A Rail Menu to Savour

Nigel Heath takes a trip across the USA on the famous California Zephyr

Do you want grits?… the steward asked my travelling companion Peter and I. We were seated in the dining car of the famous California Zephyr, the passenger train that runs all the way across the USA from New York, to Chicago,on the shores of Lake Michigan, and then on to San Francisco on the Pacific coast.

What on earth were ‘grits’ we both wondered only to be told this was a savoury side dish made from corn so we happily tried a portion. Grits may no longer be served but this fabulous Federally funded Amtrak railway journey across seven states and three time zones should be on today’s menu for anyone who loves long distance train travel.

And if you happen to enjoy chatting to people then you’ll have the perfect opportunity of meeting Americans from all walks of life who will mostly be boarding and later leaving the train at intervals all along the way.

For they will be your chance, breakfast, lunch and dinner companions unless you happen to occupy a whole table as a party of four. Our 2,438 mile rail road ride began in late afternoon at Chicago’s aptly named Grand Union Station with its lofty marbled spaces with us wandering uncertainly along the platform amid all the hustle and bustle looking for our carriage. We eventually located it just a couple of cars along from the restaurant, so that was a bit of luck. We’d booked a cabin complete with comfortable chairs facing a large picture window from which we’d be able to watch America go by and complete with two pull down bunks and a small toilet and shower.

It was April and there were still patches of snow on the ground as we pulled out of Chicago and began gathering speed and I savoured that unmistakeable tinge of excitement at the prospect of all that was to follow over the next couple of days. In the first few hours, we past from Illinois into Iowa and over the mighty Mississippi River towards a molten sunset as prairie barns, lonely diners, and nameless townships went flashing by. While we slept, our Zephyr moved on through Omaha and then crossed the Nebraska line as we gained another state and lost an hour and watches changed to Mountain Time.

We savoured more expansive views from the dining car the following morning as the Zephyr forged steadily on across the plains under clear blue skies towards Denver, Colorado. I was raised in the Western cowboy movie era where the city with its marshalling yards was the destination for all the big cattle droves so the very name Denver held a boyhood fascination for me. Today this is the famous modern ‘mile high’ city of the plains but if you wanted to leave the train for a couple of days, you’d find plenty of reminders of the old West in the city’s Larimer Square which features landmark buildings of the 19th century.

We hopped off the train to stretch our legs for a few minutes but then it was back onboard to enjoy perhaps the most spectacular day of the trip from the Zephyrs domed observation car. For Denver is on the edge of the Rocky Mountains and soon we were winding our way ever upwards through a series of tunnels and open passes with stunning views over now snowy mountainous landscapes. We paused in a siding amid the pines to let a freight train go rattling by before entering the six mile Moffat Tunnel and then hurtling out into the blinding light of an alpine scene. Soon we were passing down the lovely Fraser Canyon with hoof prints of deer on the snowy banks and then on to Granby, gateway to the national park. Here we joined the famous Colorado River and followed it as it contoured around the pine clad Rockies passing time and again over the fast flowing river with its mini rapids and tiny pebble beaches. Late afternoon brought us down to Glenwood Springs and more memories of the old West for it was here that Doc Holiday, gambler, gunfighter, dentist and friend of Wyatt Earp is buried. He survived the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral with a bullet graze, only do die in his bed of tuberculosis.

Now we bade farewell to The Rockies and while we ate in the dining car our bunks were pulled out by unseen hands and made ready for the night. Utah was reached unseen and then discarded as we powered on towards a Nevada dawn and the changing of our watches from Mountain to Pacific Time. We shared our breakfast table with two bearded Amish men on their way to San Francisco to sell their home made quilts as we journeyed on across dusty windswept Nevada plains and sage brush lands heading for the Sierra Nevada range. Our stops included Elco and Winnemucca, whose claim to fame is that its bank was robbed by Butch Cassidy back in 1900. The snow was falling as we were served lunch looking out on yet another alpine scene but soon we were up and over the Sierra Nevada range, via the Donnor Pass, and heading for Sacramento across sunlit green and pleasant California plains. It was growing dark as we finally pulled into Emeryville, climbed down from the train and boarded a bus to take us over the vast Bay Bridge and at last into San Francisco, now ablaze with welcoming lights.


For a complete holiday package, including flights from the UK, to ride on the California Zephyr, or sample any other great US rail adventures, call Amtrak Vacations on 0203 327 3500. As these holidays are tailor made but the basic price, excluding flights for two hotel nights in Chicago, two nights on the train in reclining seats and two night’s accommodation in San Francisco is £519. If you wanted to stopover in Denver visit colorado.com.

Nigel’s travel journey

Freelance travel writer Nigel Heath, a regular contributor to Northern Ireland Travel News, has just published a collection of more than 40 of his world wide walking and travel adventures. His first adventure began, aged just 17, he bought a one way rail ticket to Lisbon with no idea how he would get home again.

Also included are visits to Tasmania, New Zealand, Southern India, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica and the Arctic as well as two classic railway journeys across America and several voyages. Readers will also encounter his mischievous little friend The Cosmic Joker, who has been sitting on his shoulder during this journey along life’s highway and learn how some amazing coincidences have also had their part to play.

‘A Wander Through My Life,’ published on Amazon Kindle Store, also tells how early childhood influences growing up in a Victorian seaside town, set the pattern for his journey and the circumstances leading to his becoming a journalist and what happened after that.