Clickety-clack! 5000 miles from Sacramento to Washington DC on Amtrak— and Back

Our journey through the Rocky Mountains followed the Colorado River up toward its source.

Peggy was making travel arrangements to fly back east to spend Christmas and New Year’s with our kids in Virginia and Florida when she emerged from her woman cave like a grumpy bear saying not-nice things about the airlines. Unlike her husband, she never curses (well close to never), but her tone of voice says it all. The industry was practicing its usual Christmas spirit by doubling prices and eliminating perks like earned miles and companion fares. Joy to the world. Isn’t capitalism grand.

I suggested that she check Amtrak. We quickly discovered that we could travel across America by train with our own bedroom and three meals a day for less than the airplane tickets would cost. And the meals would actually be edible. When was the last time you had a delicious, freshly-cooked steak dinner and crab cakes for dinner on an airplane? Since we are retired, time wasn’t a factor. We would see and experience America in a way we never had before! It was a no-brainer. 

Our plans were to drive down to Sacramento from our home in Southern Oregon in mid-December, visit with family and friends, and catch the California Zephyr heading for Chicago. (All Amtrak trains are named.) From there, we would take the Capitol Limited to Washington DC. Returning, we would reverse our journey on the Capitol Limited to Chicago and then take the Southwest Chief to LA. Our final leg would be to ride the Coastal Starlight back to Sacramento. The total trip would take nine days and 8 nights. In between, we would celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with the kids. 

We quickly found that there were three aspects to train travel. The first was the actual experience of riding the train ranging from sleeping arrangements to shared meals. The second was admiring the country the train traveled through. (That’s what got me the most excited.) The third was meeting your fellow travelers. Given Amtrak’s policy of seating you with other people at meals, you meet a lot of strangers. And most of them really seem to enjoy train travel. 

That’s a major difference with modern airplane travel. While first class might still be tolerable, traveling coach is a trial to get through. Narrow seats where leaning back is severely limited (there’s no room), cramped leg room where you pay premium for a few more inches, minimal food service, and the policy of charging you big bucks for anything extra are all factors. Not to mention kids kicking the back of your chair and people sneezing out who knows what diseases at a 100 miles per hour mere-inches away from your head. There is no ‘it’s the journey that counts’ in air travel. It’s all about destination.

People who travel by train have destinations in mind as well, but the journey can also be an important part of the experience— one to be repeated over and over.  Take Paul, for example. We had first met him in the passageway of our car on the trip back from Washington DC to Chicago. He sat down opposite us in the first-class lounge of Chicago’s imposing Union Train Station and struck up a conversation. (You obtain first class status by having a sleeper.) He was a tall, slightly overweight man with a ready smile who was close to our age. 

We soon learned that he was a graduate of Oberlin College who had spent his life working for one of America’s intelligence agencies, a career that had begun with his service in Vietnam. He had enjoyed the work, but his true passion was playing in an informal blues band for fun. The group had been together for over 30 years. Paul and Peggy were soon into a deep discussion over whether her guitar playing and singing should include the blues. He suggested she start with Kate Wolf. I am a fan of Kate’s. In fact, my friend Tom Lovering once hosted a birthday party for her at his outdoor/wilderness store in Sacramento. When she passed away, he had taken her daughter on a river trip.

As usual, the conversation turned to where we were going and what our Amtrak experience had been like. Paul had traveled on Amtrak a number of times, including traveling with his blues band. This time he was heading for Portland by himself, but here’s the fun part. He would arrive in Portland, spend one day at Powell’s Bookstore, and then climb back on the train for his return trip to Washington DC!

Peggy and I understood Paul’s desire to spend a day at Powell’s. It’s the largest independent bookstore in the world and one of America’s premier bookstores. Whenever we are in Portland, we make a point of going there. You can spend hours perusing its shelves. I doubt we have ever left with less than a hundred dollars-worth of books. Traveling four days by train to get there and then turn around and travel four days back to Washington was a tad more difficult to comprehend. You would really have to love train travel. Still, we were really enjoying our trip. We could drive over to Klamath Falls, climb on the Coastal Starlight and be there in a day. Hmmm…

As for my photos today, I want to share one segment of the journey with you: our trip across the Rocky Mountains. It was spectacular including snow, beautiful views of the river and gorgeous red rocks. Starting at Glenwood Springs we followed the Colorado River up toward its source and then dropped down into Denver. The photos speak for themselves. Enjoy.

I’ll wrap up our Journey across the Rocky Mountains with a photo of Peggy enjoying the trip.

NEXT POST: I’ll cover what train travel was like for us, introduce you to more passengers and and show more photos of our journey.

47 thoughts on “Clickety-clack! 5000 miles from Sacramento to Washington DC on Amtrak— and Back

  1. Curt, even though we have never met, I consider you the second friend to have done that last year. The other, a high school classmate, and his wife went from New York to Chicago, out your way, then south to LA and back to Chicago via Flagstaff, AZ before returning to NY.
    Now I am thinking it is time for us to try it again – longer and better this time.
    We went from DC to Billings Montana back in 79 and liked it and have taken the AutoTrain between FL and DC [most of the travel is at night], but going across the country sounds really good.

    • Like the friend part, Ray.
      Peggy and I obviously loved the trip, and we will do more. While we have travelled by trains on the East Coast, in Europe and New Zealand, this was a our first ever overnighter and use of the sleepers. I’ll talk more about the details in my next post, but, needless to say, we will definitely do it again! Thanks. –Curt

  2. I do so enjoy your great post. A clickety-clack Amtrak ride …. 5000 miles.
    As trains are among my favourite transports, after boats, it would be my choice.
    Shame about those sneezes, kicks and legroom.
    You get the same on many ‘economy’ airlines but in more limited time.

    So how were the sleepers? Never tried that although I tried trains in several countries.
    Your photos of the views are magic. Took my breath away. The world is so very beautiful and in this case, super beautiful.

    Thanks for sharing.


    • The kicks, sneezes and lack of legroom were definitely my view on airlines, Miriam. Not a problem on the trains, even coach comes with large, comfy chairs on the train. Peggy and I definitely plan to do more long distant travel. We, too, have enjoyed train travel in Europe and are planning to do more this summer! I’ll talk about the sleepers in my next post. They take some getting used to, but once you do, are pretty comfortable. And weren’t the Rocky Mountains gorgeous. I’ve bicycled across the a couple of times, backpacked through them from Canada to New Mexico, and driven across them several times, but not over this route. It was drop dead gorgeous. 🙂 Thanks. –Curt

    • Thanks, Nancy. Our trip a few years ago from Anchorage to Fairbanks in February to see the ice carving contest certainly encouraged thoughts about train travel. Peggy and I really enjoyed our trip across the US, as I indicated. More on the trip later this week. –Curt

  3. Facinating….I have taken the Vermonter from Union Station (DC) to Springfield, MA…(or from son in DC to sister in MA). I have always enjoyed it. Your trip is beyond anything I have done except in France. Eager to hear more! Nan Goodwin

    • Thanks so much for commenting Nan. Peggy and I have taken the train from Boston to Connecticut a few times plus traveled by train in Europe and New Zealand, but this was our first long trip. The next post should be up toward the end of the week. –Curt

  4. Looks like a beautiful trip, these photos are wonderful. I’ve traveled by Amtrak once or twice and I really liked it a lot. I wouldn’t mind doing it more coming up! I really liked sitting in the lounge car and just watching the scenery roll by 🙂

    • Me too, MB. The lounge cars with their huge windows are the place to be. The views from our room and the dining car weren’t shabby either. 🙂 Peggy and I truly enjoyed the experience and will definitely do it again. Thanks. –Curt

  5. Glad you made it through Utah and Colorado during the day-time. Awesome ride! PS Saw a great bumper sticker today. I’m retired, go around me. 😉

    • Thanks, Alison. And we couldn’t agree more about the ‘civilized’ part. We will definitely do it again. Amtrak a number of similar trips that allow you to explore different parts of America. –Curt

  6. These photos are unparalleled. Wow. The views would be worth the travel, in my opinion. But it’s compelling to think of the additional luxuries, like food. And room to move. I echo the love of Powells, and I am spoiled and can go whenever I want. I need to not spend every time though – that would get dangerous. But there are chairs tucked around the shelves, and I am happy finding a paper treasure and sitting in a corner for an hour. I am looking forward to seeing more of your trip! My favourite photo, too, was the last one. My, Curt, what a lovely woman she is. ❤

  7. Your comparison of trains and planes made me smile, and think of the difference between cruising and boat deliveries. I’ve done both, and just as you say: the cruising is about the journey, while a boat delivery is all about the destination.

    I’d far prefer the train to any plane, although I think my preference still would be the third mode in that triad: the automobile. That’s a reflection of my preference for the third mode of boat travel: gunkholing! Still, being able to enjoy that kind of scenery in such luxury is appealing. Maybe some day.

    • Got me on gunkholing, Linda. Had to look it up. Agree that sounds like the way to go— from one cove to the next. Assuming, of course, you don’t get stuck in the gunk!
      For Peg and I, wandering in our RV has a similar feel. It was especially true when we took a year off with no need to be anywhere, anytime. –Curt

  8. And you’d never get pictures like those through an aircraft window! You make an excellent case for travelling in style on the old iron horse, Curt, part of the holiday and not just a means of getting there.

  9. The train! How lucky you are to have the luxury of time to experience an extended journey across the US. Kudos for thinking outside the box of air travel. No doubt there was less stress in addition to more savings. Excellent post, Curt!

    • Thanks, Kelly. The train is something that Peggy and I are going to definitely use again. Less stress, more scenery, better food, and much better sleep. 🙂 My next post goes up Monday AM. –Curt

  10. A very interesting post because it highlights one of the values of travel: meeting new people. Thanks for including the info about Paul: background, occupation, and the band he seems to enjoy. Thanks, too, for including these fabulous pictures. I have little luck taking photos from moving trains, cars, buses — or anything. Yours are dramatic and quite clear! Looking forward to more of these train travel posts.

    • The secret to taking photos from a moving vehicle, Rusha, is to get beyond the foreground. Otherwise it’s a blur. The way to get around reflections in the window is to put your lens right up against the window. At least, that’s what works for me.
      We met an interesting group of people, from fairly normal couples to folks to real characters. 🙂 It certainly wasn’t boring. –Curt

  11. Beautiful photos, Curt. And how lucky to be able to take the train, and to meet persons like Paul. I can relate to his special trip to Powell’s. I’d do it too.
    Train travel is special and I have never regretted it. If only we could take the train overseas as well!

    • Thanks, Cynthia. I had no trouble identifying with Paul. 🙂 And taking a train across the Atlantic would be great. If only we wouldn’t get so darn wet. I was once planning a bike trek around the world (it ended up being a 10,000 mile trip around North America) and a friend at UC Davis suggested that he get the engineering department to design a bike I could pedal across the ocean. I wisely thought better of it. Grin. –Curt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s