Best route for long-distance train travel in the US in winter
November 6, 2014 6:05 PM   Subscribe

I want to take a train journey across the US, from east to west. Which route should I pick? Complication: January.

I am in New Jersey, and have to be in San Francisco in mid-January. I will have a week or so free beforehand, and want to use it to see more of the country.

It seems there are three recommended routes (according to The Man in Seat 61, my usual guru on such things):

New York - Chicago - Denver - Salt Lake City - San Francisco (California Zephyr)
New York - Atlanta - New Orleans - Phoenix - LA - San Francisco (Crescent plus the Sunset Limited)
New York - Chicago - Seattle - San Francisco (Empire Builder plus the Coast Starlight)

Any advice on which is likely to be the best (i.e. most scenic and least disrupted) during January? I've read previous questions, but am having trouble finding any info on what they're like in winter, given shorter daylight hours for scenery-watching.

I'm aware that Amtrak is not particularly reliable and is often delayed. I'm OK with this - it's a "journey not a destination" type trip and I like the rhythms of long-distance train travel. I do hate buses though, so if there's a route that regularly gets weather-disrupted and replaced by buses I'd rather avoid it.

I'm not from the US, and haven't been further south or west than North Carolina, so everywhere will be new to me. Each route has at least one city I plan to visit at some stage, but they're not the main interest. On this trip I might stop off for a day or two here and there, but the journey and the scenery is the main draw. Snowy scenery is fine!
posted by une_heure_pleine to Travel & Transportation around United States (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Definitely avoid the Empire Builder in January. Bus detours are not uncommon in winter.
posted by yomimono at 6:13 PM on November 6, 2014

Best answer: Take the California Zephyr! It's called the most scenic train route of all for a reason. While I've never taken it in January, I'm sure it will still be absolutely beautiful. It is a gorgeous route filled with the grandeur of the American West. Endless skies. Herds of buffalo. Wide open spaces. Mountain ranges.

Trains don't typically have much problem with snow, so there's no reason to take the southern route unless you want to see the south. The Atlanta - NOLA - Phoenix - LA route would feature more desert and would, of course, be warmer that time of year, though the exterior temperature isn't really all that important from inside a heated train car.

Zephyr! Zephyr! Take the Zephyr!
posted by goblinbox at 6:26 PM on November 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The Crescent is my all time least favorite Amtrak route. Make of that what you will. I liked the Sunset Limited OK, but it wasn't particularly scenic IMO (that said, I'm from Louisiana and have spent a lot of time in Texas, so maybe it just wasn't scenic to me).

I agree with goblinbox, my first impulse was definitely to recommend the California Zephyr, which is one of the classic train trips in America, possibly even the world.

Regardless of which route you take, you should expect the interior of the train itself to be cold. Especially overnight. Brrrrrrrrr
posted by Sara C. at 6:51 PM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Zephyr through the Rockies was awesome in March, I imagine it'd be even more so in January.
posted by charlemangy at 8:04 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We've been getting a lot of news stories up here about the Empire Builder having delays due to heavy commercial train traffic around the North Dakota oil patch.
posted by gimonca at 8:11 PM on November 6, 2014

I took Amtrak from Reno, NV to Portland, OR several years ago. The Reno to Emeryville leg featured an audio guide on the train's intercom who recounted the history of the route, which as I recall was mostly about incidents when the train was snowed in in the Sierras for weeks at a time and the passengers cannibalized one another. The leg from Emoryville to Portland . . . I remember waking up early in the morning and looking out my window and seeing the sun rising over Lake Tahoe. Most of my fellow passengers were pregnant or carrying guns, both conditions that contraindicate air travel. There's a bar, and hours and hours and hours with nothing at all to do.
posted by chrchr at 8:32 PM on November 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I just took the Zephyr last week. It was gorgeous! And arrived in Emeryville, CA an hour early. I believe the train has been running mostly on time lately. You'll definitely see some snow in the Sierra Nevadas, we spotted some on the sides of the tracks near Tahoe.

Should you want to stop in any of the cities, you need to book separate tickets for each leg. One way Amtrak stays on time when they do have a delay is to shorten the station stops, so we didn't have many opportunities to stretch our legs during the stops.

Side note: I had a hard time sleeping the first night, and definitely recommend some earplugs!
posted by nerdcore at 8:42 PM on November 6, 2014

Best answer: I've done the Zephyr from Chicago to SF that time of year - it's beautiful. Tons of snow around Tahoe; history lesson over the intercom about the Donner Party. I've done several long train trips and have always met great people. You can get hop on-off rail pass style tickets if you want to stop off, but one week is kinda tight timing. Bring at least some of your own food.

The Coast Starlight and Sunset Limited also have some stunning scenery too. MeMail me if you have questions.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:43 AM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Although you say "in the US", I'll throw in this suggestion as a possibility: VIA rail's "the Canadian" from Toronto to Vancouver, then Amtrak from Vancouver to San Francisco. I've done the "Canadian" in December and it was gorgeous, with stops along the way that were long enough to get off the train and look around for an hour or two (in my case, in Jasper, Edmonton, and Winnipeg, but that varies depending on schedule and delays, and I was going the other direction). The trip from Vancouver to San Francisco is also beautiful and usually gives you some time in Portland or Seattle where you switch trains.
posted by Emanuel at 4:30 AM on November 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You do not want the Empire Builder. When I took it (in June), we were delayed 11 hours. And there was no snow. Go with the California Zephyr. Expect delays. Bring a blanket.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:10 AM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've heard from more than one person that there isn't enough daylight in winter/January to really appreciate the views through the Rockies that you expect on the Empire Builder.
posted by soelo at 7:58 AM on November 7, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, looks like the Zephyr is the way to go. Appreciate all the advice.
One more question if I may - any thoughts on the Lake Shore Limited (NYC to Chicago via upstate New York) vs the Capitol Limited (DC to Chicago via Pittsburgh)? The former sounds much more scenic, but am I crazy taking a route going that far north in January? I live in NJ so would have to travel to either starting point.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 5:57 PM on December 1, 2014

The Lakeshore Limited is scenic in the beginning, as you head upstate through the Hudson Valley. The entire rest of the ride is overnight.

January shouldn't be a problem (I did it in December with snow on the ground), but it will be cold in the train car overnight.
posted by Sara C. at 6:05 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I took the lakeshore limited all the time in college and it really is pretty. I have no experience going through Pittsburgh, but would imagine that snow would gum things up just as badly going through the Alleghenies as through Cleveland.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:02 PM on December 1, 2014

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