the California Zephyr

Amtrak’s California Zephyr-Reviewing The Sleeper Car Bedroom

Updated December 2023

As part of a visit to Denver to see the Elton John Farewell tour, we thought it would be fun and different to travel by train and take the California Zephyr, one of Amtrak’s superliner trains, home to the Bay Area. 

This is a popular route on Amtrak from Chicago to San Francisco (Emeryville), stopping in Denver, Co., daily. If you take a look at the California Zephyr route map you can see why. The train travels through some beautiful country.

The cost for a ticket on the California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco (actually Emeryville) ranges from as little as $116 (regular seat) to as much as $1,650 for a “bedroom with a full private bathroom,” depending on when you go. We booked the sleeper car since the trip is supposed to be a 30-hour Amtrak ride. 

As with all methods of travel, you can find deals. Check Amtrak’s website for a list of current specials.

The California Zephyr Leaves Denver Union Station

The California Zephyr

Trains are not the first choice of travel for people in the US. One of the biggest issues for the non-commuter overnight trains is long delays on the route.

This is the 2nd time we have tried to take the California Zephyr line.  Last summer we were booked on the leg from Reno to Martinez.  The train was over four hours late.  We ended up renting a car and driving. 

Today, the train was supposed to arrive at Union Station in Denver at 7:15 am and leave at 8:05 am.  It is late and rescheduled for a 9:33 arrival and a 10:07 departure.  Passengers were finally able to board the train shortly after 11:00 am and departed the train station at 11:49, a 3 ½ hour delay.

The California Zephyr from our cabin window

California Zephyr Review – The Sleeper Car – Amtrak’s “Bedroom”

There are many good things to be said for train travel, no TSA lines for a start! Magnificent scenery, a relaxed trip, and some very nice people.  The Amtrak sleeper car may not be one of those “good things.”

There are 3 types of private rooms on this train

  1. Superliner Roomettes: These cabins can accommodate 2 persons and have access to a common restroom, and shower in the same car not in your cabin
  2. A Bedroom: This cabin can accommodate 2 persons, and has 2x the space of the roomette. There is an in-room sink in the main area and a private restroom/shower closet in the cabin.
  3. Family Bedrooms: this is the largest cabin and can accommodate 2 adults and 2 children. Again there is a sink and a private restroom/shower closet in the cabin.

We chose the “Bedroom” to have a private bath. In addition to a private room, meals are complimentary for sleeper car passengers.

During the day the bedroom suite is set up as a couch with a table by your own private window and a chair on the other side of the table. The upper berth is closed allowing for headroom and a small walkable space. There is a sliding door that closes off the room from the hallway.

We got situated into our cozy (and boy do I mean cozy) 6’ x 7’ sleeper cabin (about 45 square feet) equipped with a sink in the main area, and toilet/shower closet.

Accommodations are definitely not four stars. Summer camp might be a better comparison. The sleeper cars are generally quiet; however, you can hear the conversation of everyone in the cabins next to you, keep that in mind.

Sleeping on the Train

These are not comfortable accommodations.  The mattresses were unyielding, and the pillows were lumpy. Also, the width of the upper bunk is about that of a camp cot.  So, if you toss and turn as I do in bed, make sure you use the restraints provided, or you might find yourself over the edge.

Despite the uncomfortable bedding and I think mostly due to the rhythm of the train, we both slept through the middle of the night and three train stops, Provo, Salt Lake City, Ut, and Elko, NV.  Note: if you are prone to motion sickness, the “rhythm of the train” may not lull you to sleep.

The train respects and enforces quiet time from 10 pm to 7 am. There are no announcements made during this time, and the crew keeps those insomniacs on board rounded up in the lounge car.  Nonetheless, around 6:00 am I had to use the restroom.  I put it off as long as I could but finally climbed down from my bunk. 

My husband took pity on me then and encouraged me to lay down with him on his slightly larger, slightly softer lower berth.  We rested for about another 45 minutes.  Then got up, cleaned up, and dressed for the day.  Neither of us was adventurous enough to use the shower, although both of our neighbors did.  As I said, you can hear everything.

Dining on the Train

You may see ads touting the joys of train travel. Note: these are not ads for Amtrak’s California Zypher! There is no fancy dining car with linen tablecloths, no chateaubriand, and no champagne. 

Amtrak includes dining for passengers with sleeper accommodations. The meal times are during a pre-set time window; our first meal was lunch in the cafe car.  In addition to your meal, there is a small selection of alcoholic drinks available for purchase.

This is not fine dining. The food is just above cafeteria grade, and I’m talking high school cafeteria, not Hi-Tech Cafeteria.  The menu is the same every day.  So, if you are on the train for more than one lunch, you will likely have the same food.

The dining car is small, and the dining room servers use every available tabletop.  The table setup is a four-seater booth.  The table “cloth” is a large piece of butcher paper (actually several sheets stacked one on top of another).  There is no fancy dinnerware in the dining car,  plastic plates, paper napkins, and condiments in single-serve plastic pouches are more the setting.  

If you are a party of two, don’t expect a table to yourself. You may be seated in the company of friendly fellow passengers.  This seating may be useful if you are generally an extrovert, but maybe not so good if you are an introvert. 

There is also a “snack car,” where you can buy cookies, candy, and other such stuff.  However, this car kept shutting down for long periods, so you never knew if it was going to be open.  The waitstaff in the dining car and the snack car were generous and kind to all their passengers; it just seemed there were not enough staff.

There is no room service on Amtrak’s California Zephyr with the exception being for travelers with disabilities. However, there are other types of dining offered on different routes such as Amtrak’s Texas Eagle.

Entertainment on the Train

There is no entertainment on Amtrak’s California Zephyr. At this time this is one of their longest routes that still do not offer WiFi. You may be able to access cell service, but we found this to be sketchy for a large portion of the trip.

In the observation deck, a special train car with huge windows, there may be a speaker who will talk about the area you are traveling through. But the real entertainment on the train is the scenery out the windows.

After night falls, the scenery goes away. With this in mind, My DH and I downloaded shows to watch on our tablets and did this after dinner. 

Once our shows were over, and we were ready for bed Robert, the room attendant, came to make up our beds.  One lower berth and one upper, I generously offer to take the top bunk. 

Traveling By Train in Winter

The day before, we had traversed the Rockies in Colorado, and this morning we were set to head through Nevada and eventually over the Sierra Nevadas.  It is the dead of winter (February), and there have been several storms. 

When we arrive just outside of Reno, the conductor announces that we will need to pull over for a bit to wait for our “escort” from Union Pacific.  The “escort” is a snowplow engine that will lead us over the summit and down into Colfax, CA. 

I am not a skier, so I don’t head up to the mountains in California during the winter very often.  I didn’t know what the mountains could be like on a snowy winter day.   However, there was more snow on the ground and falling from the sky than I’d seen in decades.  It was gorgeous.

Why People Travel by Train

All this weather and being on a passenger train in the US made our trip much longer than it should have been. Many fellow train travelers we met, use trains regularly and sincerely love the old school travel. 

One experienced train-traveling gentleman had traveled from New Orleans on the “City of New Orleans” to Chicago, then got on the “California Zephyr” (our train) and planned to transfer in Emeryville, CA to the “Coast Starlight” heading up to Tacoma, WA. 

This trip will take him a total of 5 full days…. He could have flown in maybe five hours plus an hour and ½ on either end for wait time at the airports (5 + 3 = 8), but he chose the train — a true reflection of “travel,” not the “destination” is the “journey.”

Another woman we dined with told this story. Every other couple of weeks, she has to travel from California to Colorado to care for her aging father. Between caring for her father in Colorado and her husband and kids in California, she rarely has time by herself and for herself. She chooses to make alternate trips on the train to get some much-needed “her time.”

Reflections on the California Zephyr

Traveling on the train made me reflect on how far away places are.  I also reflected on the journeys our ancestors made as they moved from one great city to another.  They must have really wanted to get to where they were going to undertake such a journey.   

Including the initial delay in Denver and the slowdown in the mountains, our total time invested was about 35-½ hours, just about five hours longer than we originally planned.   

On this Amtrak route, we crossed over the “Rockies.”  We went “through” the Continental Divide, via the Moffat Tunnel, where we were simultaneously in the highest tunnel in the United States (9,329 feet above sea level) and still 3,000 feet below ground.  We followed a mostly frozen Colorado River, climbed up the Sierra Nevadas, and cruised along the Truckee River.  We saw deer, elk, coyotes, horses, cows, ranches, and towns… and lot’s and lot’s of snow…

I’m glad we chose to travel by train and ride the California Zypher. All things being equal though, I’m not sure I would sign up again…at least not for a while…

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