A Travellerspoint blog

Foggy Bridge and Tall Trees

Second Day in San Francisco

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

October 20, 2022

I had another good sleep, so I guess there is something to be said for sleeping without train horns, rattles, and bouncing. I knew I had to quickly make some plans for the day. The last part was clear, I needed to catch the Amtrak bus at 8:50 that would take me over to Emeryville for my 10 pm train. That left over eight hours to fill after my noon checkout. I did not want to be walking for that long, no matter what shape I was in.

I decided that a tour was in order. San Francisco bay cruises are popular, but chose another option, a tour across the Golden Gate to see the redwood trees in the Muir Woods. I would get to stop at the Golden Gate Bridge on the way and then could forego my ride back and return on a ferry from Sausalito, using that as my bay cruise.

I began my research into a Muir Woods tour the old-fashioned way. I inquired at the front desk. I then returned to my little café and knew this time to ask for a croissant with my latte. The woman asked, “No yoghurt today?” She remembered me. I ordered a yoghurt, too.


Back at the hotel I was told that their usual company had no afternoon tour to Muir Woods. I vetoed any investigation of a morning tour. I needed to fill in my afternoon, not the time I had left in my hotel room. The desk clerk tried a couple of other places with no luck. I had now learned that tours sell out in San Francisco. I thanked him and said I would look for myself. I checked online and confirmed that most tours were already booked. Finally, I found a tour with the Big Bus company. This company is better known for their Hop On-Hop Off tours. For some reason they had some bad reviews of the Muir Woods outings, but they had room, so I immediately reserved a place.

I made a quick WhatsApp call to my ladies and packed my bag. It was time to check out. I left my suitcase, planning to be reunited in about 8 hours. My tour started at Fisherman’s Wharf, a 45-minute walk from my hotel.

I took a few photos on the way.

We waited at their office. As noted, the company runs the Hop On-Hop Off tours.

I was pleased with our bus after the driver opened up the roof.


The bus made its way along the waterfront.
We made a stop at the Palace of Fine Arts.

We then drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was loud, windy, and cold with the top down. But no top meant I could get this shot of the bridge.


The driver stopped on the north side. The bridge was enveloped in fog. It was still loud with traffic noise. The bridge might be beautiful, but it is still part of a highway. A company rents bicycles for tourists to pedal across the bridge. I doubt that would be pleasant on a cold and foggy day.


As we drove up the hill above Sausalito, we got a very quick view behind us of the city and bridge enveloped in fog.


Our destination was the Muir Woods National Monument. Coastal or California Redwood trees, once common, are now only found in a narrow strip between Monterey and Oregon. The species includes the tallest living trees on Earth and are also among the oldest living things. The Muir Woods, at that time known as Redwood Canyon, were saved from logging and flooding, and were designated a national monument in 1908.

This was my second visit to the park. My uncle had brought me here back on my 1975 trip. I have great memories of my time with him. It was also sobering to think that the visit was 47 years ago.

The driver told us that we only had about an hour and a half in the park. We all went off on our own walks. I found the photography quite challenging as the forest was dark with bright light shining in the canopy.

I told the driver that I wanted to take the ferry back, so he dropped me off at the dock. I was the only person to get off.


There are two ferries. One is the Blue & Gold Fleet which goes to Fisherman’s Wharf. The other is the Golden Gate Ferry which goes to the ferry terminal in downtown San Francisco. The Blue & Gold ferry was boarding when I arrived at the dock, which made my decision easy, I did not want to rush. After all, I was trying to fill up my eight hours. I was also happy to be landing at the downtown terminal.

The Golden Gate Ferry is part of government transit and cost me $7 for a senior ticket. The boat was not crowded. I found a place on the upper deck in the stern and spent the next hour bouncing around taking photos and videos. This was harder than taking them on the train since wind was added to the equation. The sun was directly behind the Golden Gate Bridge, so all I could do was point my camera in that direction and hope I was capturing it.




We docked at the downtown terminal. I started walking in the direction of my hotel.

I was looking for a place to have supper, but as I got closer to my hotel, I decided to just go back to the Thai restaurant. I knew the food would be good. I had the crab noodles this time. It also had the advantage of a quiet corner seat. I might have been happily sharing tables on the train, but I was content to sit by myself at other times.

I arrived back at my hotel a bit early, having used up only seven of the eight hours. But I was too tired to do anything except relax in the lounge. I knew that it was more comfortable than the waiting room at the bus stop, a little park with benches.

I felt excited as I anticipated another overnight train ride. That answered my question from a couple of days ago when I had wondered how I would feel when it came time to board another train. I was ready to jump back on.

Posted by Bob Brink 19:06 Archived in USA Tagged trains canada amtrak united_states via_rail Comments (0)

The Streets of San Francisco

No Crimes Solved Today

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

October 18, 2022

4:30 pm


I was once a big fan of a television crime drama called “The Streets of San Francisco”. I made sure to catch every episode, but not for the storyline or the acting. Instead, I was hoping for some good shots of San Francisco. I first visited San Francisco in 1975. It was my first real trip away from home. I had been in Los Angeles staying with school friends and flew up to visit my aunt and uncle in San Jose. I had never travelled on my own, so being sent by BART train into the city was a great adventure. I saw the hills with the views of the ocean and bays and was absolutely amazed that such a place existed. I did have a chance to return on three occasions, in 1981, 1988, and 1997, but it had been a quarter century since I had last been here.

So, I was quite happy to be back walking on the streets of San Francisco. I got a little lost in the change of street angles around Union Square but soon found my way to the Cartwright Hotel. All my hotels on this trip were within walking distance of the city’s train station. San Francisco’s station just happened to be a bus stop.

The desk clerk first teased me about my Penn State sweatshirt, but then told me that it was my lucky day, I was upgraded to a suite. It took me a few seconds to realize that she was serious. I had just spent two nights on the train and was going to be happy to just have a room that did not bounce up and down. Now I was getting a suite!

The Cartwright Hotel was built in 1914. It has been upgraded since then, but maybe not recently. It maintains its old historic hotel feel. Internet searches even come up with references to being haunted, although I did not see any ghosts. There is no bar or restaurant but there is a lounge area which I appreciated the next evening when I waited for my train.

I took the elevator up to my suite and had to take a quick video.

I took this photo the next morning.


I’d had no phone or internet connection on the Zephyr, so immediately did a quick WhatsApp with Po and Zoe. I asked Zoe why she had chewed on my underwear. She did not answer. I guess since Zoe always chooses my underwear, that she loves me the most.

Two nights in one place meant that it was time to do my laundry. My nice suite was soon covered with my now clean but quite damp clothes. I hoped that they would be dry before it was time to pack.

Chinatown was not far, so I headed that way for my supper. I was surprised at how long it took to find a restaurant as the first blocks were full of retail stores, all closed for the day. I finally came up to two adjoining open restaurants, one of which had signs from a recent grand opening. I chose that one and was pleased to find that most of the other customers appeared to be Chinese. I ordered a plate of noodles.

I enjoyed my supper and strolled back towards the hotel. It was a pleasant evening. I bought some bananas at a convenience store, my first fruit (not counting the few strawberries in my salad) in the past five days. My giant suite had a giant TV in the living room, so I watched some basketball on the big screen TV. It was strange to have the room not rocking back and forth. I wondered if I would recognize a small earthquake or just think that I was back on the train. I went to bed early by west coast time, but my biological clock was still a few time zones away, where it was much later.

October 19, 2022

I slept well in my king-sized bed, which was probably three times the size of my bed on the Zephyr. I did have a funny sensation when I got up. On the train I had very little room between the bed and the door to my sleeper compartment, so I had to step down quite carefully. I caught myself doing the same thing in this big hotel room.

I checked Google Maps for a nice café for breakfast. I saw one that was just around the corner and their website showed croissants. That looked like the place, but on arrival, saw no croissants in the display case. I decided to stay and just go healthy with a yoghurt and my latte.

The café had a long bench with tables. I sat in the far corner. A man rushed in, dropped his bag next to me and went to the counter to order. After a few moments I realized that I was being stared at. There was a little chihuahua sticking his head out of the bag. He was looking at me and trembling. I tried to talk to him, to reassure him that all would be okay, but he did not believe me. Instead, he jumped out and fled towards the next table. I called out to make sure that no one sat on the little guy. The man returned, grabbed the dog, stuffed it back into the bag, scarfed down his bagel, and left without saying a word. So much for looking out for his doggie.

A couple sat down. They were speaking French and had two baskets with pastries. I saw a croissant. I used my best French. “C’est bon, le croissant?” It is "the real thing" the woman replied in English, the language change not unexpected considering the quality of my French. “You have to ask for a croissant”. The owner is French, although I did not learn if that had anything to do with the rationing his croissants. My breakfast was supposed to be over, so I had to think for second, maybe two. I ordered a croissant, along with a second latte.


After my very satisfying breakfast, I returned to my suite to plan my big day in San Francisco. I have not mentioned my previous travel plans for 2022. For several weeks this past spring and early summer, I thought I was going to Spain to walk one of the Camino de Santiago routes, specifically the Camino Primitivo, which is 321 km long and takes about two weeks to finish. I had done considerable research but more importantly had done quite of bit of training, both walking the roads around Pouch Cove, as well as several hikes on the East Coast Trail. I overdid the latter and ended up with some knee problems. Then I injured myself watching TV. Yes, the dreaded TV injury; I stubbed my toe on the furniture and could hardly walk for a couple of weeks, could not hike for a month. That was the end of my walking adventure in 2022. I decided to postpone the Camino until another year.

But all that training combined with some timely rest for my knee (and the healing of my toe) had me in great condition for walking. I had no intention of using any transport on my first day in San Francisco. I set my Hiking App to track my time and distance and went into motion.

Not surprisingly, I took many photographs along the way. I expected to love the shots of the hills but found the many gardens quite amazing as well.

As I was walking past Chinese stores and restaurants, I thought to myself, “I should be able to get some porridge and donuts”. No, not your whole wheat cereal and a glazed donut, but a thick Chinese rice soup dish, usually eaten at breakfast or lunch. It often includes seafood or meat. Like many things Chinese, I was introduced to it by my wife. It is likely to be on menus as congee. Po sometimes calls it jook, although in our household it is always porridge. It is especially great with Chinese donuts, long deep-fried sticks of dough. That might not sound great if you have never had them, but fresh donuts dipped into porridge are simply wonderful. Po makes her own porridge at home, but it is the donuts that are hard to duplicate as they require a large quantity of boiling oil.

I went into a restaurant and asked if they served porridge, but the woman on duty did not speak English. She kept pointing at pictures of things on their menu. I kept saying, “No, I want porridge.” There was one customer, a twenty something non-Chinese guy, sitting in the corner enjoying his meal. After listening to the lady and I go back and forth several times, he finally called out the number. It was at the bottom of the menu. But they did not have any. So, maybe the woman had understood and was simply trying to sell me something else. The helpful customer had never had it, so I described it to him and suggested he try it one day. I went on my way.

This is what it looks like. You should try it sometime.

My first destination was Telegraph Hill, specifically the big white structure on top of the hill called Coit Tower. One does not need a map to get to the tower. You can see from everywhere in San Francisco which is why an observation deck was built there in 1849 so that information about incoming ships could be signalled to city residents. That was replaced a telegraph system in 1853.

The funds for the tower were donated by Lillie Hitchcock Coit. She had an interesting history as first a volunteer helper for the early fire brigades and later for her cigar smoking, trouser wearing and gambling, things that were not something for ladies to do. She left money to “beautify the city” and luckily the city finally decided on the tower.

I approached the tower from the south and turned left up past the Filbert Steps Garden.


The tower is 210 feet tall (64 m) or 13 stories tall. It was built in 1932-33. The bottom of the tower features many fresco murals painted as part of a federal New Deal employment program for artists, who were primarily faculty and students at the California School of Fine Arts.

The elevator was not working that day, but since I was interested in getting in my steps, did not consider that a problem.

Of course, there was a great view at the top. Although the openings are covered with glass, it was cleaner than Amtrak’s. That could just be natural washing from the rain. That is how my upstairs windows are cleaned back in Pouch Cove.


I bought a water and an ice cream at the kiosk at the bottom of the tower and took a few photos from that level.


I then walked around the tower and rejoined the Filbert Steps with its 400 wooden steps that take you through the Grace Marchant Garden to the Embarcadero, the eastern waterfront of the Port of San Francisco.


At the bottom I reached Levi’s Plaza and walked to Fisherman’s Wharf.


I did not spend much time there as it is far too touristy for me, so I hurried along, only stopping briefly at the submarine and then fled north.

One aspect of the city that I remembered from 1975 and that had mercifully changed, was the seedy strip clubs and sex shops. That San Francisco had these establishments seemingly everywhere, with touts calling out, advertising the chance to talk to their live naked girls. I have to admit that at the time I was not against talking to naked women but can say that I resisted their pleas. I had no money to spend on such things.

I was only walking away from the area and not looking for a meal, but I soon had the highlight dining experience of my trip. As I was passing a food truck, a man called out, “Mr. Photographer, take a picture of our truck”. I did as I was ordered. “Take a picture of our sign.” I took another photo. “Take a picture of me.” And another.


Once I took the photos, I figured that I should have something to eat. I decided on a barbequed shrimp taco. It is not actually my new friend’s business. The owner, Freddy, and his wife, Marsha, were busy working. Marsha made the taco. Freddie has a couple of restaurants as well as the truck. I suggested that he should open one in St. John's. The taco was fantastic. They only had two tables in a little parking lot. I sat beside my friend and chatted while I ate. He took great enjoyment at my dismissal of things touristy, such as Fisherman’s Wharf and the cable cars.


I continued on towards the south. I had many opportunities to take a cable car but just kept walking. I found a nice café for my latte fix.

My route took me close to Lombard Street, famous for a one block section that has always been referred to as the “crookedest street in the world”. The design was suggested by a property owner due to the steep grade and was built in 1922. It has since become a huge tourist attraction. A big part of the traffic were little yellow electric vehicles that are rented to tourists with a planned GPS routing. Yes, if Fisherman’s Wharf is too touristy, then so is Lombard Street.


I was thinking about walking as far as the painted ladies, a street of Victorian Houses that are popular with photographers but decided that I would need a couple more hours to finish my outing, so turned back towards the hotel. According to my app, I had walked over 13 km (8 miles) during my San Francisco day. That was great, but on the Camino, I might have days that are twice that far.

I took this photo just as I was arriving back at my hotel.


I found that my laundry was not drying well. I shuffled it around to share the light and even tried the hair dryer. I had passed a Thai restaurant that looked like a good place for my supper, so I headed there. I ordered the Thai Drunken Noodles. “Yes, hot is good. And a Thai beer, please.” It was great, which made two really good meals for the day. Plus, it all started with a croissant.


It was only a few minutes from the restaurant back to my suite. I knew I needed to plan my next day's activities but was too tired, so after a few minutes of flipping through my photographs, I just crawled into my giant bed.

Posted by Bob Brink 21:46 Archived in USA Tagged trains amtrak united_states Comments (0)

Over the Donner Pass, On to the West Coast

Last Day on the California Zephyr

View North American Train Trip 2022 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 Coast 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 Comments (0)

Through the Rocky Mountains on the California Zephyr

Signature Views

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

October 17, 2022

How would today go? Today was the first of my two big days on my train tour, days that should provide amazing scenery, the most important days for the trains to be on time and the weather good. We were going west through the Rocky Mountains.

The schedule had us arriving in Denver after breakfast and then climbing up and over the mountains through the rest of the day. But would the train be delayed? I had read about trains being held up by track work or mechanical breakdowns (which did not have to be the Zephyr but could be a freight train blocking the tracks). Delays could mean that we would pass through the best sections in the dark. And the weather could be an issue as the scenery could be obscured by clouds, rain, or snow.

The train was really rocking and bouncing last night. It was also quite noisy. Our transition car was quite close to the engine which made the train horn quite loud. There was also a loud rattling, which I figured out was the door latch. I finally unlocked the door to stop that noise. The unlocked door would not stay closed, but there still was a curtain covering the entrance. At supper my dinner companion had said that he preferred sleeping with his head going forward, so at one point I even tried that. I did get back to sleep; my very strange dreams told me so. I had set my alarm so that I could be up and have breakfast before Denver, but I was awake long before the music was to start.

Breakfast was to start at 7. Unlike lunch and supper, there were no bookings for breakfast. I arrived at what I thought was only 5 minutes early and was asked to leave, so I went on to the lounge car. I assumed I would be back in the dining car in a couple of minutes. I read my book for awhile and wondered why it was taking so long for breakfast to begin; trains can be delayed, but breakfast? Then it finally dawned on me, I had woken up in Nebraska, but we were now in Colorado. It was a different time zone. I stayed in the lounge until the Colorado 7 am and then walked back into the dining room.

I was seated with a charming woman who had also been waiting in the lounge. It was time to try the Amtrak Signature Railroad French Toast which turned out to be a major disappointment. I am not sure when Amtrak changed from metal cutlery to plastic for some meals, whether this was a longer-term cost cutting or a Covid thing, but I could not cut my signature toast with my plastic knife. Had the French Toast been made with a bit more milk and egg a real knife might not have been necessary. I gave up after two pieces. But I will make a slight correction to my post from yesterday, our waitress was quite pleasant and was smiling. Some Amtrak employees can smile.

My breakfast signature dish did not look too bad when I first saw it.


The sun was coming up as we finished. The breakfast might not have been a great success, but there were no clouds, and we were on time.


We were able to leave the train in Denver. I took some photographs of Denver Union Station. The station’s main structure was built after the original station burned down in 1894. The central portion was finished in 1914.
I went inside and quickly took a video and some photos. With renovations finished in 2014, the station now houses a hotel, shops, and restaurants. A latte sounded good, but it would have been too rushed.


Denver passengers were lining up.

So I quickly got back on board and went straight to the lounge car. The train left on schedule. The weather and timing had everything set up for a great day. We had an informal tour guide in the car, a man who had taken the train many times in the past. He told us that it was best to be sitting on the right side of the train for the climb into the Rockies. I was happy to hear that since I was already sitting on that side.

It was a long climb through the foothills and up the eastern slopes.

There were big curves. The reflection is bad on this one, but it shows the big curve as we began our ascent.


The lounge car had the advantage of windows on both sides, but I encountered many challenges taking photographs and videos from there. The windows were quite dirty. In a week I would learn that Via Rail cleans the windows of their dome cars. Amtrak did not, so sometimes my camera wanted to focus on the dirt rather than the outside subjects. What was really missing was a window to show ahead so I could see what was coming (like tunnels). The Via dome cars had windows at the front and back.

The best way to eliminate the reflection was to get as close to the window as possible, but the seats in the Zephyr lounge were set back. Had I been alone I would have just kneeled down next to the windows. I ended up with a lot of footage of the reflection of the father and son sitting next to me. I have done a bit of cleanup on my photos but have left most in. It would take weeks to get them cleaned up.

We began our big climb.


There were tunnels, so many tunnels, officially 33. I did not count them but will take their word for it. They would come without warning, one second a great view, the next a plunge into darkness.

We were working our way up from Denver’s 5,280 feet (1,600 m), heading for the biggest and most famous of the tunnels. The mountains had been a great barrier to the early railroaders wishing to build a direct route to California. There were no low passes through the mountains going directly west from Denver. A route was built through the 11,600 foot (3,500 m) Rollins Pass, but the grade and winter weather made that uneconomic. A tunnel was required to take the trains over the Continental Divide. As the American Society of Engineers puts it, the Moffat Tunnel is "the highest and lowest holing in history." The tunnel cut through the Rockies at 9,200 feet (2,800 m), 2,800 feet (850 m) below the surface. The 6.2 mile (10 km) long tunnel was opened in 1928 after 4 years of construction.

The tunnel is ventilated by big fans, but they operate after the trains exit. In order to avoid bringing our train’s diesel fumes into the cars, we were told to not change cars during the 10 minutes that it took to pass through.

We saw a moose. A woman spotted it and called out. I turned and snapped.


Here is a short video showing the climb.

Fraser-Winter Park is the first stop after the tunnel. In the winter there is a train from Denver to Winter Park for skiers. We had a chance to walk around for a few minutes.

ZOE_2872.jpg ZOE_2868.jpg

I had a nice chat with one of the conductors. We discussed the bouncing around last night. Dave told me that the tracks in Iowa are really bad, but the ride should be much smoother for the rest of the trip. He was unhappy about the cancellation of the car which I had mentioned in my last post. He cannot understand why the train is not longer, said that the engines could pull twice as many cars and Amtrak is selling out the ones that they are operating.

We discussed my upcoming Via Rail trip. He said that the trip across the Canadian prairies is great when the wheat is up and blowing in the wind. He was not too sure how interesting it will be at this time. He said that the Ocean train out of Halifax used to have the absolute best lounge car. Unfortunately, as I noted in a previous post, there is no longer a lounge car on the Ocean.

He told me that the best views of the canyons this afternoon would be from the left side of the train, my room side. He also advised me to book the last sitting for dinner so that I would not miss the last of the great scenery.


I went back to my room to get ready for the canyons. Conductor Dave walked past and complimented me on my Newfoundland Railway cap. I asked him to take my photo.


We were delayed a bit due to track maintenance but were soon on our way. The train first followed the Fraser River, a short tributary of the Colorado.


We went through the Fraser River Canyon. I clipped these from from my video.


We passed through Granby and then followed the Colorado River for the next 235 miles (378 km). The train passed through Byers Canyon, Gore Canyon, Dotsere Gorge, and Glenwood Canyon before the municipality of Glenwood Canyon. In between there were ranches and lots of anglers casting for the varieties of trout found in the Colorado River. I had heard about “Moon River”, that the people on the river (the ones with the fishing poles?), would moon the train. I saw no evidence of this, although it would have been easy to miss, since those moons would have been far away.

As Conductor Dave had advised, I had fantastic views in my room. But the south side of the train was also the sun side. The lighting was constantly changing with the movement of the train. Sometimes I could take things in front of us, but other times I would switch seats to take them towards the back. The dirt on the windows really showed at certain angles. I would literally be falling down as I bounced back and forth to get the best angles. I was loving every minute.

At times I wanted to shoot the other side of the train. I tried other windows in the car, such as the one over stairway. It was difficult to stand there as the train was rocking. I expected to be scolded by the staff, so did not stay long.


The views just got better. This is Gore Canyon.


We then went through an absolutely beautiful stretch with the blue sky and fall colors. The river was full of anglers but no moons in sight.


Then came Red Canyon.


After that, another flatter stretch, more beautiful views.


We reached Glenwood Canyon about the time of my lunch appointment in the Dining Car. I was ready for a change. Since Winter Park I had taken photographs and videos for over 2 hours. But I was not finished with my camera. I was lucky to get a window seat, facing forward, and continued to take photos and videos. It was also good timing since the north had now become the better side.

I was seated with the same couple who had I met at dinner the night before. We were all having the Monte Christo sandwich. He had been told to put grape jelly on his. I tried it. I would now put that into the category of tried that once, but not again. I mean the grape jelly part. The sandwich was not bad.

I was really getting great shots from the dining car.

We passed through Glenwood and Dotsero Canyons.

By this point I had been in the car for about 1.5 hours. Lunch was over. I nursed my coffee and decided to see how long I could stay. Not long, it turned out, as a minute later I was asked to leave. Perhaps you could go to the lounge? A few minutes later, the same waiter announced that he was going to take bookings for supper and that everyone had to be in their rooms. He specifically said that he would not take reservations from the lounge. That summed up Amtrak service for me, you must leave the dining room now, you must be in your room to make dinner reservations, we will not just ask lounge visitors to come to the dining room to make their reservations. Or how about just asking me when I wanted to eat supper while I was sitting there? That is what Via Rail would later do when I was travelling from Vancouver.

I went back to my room as instructed. I had a new neighbour. Apparently, the ladies had left the train in Denver and been replaced a more sociable woman named Jeanne. Pouch Cove just happened to be mentioned early in our conversation. I went to show her some photos and was surprised to realize that I did not have my phone. I checked my room and then had a few moments of panic. I raced back to the dining car. It was not there. I then checked the lounge and did not see it there. A kind attendant literally led me back to the lounge as if I was a small child. “Let’s just got back to the last place that you had it.” I had moved seats shortly before being summoned to my room for dinner reservations. My first time back I had checked the first seat. Now I looked at my second seat. There was my phone.

A few thoughts on sleeper train security. I had read a string of forum posts on the subject. The consensus was that theft was rare, that sleeper passengers had to spend a lot of money for their tickets so would not do so just to steal some second-hand items. The attendants know their passengers so only those people who belonged could be in the cars.

We could lock our rooms from the inside but not the outside. I had originally assumed that I would bring a pack with my camera and laptop as I moved around the train. But whether walking through the bouncy corridors, sitting in a lounge car or squeezed next to each other in the dining car, space is at a premium on trains. It would have been most uncomfortable to have a backpack with me all the time. I just left my things in my rooms on the various trains and never worried about it. A train is probably one of the best places to leave a phone. There was little chance that I was going to lose it.

Once reunited with my phone, I carried on my conversation with my new neighbour while I kept working away with my camera. She saw that I was trying to get shots from both sides of the train and said that since there were two seats, I could use her room as well. A small problem with that was that she had the top bunk down to hold her big suitcase. I kept banging my head every time I hopped into her room.


We passed through De Beque Canyon.

And then arrived in Grand Junction, the last stop in Colorado . There we were able get off the train for a few minutes.


We then crossed into Utah. I had a great view of Ruby Canyon.


Amtrak passengers have the option eating in their rooms, which was Jeanne’s plan for that evening’s meal. But after talking to me for awhile (and realizing that she could hear more about Newfoundland?), asked our attendant if she could instead go to the diner. Sure, he said, he would look after it. It seemed to be a minor issue. Regarding my own dinner reservation, as per the conductor’s advice I had wanted the second sitting, but only the first was available.

Thinking everything was arranged, we headed off to supper. The dining car was not busy. It never became busy during this first sitting. But the head waiter, my new not best friend from the earlier reservation issue, was not pleased. He scolded Jeanne, telling her that she must always book in advance. He was utterly rude. Had the car been busy we could have understood him being upset, but it was not, and his behavior would still not have been warranted. But we had no choice. It was the only restaurant available, so Jeanne said sorry and we sat down.

As planned, I ordered the Amtrak Signature Flat Iron Steak. It was not bad, certainly more deserving of the Signature designation than the Signature French Toast. There were still great views as we were now rolling through Utah, but I had decided to not bring my camera to the meal. I did take a couple of videos with my phone. You can see how empty the car was.

I guess I need to show your a photo of my steak?

After supper I went back to my little room and reviewed my videos and photos from the day. I had enjoyed a fantastic day trying to capture the stunning views while battling the moving train, changing sun conditions, and dirty windows. I ended up with an odd combination of good and bad. I had never had as many absolutely horrible photos from a day’s shooting. But I was pleasantly surprised by the number of good photos. I give most of credit to my latest camera that I bought last year for my next big trip, not knowing if and when it would ever happen. For anyone interested, it is a Nikon Z5, what I like to describe as the very low end of high-end technology, a mirrorless, full frame camera. And I do credit my own efforts as I raced from window to window, constantly bouncing off the walls, seats, and windows.

And I have had to utilize the power of Adobe Lightroom in helping with the cleanup. I had to learn to compromise on the size of my crops, not worrying about standard sizes, just trying to eliminate glare, dirt, out of focus areas, and trees. And as I mentioned earlier, I have had to leave the dirty spots and glare on many of them so that I can finish this blog. Besides, I was capturing my experience.

Tony came early again to make my bed. I should have asked him if I could just do the bed myself, and if that was an issue, should probably have just figured it out and put it back up after he left and back down when I wanted to go to sleep. And for a bigger post trip thought, I already knew when I booked this trip that I should probably split up the Zephyr ride and stop for a day or two along the way. I now know that the place would be Grand Junction. From there you can both explore Colorado and also drive into Utah to see Arches National Park.

Yes, I would definitely take the Zephyr again, because at the end of the day, my frustrations with Amtrak were of little consequence. It had been a fabulous day rolling up and over the Rocky Mountains. I was a very happy camper. Rude Amtrak staff following their obsessive rules could not diminish that.

Of course I was still on this train for another night. We were told that breakfast would start at 6:30. I confirmed that this would be Pacific time. The next day was to be Nevada and Northern California and then I was going to be sleeping in a bed that was not bouncing, in my all time favorite city, San Francisco.

Posted by Bob Brink 21:07 Archived in USA Tagged trains amtrak united_states via_rail Comments (0)

The California Zephyr, Train 5, Welcome Aboard

Across the Middle of America

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

October 16, 2022

The time had come for the big part of my train odyssey. I checked out of my giant hotel and began walking to Chicago’s Union Station. I had planned my trip carefully to make sure that my hotels were close to the train stations, so I was already familiar with this walk. Now I was excited to be actually doing it on this beautiful October Sunday. The streets were still quiet, such a change from the evening before. I could hear the clattering of my small bag as I rolled it along the sidewalk, the problems with its wheels now fixed.

The station was on the other side of the Chicago River. I worked my way north to take the closest bridge to the station. I stopped for a photo.


A tour boat was coming my way.

Then I was there. Before me was the iconic Chicago Union Station, opened in 1925. The station is Amtrak’s major Midwest hub with about 15 different named routes leaving there to all parts of the United States. The big ones go to New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. and my train, the California Zephyr, to the San Francisco Bay area.


I looked for the entrance to the great station. But what an anticlimax, the main entrance is across the road.

I went to the information desk and was directed to the coach waiting room. I knew there was something better so went back and asked about the lounge and was directed the other way. I decided to go see the main concourse first. It is a shame that most passengers might walk in the main entrance and down into the lounge without ever seeing this part.


The lounge is restricted to sleeper car passengers, so I had to show my boarding pass to enter. The first thing I saw was that the coffee machine was out of order. No lattes for me, not even a coffee.


I also checked out the food supply. It did not take long, only pretzels and chips. It was not impressive.


I was also not impressed with the downstairs seating. But I had expected that. My YouTube research had informed me that the best part of the lounge was upstairs.


I sat for awhile and then decided to take advantage of the fine assortment of free food downstairs. I went all out and grabbed two bags, pretzels and potato chips. You only live once.

We were asked to begin boarding at 1:20 for the 2 pm train. We were led as a group down the hall. It seemed a bit chaotic at first as we had to walk through the line of coach passengers leaving their lounge. We were then told to form three lines. I talked to the man behind me. He was from Iowa and was travelling with his mother, aged 81. They had been on a cruise out of New York City that had included New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. He had really liked Halifax. We speculated that we might have been there at the same time since there were several big cruise ships in Halifax the day that I left. His mother does not like to fly, so they took the train to New York and had returned on the New York to Chicago train and were connecting to this one to take them back to Iowa. His mother was going to join him after getting a ride to the train on a cart. He told me that about 10 years ago he had bought a train pass and travelled the Amtrak routes for 6 weeks. His knowledge would soon be quite useful to me.

The California Zephyr is Amtrak’s longest daily route at 2,438 miles (3,924 km). Before Amtrak was formed in 1971 there were three private trains running between Chicago and the East Bay with bus connections to San Francisco. The original Zephyr took a different route than the current version, taking a more northerly, less scenic but more historic way, the route of the original transcontinental train, a 1,911-mile line constructed between 1863 and 1869. The first California Zephyr was inaugurated in March 1949 during the brief post war heyday of long-distance train travel. Cars and planes would soon change that.

After standing for a few minutes, we were called into the track area for the actual boarding.


The cars on the Zephyr are called Superliners. They have two levels. The bottom level has larger bedrooms for families and an accessible unit as well as a large luggage area, several toilets, and a shower room.

It is a steep and narrow climb to the upper level.

The upper level has small roomettes and slightly larger bedrooms. All the upstairs rooms have large windows. Unlike my Via Rail Ocean train from Halifax, the small rooms are designed to be used by two passengers with facing seats but without toilets or basins. My Ocean room had the “step up” which took away head space. The large windows in this car really gave a sensation of space, but that would be gone if you were sharing the room when the upper bunk is lowered for sleeping. But I certainly had a much better first impression as I sat in my home for the next two days.

I was in the transition sleeper car. I had explained transition cars in my earlier post. These cars have different couplings to "transition" from one size or type of car to another. The Ocean transition car was mostly empty space. On this train the transition car came with bedrooms, toilets, and showers. Passengers shared the car with the staff who had their rooms at one end and also used the downstairs lounge. There was a toilet two doors outside my room which also had a shower, so although I did not have a toilet or basin in my room, I did not have far to go in the middle of the night.

Amtrak does not let you choose your assigned room. I had originally been assigned to a regular Superliner car but received a notice several days later that I had been moved to the transition sleeper. I would soon learn how lucky I was to have only been moved.

We were told to wait in our rooms as someone was coming to take our reservations for supper. I chose the 5:30 sitting since I had only eaten my pretzels and potato chips for lunch. I also had to choose my appetizer, for me it was the Mexican Soufflé.

I was now electronically cut off from the world. I did not have an American roaming plan for my phone. I had thought that I might just have to pay a high rate for calls and texts but found that it did not work at all. I had warned Po that this might happen, so she knew that there would be no communication until I reached my hotel in San Francisco. It also meant no checking of news headlines, probably a good thing.

I was free to roam after I made my dinner reservation and went to see the lounge car. It was not a long walk on what I soon learned was a very short train. We were just behind the baggage car, hence the need for us to be a transition car, then there was one sleeper car behind us, followed by the dining car, the lounge car and finally two coach cars.

I had to pass through the bedroom sleepers. In my area there was a middle corridor.

Then you had to swing to the outside.

All the cars were double decked, including the lounge car which had a café downstairs.

Here is a video of my first hour or so on the Zephyr including announcement of our first “Fresh Air, Smoke Stop.” Yes, that is what it is called. Then our welcome aboard to California Zephyr Train No. 5, a quick look at the lounge car and a look at what would be seemingly non-stop farmland with the sound of the train signal. Since we were so close to the front, the horn was quite loud, and it sounded constantly until we were in the mountains where there were few roads to cross. It could have been annoying, but I loved the sound, even when it kept me awake.

I went back to my room and looked across at the closed door and curtain of the room on the other side. It was still unoccupied. Perhaps I should not have been so bold, but I decided to open the door so that I could watch out of both sides of the train. Our attendant Tony came by. He stood there for a long time, just looking at the open door. I finally admitted that I had done it. He told me, “People steal pillows. Someone is going to occupy the room later. Just watch out for my pillows.” I promised that I would.

I had quickly learned that this train was going to be different than the Ocean. I could not imagine Guillaume being upset with anything a passenger had done. But he was young and obviously enjoying his job. I learned that Tony had over 20 years working for Amtrak. I never saw him smile. It was rare to see any of the Amtrak staff smile.

I watched the Midwest pass by.
We arrived at Galesburg, our fresh air/smoke stop. I got out for a quick stretch and to look at the train.
I talked to a woman going to San Francisco. Like me, she had been assigned to an upstairs 2-person room. But instead of being changed to another car, her reservation was just cancelled, even though she had booked her train ticket (along with flights) months before, certainly long before me. Amtrak had simply cancelled a sleeping car and did not offer her any alternatives. She had to phone Amtrak and plead for a place. They finally offered her the accessible room below us in the transition car. It was the same price and did come with a bathroom, but she thought the views would be better upstairs. She told me that there were other passengers who ended up in coach; some did not get on the train at all. I was quite lucky to have only been moved.

There was a coffee station at the end of our car. I checked to see if there was any coffee. Tony saw me and told me that it would only be filled the next morning at 6 am. That was fine, but later I saw that there was coffee at the station in the car behind us. I wondered why Tony did not just tell me that.

It was a bit early for my supper, so I went to the lounge car where I found my new friend from Iowa and his mother. He told me that we would soon cross the Mississippi. I had no idea that it was coming so soon. He said that the best view would be on the right side of the train. Then we were delayed by a freight train and it was now time for my dinner. I was ready to ask for a seat on the right side but was pleased to be given a perfect window seat to take my video.

You might get a choice of dinner times on Amtrak and Via Rail trains. When you arrive for your meal, you will be told where to sit. Couples and groups stay together, but singles get put where there is room. I really enjoyed this part since I love conversing with fellow travellers. Introverts might feel uncomfortable. On Amtrak they can have their meals brought to their rooms.

At this first meal, I was seated with a couple from Vancouver, Washington. He was retired Navy and had met his wife in Hawaii. She had moved there from the Philippines. They had always wanted to take this train so had flown the red eye the night before from Portland, checked out the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and then went to Union Station to board. They were taking the train to the last stop at Emeryville, visiting family, and then flying home. This was their mini-vacation. You learn a lot about people on a train.

We were joined by a man who visits his daughter in the Bay area. He prefers the train to flying and has taken the train many times. He said that he found it easier to sleep if his head is going forward rather then the standard setup of feet first. I would test that method later that night.

I had the salmon and was not impressed. On a scale that compares food to airplane fare (for those us flying internationally or old enough to remember getting fed on domestic flights), this was basically that, airplane quality. I finished with the mousse cake which was good but really rich. And I had a glass of wine, my free Amtrak drink with the meal. I had decided that the next day I would be having two “Signature” dishes, as per the Amtrak menu, Signature French Toast for breakfast and the Signature Flat Iron Steak for supper.

This sounds so mundane to me as I put it into writing. I saw some farms, shared a meal, and got in trouble for opening a door. But I was really having fun. I enjoyed watching the world going past my window. I especially appreciated the size of everything as we crossed the American plains. The train is the perfect way to appreciate the size of the country. I was surprised at how quickly we were out of metro Chicago and into farmland, with big fields and windmills, broken up by the occasional small towns.


The train stopped in Ottumwa, Iowa. Fans of the “M*A*S*H” book, movie and television series will recognize it as the fictional home of the Radar O’Reilly character. But it is also the hometown of both the book’s author, Richard Hornberger, who wrote under the pseudonym Richard Hooker and Donald Shaffer, the inspiration for the Radar character. Shaffer, after a long career in the military and teaching, retired to Ottumwa where he lived for the last 30 years of his life before passing away just this past March. What I love about his story is that he became a world traveller and took his students on trips around the world, but the students also wanted to see Ottumwa.

I wanted to step down into Iowa. There was some issue with construction so that the train was needing to stop and then pull up. Tony said I could stay outside while that took place, but it was cold and I did not see Radar, so I got back in.

I returned to my room and alternated between reading my e-book on the building of the Canadian Railways and looking at my photographs. It was 8:45. Tony came by and said he wanted to set up my bed. I said it was quite early and asked if he could come back in an hour. I suspected (and later confirmed) that while I was quite comfortable sitting in my seat that it would not be so comfortable sitting in the folded down bed. But Tony said that he could wait no more than 30 minutes since he was going off duty. According to Amtrak, my bedtime was now 9:15.

I decided to take a shower and went first to the three piece bathroom on the top level. It had the shower but no place to change. I then went to the downstairs shower room. There was a pile of towels on the bench, leaving no place to sit, which I had learned was essential for changing when the train is in motion. I took a very fast shower while the train was stopped.

At some point in the evening two women had occupied the room across from me. I was confident that their pillows were still there. They were both wearing masks and stayed in their room most of the time. I happened to be getting back into my room just as one of them was returning from the toilet. I did get a response when I wished them good night. That was our only interaction. It would be much different with their replacement.

My room was quite hot but improved after Tony showed me how to turn down the heat. As anticipated, it was quite uncomfortable sitting up in the made up bed. The back rest was not designed for that. I put up with it for awhile but soon decided to get some sleep.

I was really looking forward to my trip through the Rockies the next day. I knew that I should get to breakfast before Denver so that I could get a place in the lounge before the new Denver passengers got on board.


Posted by Bob Brink 00:14 Archived in USA Tagged trains amtrak Comments (3)

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