Riding the California Zephyr from Salt Lake to Chicago

December 8-10
We recently spent 36 hours on a train traveling from Salt Lake City to Chicago and lived to tell the tale. Why a train and why Chicago? Well…why not? The idea began forming when we decided to fly east to visit family for the holidays. Instead of simply flying back and forth we decided to make an adventure of it. An adventure that eventually grew to include three plane rides, an overnight on a train, and several car trips.

The adventure began at 3 am in Salt Lake City when we boarded the train. Wait, no scratch that — the adventure really began earlier that day when we packed up everything we would need for three weeks, winterized the Airstream and left it behind at a storage lot in St. George, Utah.

When you’re used to traveling with your whole house, packing for three weeks is no easy task
Goodbye house

From there we drove to the St. George Airport and hopped on a plane to Salt Lake City. St. George is the best kind of airport with only one gate and very few flights each day. Going through security took about 30 seconds. We arrived in Salt Lake around 8 pm with many, many hours to kill until it was time to get on the train. Our first stop was Red Iguana for dinner.

Red Iguana
Sooo good!

SLC has a great network of public transportation and for only a few bucks each were able to hop on the light rail train at the airport and ride it to within a block of the restaurant. After a short wait outside under the heat lamps, we were seated and munching on chips and salsa. Red Iguana is known for their mole sauce so, of course, we each tried a different one. Delicious!

Red Iguana - Salt Lake City, Utah
Mole Verde and Enchiladas with Mango Mole

The only problem with dinner was that it didn’t take long enough. By 9:30 we were finished eating and back out on the street. What now? It’s cold there in December which limited our desire to walk around. We were also not sure how accommodating places like a movie theater or bar would be with our large backpacks so we decided to head straight the train station to sit and wait…for five hours. At least it was warm in there.

Amtak Station - Salt Lake City, Utah
This was our view for five hours – and no neither of us fell asleep

Finally, around 3:15 the train rolled into the station and we boarded our home for the next 36 hours.

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All aboard the California Zephyr

Since we would be spending so much time on the train we opted for a roomette with two seats that converted into bunk beds for sleeping. It was tiny! And when someone who lives in a rolling house that’s less than 200 sq. ft. says the accommodations are tiny, you know they must be really, really tiny.

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Our roomette converted into day mode

I guess I never took a photo of our room with the seats converted into beds. Here it is in day mode. The two seats face each other with just enough room for legs in the middle and flip-up table.

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Just enough room for two

At night the seats lay flat to make the bottom bed, and a platform with a foam pad flips down from the ceiling to make the tiny little top bunk. Guess who got to sleep up there?

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Our roomette from the hallway

In a perfect world, we would have boarded the train, climbed into bed and fallen asleep immediately. I mean, it was 3:30 in the morning. Expect sleeping on a train is not quite as fun as it sounds. The constant motion should lull you to sleep right? Wrong! Riding on a train is anything but smooth. The train was constantly jerking and making sudden shifting motions that left me feeling like I was in danger of rolling out of my two-foot wide top bunk. After freaking out a bit and feeling like I might never get to sleep again, I finally dozed off around 6:00, which meant I had been awake for about 24 hours. As someone who doesn’t function well without a solid eight hours of sleep and is normally in bed before 10, it was a very loooong night.

California Zephyr
Our roomette was in the last train car and just outside our door was a window looking back on the tracks. Not a view you get to see every day.

After what felt like only five minutes of sleep I was awoken by a cheery voice over the loudspeaker.

“Good Morning passengers!” The Dining car is now open for breakfast. We will be serving….” 

Which was followed by an announcement from the Cafe Car. There was no way we were getting up for breakfast that early. I must have fallen back asleep because only a little while later I was awoken again by the same announcement, and then again by a final call for breakfast around 8:30. Okay, okay, we’re getting up.

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Morning in the dining car…somewhere in Utah

All meals are included with the roomette fee which is a nice change from other methods of travel. It was by no means a gourmet meal, but after the long night and only a few hours of sleep, it was nice to have some hot (microwaved) food.

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Amtrak breakfast
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The very nice, very chipper waitress insisted on taking our photo – this is us after only 2 hours of sleep

Breakfast was immediately followed by a much needed morning nap. The seats in our room were surprisingly comfortable, and unlike the few hours I spent fearing for my safety on the top bunk, the movement of the train was not bothersome while in a semi-seated position.

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Sleeping beauty

We both slept for a few hours and woke up feeling refreshed and ready for lunch. Life on a train is pretty much all about sleeping, watching out the window and eating. Not a bad way to travel really. While we had the dining car almost to ourselves during breakfast, lunch was much busier. To save on tablespace any groups smaller than four are seated with other people. We sat with a really nice couple from Reno who were on their way to Denver to see a football game. They could have flown, but like us, they wanted to make an adventure of it. After lunch, we spent a few hours in the viewing car.

California Zephyr
Big windows and comfortable seats make this the ultimate place to view the scenery

It took us all day to travel across Colorado and for much of the journey the tracks followed alongside the Colorado River. Tim was a little disappointed because he had been looking forward to seeing more snow, but I was thrilled by the early winter-like scenery.

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After a few hours of viewing, we retired to our room for more naps. The train made frequents stops throughout the day and occasionally it would stop long enough for the passengers to get off and take a breath of fresh air. I never left the train but Tim did a few times.

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Winterpark, Colorado

Sometime in the early evening, we pulled into the Denver train station.

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Union Station in Denver

And then it was time for another meal. Dinner is a bit more formal on the train with reservations required (which just means you pick a 5:30 or 7:00 seating time), cloth napkins and real silverware. Once again the food was mediocre at best, but we had an enjoyable conversation with our table companions. They were both single guys a bit younger than us. One was traveling all the way from San Fransisco to Buffalo, NY for a family visit and since he had a few extra days decided to try out the train. That is a really long way to travel by train and it sounded like he had already decided to fly on the way back. The other guy was on a work trip, missed his fight and was piecing together bus and train travel to reach his destination. I’m not usually a fan of dining with strangers, but it was interesting to hear the reasons why other passengers choose to travel by train.

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Dining car

Back in our room, the steward had converted our seats into beds and we attempted to recline on the bottom bunk while watching something on Tim’s computer. It was bit cramped down there. Eventually, I made my way to the top bunk for another night of rocking and rolling as the train bumped through the night. We woke to another early morning call for breakfast. This time we decided to skip it and munch on our stash of snacks instead (bringing a big bag of snacks on the train is a must). In the night we had passed through all of Nebraska and were now making our way through Iowa. Neither of us had ever been to Iowa and what we saw didn’t exactly encourage us to go back and explore farther.

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This is Iowa
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More Iowa

The train was due to arrive in Chicago around three in the afternoon. We passed the time mostly in our room watching out the window and using the internet when our cell service allowed. At this point, the thrill of train travel had worn off and we were both ready to be done with this part of the journey. Yes, it was nice to have someone else take care of the driving and navigating and it was fun to watch the scenery roll past, but I missed my own bathroom (the train bathrooms are old and kind of nasty) and was craving some halfway decent food. Needless to say, when the train pulled into the Chicago station about half an hour early we were thrilled.

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An employee helps navigate as the train backs into the station

In the end, I’m happy that I can now say I have experienced long-distance train travel…but I don’t think I would do it again anytime soon. Maybe on a newer, more modern, less clunky, less run-down and faster train. I’m not exactly sure how old these trains are, but they seem to be a little worn around the edges. From the half broken table in our room, the frayed upholstery, the single outlet that barely worked, the really old and kind of gross bathrooms, and the low-end chain restaurant style food, the whole experience felt a little rough around the edges.

None of this surprised me and I certainly didn’t go into the experience expecting luxury accommodations, but it still got to me by the second day. It also made me realize how good us RVers have it. To have your whole house with you at all times might just be the most luxurious kind of travel.

We made it Chicago!

Oh, I almost forgot! I have one more thing to share. It’s not related at all the train travel, but it does apply to many of you. I know a lot of you are contemplating your own full-time RV lifestyle. Some are still in the dreaming stage, some planning to launch in few years, and some anxiously awaiting a start date months or years from now. Wherever you are on your path to full-time RVing chances are you have questions — lots of them. And with so much information floating around out there, it’s hard to know what to believe and who to trust.

I do my best to share our version of full-timing and answer any questions that come our way, but this blog has always been more about sharing and less about teaching. Which is why I am now thrilled to be able to recommend a brand new course all about learning to live full-time in an RV!

The course is run by our friends Kerensa & Brandon of the website RV to Freedom. In addition to a popular Facebook page and informative website, they have recently launched their Roadmap to Full-Time RVing online course just in time for the holidays!

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I don’t often promote products or events here. I prefer this to be a personal space about our own journey and have no interest in shilling out portable ice makers or frozen burger patties (seriously, someone actually emailed us with a request to review their frozen meat patties). So the fact that I’m even mentioning this course speaks to how much I believe in it.

Kerensa and Brandon are the real deal. Not only are they awesome people, but they are also experienced RVers who are genuinely interested in sharing their knowledge with you.

The course includes all of this and more:

  • 8 Modules that will take you through the process of being a dreamer to becoming a full-time RVer. Examples are Preparing for Life on the Road, Choosing the right RV for you, Daily life od a Full-Timer and more.
  • Videos, audio, and written transcripts of all the content.
  • Worksheets and resource sheets.

This is a done-with-you course. They will be with you every step of the way in a student-only Facebook group along with weekly live question and answer sessions to make sure no one is left behind.

If this sounds like something that interests you, head on over to the RV to Freedom website to learn more about the course and sign up today. I’m a little behind on posting this so you only have a few more days to sign up. The course is only open for enrollment until Saturday, December 23 at midnight so sign up soon!

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17 Responses to “Riding the California Zephyr from Salt Lake to Chicago”


  1. Marty

    I love this blog post as I’m a lover of train travel and I plan to take the train across the US especially the northern route to Washington State. Great blog post and enjoy the family. Happy holidays! :-)

    • Amanda

      It certainly is an excellent way to watch the scenery go by. I would imagine the northern route to Washington state is very beautiful. Happy holidays to you as well!

  2. Laurel

    Thanks for doing that train trip so that I don’t have to! :-)) You both looked amazingly good after only two hours of sleep. Enjoy your holidays with family!

    • Amanda

      Yup, we took one for the team :) There must have been good lighting in the dining car because when I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror that day I was frightened!

      • Laurel

        I’ve always thought train travel sounds so romantic — but I was wondering about the whole sleeping/food scene. So I really do appreciate your truthful account. We’re still thinking one of these days to take the train down the California Coast, but it would be a short trip. Love that you guys try all kinds of adventures!

  3. Jeff

    I like trains but am not all that sure about what hygiene is available, lots of conflicting commentary on that. We bought our little RV for the adventure of travel, but not to live in it full time. The same as Snowbirds we go north in the summer and return home to San Diego in the winter. However the train does offer some vistas not available to travel on the roadways. Good for you for going for it! Merry Christmas!

    • Amanda

      I too questioned the hygiene aspect of the train – as I do with all methods of public transportation. Needless to say, we used a LOT of hand sanitizer! Winter in San Diego and north in the summer sounds wonderful. We love SD and hope to return for a visit sometime this winter. Merry Christmas to you as well!

  4. Betty

    Your trip reminds me not to use the “easy-peasy train ride from Richmond to D.C.” as a real guide!!! Decades ago I traveled with my mother from VA to FL for a wedding and knew even then that another long train trip would not be in my future – was done with the whole thing after 4 hours! Your descriptions were great and confirm that you guys are really hardy souls!

    • Amanda

      While I really loved the scenery, the sleeping aspect was a bit too difficult for me. VA to FL sounds like a long train trip!

  5. Sherry

    Just love that you created such an adventure to go east to visit family. Didn’t realize you’d have to “winterize” in SLC. Was 3:30am your only choice for the train? 5 hours awake in a train station sounds like an unfortunate preamble to the ride itself. You are so right that sleeping on a train always sounds so soothing. Glad to know the truth before I do it. You sure look better after 2 hours of sleep than I would. Wonder where the chipper waitress slept? Gorgeous scenery out the windows. Really sorry to hear about how run down the train was. I remember my grandmother talking about how wonderful the train was when she rode it in the 20’s. People seem to like Canadian trains too. Seems a mistake for the country to have abandoned the trains.

    • Amanda

      We left the RV in St. George where the nighttime temps have been hovering around the freezing point most nights. It warms up during the day so we probably would have been okay without winterizing, but the thought of returning to burst pipes was enough to make us go through the extra effort. There are a number of places we could have gotten on and in retrospect, we probably should have picked Grand Junction at 9am, but at the time we planned to drive to the station and it was the closest. Good question about the chipper waitress! I would guess that she is much more used to sleeping on a train than we are. I have also heard good things about the Canadian trains. Maybe someday we will try it out!

  6. Jill

    We are certainly missing another photo… Tim’s long legs under that tiny table between your seats!
    I love train travel and this didn’t deter me – and now dogs are allowed on Amtrak, so I don’t have to sneak (um, what, Purl was on Amtrak for days, huh? LOL)
    Enjoy the holidays! ~jill and Logan

  7. Deb

    No, we’ve almost no snow in Colorado – which probably accounts for my lack of Christmas spirit/joy this year. Happy Holidays!

  8. David B

    As an old retired railroader I enjoyed the story…..David B

  9. Kat

    Fifty-five years ago I rode the train from Utah to Washington DC to go to college, but because I was on my Dad’s railroad pass I was on a slooooow train that stopped at each tiny town and I had only a seat – no berth. Was a lot of fun and I did it twice more for my Christmas break. I flew from then on! For the past 20 years I have driven my Rialta RV around on genealogy jaunts to the places in NY, PA, MI, MA, NJ and eastern Canada my ancestors inhabited. Guess which is my fav way to travel???? I’ll be adding another 8,000 this summer to the 50,000 I have driven it solo , boondocking 90% of the time as I visit archives, libraries, courthouses and cemeteries. RVing makes this possible.

  10. Tammie

    We took our Boy Scout troop on Amtrak from Birmingham, AL to Washington, DC, a 19 hour trip. Not so easy to sleep in the coach class seats, especially since the car stayed well-lit all night. If you did manage to doze off, the train horn sounded at every crossroad, which was pretty frequently on that route.

  11. Celena

    Love that you did this – we’ve always talked about a long train trip. It’s good to hear the real experience though. I wish train travel was still how they show it in movies like North by Northwest!


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