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Classic American Train Journeys – The California Zephyr

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A trip on the California Zephyr, across much of the North American continent, is considered one of the great train journeys of the world. Launched in 1949 and re-launched in 1983, the Zephyr became an American icon as one of the country's earliest transcontinental lines. The train runs from Union Station in Chicago, to Emeryville, near San Francisco in California. This spectacular 3-day journey starts on the plains of Illinois, continues on across the regal Rockies and High Sierras via Denver, and on through the arid Nevada flatlands, ending in California.

You can choose a spacious coach seat or reserve a roomette or bedroom in one of the Superliner sleeping cars, depending on your budget. The Dining Car serves full meals in a comfortable setting, and sandwiches, snacks, and beverages are available for purchase at the Cafe Bar. The Sightseer Lounge Car has large picture windows and movies are screened here, including features for children during the summer months.

The journey
The journey follows the historic trail of gold prospectors and carpetbaggers in the frenetic Gold Rush days. Day 1 passes through charming Illinois farming country, interspersed with quaint rural townships, across the mighty Mississippi River into Iowa. The river winds off in its imposing passage as the Zephyr chugs serenely along. Time seems to stand still along this mid-west stretch.

On Day 2 the Zephyr arrives in booming Denver. The skyscrapers of this modern metropolis are dramatically etched against a backdrop of the massive Rockies in the distance. For a big city, the air is remarkably clear and refreshing. You get a chance to stretch your legs at the station here, while the train is refueled and cleaned. After Denver, the Zephyr begins a long upward pull into the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies where the rocky foothills jut from sweeping plains. Pine trees dot the ochre-coloured hillsides, which often plunge down into deep river valleys, with bubbling, fast-running streams.

The views from the train windows, especially those of the Sightseer Lounge Car, are stunning and generally uninterrupted by man-made obstacles. The only intrusion appears to be the train itself, glimpsed from its own window, becoming part of the immaculate scenery as it wends its way along the river courses and valleys. The Zephyr passes through Moffett tunnel, a nine-mile long tube of darkness which takes around 10 minutes to pass through. On the other side, the rivers, mountains and pines continue to dominate the view. The yellow and red rock become the canvas upon which rushing waters and thick pine forests are drawn.

By Day 3, the Zephyr is in the Nevada flatlands, well into California. In the High Sierras you are treated to a never-ending procession of dramatically beautiful views, broken only by the occasional bridge, or by the mountain sides themselves. Alpine Donner Lake passes, serene in the valley of sweeping ranges.

Finally, at the Emeryville terminus, shuttle buses to San Francisco wait for you trainside. You’ll feel relaxed by the no-rush feel of the journey, and inspired by the unparalleled scenery and the breath-taking vastness and variety of the North American continent.


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