West Coast to Chicago Amtrak choices
March 13, 2018 2:06 PM   Subscribe

There are three trains that go to Chicago from the west, the Empire Builder, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief. Which should we take?

The obvious choice might be the Empire Builder (my husband and I are in Seattle) but we're also willing to extend the trip to a start in Los Angeles or San Francisco (Emeryville), since we've done the Montana Hi-Line/Glacier trip by car already. We could also begin the trip in Chicago. Wondering which might have the best scenery during daylight hours? We had a fun time on the Coast Starlight earlier this year and think we could handle a whole two nights in a sleeperette. We would probably be going in September. If you've taken any of these trains or have any tips I'd love to hear about it.
posted by plasticpalacealice to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I've taken both the Empire Builder and the Southwest Chief but it was over 20 years ago. I remember the scenery of the Southwest Chief as being AMAZING, even now. My recollections of the Empire Builder were that I was looking forward to seeing Montana but it felt like a lot of it was in the dark. My only train tip generally is that if you have a sleeperette, you can bring a little thing to heat water and then not be beholden to the "dining" car for things like lackluster coffee.
posted by jessamyn at 2:22 PM on March 13, 2018

I've not taken the Empire Builder yet, but I think that eastbound, the Zephyr beats the Chief. You get some really lovely scenery in Colorado especially, Glenwood Springs (making an overnight stop here is really nice if you're not getting a sleeper car; you can soak out the kinks in the hot springs) and Gore Canyon. But can't really go wrong with either.
posted by notquitemaryann at 2:26 PM on March 13, 2018

I've taken the Empire Builder once, and the Zephyr several times. I'm sure you already know this, but Amtrak generally has last priority on the rails (after freight trains), so there is never a guarantee that any particular stretch will be transited in daylight hours.

My impression of the Empire Builder was that western Montana was spectacular but I hope never to pass through eastern Montana or any of North Dakota again in this life. At least not by rail. (I'm sure both places are beautiful if you're out walking around in them.) Bring a good book.

The Zephyr has some excellent scenery as well. I don't think I've done the stretch between SF and Reno, but I enjoy all of Nevada, Utah, and Colorado and don't find Nebraska and Iowa nearly as desolate as the eastern leg of the Empire Builder. Westbound, I enjoy it even more if I've recently re-read Roughing It.
posted by bricoleur at 2:39 PM on March 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Forgot to mention, if you really don't care for tunnels, maybe miss the Zephyr (6.2m Moffat Tunnel is not for everyone).
There is also the Texas Eagle, if you want to tick the longest route in the US off your list (haven't ridden so can't comment on views).
posted by notquitemaryann at 2:40 PM on March 13, 2018

West to east, I've taken the Empire Builder three times and the Zephyr twice. The Empire Builder is fun, but the Zephyr is one of the wonders of the world. I think that between the west coast and Denver it tends to keep fairly close to schedule, and this means you're almost guaranteed to be passing through the best scenery in daylight. The Empire Builder's schedule doesn't coordinate scenery and daylight nearly as well (but then again, I kept waiting for eastern Montana to get as boring as I had been warned, and it remained endlessly varied and fascinating to me).

This is the best site I've found for seeing how the different trains are running, if you want a reality-check about schedules.
posted by kelper at 3:24 PM on March 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

The stretch of the Zephyr through the Sierra foothills, over Donner Pass, and into Reno is gorgeous. And then you're in Nevada for about 400 miles.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:25 PM on March 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have taken the Zephyr 4 or 5 times between Emeryville and Grand Junction, most recently in December. It is gorgeous most of the way. (Sit on the left side to see the Bay. So fun!) Sure, Nevada is boring but much of it happens in the dark. If you are lucky enough to wake at dawn, you can go to the observation car and watch the sun rise over an amazing Utah landscape. It is a lovely trip. Whichever route you choose, have fun!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:53 PM on March 13, 2018

Zephyr Zephyr Zephyr Zephyr!
posted by yeahlikethat at 5:14 PM on March 13, 2018

Sorry, got a little excited there. The Zephyr is the one I really want to take.

I took Amtrak cross-country last summer and ended up rerouting on the Southwest Chief from LA to Ft. Worth (because of the hurricanes in Texas). LA was pretty much in the dark, the day traveling through the southwest was gorgeous but less dramatic than the scenery on the Coast Starlight. I had to transfer in the middle of the night in Kansas but I think that second day would not be nearly as exciting.

My understanding is that the California Zephyr is timed so if you're traveling east to west, and everything goes more or less on schedule, you sleep through Nebraska and wake up to MOUNTAINS. Personally if I had the option, I'd go east to west, because as much as I love Chicago, rolling into San Francisco with the sun starting to go down over the ocean sounds way cooler.
posted by yeahlikethat at 5:29 PM on March 13, 2018

Sadly, the Zephyr rolls to a stop in Emeryville and you cross the Bay Bridge by Amtrak bus to finish your journey into SF.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:18 PM on March 13, 2018

It's true: if you want to start your trip in a glamorous old school train station, choose LA over Emeryville. LA's Union station is beautiful. In Emeryville I don't remember even being indoors. I think from there you get some terrific scenery on both California routes, Donner Pass vs. Southern CA mountains once you exit the sprawl of LA.

I deleted my other blatherings as unhelpful. I haven't done the Empire Builder but think all three trips sound fun.
posted by Smearcase at 6:35 PM on March 13, 2018

I live on the western edge of the Great Basin Desert and I have to say, the longer I live here, the more I come to appreciate it, so 400 miles of Nevada doesn't sound so bad. Especially when it means you get that ride from Reno, through Truckee, over Donner Summit, and down the Sierras. It's less than 100 miles but it's worth the entire trip on the Zephyr.

(And I've done the semi-parallel trip on Highway 80 at least 50 times over the past year. Doesn't even come close.)
posted by elsietheeel at 6:42 PM on March 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've taken all three. I'm kind of obsessed with Amtrak's long journeys.

I think my favourite is still the Southwest Chief. The scenery is amazing and I really enjoyed the 45ish mins stopover we had at Albuquerque - they had little market stalls meet the train. I did that one late Sept/early October and the sleeper people were really nice - mostly retirees. I also liked the little towns we stopped at - felt so remote. And that's the Mississippi crossing I remember the best.

I took the Empire Builder in mid summer. We were late leaving Seattle which meant it was already light from I think Idaho the next morning and so stunning seeing the Glacier area. But I don't think you can usually guarantee that. Montana and North Dakota were fricking huge. I'm happy to stare out at the countryside for hours on end though. We were running really late and so by Minnneapolis/St Paul it was all fuss fuss fuss about people's connections which kind of took some of the relaxation out of it. They were super organised though - some people got taken off the train early to be bussed to other connections etc. I totally sympathised with people but I always leave a lot of buffer time (like, a day or so) when I do long distance trains. I think the Empire Builder is subject to delays in spring & early summer due to lots of low lying tracks and flooding.

The California Zephyr is also amazing scenery. September will be much nicer - I also did this one in summer and getting diner car sittings was tough. Plus, for breakfast they were endlessly calling for each party's timeslot (hard to sleep through) whereas off season it's a lot more civilised and you just turn up for breakfast and get seated whenever.

Yep, we slept through Nebraska and eastern Colorado (I think we stopped at Omaha maybe midnight? I always liked getting out at the stops so I could legit claim to have visited each state). Salt Lake City was prob about 24 hours after Omaha and so then we slept through most of Nevada and woke at Reno. We stopped a bunch of times (delays) near Truckee and while the scenery can be great, it's not if you're stopped next to a bunch of pine trees and no other view :-)

I did Empire Builder Seattle to Chicago, California Zephyr Chicago - Emeryville and Southwest Chief LA to Chicago. I was very happy with those directions and I think I researched the best options - there's an amtrak discussion board with tonnes of lovely helpful Amtrak obsessed people.

Given where you live, and that you've done the Glacier area already - I would suggest the Southwest Chief for totally different scenery than what you're used to. Have fun. I'm super jealous!
posted by kitten magic at 9:18 PM on March 13, 2018

Doh, y'all are right, I got myself confused! You still get some nice waterfront views as you're getting into Emeryville but the stunning bit I remember was actually the Coast Starlight winding down along the ocean into LA.
posted by yeahlikethat at 9:27 PM on March 13, 2018

Oh I missed the time of year! I'd pick the Zephyr during mid-to-late winter or spring.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:41 AM on March 14, 2018

I rode the Southwest Chief from Flagstaff, AZ to Chicago a dozen years ago in July and I still remember rolling through the desert in the early morning, alternating between being half asleep and gazing out the window. I've heard the scenery on the Zephyr is more impressive but I bet they're all fun if you like train journeys.
posted by breakin' the law at 10:15 AM on March 14, 2018

Roomettes on the Superliner routes have a bunk bed setup, and only the lower bunk has a window. People sometimes see the exterior of the Superliners and see the upper and lower windows, but there are two levels in the Superliner, so each level gets a window. This isn't an issue for daytime viewing, where the roomette is set up as private seating, but if you're looking forward to "being half asleep and gazing out the window," only the lower bed gets that. For viewing scenery, make sure that they book you in one of the upper roomettes, as this will give you a better view.

The ride east of the Rockies on each of these lines is interesting but somewhat dull, as it consists of a lot of flat states and travel along major rail freight lines. Whichever route you choose, you want to make sure that some of the good sights are available during the daylight portions of the first half of the trip. This varies based on route.
posted by jgreco at 8:05 AM on March 15, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks everybody for your input! Lots to think over. I'm a little disappointed that the Southwest Chief goes through Kansas in the middle of the night (in both directions), my grandparents are from Hutchinson and my great grandfather worked as a train engineer there - so I could say I've "been" to Kansas without having to actually visit.

Smearcase - I love Union Station! If I were really adventurous I'd start out in San Diego on the Surfliner and transfer in LA (makes mental note...).

Jessamyn - our sleeper car on the Coast Starlight had a large coffee urn where the attendant made coffee in the morning. When we first got on she said "I think there's some coffee left" and I was all, like, COFFEE! And it was actually pretty good. I'm very easy to please.

jgreco - I'm aware that the top bunk doesn't get a window, which is too bad. You can also really feel the train lurching back and forth up there! Next trip I'm taking the bottom bunk.

One thing I learned: the dining car attendants hate it when you show up for your reservation on time but before they've made the announcement that they're seating your time slot...also, when I booked the ticket I wasn't aware meals are included for sleeper car passengers (obviously not alcohol though). And I'm sad to report the Pacific Parlor Car was retired from the Coast Starlight a few weeks before we took our trip - in case anyone is thinking of taking that route and expecting a first class lounge car. From what I gather there are no more parlor cars left on any of the Amtrak routes?
posted by plasticpalacealice at 9:47 AM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: notquitemaryann - thanks for the tip about Glenwood Springs, that's worth considering!
posted by plasticpalacealice at 9:48 AM on March 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

If the train lurching back and forth is an issue for you, the roomettes on the bottom level of the train do not suffer as much side-to-side motion, but of course you're also trading off the advantage of the height of the upper window which gives you better views.

Coffee policy in the sleeper cars seems to be dictated by the attendant. I've had sleepers where coffee was available all day long, but it is not that common.
posted by jgreco at 3:57 AM on March 21, 2018

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