Touring the Great American West starts in Emeryville via Amtrak’s Historic California Zephyr
Your next vacation could be literally steps away as Emeryville’s own Amtrak Station marks the beginning of the historic California Zephyr route.
The trip is considered one of the most scenic rail trips in North America with views of the Sierra Nevadas, Rocky Mountains and Utah’s iconic plateaus, You’ll cross seven states en route to the final destination of Chicago’s Union Station.
The 2,438 mile, 2.5 day trip (51 hours, 20 minutes to be precise) is Amtrak’s second longest route taking riders through the states of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and finishing in Illinois. The Zephyr departs daily from Emeryville at 9:10 a.m. and arrives two days later in Chicago at 2:50 p.m..
The Zephyr is also a convenient connection to our National Park Service (NPS) including Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Arches and Canyonlands in Utah, and Yellowstone in Wyoming. Amtrak partners with the National Park Service by offering their Trails & Rails program that helps Americans connect with the NPS.
The original “Exposition Flyer” route was created in 1939 as mode of transportation to the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. At the time, it was jointly operated by Chicago & Northwestern, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific rail lines. Due to its popularity, the service remained after the conclusion of the expo and in 1949 was replaced by the California Zephyr.
After some turbulent times and consolidation in the railway industry, the line continued under Amtrak when it was formed in 1971 and returned to its original route in 1983.
Ridership on the Zephyr continues to increase and has an annual revenue of over $50 million. Despite this increase, the historic line is currently threatened by Federal administration cuts and an online Petition to preserve it has garnered over 30,000 signatures.
Emeryville Amtrak Station (EMY)
Oakland’s 16th Street station became the starting point for the line after the Oakland Pier was demolished in the 1960’s. This station was closed due to damage by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and our Emeryville station assumed being the terminus after it was completed in 1994.
The Emeryville Station (EMY) was the first new intercity passenger rail facility built in northern California in more than half a century. The Jack London Square station subsequently opened in 1995 but the Emeryville station remains the terminus.
EMY is among the busiest station serviced by Amtrak with well over half a million riders last year. EMY has an ATM, café, restrooms and lockers. There’s also a small convenience store and Subway Sandwich shop directly across the street.
Amenities, Tickets & Parking
A one way ticket costs as little as $145 for a coach seat with advanced purchase — to as much as $900 for a private roomette that can sleep two. Passengers can purchase tickets directly at the station, online on Amtrak.com or by calling 1 (800) USA-RAIL. Special offers are posted on the deals section of the Amtrak website.
Amenities vary by trip and there are a host of upgrades available for purchase including baggage and dining options that are available at the time of purchase.
The California Zephyr does not have an on train WiFi network and the trip continues through some remote areas that are not covered by a cellular signal.
Cyclists can use the BikeLink cages on a first come first served basis (maximum 10 days at $0.25/hour). Use requires a BikeLink card that can be purchased online for $20 or at the station. Amtrak will also store bikes for $5/day. There are ample public racks at the station. Bikes can also be taken on board as cargo for an additional $20. Addition information weight, dimensions and capacity can be found online.
Parking is limited and information on multi-day parking can be found on the Capital Corridor website. The Emery Go-Round’s Hollis and Hollis South Routes will both drop you off in front of the station. Lyft offers a $5 promotional Amtrak discount using the code ‘AmtrakLYFT’.
Small pets can be taken on the journey although there are blackouts and restrictions. Learn more about restrictions, reservations, fares, approved pet carriers and additional details online. You’ll need to sign the Pet Release and Indemnification Agreement.
There is a broad selection of sleeping accommodations that can accommodate singles and families. Amtrak’s roomette has two reclining seats that convert to a bed and have an upper drop-down “bunk.” The bedroom suites can sleep up to four and contain private amenities like bathrooms and showers. Comparisons of amenities can be viewed here. Some of the premium tickets include meals which can range from $13-$25 each if you purchase a la carte.
The trip is considered relatively safe although it is never recommended to leave valuables behind especially at urban stops when there is heavy boarding and disembarking.
“All Aboard!”: Emeryville to Sacramento (EMY-SAC)
Hop aboard, check your bag and grab a seat. It is recommended that you arrive at least 45 minutes prior to departure.
The first leg to Sacramento runs besides San Pablo Bay with views of abandoned piers and industrial buildings. The C&H Sugar plant in Crockett, which has been in operation since 1906, is among the many highlights.
After crossing the Carquinez Strait via the Benicia-Martinez Bridge, the landscape flattens with view of agriculture and marshland as you pass the Sacramento River Delta.
Sacramento to Reno (SAC-RNO)
Volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento will join the trip here and provide commentary and answer questions. You’ll only be able to hear them in the observation car which can fill up.
It is from Sacramento that you’ll pass through California’s Gold Rush country. You’ll climb from 30 to 2,400 feet in just 20 miles by the time you reach Colfax, CA.
The train proceeds through wooded areas slipping in and out of short tunnels and if your trip is during winter, you’ll begin seeing signs of snow. By the time you reach Emigrant Gap, the landscape should be covered in snow.
Reno to Salt Lake City (RNO-SLC)
The Zephyr proceeds through the northern part of Nevada en route to Utah. The Zephyr reaches the high desert city of Elko, Nevada in the evening when many travelers begin to turn in. Official quiet hours are from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. with lights and devices off. Passengers may use the observation car 24/7.
Sunrise occurs in Utah depending on how timely the train runs.
Salt Lake City to Denver (SLC-DEN)
The Zephyr pulls into Salt Lake City in the early morning. After passing through more populated areas including Provo, the Zephyr heads into the remote parts of Utah passing scenic plateaus and mesas.
It is between Salt Lake City and Denver where you have the best opportunity to connect to our National Park System including a drive up from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone in Wyoming, Arches and Canyonlands in Utah, and Rocky Mountain National Parks in Colorado.
The trip continues into the southwest over the Colorado border through the Rocky Mountains. This leg is considered by many to be the most scenic segment of the trip as it follows the Colorado River for more than 200 miles. Depending on the time of year, the mountains may be snow-capped and there will be opportunities to get off the train and briefly enjoy the snow at various stops along the way.
You’ll view Ruby Canyon and the confluence of the Grand and Colorado rivers before entering Moffat Tunnel. The 6.2-mile passage cuts through the Continental Divide en route to the “High Plains” city of Denver.
Denver to Omaha (DEN-OMA)
It’ll be dark by the time you begin your decent to Denver’s Union Station. The segment through Nebraska is flat and you won’t be missing much if you’re able to sleep. The condition of the tracks through this area are said to be a bit rougher and the train can jerk and lurch a bit more.
Omaha to Chicago Union Station (OMA-CHI)
From the Omaha Station, travelers will pass through seemingly endless fields of corn and soybean fields as they journey through Nebraska, Iowa and rural Illinois. You’ll cross the Mississippi River in Burlington, Iowa.
You’ll conclude your long journey at Chicago’s iconic Union Station about 2:50 p.m.. Union Station is located in the West Loop area of the city and is about a five-minute walk to the Clinton Station which is the terminus of Chicago’s ‘L’ subway blue line. Chicago’s East Shore is about a 25-30 minute walk.
While the journey truly is the reward by riding the Zephyr, Chicago is a world-class city that offers an array of amazing tourism options including Millennium Park, Navy Pier, The Magnificent Mile and Wrigley Field. Finish your vacation planning by visiting choosechicago.com.
Getting Back to Emeryville
Wether you want to endure another 2+ day return journey and experience the trip in reverse depends on your budget and timeline. Chicago’s Midway and O’Hare airports both offer direct flights to the Bay Area that generally take 4-5 hours.
Federal Cuts Threaten Zephyr’s Longterm Viability
If taking the Zephyr is on your bucket list, you might want to consider doing this soon. Ongoing threats of federal cuts continually threatened the historic line. Amtrak relies on about $2 billion in federal subsidies.
Ticketing and scheduling available on amtrak.com.
This story contributed to and edited by Rob Arias. All photos unless cited are from Amtrak.com and Cindy Warner.
Further Reading & Resources
From Earth to Mars on the California Zephyr | NationalParks.org
California Zephyr Route Guide [PDF]
The Legendary California Zephyr | American-Rails.com
As it travels through the mountains and plains of the West … | LA Times
National Parks Discovery on the California Zephyr
Amtrak from California to Illinois reveals country’s beauty
From Chicago to Emeryville: Views along Amtrak’s California Zephyr