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By Jack M. Turner

The Sacramento Amtrak station was alive with arriving and departing passengers while we waited for the arrival of train # 6 the California Zephyr on Thursday, June 30.  In Amtrak’s early years the CZ was the only train to serve this attractive station, however the Coast Starlight eventually was rerouted through California’s capitol city followed by the addition of Capitol Corridor trains to the Bay Area and a couple of San Joaquins through the Central Valley to Bakersfield.  Thus the station today has the feel of a moderately busy station with construction hammers and other tools creating background noise as station renovations are in progress.

The preceding days had continued our whirlwind tour of the Northwest as we drove from Sequim, WA down to Astoria, OR for a stopover then followed the Pacific coast before turning inland and staying overnight in Eugene.  There we attended an exciting minor league game won by the host Eugene Emeralds over the Spokane Indians.  The Emeralds, a Chicago Cubs affiliate, play their home games at the University of Oregon’s PK Park which offers a nice environment on pleasant Eugene evenings.  Our overnight accommodations at the Hilton Garden Inn were perfectly comfortable and convenient for evening dining and within a few minutes of the stadium.  The hotel breakfast was delicious and service was quick.  Eugene is a major stop for the Coast Starlight to Seattle and Los Angeles and several daily Cascades trains to Seattle and Portland.  The Hilton Garden Inn offers courtesy transportation to and from the Amtrak station.


This trolley operates along the bank of the Columbia River in Astoria


A ship passes beneath the US 101 bridge over the Columbia River at Astoria


Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, OR


A steam train operating between Garibaldi and Rockaway Beach, OR


A caboose brings up the rear of the excursion train


The Oregon coast offers spectacular vistas


Cape Meares Lighthouse


The Pacific coast at Cape Meares


The Eugene Emeralds battle the Spokane Indians


The view behind home plate at an Emeralds game


Hilton Garden Inn, Eugene/Springfield, OR

We followed the Coast Starlight route southeast from Eugene until we reached Chemult then turned westward toward Crater Lake.  An overnight stay at the rustic national park lodge provided a chance to view the lake in different lighting conditions and to experience the fun of throwing snowballs on an 80 degree day.  We rejoined the Coast Starlight route the next day near Klamath Falls and paralleled it past snow covered Mt. Shasta in northern California.  From there we deviated onto back roads leading to Lassen Volcanic National Park, one of the great surprises of our trip with its diverse landscape.  Included in the park were beautiful Manzanita Lake, streams running alongside mounds of leftover spring snow, and volcanic and thermal features.  An overnight in Chico, CA briefly reunited us with the Starlight route then we turned eastward to travel through the Feather River Canyon. 


Odell Lake along the drive from Eugene to Chemult


Mt. Thielsen displays a jagged profile


Crater Lake and Wizard Island


Snow remains on the ground in late June at Crater Lake National Park


Crater Lake with remains of recent snowfall


A northbound BNSF freight thunders past US 97 and Upper Klamath Lake between Modoc Point and Klamath Falls, OR


Mt. Shasta dominates the view for about 45 minutes along US 97 as well as from the northbound Coast Starlight


Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park


Kings Creek, Lassen Volcanic National Park


This snow covered mountain displays volcanic rock on its flank


Steaming mud pots and other thermal feature can be found in the park

The Feather River proved to be a real gem with views of the river canyon and the Union Pacific’s former Western Pacific route hundreds of feet below California highway 70.  Later the rails could be seen high above the roadway.  Views of several interesting rail and road bridges caught our attention with the highlights being glimpses of famous Keddie Wye and Williams Loop.  Unfortunately, the day of our visit saw track work closing the line which prevented us from seeing any freight trains.  However, the line’s bridges and scenic setting more than compensated and the drive along the original California Zephyr route was well worth the effort. 


The Feather River and UP rails can be seen below


The highway bridge (above) and rail bridge (below) are notable sights in the Feather River Canyon


The railroad is above and highway below in this location


A rail trestle above the highway


Keddie Wye


A side view of Keddie Wye


Work equipment can be seen at Williams Loop

Beyond the Feather River Canyon we made a brief visit to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola which has an interesting collection of former WP engines and passenger cars as well as equipment from other railroads.  A popular feature of that museum is its “Run-A-Locomotive” program which offers a chance to operate a live railroad engine for one or two hours on museum grounds.  A brief side trip to Lake Tahoe allowed us to enjoy some outstanding views of the lake and surrounding area which is one of California’s favorite vacation getaways.  Lake Tahoe is just a few miles from the California Zephyr stop in Truckee and shuttle busses connect lake communities with Truckee.  Portola also is located within an hour of Truckee, however, a rental car is necessary to reach that town.


FP7 engine # 805-A at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, CA


California Zephyr dining car “Silver Plate” at the WP Railroad Museum


Vista domes used on the CZ at stored at the museum


The spectacular shoreline of the northeast side of Lake Tahoe

We then headed to Sacramento and visited the California State Railroad Museum, which features an outstanding collection of preserved steam locomotives, former Santa Fe dining car “Cochiti”, a heavyweight Canadian National open section sleeping car, and a variety of other excellent railroad displays.  Of greatest interest were the extensive display of vintage dining car china inside the “Cochiti”, the gentle rocking motion of the CN sleeper which was undetectable at first, and a simulator that allowed visitors to simulate operating a 200 mph high speed train.  Our hotel for the final night of our western driving tour was the Embassy Suites Riverfront Promenade which was just a four block stroll through Old Town from the railroad museum.  Our comfortable and well appointed suite overlooked the Sacramento River, nearby Tower Bridge over the river, and a local rail line.  Dining in the hotel cafe in the evening and the complimentary breakfast buffet capped off our stay in a very positive fashion and cemented our satisfaction with our hotel choice.


Steam locomotive # 12 at the California State Railroad Museum


Southern Pacific cab forward steam engine # 4294


Virginia & Truckee steam engine # 13


Santa Fe diner "Cochiti"


Santa Fe dining car china display inside the "Cochiti"


Cullen Bohannon costumes worn during the TV series “Hell on Wheels”


CP Huntington and Mei Fong costumes from “Hell on Wheels”


Canadian National heavyweight sleeper “St. Hyacinthe”


A high speed train simulator is a popular feature at the museum


The fantastic Embassy Suites, Sacramento Riverfront


The view from our Embassy Suites window at dusk

A hotel bellman drove us to the Amtrak station in the morning in the hotel courtesy van then we waited for Amtrak personnel to shuttle us to the platform in advance of the California Zephyr’s arrival from Emeryville.  It is wise to take advantage of this service as the city’s light rail trains have pushed the Amtrak platforms far from the station building, accessed by a long pedestrian tunnel and a very long and steep ramp.  The Amtrak transport makes it quick and easy for passengers and their luggage.


This mural in the Sacramento station depicts the building of the transcontinental railroad

The Zephyr departed about a half hour late at 11:41am behind a pair of P42 engines. Once again we had rooms 3 and 4, this time in sleeper 32074 “Colorado”, one of three Superliner II sleepers on the day’s CZ.  Lunch was called before we left the Sacramento city limits and the repetitive dining car menu seemed new after a dozen days of mostly fast food lunches on the road.  Our table companions, Dwight and Anna from central Oregon were en route to Cincinnati and were excited about crossing two major mountain ranges by rail.  After passing massive Roseburg Yard and stopping at the Roseburg station the CZ began the steady climb toward Donner Pass.  Within 25 minutes the train gained 1,100 feet elevation then another 400 feet in the next 6 minutes according to my phone’s altimeter app.  After passing high above I-80 we were at 2,660 feet at 1:11pm and moving along at just over 10 mph.  The valleys on either side of the railroad were barely visible due to a massive wildfire northeast of Auburn.  Our speed dropped to about 9 mph as the train reached 3,140 feet west of Gold Run.

Emigrant Gap was reached at 2:05pm and ten minutes later train # 6 entered the first of a series of snowsheds designed to protect trains against the harsh Sierra winters.  Interstate 80 was visible below on the left side; we had viewed the scenery from that highway the prior day as we drove from Lake Tahoe to Sacramento.  Views of broad valleys backed by rugged mountains dominated the scene to the left of our train as we reached 6,652 feet elevation at 2:21pm, a gain of over 2,500 feet in just 35 minutes.  The smoky haze was long gone making the ride more scenic than the early portion.  We crested the Sierras near Norden, elevation 6,900 feet, just 5 minutes later then entered a two mile long tunnel.  The deep blue waters of Donner Lake soon appeared below on the left as the railway began its descent.  The stop in Truckee at 3:20pm brought us back into a town which we had driven through on the way to and from Lake Tahoe.


Donner Lake seen from the California Zephyr

The rocky and scenic Truckee River escorted us eastward as we left the mountains behind.  A crew change stop in Reno allowed the first opportunity to stroll the platform and photograph the two private cars bringing up the rear of our train.  The first car “City of Angels” was lettered for Southern Pacific but actually served New York Central and successor Penn Central as the 6 double bedroom-lounge “Laurel Stream” before moving into Amtrak service for several years.  The rear car, “Royal Street” was a former Louisville & Nashville 5 double bedroom-round end observation lounge car of the same name.  A lighted tail sign at the rear of the “Royal Street” bore the name of its principal assignment in the car’s heyday, “The Crescent”.


The Truckee River


Following the Truckee River


Sleeper-lounge “City of Angels”, former NYC “Laurel Stream” at Reno

Our dinner tablemates Mike and Julie from San Jose were interesting and we enjoyed talking about Mike’s work with a NASA contractor and Julie’s teaching career.  They would detrain in Glenwood Springs on a twice yearly family visit.  While we dined the scenery changed to an arid isolated region broken only by occasional glimpses of a river, a few trees, and miles of desolate desert.


The CZ menu


Desert sunset in Nevada

After a brief stop in Winnemucca, best known from its mention in the travel tune “I’ve Been Everywhere”, we enjoyed a fantastic high desert sunset.  Though we had left the mountains behind a few hours ago, the elevation still was 4,801 feet at 9:20pm.  Shortly after the CZ departed the totally isolated platform serving as the Elko, NV stop, it was time to turn in for the night as moving into the Mountain Time Zone overnight would shorten the night.  The welded Union Pacific rails facilitated a good night’s sleep broken only by the lengthy stop in Salt Lake City at about 3:30am.

I awoke at 6:30am to find us in the midst of the impressive climb up Soldier Summit.  Nearby streams were flowing rapidly as a rainstorm had passed through overnight.    Back in 1976 I had witnessed this climb from dome car “Silver Sky” on the Rio Grande Zephyr which passed over Soldier Summit about three hours later in the morning on its Salt Lake City to Denver journey.  Soon we discovered a strange sight as we entered the dining car as the  crew members and a couple of passengers were standing in the aisle beside unoccupied but ready for service tables.  We learned that the dining car had developed a leak and was losing water quickly.  Breakfast service was uncertain as there would not be hot water for washing silverware or for preparing certain items.  Visions of depleting the lounge car food supply and lunches and dinners catered by Colonel Sanders started to creep into my thoughts.  Fortunately a work around system was established and breakfast went forward with disposable dishes, plastic cups, and plastic utensils.  Our meal selections were the same as usual and we enjoyed French toast, sausage, and grits while watching the sights pass by.


Streams are running fast in this morning scene in Utah

The trip across Utah continued uneventfully as we passed about a dozen miles north of Arches National Park, one of our favorite national parks.  Beyond the ghost town of Cisco the Colorado River joined from the southwest and accompanied the railway through Ruby Canyon and onward through most of the day.  When lunch was called at noon we made a beeline for the dining car and selected the usual Angus cheeseburger once again.  We enjoyed conversing with Michigan residents Bob and his son Will who are fellow rail fans on the return leg of a similar western circle trip to ours.  One of Bob’s goals was to photograph as many train stations as possible during the journey and it appeared he was having great success.  The Glenwood Springs stop came during lunch nixing a chance to detrain, however, we enjoyed watching Mike and Julie from the prior day reuniting with relatives outside our window.


L&N sleeper-observation “Royal Street” at Grand Junction


Lighted tail sign on the rear of “Royal Street”


The Glenwood Springs station

After enjoying scenic Glenwood Canyon from my roomette window, I headed to the rear window of sleeper “District of Columbia” to enjoy a different vantage point as we passed Dotsero, junction with the mothballed Royal Gorge line.  The view was slightly limited by the two private cars to the rear but was nonetheless adequate.  Fifteen minutes later the westbound California Zephyr was spotted waiting on a siding and the rear view allowed me to watch it recede in the distance.  Walking back to roomette 3 in the “Colorado” I noted the rare string of three Superliner II sleepers on our train as the “Arkansas” was the middle sleeper.


Exiting a tunnel east of Dotsero


Passing the westbound California Zephyr

The Colorado River was busy with a few whitewater rafters on this Friday as well as several fishermen, some in small boats and others wading in shallow parts of the river.  The conductor made informative announcements about passing sights and around 1:50 he pointed out a bald eagle’s nest on the left side with the eagle clearly visible.  An hour later he directed passengers to look high on the mountainside on the right to see a wrecked station wagon and parts of other cars that fell off the highway at a spot nicknamed Deadman’s Curve over 35 years ago.  Moments later he advised to watch outside the right side as we passed high above the river as three tunnels would be visible ahead.  Indeed these were briefly within sight at the same time while far below the Colorado River was churning up turbulent Class 5 whitewater as it coursed between narrow canyon walls.  The conductor’s announcements had proven helpful as many of these sights had been missed on prior trips on the CZ.  We also noted how wonderful it was to have roomettes across from one another as it allowed us to view scenery on both sides easily in addition to providing ample legroom for both of us.


Winding along the Colorado River


The Colorado’s waters are turbulent


Continuing east along the Colorado River


The Zephyr is perched high above the river


The rails follow the Colorado River most of the day


The Colorado is adjacent to the rails through several scenic canyons


The Fraser River near the eastern end of the Rockies

The train paused just west of Winter Park to allow fans inside Moffat Tunnel to clear exhaust from a westbound freight we had passed moments earlier.  The 6.2 mile long tunnel took nine minutes to traverse.  At the tunnel’s highest point the railroad was at 9,239 feet elevation.  In the next 15 minutes the elevation dropped by 1,500 feet as we headed to the dining car for the first seating.  Our waiter Sergio provided excellent service as he had throughout the trip and once again my steak was perfectly cooked while Christine’s chicken met with her approval.  The view from our window was constantly changing as the tracks curved around mountainsides and passed through 27 tunnels as we descended toward Denver.  In fact, our tablemates, a truck driver and his young daughter from Portola, CA noted that it looked like the view of the city from an airplane.


Approaching one of a series of tunnels during the descent toward Denver


The Denver skyline visible far below

A 35 minute stop in Denver was enough time for a look inside Union Station, my wife’s first visit since the grand station was remodeled with restaurants, shops, and an upscale hotel.  Shortly after departure an announcement was made that the dining car was out of service due to a flooded kitchen that was unsafe for employees.  I was filled with relief that the car had held up all day and happy that we had dined early as is our usual practice.  Evidently the addition of water to the dining car in Denver had been the last straw for the plumbing in diner 38000, Amtrak’s oldest Superliner dining car.


“Royal Street” brings up the rear at Denver


The classic “Travel by Train” sign at Denver Union Station


The front of Denver Union Station

Beyond Fort Morgan, CO we caught up to the rainstorm we had followed since Utah and heavy rain and some wind buffeted the train.  An intense lightning storm could be seen well to our south and I found out from arriving passengers the next afternoon in Chicago that their Southwest Chief had been delayed as they passed through that big storm.  With another time change ahead we turned in early and slept for over eight hours.

Awaking at Creston, IA at 7:15am I wondered whether breakfast would be available.  Sergio greeted us with a smile and advised that a continental breakfast would be provided.  While cereal, a bagel, and fruit was not as great as our usual hot breakfast, it was filling and we appreciated that these meals had been loaded aboard at Omaha.  LSA Joyce and her crew were dealing with a difficult situation with grace and patience which helped mitigate the disappointment of losing the usual menu selections on this part of the trip.

We continued east across Iowa and crossed the Mississippi River at Burlington, one of six places where Amtrak trains cross that river.  Box lunches were loaded aboard at Galesburg and a few minutes later passengers from Car 0631, our sleeper, were called to the dining car to pick up their lunches to eat in their rooms.  An assembly line type operation had been established with the first station offering a choice of ham, turkey, or roast beef sandwich; stop two a package of chips; and the third station a choice of soft drink.  Once our car’s passengers finished their pick ups, car 0632 was called followed by passengers from the 0633.  Again the dining car crew had handled the situation in well coordinated fashion with smiles and apologies.

As the eastbound Southwest Chief was delayed by the prior night’s storm, the Zephyr boarded  passengers waiting at all stations from Galesburg eastward to prevent missed connections in Chicago.  An additional stop was made for this purpose at Mendota, IL which allowed a look out the window at restored ex-Southern Pacific coffee shop lounge car “Golden Trencher” which again wears the paint scheme used on the SP/Rock Island Golden State train.  Soon the western Chicago suburbs appeared and Metra commuter stations flashed by about every minute.  The westbound Southwest Chief and westbound California Zephyr plus a westbound Metra commuter train all streaked past between Clarendon Hills and Hinsdale and 35 minutes later the Zephyr eased to a stop at Chicago Union Station at 2:57pm, just 7 minutes late.


A classic CB&Q box car at Galesburg


The Galesburg rail station


Passing above a westbound stack train on the ex-ATSF line at Galesburg


A BNSF freight at Mendota


Former “Golden State” diner-lounge “Golden Trencher” at Mendota

Once again the California Zephyr delivered a super scenic trip highlighted by spectacular mountain crossings of the Sierras and the Rockies.  It proved to be a great way home after sightseeing in the Pacific Northwest and northern California just as it had following my visit to southern California and the California coast back in September 2015 as chronicled in my reports archived by TrainWeb.  In addition to offering travelers great sightseeing along its route, the California Zephyr combined with rental cars provides excellent access to several national parks in California, Utah, and Colorado.  It is a trip that should be on everyone’s list.


Hilton Garden Inn, Eugene/Springfield

Eugene Emeralds Baseball

Western Pacific Railroad Museum

California State Railroad Museum

Embassy Suites Sacramento Riverfront

Other reports by Jack Turner: