Summer Train Trip: Chicago to Portland

June 26 – 29, 2017

All good things must come to an end but we saved the best train trip for the end – the California Zephyr which winds through both the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra-Nevadas. Glorious.

Linda, Carla and I tearfully kissed the kids and grandkids goodbye then took a Lyft ride from Riverside to Union Station in Chicago. The stations in Portland and Los Angeles are magnificent buildings; but it’s hard to get a feel for Union Station in Chicago because other buildings have been crowded so close to it. However, it is much bigger than those other terminals. The main hall is enormous and Amtrak and Metra trains leave and arrive here from all points of the compass. And the Metropolitan Lounge for sleeper car passengers is huge – parts of 3 floors with areas for kids, conversations, and solitude.

Here is an overview of our route – taken from Pinterest

CaliforniaZephyrRoute

We pulled out of the station on time at 2:00PM and 15 minutes later we were rolling through Riverside Station where I’ve seen the train many times before.  It wasn’t long before we had passed the sprawling metro area and into the famous Midwest farmland.

Western Illinois farmland.

Western Illinois farmland.

A storm was off in the distance as we cruised toward Galesburg, the westernmost stop in Illinois.

Stormy weather near the Illinois, Iowa border

Stormy weather near the Illinois, Iowa border

In Galesburg we saw the “Community” mural featuring Carl Sandburg, Knox College and the original California Zephyr.

'Community' mural in rural Galesburg, Illinois

‘Community’ mural in rural Galesburg, Illinois

Our car attendant on this leg was Dennis – absolutely the best of the many excellent attendants we’ve had on the Amtrak system. The car attendant can really add to your trip; in addition to making up and tearing down your sleeping bunks they provide helpful information such as when station stops are coming up and how long you’ll have to stretch your legs. Dennis is a fun guy and has plenty of stories; it was delightful to talk with him about this, that, and the other.

Dennis - Our fantastic car attendant on the California Zephyr

Dennis – Our fantastic car attendant on the California Zephyr

Dennis has worked for Amtrak for 34+ years. He knows the history of the line and was very helpful giving us historical background on our travels. For example Knox College was one of the locations for the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates.

Car attendants also help out with the little things. Here he snaps a pic of Linda and Carla in front of the train at a station stop.

Station stop in Fraser, Colorado

Station stop in Fraser, Colorado

Before we knew it we were leaving Illinois, crossing  a steel cross beam bridge over the Mississippi River into Iowa.

Mississippi River near Burlington, Iowa

Mississippi River near Burlington, Iowa

We had a nice dinner in the diner then sat in the dome car visiting with Brendan, our dinner companion, as the sun went down. When we got back to our room, our bunks were ready (thank you Dennis) so we washed up and hit the sack. We clickety-clacked our way across Iowa, Nebraska and into eastern Colorado as we slept.

We woke early and met Linda for breakfast; finishing as we pulled into Denver. Now we were heading into the beautiful Rocky Mountains. The maximum grade incline for a train is 2.2 percent with the normal maximum around 1 percent – 1 foot of elevation rise in 100 feet of horizontal travel. Compare that to a car where 6 percent grades on mountain interstates are not uncommon. Cars can go through grade changes 3 times greater than trains. As a result trains “meander” they slowly go through “S” turns and tunnels to gain the elevation they need. That’s great when you are a passenger as you are exposed to great views for miles and miles.

On the trip through the Rockies the California Zephyr goes through 21 tunnels of various lengths culminating with the 6+ mile Moffat Tunnel  which takes about 10 minutes to traverse. The highest point of Moffat Tunnel is over 9,000 feet above sea level – the highest point on the US rail systerm (thank you Dennis for that factoid!). Five to 10 minutes before entering the tunnel the conductor comes on the PA system to tell that if you want to be in a different car, go there now as changing cars in the tunnel is strongly discouraged. There is a lot of diesel exhaust blowing through the tunnel and an open door at the end of a passenger car will let a lot of it enter the living spaces – not fun.  Getting pictures of tunnels from a moving train is impossible; I hope some day to get up to Moffat Tunnel to grab some photos of trains exiting.

But we did see plenty of the Rockies and at times came close to Interstate 70; though it was rare.

Interstate Highway through the Rocky Mountains

Interstate Highway through the Rocky Mountains

Railroad, Colorado River, and I70 heading west through the Rocky Mountains

Railroad, Colorado River, and I70 heading west through the Rocky Mountains

Out in the remote spots we were delighted to see some river rafters floating along the quiet spots and shooting the rapids in the rough spots. If I have my location right, these are some rafters on the Fraser River.

Rafting the Fraser River in Colorado as seen from the California Zephyr

Rafting the Fraser River in Colorado as seen from the California Zephyr

A while later we followed the Colorado River on its downhill journey.

The Colorado River in its namesake state.

The Colorado River in its namesake state.

You certainly get views from the California Zephyr you won’t see from your car zipping up the steeper highway grades.

Around mid-day we pulled into Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Station Stop in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Station Stop in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

We have shared all our east-west trips with many Amish folk (I was told they are Amish, correct me if I’m wrong)  – some of whom you see here. We sat in the Southwest Chief dome car one afternoon with an Amish gentleman who is a furniture maker. The man in the foreground with the brown pattern shirt and straw hat is a hoot. He had a deck of cards and spent a lot of time scrounging up games of cribbage. There was a traveling family with three kids whom he taught to play. By the end of the trip on the third day they had learned the ropes and played well enough.

Later, back on board we passed this shed with evenly divided panels of graffiti; I’m not sure if what organized or if the graffiti artists there just work well together.

Graffiti shed near Grand Junction, Colorado

Graffiti shed near Grand Junction, Colorado

We turned north towards Utah at Grand Junction – much like we did last year on our car trip through here. The scenery gradually transformed from green forest to desert as we passed into Utah. Although this photo may be from northwest Colorado, it reminds me of Utah. Compare this to our view last summer in the link above.

Utah desert

Colorado or Utah desert (Photo credit: Carla)

We ate dinner our second night on the train and slept as we rolled through Elko and Winnemucca Nevada. After waking, showering, and eating breakfast we rolled into Reno – the largest little city in America. A few years ago the tracks were moved below street level  in order to not block traffic. It may work for the city; but it’s a pretty ugly view from train level.

Reno train station is below street grade

Reno train station is below street grade

A trip from  Reno to Sacramento means one thing: the Sierra-Nevada Mountains! For the second day we found ourselves slowly making our way up the grade through a mountain range. toward the top we passed Donner Lake.

Donner Lake - Sierra-Nevada Mountains

Donner Lake – Sierra-Nevada Mountains

As I posted our location on Facebook, my friend Eric asked “did you have lunch?” Funny guy. You may have heard of the Donner party – they were pioneers who were caught by a blizzard near here one winter. As Eric said:

In the winter of 1846-47 the Donner Party was traveling across the country by stage coach. They were running late and were convinced to take a detour advocated by Lansford Hasting that would shorten the distance. Wrong. The snows came and they camped here at Donner Lake, got stuck, ran out of food and resorted to eating each other. Always remember “Don’t Take Shortcuts and Hurry Along”.

Eric definitely learned his California history in grade school. Donner Lake and Donner Summit are named in their recognition.

At 4:05PM, five minutes early, we arrived in Emeryville, California – the western end point for the California Zephyr.  It is actually near Oakland on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. We would make a connection here at 10:00 with Northbound the Coast Starlight to take us home. That gave us some time to kill. California is a land of freeways, but we managed to find a sidewalk leading to a spit out on the bay. On the spit in the bay is a fancy Chinese Restaurant; so after walking for about an hour we stopped in for some Tsingtao beers and a light dinner. On the way back to the station we grabbed some photos of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco beyond –  this is a terrible time of day to take pictures facing west because the sun washed out a lot of detail. Nevertheless, if you squint, you can see the TransAmerica pyramid under the dangling tree limb.

San Francisco, California

San Francisco, California

The Coast Starlight was almost an hour late, meaning we didn’t get settled until 11:00. We didn’t even meet our car attendant Francis – but our bed was ready so we climbed in and went to sleep.

As we awoke on our third morning of travel we were crossing the border from California to Oregon. When we travelled this route southbound it was at night so we were anxious to get a glimpse of what we missed. As we wound through our third mountain range – the Siskiyous – we glimpsed Mt Shasta behind us. It is certainly a different view than the one we get from the freeway.

Mt Shasta (I think) on the Oregon side of the border

Mt Shasta (I think) on the Oregon side of the border

We glided down the Siskiyous and into the Willamette Valley. As we hustled north we passed some of the grass seed fields the valley is known for (along with its Pinot Noir grapes). Here’s a typical result of picture taking on the train; telephone wires and track signals can mar the scene – or they can serve as reminders of a wonderful trip.

Train signal, telephone wires, farmland, lake, and mountain

Train signal, telephone wires, farmland, lake, and mountain

We pulled into Portland Union Station at 4:33 (one hour late) and helped Linda get into a Lyft ride (her first) for her house then we hailed a ride to go home. Ah home.We had a great time. The train trips were wonderful and time with the kids and grandkids were precious. We (re-)discovered we lead active but quiet lives in our retirement .  We were tired and slept most of the next day.

Maybe these posts have you thinking about traveling on a train. In my next post I’ll try to describe what train life is like on board.

About howardwthompson

I'm a person who likes to travel, read, cook, and eat
This entry was posted in Photography, Trains, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Summer Train Trip: Chicago to Portland

  1. Bill Hubbard says:

    Howard, great commentary. I envy you the trip! It is now on my bucket list. bill hubbard

  2. Pingback: Life Aboard a Train | 2for66

  3. Nancy Lea says:

    Thanks for the memories! What great overviews–and views–of your trips.

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