Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Amtrak Trip over the Sierra Nevadas

Back in October I had some expected free time, so I decided to take a little adventure with Desert Girl. We headed to Salt Lake City and got on an Amtrak train, the California Zephyr, headed to Sacramento, California. Our goals? Enjoy the train ride and soak up some warm temperatures.

The train is supposed to arrive at 11 pm in Salt Lake City, but due to the severe flooding in Colorado earlier, the trains had been rerouted across Wyoming, and when we arrived at 10 pm the train was already there and so we got to board right away.

We had splurged on a sleeping compartment, as I wanted to see what they were like and I also thought it might work out really well for traveling with a child. I had been forewarned that the sleeping compartments were compact, but I still did a double take when the attendant showed us ours. Wow, very small. Like sleeping bag width. The top bunk was a little smaller than the bottom bunk and didn't have a window, so I decided I would sleep in the bottom bunk. Desert Girl quickly decided the same thing. So that meant the small lower bunk got a little squishier with both of us wedged into it. It's good we've done a lot of camping this year!

Desert Girl slept fine, but the roll of the train and my excitement of traveling and wanting to see the terrain kept me from a good night's sleep. I kept peeking out the window, wondering where we were. The Great Salt Lake was a dark abyss out the window, and the Great Salt Desert was nearly the same. Then came the blazing lights as we entered Nevada at Wendover, but that wasn't a stop. Our first stop was Elko, Nevada, and it didn't feel long. 

I really started waking up about Winnemucca, and then we reached Reno, Nevada, for a longer stop, we got out of the train to stretch our legs.

 Reno got tired of trains disrupting traffic on surface streets, especially since the train tracks run right through the middle of town, so they made a "canyon." The streets cross overhead, and now cars don't have to stop for the trains.

 There wasn't much sightseeing in the concrete canyon, but the sewer covers are nice.

 We had enough time to walk all the way to the front of the train to take a photo, although Desert Girl didn't like the noisy diesel engines!

Our train consisted of two diesel engines, a baggage car, a sleeping car (for Amtrak staff), three coach cars, an observation/cafe car, a dining car, and two sleeping cars.

 We had followed the Humboldt River across much of Nevada, but as we headed up out of Reno, we followed the Truckee River. We went to the observation car to listen from volunteers from the California State Train Museum narrate the trip. They pointed out the flumes along part of the river, used to carry water to mining areas.

 We stopped in Truckee briefly. On the rainy fall day, it looked pleasant enough.

 Then we continued on. We really liked the observation car, as we could talk to people and move around and have lots of windows. We visited with some Amish, who were traveling from New York to San Diego via train. They were getting a little train weary, but like us, kept notes as we traveled upwards into the mountains.

 Before long we got to Donner Lake, site of the infamous unintended camping spot of the Donner Party. The ill-prepared sojourners resorted to cannibalism to survive deep snow and cold temperatures for much of a winter. I was surprised by how big the lake is and how many homes dot the shores.

 Soon after we began going through a series of tunnels and snow sheds, like above. Snow sheds used to be made of wood and had rounded roofs, but the train companies found this concrete version is stronger to withstand avalanches.

 After a very pleasant lunch in the dining car, we went to our sleeping car room, where instead of two beds, we now had two seats facing each other. Desert Girl was getting a bit sleepy.

 I enjoyed the views, now much sunnier once we had crossed over into California. The massive granite made me want to go out and hike. Yellow aspens dotted the conifer-covered landscape.

 Desert Girl needed a break from it all and took a nap.

 In mid-afternoon, the skyscrapers of Sacramento came into view.

 We bid adieu to the train and our sleeping car attendant, which were headed to Emeryville before turning around and making the return trip to Chicago.

We spent the next two nights in Sacramento with various adventures to be posted at a later date.

Then, on the morning of our next-to-last day, we returned to the Sacramento train station, waited for the California Zephyr, and happily boarded. Train travel is so much easier than plane travel, and so much less stressful. Folks on board are more relaxed, there are no seat belts, and people are generally happy to share stories and just enjoy the journey.

 One of our favorite places was the dining car. When you buy a sleeping compartment ticket, all your meals are included. The meals are comparable to a nice restaurant. Dinner is by far the most expensive (but our compartment fee was the same in each direction, even though one included a breakfast and a lunch and the other a lunch and dinner), with entrees between $16 and $26.

We sat with different people for all our meals and so much enjoyed hearing why they were on the train and talking about an assortment of subjects.

 Here are scenes from other parts of the train:
A bathroom (bigger than an airplane toilet). Sleeping cars also have a shower, but we didn't bother using it as the train ride was just 13 hours.

 The coach car. Seats are much, much roomier than airplane seats. They have tray tables, foot rests, recline a bunch, and the best part: an outlet next to each one, so you can keep your electronics charged.

 Desert Girl got a lot of attention in the observation car. This really makes it a great place for parents who want to take a little break! The tables make a great place for playing cards and games and meeting other folks. The other end has chairs, some that swivel. Downstairs is the cafe car, open from about 6 am to midnight.

 I took well over a hundred photos of scenery, but they tend to blend together now when I look at them! I do have to say that the scenery was gorgeous crossing the Sierras. Crossing the Rockies is a very different experience. (For an account of our Salt Lake City to Denver train trip, see here and here.) Both are totally worth it.

 One of the things that surprised me on the trip was just how many freight trains we saw. Amtrak uses rails maintained by freight companies, so I knew we would see some freight trains. However, for crossing the Sierras, there are two tracks most of the way because there is so much traffic.

 It won't be long until the snow plow trains are needed!

 It was really relaxing watching the scenery roll by as we continued along.

 Desert Girl was so relaxed she fell asleep. I decided to just let her snooze on the floor.

 The skies were much sunnier on the downriver trip as we followed the Truckee River towards Reno.

 The light was fantastic as we left Reno and started heading across Nevada. The Great Basin is such a vast area, and it must have been so daunting for the first travelers across it.

 Every once in awhile we saw surprises in the desert, like these colorful wetlands.

Evening fell and we went to the first dinner seating (there were four). Then we went to the observation car for a bit, which was not as entertaining in darkness, then to our compartment.
 We stepped outside at the Elko, Nevada stop, then we did our best to sleep until the train reached Salt Lake City at 3 am.

It was a great trip, and I'm already looking forward to getting on a train again!


Travel Malang Surabaya said...

it's so cool

I Am Woody said...

What a great adventure! I want to take a train trip now :)

jhami said...

That looks like a lot of fun. We'll have to try a train sometime (that's not the Ghost Train in Ely).... lol

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