Wednesday, May 7, 2014

California Zephyr from Davis, CA to Denver, CO

For this year's spring meeting, we traveled to Denver on the California Zephyr.  Our journey began last Wednesday afternoon in Portland, OR where we boarded the southbound Coast Starlight to Davis, California.

You may recall, I've taken the Coast Starlight before and it's a beautiful journey down to Los Angeles.  Since we had to catch the train east to Denver, we decided to ride to Davis, California and not Sacramento as it gave us another 30 minutes on the train, plus downtown Davis has more places to explore and grab a bite to eat before the Zephyr arrives.

Between San Fransisco and Chicago lie narrow canyons, towering peaks and breathtakingly beautiful mountain wilderness while crossing two great mountain ranges, the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies.

The California Zephyr was named for the original 2,438 mile passenger train route operated jointly by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.

This is the "most talked about train in America" and was inaugurated in March of 1949 with five dome cars and four sleeping cars.

Here are some pictures and highlights of our route.


Having arrived in Davis, CA just before daylight, we boarded the California Zephyr on time at 10:38 and made our way into our roomette.

Davis, CA

Davis begins the Great Central Valley, a large flat valley that dominates the central portion of the state.  The northern half of which is the Sacramento Valley and the southern half of which is the San Joaquin Valley.  The halves are joined by the shared delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.

Colfax, CA

Between Colfax and Truckee, CA (Lake Tahoe) we enjoy a wonderful lunch in the dining car.  Colfax was named for Schuyler Colfax, seventeenth Vice President of the US under Ulysses S. Grant between 1869-1873.

From here to Reno, NV we begin to cross the Sierra Nevada Range.

Cape Horn

Cape horn is a rocky bluff on the right side of the train some 1,500 ft above the American River.  The story of the construction of the railroad grading has been the subject of many writings, resulting in a remarkable collections of truths, fantasies and some in-between.  A narrow rock ledge was expanded into the present track.  Long Ravine Bridge provides one of the first clear views of the Sierras in the distance and to the right of the train.

Mt. Judah

Between Norden and Truckee, CA we entered a tunnel through the mountain some 7,000 ft. above sea level.  The ski resort closed during WWII for fear the Germans might blow up the tunnel.  A ski lift for Sugar Bowl resort carries skiers over the track.

California/Nevada State Line


The "biggest little city int he world"!   And time for an afternoon cocktail!  Reno began as a gold mining settlement which grew after the discovery of silver in 1859.

Between Reno and Winnemucca we eat dinner in the dining car.


This is the town where, in the 1850's, wagon trains crossed the Humbolt River and decided whether or not to attempt crossing the Sierra Nevada range.  The most exciting single moment in the history of the city was when Butch Cassidy held up the local bank for $2,000 in gold coins.

Darkness and bedtime and the Nevada/Utah state line greets us just after midnight.  We go through Salt Lake City and Provo, UT before watching the sun rise along about Helper, UT.

Helper, UT

This was established as a railroad and coal town in 1881.

Ruby Canyon, UT 
This is a popular destination for rafting, taking its name from the red sandstone cliffs lining the canyon walls.

Grand Junction

Breakfast just before Grand Junction!  This holds a special place in Brian's heart as it's where he went to school and graduated back in 1983.  Located at the junction of the Gunnison and Grand Rivers, the city sits near the mid point of the Grand Valley, a major fruit growing region.  The Colorado National Monument, a series of canyons and mesas similar the the Grand Canyon, overlook the city.

Glenwood Springs

Located at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers, a unique location that sees high recreational use by locals.  Here lies 6 world class ski resorts within a 60 mile radius, quite a few bike trails, whitewater rafting and the Glenwood Caverns.  Doc Holiday, the wild west legend of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, spent the final months of his life here.

Gore Canyon

This is a short and isolated stretch on the upper Colorado River.  It's steep walls ascend some 1,000 feet on each side over the river, which descends from 7,300 ft. to 7,000 ft.  

As such, it is road less and inaccessible except by rail or kayak.  its Class V whitewater is the wildest commercially available rafting in the state, perhaps the entire county.

Winter Park

This is the station for nearby Winter Park Ski Resort.  This is the "icebox of America" with recorded winter temperatures as low as -50F.   The ski resort is at the western portal to the Moffat Tunnel, built as part of Denver's mountain parks system.  Its slopes come right up alongside the railroad.

Moffat Tunnel is 6.2 miles long, cutting the distance between Denver and the Pacific Coast by 176 miles when it was first opened in 1928. 

Coal Creek Canyon

This is home to 2,300 residents and is on the right side of the train as you pass over a small bridge.  Nearby Central City was known as the "richest square mile on earth" when gold reserves were discovered here in 1859.  Tracks can be seen far below as the train winds between the front range of the Rockies and Denver.


The train negotiates "Big 10 Curve" on the approach to Arvada, a Denver suburb.  Winds can be quite strong in this area.  Hopper cars welded to the rails are filled with sand and sit on adjacent tracks to act as a windbreaker.


The Mile High City is our final stop!  It's elevation sits at 5,280 feet and is measured at the 13th step of the state capitol building.  Founded in 1858 by a land spectacular, the original settlement was named Denver City.

We enjoyed our trip on-board the California Zephyr!  For more information on riding trains, schedules and route guides, visit Amtrak.Com