-rests and lots of legroom. The seats are all on the upper deck. If you want extra comfort you can choose from four types of private accommodation: during the day you have your own private compartment, that can easily be turned into a small bedroom at night (we were very comfy indeed).

The Standard Bedroom, two beds above each other, for one to two adults, on upper or lower deck, toilets and bathroom in the carriage, were fine, if you’re willing to pay you can get even more exclusive packages.

We flew straight from Amsterdam to Chicago, where we stayed for a few days. We had been there before and knew there was more of America’s third largest city that we wanted to see. After three days we were ready to move on, so we went to Union Station to start our three-day journey to San Francisco with the California Zephyr.

From Chicago To Denver

Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. These are the states we will travel through; we’ll have to adjust our watches three times. The first part takes us, late in the afternoon when we leave, through the flat lands of Illinois and Iowa and the first interesting stop is Des Moines, Iowa’s capital. Founded in 1851 as Fort Des Moines the city now has 200,000 citizens.
The next stop at a known place is Omaha, which reminds us of D-Day’s beach in Normandy. The town has nothing to do with it though and is otherwise rather insignificant. After a lovely dinner in the restaurant carriage and a cigarette in the smoking compartment, we decide to get the cabin ready for the night (which was easy enough). The gentle rocking of the train soon sent us to sleep.

After our breakfast and morning paper we wanted to find out how much distance we had traveled through the night. We found ourselves at just a couple of hours away from Denver. Until then the landscape had been a little boring.

There seem to be a lot of deserted industrial areas, as if companies just left things as they were and closed the door. We were to see many more of these ghost towns and factories later.
A few hours later we notice snow covered mountains in the distance and at their feet lies the city of Denver.

Here the train stops for a while to refuel, restock and some cleaning. A great opportunity to stretch our legs and have a look around the station. It was a bit of a shock because we hadn’t noticed the climate change in our air-conditioned compartment. It was about 40 degrees Celsius!

Denver is the capital of the state Colorado. Denver has the nickname “The Mile High City” because it’s indeed at exactly one mile (1609 meters) above sea level. We thought the landscape had been flat but we actually climbed over one and a halve kilometers.
Denver was founded in 1858 at the peak of the Gold Rush. There are still some sites around the city which remind of that time.

From Denver To Salt Lake City

After the boiling hot stopover, we rushed back into the train and headed for the Rocky Mountains, an unforgettable trip through the mountains. The Rocky Mountains, which are just that: rocky mountains, make up a range in the West of the U.S. The Rockies stretch out to more than 4800 kilometers from Mexico, right through the U.S. up to Canada and Alaska. Mount Elbert, in Colorado, is at 4399 meters above sea level its highest peak. The range has the Great Plains at the East side and a series of basins and lowlands on the West. It’s called the Continental Divide; it’s the border between rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean and the Northern Ice Sea, and the ones that flow into the Pacific Ocean, like the famous Colorado River.

After about ten minutes already, you can feel the train’s three powerful locomotives start to climb the slope and fifteen minutes later we get a sweeping view over Denver, the city we just left.

Slowly the train winds its way up and after two hours at a maximum speed of forty or fifty kilometers an hour - sometimes much slower - we reach the Moffett Tunnel. This tunnel is over ten kilometers long and it seems like an hour to get through. There’s an enormous temperature difference at our first stop after Denver: Granby, where we saw our first snow.

The stop after was Glenwood Springs, known for its hot springs that are supposed to have healing powers; we didn’t try them out. The water is so warm that you can even bathe in winter when the temperature outside is twenty degrees below zero.

From here the train takes us through magnificent canyons with the mountains on both sides in amazing colors, ranging from deep red to golden yellow. The conductor told us to look out for cars halfway the slopes. After accidents they just get the people out and leave the cars if they don’t pose any danger.

Grand Junction is our next stop and from there we exchange the mountains for an endless desert until we reach the next range of mountains: the Sierra Nevada.

Nevada’s desert is extremely rough, we don’t see a single sign of live for hours. This is where they used to do underground nuclear tests; it seems like an appropriate area. The huge plains of sand sometimes change into vast white salt lakes with high colorful rock formations in the distance: breathtaking.

A lot of Indian tribes used to live in Nevada, but when they found gold and silver there their fate was sealed. We saw several remains of old gold and silver mines in the rocks and many small settlements; the end of an infamous period in the American history.

Lake Tahoe - Reno - Sacramento - San Francisco

After the enormous last salt plain we all of a sudden spot signs of life again in the shape of tire tracks. The landscape is changing and some shrubbery appears. We feel the train start to climb again and that means we’re getting close to the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada is a range of mountains in the West of the U.S. and lies for the most part in the state California. The area is also known as The Sierra of The Sierras. It stretches out over 650 kilometers (400 miles), from Fredonyer Pass in the North to Tehachapi Pass in the South. This is also the country of the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). It’s a tree from the cypress family (Cupressaceae) and the largest tree in the world when it comes to volume. It’s a native tree to California and mainly grows on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The largest of them all, the General Sherman Tree can be found in the Sequoia National Park in California. It is eighty-three meters high and the stem’s circumference at the bottom is thirty-one meters - at chest height still twenty-six meters.

But first we ride along the famous fresh water Lake Tahoe, at the border of Nevada and California and close to Carson City. Two third of the lake’s shore are in California. The area has many ski resorts.

Lake Tahoe is one of the deepest (501 m), biggest (497 km²) and highest (1898 m) lakes in the U.S. Only Oregon’s Crater Lake is deeper (588 m). From this point the journey is a long gliding way down to San Francisco, with stops on the way in small Las Vegas, Reno and Sacramento where we spot the first palm trees.

Just over one and a half hours later we arrive in the suburbs of San Francisco where comfortable buses take us to the center of town.
Three days in a train with air conditioning and so many impressions, it was an incredible experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, actually would like to do it again one day.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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