A Travellerspoint blog

Over the Donner Pass, On to the West Coast

Last Day on the California Zephyr

View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

My second night's sleep on the Zephyr was better than the first. As promised by the conductor, the track was smoother, plus I was quite tired from my lack of sleep the night before and all the activity of our day going through the Rocky Mountains. I woke up happy. I never had a great sleep on any of the trains, but I always woke up in a good mood. A sleeper train is a great place to get a bad night’s sleep.

I was one of the first into breakfast and was seated with a retired military couple and my neighbour and new friend, Jeanne. I chose the omelette which came with a biscuit. That biscuit and the accompanying toast called out for some jam or jelly. Every little restaurant or diner in the US would have some strawberry or blueberry jam, maybe even peach. Amtrak gave us one choice, grape jelly. Jeanne asked for decaffeinated coffee. No, they did not have any left. “What about hot chocolate?” No, no hot chocolate.

We were close to Reno, Nevada. The reflection of the early morning sun off the desert was beautiful.

We had a very quick glimpse of Reno.


Apparently you could see the Reno hotels from the right side of the train, but I was in my room getting ready to jump out for a little walk. Then the train plunged into the below ground station, so there was not much to see from there.

It was a quick stop. We soon began our climb over the Sierra Nevada via the Donner Pass, from Reno at 4,400 feet (1,300 m) to over 7,000 feet (2,100 m) at the pass.

Since the river was on the right side of the train for much of the climb, I needed to take advantage of Jeanne’s hospitality. I repeated what I had done the day before, bouncing back and forth between our rooms, hitting my head on the upper bunk in her car almost every time. Had her room not been an option, I would have been scrambling to find views out the other side of the train, from the stairway or the lounge.

We discussed our travel itineraries and discovered that we would end up on the same Coastal Starlight train going north towards Portland and Seattle. I was spending my two nights in San Francisco before boarding the Starlight across the bay in Emeryville. Jeanne was getting off in Sacramento, spending a couple of nights there and then boarding the Starlight to go as far as Portland. After her visit there she would take the Empire Builder to Chicago and then return to Denver on the first leg of the Zephyr.

We made a quick stop in Truckee at an elevation of 5,817 feet, about half way to the pass.

After another 20 minutes of climb from Truckee we passed Donner Lake, named after an ill-fated party of 87 California immigrants who were stranded by early snowstorms in the winter of 1846-47. Only 48 survived. They were subsequently accused of cannibalism.


We then passed through a series of snow sheds. We were not worried about snow on this beautiful October day, but in January 1952 the Southern Pacific Railroad’s City of San Francisco streamliner with 222 passengers and crew were stranded for three days by a blizzard.


Here is another preview of my future award winning travel documentary.

It was time for our last Zephyr lunch. I enjoyed the salad. My conclusion after six meals on the Zephyr was that most meals where okay, above my “Airplane” standard, but not by much. As I previously noted, my first two meals, the salmon on the first night and the French Toast the following morning, were disappointing.

For this last meal Jeanne and I sat with the first person of our sleeper contingent who did not want to talk. He never said a word to us or even acknowledged that we had sat down. Was it general shyness? Jeanne thought it was language. But a smile or nod would have been nice. One thing about required sharing of tables is that it can be quite awkward being seated across from an individual or couple who appear uninterested in interacting in any way with people sitting right across from them.

The slope from here down to Colfax is the steepest on the Zephyr’s route. There we had another quick stop. Most of the stops on the Zephyr were to drop off or pick up passengers only. We were told to remain on board. When we were allowed off at other stops, the conductors made it clear that the train would not wait for anyone foolish enough to wander away.


We were now finished with the mountain views. The scenery on the trip over the Sierra Nevada was quite beautiful but did not compare to the day over the Rocky Mountains. It was not as spectacular nor as sustained.

The last couple of hours took us through the farmlands of Central California. Although a different kind of agriculture than the Midwest farms at the start of our California Zephyr trip, it seemed appropriate to be ending our cross America trip by passing through another major US agricultural area.


Then it was a more scenic finish along the waters of San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay.


Our passenger numbers got smaller with each stop. Jeanne got out at Sacramento. Many passengers disembarked at other Bay area stops, especially Richmond, a terminus on BART (Bar Area Rapid Transit). The staff were busy. They needed to get the rooms ready for the return trip.

After all I had read about the train probably being late, we arrived at 4:30, 30 minutes early. The last station is Emeryville, a small city next to Oakland and just north of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The San Francisco Bay area trains have always stopped on the east side of the bay and had passengers bussed (or the 19th century equivalent) into San Francisco for the final leg of their journeys.


We looked for the bus stop. There were no signs. The Amtrak staff directed us away from their staff bus stop. We thought they meant for us to leave the covered area, so we all moved as a group out of the station area. That did not seem right, so the group went back in. It was a bit of déjà vu, walking with a group back and forth, lost or looking for something at an airport or train station. When had this happened before? Maybe Halifax Airport? Or perhaps it was Midway Airport in Chicago? Yes, it seemed to be a repeating scenario on this trip. The bus had arrived and was parked right where we had been standing a few minutes earlier. The Amtrak folks had watched us go but did not seem concerned enough to stop us. They could have just told us it was right there, but they did not bother. The bus is free for Zephyr passengers.

The bus took us across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. We would have had a great view, but it was quite hazy. I hoped that the skies would be better the next day.


The San Francisco side bus stop is just that, a sign next to a plaza with sculptures.


I had loved my first nights sleeping on trains but wondered how would I feel when it came time to get back on another train. But that would be in two days. For now I had some sightseeing to do in San Francisco.

Posted by Bob Brink 21:59 Archived in USA Tagged trains california amtrak

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