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Cross-US train ride and the world’s largest flat-top mountain…

Amtrak coast to coast train ride

Cross America train ride. Down the hill: Colorado River.

Coast to coast Amtrak train ride, from New York City, NY to San Francisco, CA in numbers:

  •  5,467 km (3,397 miles) via railroad
  • 2 train routes: 49 Lake Shore Limited (1,543 km / 959 miles) and 5 California Zephyr (3,924 km / 2,438 miles)
  • 2 stopovers: Chicago, IL and Grand Junction, CO
  • 70+ hours in coach seats
  • 4 time zones crossed

There is something special about trains that transcends culture. Trains connect people living in faraway places, span countries and even continents, reaching from one coast to another. They can be the unifying force of a nation and a continent and evoke feelings of adventure and mystery. As a child I had always dreamed about taking a cross-country train across Canada, inspired (in part) by a popular television drama of a stray dog travelling across Canada.

Between our last day in New York and starting a new life in Dubai, we had 3 months to explore the world. As people say, every journey, no matter how long or short, starts with one step. Our first step from life in New York to Dubai started with the Amtrak train from Manhattan’s renowned Pennsylvania Station. So with that we decided to ride the train from NYC to SFO and hopped on board Amtrak train number 49, also known as the Lake Shore Limited. Our cross-country journey began in the northeast and we would arrive in San Francisco with a planned stopover in Chicago, as well as an unplanned rest in Grand Junction, Colorado.

We planned our trip so that we would spend no more than 24 hours continuously on the train for any leg of the journey. So as we sat down on the train in NYC we were already looking forward to our first stopover in Chicago. From NYC to Chicago was about 22 hours. Although less than a full day on the train we had views and experiences that could be a lifetime’s worth of stories to share. First, the Amtrak train came equipped with a dining car, which led to many fun encounters as we took all our meals there. Dining on a train has a magical feel of being transported to a different era in our society. The large bay windows of the train also offered spectacular views as the gentle rocking of the train lulled us into a rhythmic beat for our food. Beyond the romanticism of dining in a restaurant car, we were also invariably seated at a table for four, thus sharing our meals with strangers with whom we would share in all kinds of conversations. Though perfect strangers, the close proximity and the shared experience instantly made our dining partners friends for the space of the meal, if not longer.

The viewing car on the train become our place of choice on the train as we often left our ticketed seats, with the normal windows to enjoy the large windows (practically the entire side of the train) of the specially-built viewing car. As the train rolled from one station to another the window’s panoramic perspective changed from the forests of upstate New York to Pennsylvania to Ohio and eventually into the suburbs of Chicago. The transition in just 22 hours was one of contrasts as the urban jungle of Manhattan — and often viewed from below ground — gave way to rugged forests then to flat farmlands. Our journey had started in the morning, and by night we would travel in utter darkness, sprinkled with the sounds of the train blowing its horn as it passed road crossings. As the first day drew to a close and we slept in our upright seats, the mild discomfort of sleeping on the train seats was replaced by the euphoria of waking up to an orange-red sunrise as the train hurtled past the lush pastures and crops of Midwest farms.

Our first stop was Chicago. We rested there for 3 days, long enough to gain the itch to board the train again, but unfortunately as we discovered only just enough time to barely begin to explore the wonders of America’s Second City. During our 3 days in the Windy City we experienced the heat of the Midwest summer. But the heat did not deter us from experiencing Chicago’s famous sites and foods. We visited the Sears Towers, the Bean, Hyde Park, the Billy Goat Tavern, rode the water taxis, and visited all points in between. Of course, no trip to Chicago is complete without a sampling of their deep-dish pizza, which we did with much zeal at the “Gino’s East” restaurant. Before finally saying goodbye to Chicago we made a side trip to the local zoo where we had a chance to see polar bears in the heat of summer.

From Chicago we boarded the Zephyr once more with another 48 hours (non-stop) or so to San Francisco. Thus we knew that we would have to hop off the train somewhere about Colorado to give us a break from sitting in the train, adhering to our principle of not sitting in the train for more than 24 hours at a time. Although we knew Colorado would make a natural break point in our adventure we had no plans on exactly where to take our stop.

The ride from Chicago to Colorado was the first time either of us crossed the so-called “heartland” of America, otherwise known as the Midwest. (Though to anyone who has ever lived in Manhattan, the Midwest is anywhere between California and Connecticut.) The scenery as we passed the Midwest, and crossed over the Mississippi River, changed from flat plains to rolling hills and then on to majestic mountains and chocolate-colored rivers reminiscent of the Road Runner cartoons. The view from the train had as glued to the seats we staked in the viewing car, leaving only for bathroom or meal breaks. We eventually traded the awe-inspiring views from the viewing cabin to on-the-ground vistas as we alighted — almost randomly — at Grand Junction, Colorado. (Luckily, travelling with just a backpack each made it easy to hop on and off the train as we liked on a whim.) Our chosen rest stop was a small town probably best known as the mailing address for a myriad of TV kids’ show contests. At first we had our doubts as we left the station and wandered the small town in the heat of June looking for a hotel. But the gods of travelling looked kindly on us as this turned out to be a real hidden gem on our trip. After suffering in the midday desert heat we found a hotel and soon a rental car. After a much needed rest and washing up at the hotel, we embarked on our car, driving from one memorable hiking site to another. Our drives were guided by the many unique mountain tops and rock formations that were strewn across the desert.

Our first task in Colorado was to explore the Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain — a marvel whose existence was unknown to us when we landed in Grand Junction, but whom we were soon guided to by the locals. From our starting point at the base of the Mesa we melted in the June desert heat, which was heating the air to upwards of 40 C. Undaunted, and with the grace of air conditioning in our car, we ascended from our base level of 1,400 metres to the top of the Mesa (3,400 metres) in a a short (and steep) ride of just 45 minutes. In that short but steep ascent the temperature dropped steadily and quickly, aided also by the setting of the sun. In just the span of 45 minutes the temperature had dropped to single digits. Even in mid-June the top of the Mesa was still covered in snow. Indeed, the snow was so thick atop the mountain that the roads were closed to traffic. Though both of us were boiling in the t-shirts we wore when we started at the base, our bodies were in need for a jacket after we stepped out to explore the top of the Mesa. We watched the sun set and felt its warmth disappear and so we set back into our car to descend back to the warmth of the desert, which are notoriously known to be cool in the night.

Driving back to our hotel, we passed by small communities and towns, one of which caught our attention and required us to make a stopover. We stopped at a drive-thru movie theatre to watch Kung-Fu Panda in the tranquility of an open-air cinema, a first-time experience for either of us, and one with a charm and appeal to a simpler gone-by era.

The next day we we drove along the scenic roads of the National Monument Park stopping off at some of its hiking trails to explore on foot the red rocks,  grand canyons, rugged landscapes and its flora and fauna, which included ubiquitous gecko lizards. The National Monument is geologically part of the same rock formation as the Grand Canyon, the park’s more famous cousin. But it was clear to us that we had benefited from the same natural beauty of the Grand Canyon, while at the same time being in a place a little more remote and less encumbered by tourists.

From Grand Junction we continued to San Francisco with one change in the train at Emeryville. It was really hard to pull ourselves out of Grand Junction, as we were totally enamoured by the red rocks and the rugged emptiness of the desert. As we left Colorado we saw the craggy rock formations transforming into the tall rocky mountains and then fading once again into the forests of northern California. The sight of the northern California forest — covered 2 metres deep in snow in June — was a sight to behold, as well as adding a true panoramic perspective to our journey as we saw the US landscape change form big city urban centres to rolling hills and farms to flatland to mountains and now to snow covered forests. The train ride snaked through the various mountains as we were beholden by the beauty of blue skies, green tree tops, red mountains and white snow caps. Hidden in the trees before us were bald eagles, though on a few occasions we spotted them or their nests atop the trees.

Our final stop was San Francisco, but not before we disembarked at Emeryville for a short break and to transfer to a bus. When we left the Zephyr we felt a tinge of separation pain, having spent more than 70 hours on the train and dined with a dozen or so strangers in the train’s dining car. But the sorrow of having parted from the train was soon replaced by the excitement of approaching San Francisco and seeing the Pacific Ocean. The sight of the blue waters of the US west coast was a marker that indeed we had accomplished a cross country trip, which had begun a week earlier along the Atlantic coastal city of New York and now culminated in arriving in San Francisco.

Golden Gate

San Francisco – Golden Gate Bridge

In San Francisco we ticked off the usual boxes: Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 64, Lombard Street, Chinatown, etc. But more than just a visit to the city famed for stealing the hearts of visitors, we also spent some time exploring the Bay Area, including an excursion to Sausalito for fine dining, a stop in Monterrey Bay to enjoy roasted marshmallows over a beach bonfire at a friends’ wedding, and a visit to to a fairy tale village by the name of Caramel-by-the-Sea, whose houses more resembled residences of the Smurf’s than abodes for humans. And of course, there was also the obligatory visit to Palo Alto, the city famed for being at the heart of Silicon Valley and home to Stanford University. And the entrepreneurial spirit that is driving force of the Bay Area was also on display with the local wildlife, where hard-working gophers going about digging holes in the ground were a source of constant amusement.

Monterrey Bay, CA

Monterrey Bay, CA

In all, we spent over a week discovering the Bay Area as we readied ourselves for a 3-month-long trip that would finish with us in Dubai. The first two weeks — one week to get from New York to San Francisco, and one week exploring the Bay Area — was a wonderful prelude to a greater journey that gave us a chance to cross a continent, catch up with childhood friends, explore both urban and rural wonders, and have us leave our hearts in San Francisco.

Please check this link for more information and fantastic detailed description of California Zephyr route.


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