Travel Thursdays – California Zephyr – memories and wonders of train travel

This was a post I wrote in February after our wonderful vacation over the 3 day long weekend we had for the Martin Luther King Day. I am glad I still had this in my drafts to post now for my Travel Thursday post..  

Travelling by train the weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday in February brought back wonderful memories of my childhood in India. We loved vacations when we would travel by train to visit our relations – 2 trains and about 20 hours of train travel involving loads of fun, eating our meals and sleeping in the train. We would fight to sleep on the upper berths of the train and dad would tie an old saree or a bed sheet across the outer edge hoping that would prevent us from falling off and then stay awake most of the night making sure we did not fall off while we slept to the sounds and motions of the train. I relived at least part of this experience this weekend – we took the California Zephyr from Sacramento to Reno – and wow, it was wonderful. Awesome sights, a relaxing journey, and the train itself combined to make this a great trip.

August 2020 updates: I will certainly add specific updates to this soon (for prices/other details); but I am guessing the best aspects of the trip remain unchanged!!

Stages of the trip


Once we decided we wanted to travel by train,(staff at the Railroad museum recommended the trip), we booked the tickets online at Amtrak.com. We booked Reserved Coach seats on the upper level for a one-way trip from Sacramento to Reno.

Amtrak offers discounts for AAA members and other discounts as well so check that out while booking the tickets. With AAA discounts, the price for four coach tickets (2 adult and 2 children) came up to $185. We got an email confirmation, which we printed out. The bar code in our email confirmation is needed to pick up tickets at various QuikTrak booths in any Amtrak station.

Our plan was to pick it up the day of our journey. We next booked a car rental from Enterprise for pickup at the Reno airport (we planned to use the hotel shuttles to go to the airport) and this was again a one-way rental with drop-off at the Sacramento airport.

Our last booking was for hotel rooms and we got a great deal at the Silver Legacy (which is two blocks away from the train station!). We also asked our friends if they were interested and since they were, we were ensured company for all of us (they had two kids as well, 3 and 8 years old, for our kids – 5 and 8 years old).  

The train trip

We headed off to Sacramento on Sunday morning from San Jose, CA by car around 7.30 am. We reached the Sacramento station around 9.45 am (which is the normal no-traffic time to get there). While the two dads parked the car at the station parking lot, (parking is a really low price of $9 per day and you can call a specified number to extend the parking time if you are delayed), we got the tickets at the QuikTrak machine. This was simple – just scan the barcode – and your tickets are printed for you to pick up. After picking up some coffee and snacks at the Starbucks next door, we headed off to wait for the train.

Sacramento station

The train was a few minutes late but as it rolled in, the excitement in everyone’s faces was a wonderful sight. The conductor asked all passengers to Reno to board a specific coach. We were the last to board since we had four kids in tow and the conductor told us he could not find eight seats together for us in the reserved coach. He asked us to put our luggage in the luggage racks (which are situated in the lower level) and sit it in the viewing gallery until he could arrange for the seats together.

Yay! the train is here
Viewing gallery

The viewing gallery itself is a wonderful sight, let alone the beautiful sights it allows us to see. Huge windows all along the coach and windows curving at the top give you an unfettered view of the passing scenery – and the scenery along this route is amazing. The conductor gave all the kids a paper cutout of the train so they could build a train model and that kept them occupied and amused as much as the scenery for the rest of the journey. The conductor soon came to us and told us he had found us seats together and we could go there whenever we wished. The viewing gallery is a place where anyone in the train can come by and sit down for some time to enjoy the view! 

Reserved Coach Seats: Upper Level

We spent about 2 hours in the viewing gallery before heading off to our reserved seats. These seats are comfortable and have ample leg space. Everyone took short naps though I could not sleep. My click-happy finger kept clicking the camera (my mom, as always, noted that I must have spent all my time with the camera!). 


We went through tunnels, much to the excitement of the kids, and after the third one, I told the kids that we should keep a count. By the time we reached Reno, we had passed through 33 tunnels (give or take 2)! The longest one lasted over 5 minutes and was totally fun.


The train goes parallel to I-80 for most of the route; we saw the road winding below us until towards the end where we were on level with the road. The views, therefore, are the same as you would see from the road; but the perspective is different, and at some points, you are at the very top of the mountains – just amazing! We saw deer, skiers who were cross country-skiing, ski lifts going past us, a park ranger with his dog, quaint little towns, and miles of amazing, glistening mountains with snow, that had just fallen a day ago.


They have snacks and refreshments you can buy as well as a superb dining car. Food is good though a little expensive. We had chosen to take some food along with us and we ate that at lunchtime. The kids wanted to walk back and forth in the train. This was a novel experience for them, since air travel definitely does not allow them that privilege. 


The train stopped a couple of times at crossings to let other incoming trains pass by. With all those stops, we finally reached Reno at 4.30 pm (about 30 minutes after the scheduled time). When we realized the hotel was only two blocks away, we decided to walk there. And there was a walkway above the station. The air was crisp and fresh, and perfect for a walk after hours in the train.

As we walked away, we decided we will definitely take the Zephyr again; for a longer trip next time (maybe all the way to Chicago! at least to Denver). 

Note: Since this was a five hour trip during the day, we only bought coach seats. The train also has sleepers for longer/overnight trips.

Note 2: We have taken the Coastline from San Jose to Seattle about 9 years ago before the kids. This is a 24 hour journey one-way; we had booked the smallest sleeper car the train has on the way to Seattle and the coach seats on the way back. We found that the coach seats were more comfortable! That is one other reason why I will book the larger sleeper rooms the next time we travel by train.

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