Turns out, you don’t need a car to see America.
Traveling coast-to-coast across the United States by train is one of the world’s greatest travel experiences. Amazingly, it’s also one of the world’s greatest travel bargains — the 3,400-mile trip can cost as little as $186.
The American railroads are reminiscent of a bygone era. These were the trains that tamed the Wild West, fueled the Gold Rush, and served as the backbone of the Industrial Revolution. At its peak, it was the most luxurious mode of transportation that money could buy. Alas, the golden age of American railroads came to an end. Automobiles arrived and the airplane industry took off. Soon, many railroad companies had to cut losses and ceased their passenger services.
Today, the USA still has an excellent rail network for visitors that’ll take you to almost all the towns and cities a visitor would want to see. Arguably, the most scenic and historic of all the train routes in America is the cross-country journey from San Francisco to New York. As you climb through the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas, and further east through the heart of the Rockies, you may find it hard to disagree.
In December 2011, I traveled from San Francisco to New York by train.
This is my trip in pictures.
Keep up with my latest adventures
The 3,400-mile coast-to-coast train ride takes 4 days if you do it without stopovers. Of course, you should make stopovers, but you’ll need to buy separate tickets for each leg.
The train doesn’t technically depart from San Francisco but 20 minutes away in Emeryville.
I arrived at the station and found my train — the famous California Zephyr, a direct train traveling 2,438 miles from San Francisco to Chicago over 3 days.
At 9:10 am, I boarded the train to begin my journey across America.
San Francisco to Salt Lake City
The train begins its journey running alongside the tranquil waters of the San Francisco Bay Area for some fabulous coastal views.
At some parts, the train was literally a foot from the water.
In the distance, I saw something that wasn’t too inviting.
The famous fog of San Francisco was rolling in, and it rolled in fast.
Before long, the splendid bay view became this.
It appeared that we may have made a wrong turn into the enchanted forest, and life around us started dying.
The window eventually became a smokescreen of white. I fell asleep soon after.
I woke up some hours later and noticed that people were drawn to the scenery outside.
No doubt that it was something worth looking at.
I moved to the Sightseer Lounge car, fitted with enormous windows that wrapped upward into the ceiling.
At Sacramento, an expert from the California State Railroad Museum came onboard to give live commentary of the scenery.
As we passed Donner Lake, he retold the story of the Donner Party who were stranded here in the winter of 1846. Some of the party of 87 resorted to cannibalism; only 48 survived.
Strangely enough, this made me hungry. So I went down to the cafe and bought myself some lunch.
As the train climbed into the Sierra Nevada, the temperature dropped quickly and we were suddenly surrounded by snow.
Another few hours later, the landscape turned into a vast, barren desert. If you fall asleep and wake up, it’s almost like you were transported to a different planet.
With a gleaming casino in the distance, it became clear — we have crossed into Nevada. The train calls at Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World.
Somewhere in the middle of the desert, I lost cell phone data signal.
So I resorted to taking selfies to pass the time.
In the evening, we were treated to a view so sublime, you begin to wonder if people who fly across the country and never take the train are quite possibly insane.
As the sun set, it was time for dinner.
There’s some luck of the draw involved with dining on an Amtrak train. There are usually insufficient seats for dinner, so passengers are seated with random strangers at the tables.
You never know who your dinner companion would be. It’s awkward for the first time, but many frequent train passenger actually find it to be one of the joys of train travel — meeting people from all walks of life.
As for me? I enjoyed a half rack of baby back ribs with a man who didn’t like talking very much.
An hour later, at a small Nevada town, there was a scene of confusion as the train pulled into the station with police cars standing by. The police boarded the train and arrested my dinner companion on suspicion of possessing firearms.
During the night, the train crossed from Nevada into Utah. Entering a new time zone, the clocks are adjusted an hour forward.
At 3 am in the morning, the train pulls into my first stop, Salt Lake City.
I spent a day exploring its Mormon heritage before moving on.
Salt Lake City to Denver
The journey between Utah and Colorado is regarded to be the most spectacular train ride in all of the United States.
We spent the morning chugging through the American Wild West.
The train follows the southern rim of the astonishing Book Cliffs.
We crossed into Colorado, marked by the sign “Utah-Colorado” painted on the wall of Ruby Canyon straddling the two states.
The California Zephyr climbs into the Rocky Mountains and snakes for hours through beautiful Colorado canyons.
For much of its journey through Colorado, the train follows the path of the Colorado River.
You’ll get a chance to see a particularly odd breed of Colorado wildlife indigenous to the area.
It’s long been a tradition for rafters to salute the passing train, giving this area the highly appropriate nickname of “Moon River”.
There were also dozens of Amish folks traveling on the train. They tend to avoid technology and not use cars or airplanes. Occasionally, they resort to taking the train.
Soon, it was my favorite time of the day: lunch.
Once again, it was a game of “social roulette”. I was assigned to sit with two elder ladies, who may or may not have heads.
I ordered a bacon cheeseburger, which looked surprisingly good for something that was cooked on a moving train.
The train passed the Byers Canyon Rifle Range, and I found myself hoping that the guns were not pointed in the wrong direction.
The train eventually emerged from the Rockies onto the Great Plains as we approach Denver.
The train pulls into Denver, the Mile High City. Despite its location on a vast flatland, Denver still stands at 5,280 feet above sea level.
Denver makes a lovely stop for exploring the city and its surrounds. I spent two days there before moving on.
Denver to Chicago
Today’s journey would bring me through 4 states — Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. I slept through most of the journey as the train traveled through the night.
Sleeping on the train is surprisingly comfortable.
The seats are spacious with plenty of legroom and they recline a good 40 degrees. They’re more comfortable than economy class seats on planes; perhaps something more like business class on a crappy domestic airline.
Sleeper cabins are also available, albeit at a significantly higher cost.
The California Zephyr completes its journey at Chicago’s Union Station, a historic landmark in its own right.
A noteworthy attraction for movie fans is the stairway from the famous stroller scene in ‘The Untouchables’.
I spent a day exploring the city. The view from John Hancock Tower is particularly impressive at sunset.
Chicago to New York
The California Zephyr gets you as far as Chicago. To complete the journey to New York, you’d need to transfer to the Lake Shore Limited.
The many hours on the train makes for a fantastic time to write.
Amtrak actually offers a writers’ residency program where they provide free train rides just for you to sit and write.
The train travels through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, before entering New York state.
As soon as you see the Hudson River, you feel a sense of exhilaration that airline passengers will never know. We’ve almost crossed America by train!
The train finally pulls into New York Penn Station, ending my journey on the east coast of the United States.
Well, that concludes it — an epic 3,397-mile journey across America. It took me through 11 states and 4 time zones to cross the entire North America continent from coast to coast. In just four days, I’ve seen both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean without taking a flight. Some people have told me that I’ve already seen more of the country than most Americans.
Traveling by train gives you a glimpse into the soul of America. The experience rewards you with far more stories and experiences and sights than you could ever witness alone in a car, eyes fixed on the road, or on a five-hour flight across the country.
If you want to see tourist America, rent a Cadillac, get on Route 66 and stop off at a few cutesy diners and motels. If you want to see the real America in all its spectacular, crazy, kooky glory, get on the train.
How much did it cost me?
I paid $429 for a 15-day rail pass. You can do it for much less.
The rail pass includes 8 train rides which I used to explore other cities after my cross-country journey. If you’re thinking of stopping at a few cities, a rail pass can be a great value. Note that a 3-day journey counts as one ride, but so does a 30-minute one! If you work out the math, each ride is $54 on the rail pass. In comparison, most long-distance journeys cost upwards of $80.
For some people, buying the direct California Zephyr and Lake Shore Limited tickets should suffice in getting you from San Francisco to New York. Tickets for the entire journey are available from just $186.