amtrak long distance routes
February 27, 2011 3:39 AM   Subscribe

Amtrak long-distance routes: optimal combination?

I have several days free in late March, and I'm thinking of a train journey. I'd be departing from and returning to Chicago. I'm choosing between these routes:

1. California Zephyr (westbound)
2. Southwest Chief (westbound/eastbound)
3. Empire Builder (westbound/eastbound)

Which has the best westbound, and best eastbound? My research so far tells me that CZ is better westbound and EB is better eastbound during the summer, but March isn't exactly summer... I haven't found much info on SWC besides the claim that its Arizona/New Mexico portion is good.

Out of all the options, which two do you think are best? I'm constrained by time and budget, so I can't do all of them.

If I were to do a roundtrip of sorts, I'd probably need to include some air travel since I don't have enough time to take the Coast Starlight in between.

Alternatively, I could split it up into two one-way trips instead of a roundtrip.

What do you think? I'm open to other route suggestions, and have already read this askmefi question. Thanks a lot!
posted by swimmingly to Travel & Transportation (4 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I went on a similar trip back in October 2006, except my starting point was Spokane, WA. Here's what I did:

Empire Builder to Chicago
Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angles
Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland
Empire Builder from Portland to Spokane

It took about a week, and I still think back on that trip often. I had a fantastic time. Since I think you have a little less time here is what I would recommend:

Skip the Southwest Chief. New Mexico is gorgeous, but the rest of the route (Kansas, Southeastern Colorado) leaves a lot of be desired.

If you do decide to take the California Zephyr, take it westbound. From what I understand during that time of the year the Zephyr goes through the prettiest parts of the Rockies when it is nearing dark, and if the train is running late at all, it will be completely dark out and you won't be able to see anything.

Never take the Empire Builder westbound. The best part of that route is Glacier National Park, and if you take the train westbound it will be dark when you go through.

My suggestion? Since you said air travel is a possibility I would try to find a cheap flight to L.A. and take the Coast Starlight. The whole route is worth seeing. You follow along the ocean after you get out of L.A., Northern California is beautiful, and in Oregon it's hours and hours of lakes, rivers, and tunnels. You might have to spend the night in Portland. The train station there is downtown, and not too far from some great restaurants and places like Powell's books. Then I'd take the Empire Builder back to Chicago. Glacier shouldn't be missed, and although eastern Montana and North Dakota are a bit boring, Minnesota and Wisconsin are nice.
posted by helloknitty at 4:52 AM on February 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

The California Zephyr westbound is a must, definitely. I took it a few years ago in late October, when the days are fairly short, and we could see all the mountain scenery just fine. It's probably Amtrak's most spectacular run - I've also taken the Empire Builder, and I thought the Zephyr was even better.

If you can afford it, spring for a sleeper. Being able to lie down, as opposed to trying to sleep in a chair, makes a huge difference. Plus meals in the diner are included in the price of the room, so that helps a bit.
posted by Quietgal at 8:45 AM on February 27, 2011

I took the Empire Builder route twice in the eighties. By the time we reached the Black Hills the passengers began calling it "The Character Builder" and by the time we reached the coast it was just "The Train from Hell." Carry your own water if you can and yes, a sleeper if only to get you away from the smell of the toilet.
posted by Mertonian at 10:36 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the bid for the Starlight. I'd take the Zephyr westbound, hit the Starlight, and do whatever it takes to get back home at that point.
posted by slightly ridiculous at 5:45 PM on February 27, 2011

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