One thing that I have always been wanting to do was a cross country Amtrak trip across America. I spent the winter working at a ski resort in the Tahoe Area from November to April, and when it came time to go back home to New York, I thought that this would be the perfect time to do just that, riding from May 1st to May 4th 2023. I heard that the California Zephyr was one of the most beautiful train routes in North America. I had the flexibility to do this as I was just going home without a schedule. It was basically taking a plane ride that could of been just about 5 hours to a journey to about 72 hours! There is also no wifi on the California Zephyr, but wifi on the Lake Shore Limited. There were also sometimes on the California Zephyr where there were no service as well. Check out my Amtrak blog, What I learned on my 72 hour coach Amtrak trip to see tips for your upcoming trip!
The whole Cross Country Amtrak ride took about 71 hours and 30 minutes from Reno, Nevada to New York Penn Station. The first segment was on the 6 California Zephyr which took 50 hours and 28 minutes from Reno to Union Station in Chicago. There was a delay of 5 hours and 44 mins that cut my 6 hours and 40 minutes transfer at Chicago to just under an hour. The delays happen because passenger trains are lowest priority when prioritizing the rails. The second segment was on the 48 Lake Shore Limited which lasted 20 hours and 12 minutes, being perfectly on time.
As a 23-year-old smaller Asian female, I was at first a little worried about safety, but during the whole Cross Country Amtrak ride, there wasn’t a single time I didn’t feel safe. Everyone who was riding the train seemed very laid back and were slower paced. I didn’t have many chances to talk to others, but the ones I did were genuinely very friendly and was enjoying their experience on the train. No one was rushing to get anywhere and were riding the trains for the experience. Sometimes, people pick the train over plane even though plane rides can be cheaper, which in my case it was. Plane tickets were around $150 and Amtrak was around $200, but I wanted to experience something new and see parts of America that I wouldn’t been able to see. I had travel a good amount outside of America, but I never really had the chance to travel within the country that I was born and lived in!
A great thing about Amtrak is the their Amtrak baggage policy, and the amount of luggage that can be brought on. The Amtrak baggage policy is that each traveler can check up to 4 Checked bags (2 free and 2 at $20 per bag) up to 50 lbs. and 75 linear inches, and 2 carry-on items up to 50 lbs. and 28 x 22 x 14 inches each with an additional 2 personal items up to 25 lbs. and 14 x 11 x 7 inches each. This totals into 6 bags for free! Checked baggage is only available on certain stations. To read more about the bag policy, read here. A plane wont be able to beat this amount of luggage!
I also made sure to bring plenty of snacks for the long ride to avoid having to pay for the expensive Traditional Dining cart. I brought many flavors of beef jerky and crackers as well as snacks like goldfish, sour patch kids and chips. It is $20 for breakfast, $25 for 2-course lunch, and $45 for a 3-course dinner. The dinner meal includes 1 complimentary alcoholic drink, and all meals include unlimited complimentary non-alcoholic drinks. I also also brought a gallon water since I was picky with water and wasn’t sure what the water situation was on board. Even though they did provide small water bottles, I was very happy with my decision of bringing a huge water bottle for the Cross Country Amtrak trip.
Day 1 California to Nevada
Amtrak 6 California Zephyr
(Segment 1 of my Cross Country Amtrak)
It was a bittersweet goodbye after working at Kirkwood Ski Resort in California for the winter season. Kirkwood Ski Resort is located about 45 minute drive south from South Lake Tahoe. From Kirkwood Reno and Sacramento is about the same distance, but I decided to ride the train starting from Reno as it passes through Gardnerville and Carson City and makes for a more scenic route. To Reno it about an hour and 45 minute drive. We left around 1:30pm and headed out of California to Downtown Reno, Nevada towards the Amtrak Station.
After a few pit stops, we arrived at the Amtrak Train Station in Reno at 3:24 pm about 40 minutes before the train was going to arrive at the station. Although I went on the train from Nevada, since I started my journey and day from California, I like to think that this was a cross country trip from California to New York. I was prepared for waiting since I knew delays were common, but as I was tracking the train status on RailRat, it seemed like everything was going as planned. Even though I have been to Reno a couple of times, I have never been to the downtown area, so it was cool to see the area a little bit beforehand.
The station is small and right when I entered, the front desk area was there to help me with my checked luggage. I checked in my suitcase and my ski bag (as long as it is under 76cm, ski bags can be checked in for free). This is the ski bag that I used from Amazon! There were no other customers in this area and everything was done very speedy. They also checked and made sure my check-in bags were not over the 50 pound limit, but did not weight my carry on.
After they checked in my luggage, they gave me and told me to hold on to this Passenger claim check and that I needed this to retrieve my luggage in Penn Station, NYC. He also let me know that my luggage will be transferred from the California Zephyr to the Lake Shore Limited on its own, like a plane.
The waiting area was located in the basement and was accessible through an elevator. The area was small and the conductor came and one by one went over to see everyone’s tickets and gave everyone a piece of paper to indicate where we were getting off. He also told us which cart to get on from when the train comes onto the platform. There were maybe a total of 20 people at this stop.
At 4:06pm, the train came right on time and was officially the start of my Cross Country Amtrak trip. Reno is really interesting because it’s the only station on the California Zephyr with the platform being underground. Did you know that Reno is 4,500 feet above sea level? At this point, the California Zephyr has already been running from Emeryville for about 7 hours. As the time got closer, I headed outside the waiting area, and walked all the way to the last cart, and boarded from there.
The lower floor had a space where you can put your heavier luggage right when you walked in between the bathrooms and the lower-level seats. I made sure that the luggage I put there wasn’t anything important in case it would go missing.
The seats are first come, first and I read online that the right side of the train is recommended as that’s where the prettier sights are. There are 11 carts in total, and in order from front to back, 2 for power, a baggage cart, 3 sleeper carts, a dinner cart, a sightseer lounge, and 3 coach trains.
The seats were honestly much better than I expected. Upper-level seat seats provide panoramic views and direct access to the next car, while lower-level seats provide closer access to the restrooms and do not require the use of stairs since they are on the boarding level. They also feel more private as there aren’t people going through carts.
There are only 2 outlets per row below the window. If you know you will need to use more outlets, get a Multi-Plug Outlet Extender!
I’m 5’0 and there was a lot of legroom for me. I couldn’t even reach the leg-rest in front of me. You can also raise the bottom part of the chair to make the seat longer and more comfortable. There is also a tray table in front.
Since I was in the last cart on the upper-level seat, I had to go through two carts every time I went and came back from the sightseer lounge. It was a little annoying having to go back and forth and having people stare as I walk down the aisle, but sitting in the back of the last cart was nice since there was no foot traffic, and if felt pretty secluded.
The paper that is sticking out under the overhead luggage lets others know where that seat is getting off. The location is abbreviated to 3 letters. Since I was getting off in Chicago, the paper above me wrote CHI.
The bathrooms were cleaner than expected, and remained clean throughout the next 40 hours. The 3 coach carts had each 3 bathrooms on the lower room and was always stocked with toilet paper, tissues and soap.
Right after boarding at around 4:25 pm, I headed straight to the sightseer lounge to check out the cart and layout. It was so nice and relaxing, and not crowded at all! The amount of natural light that came in was really nice and the atmosphere felt like a big living room.
The lounge had a little area where the free amenities were. Guests can take as many as they want. The snack bag had a purell Wipe, Brownie Brittle, Mini Pretzels, and Fruit Snacks. Considering they have a whole snack bar under the cart, I thought it was really kind of them to give us some free snacks.
One of the first cities we passed through after the train took off from Reno was Sparks, Nevada. The 2020 U.S. Census counted 108,445 residents in the city which is the fifth most populous city in Nevada.
We then passed through a few more smaller cities and it was really cool to see these places that I would not see otherwise. I enjoyed being able to take a quick glimpse of people’s lives out there.
Most of the rail was next to the interstate highway. There weren’t too many regular passenger cars and mostly all big semis that seemed like delivering packages throughout America. I would often pick one semi and follow it and see how long we would be next to each other. It seemed like we were practically going the same speed as the semis.
Our first rest stop was Winnemucca, Nevada. Rest stops are stops where we are at the station for about 5 mins in which you can step out of the train to stretch your legs or have a smoke break, but not enough time to go off the platform. There aren’t too many rest stops on the trips, so I tried to take every opportunity that was given to step out of the train and get some fresh air. Once the train is ready to take off, they blow the horn and the train attendants yell “All abroad” and make sure that everyone on the platform is back on the train.
Sunset happened a little bit past Winnemucca and it was a great way to see off the sun. The whole sky didn’t have a single cloud and it was so nice to see the sky changing colors while the sun went behind mountains and then reappeared.
After it got dark, I went back to my seat and got comfy. I am so glad that I read somewhere that it’s a good idea to bring a pillow and blanket with you to carry on. This is the one I used from Amazon, and it was the perfect size. It really made a huge difference and made my seat more homey and comfortable to sit and relax on. I think I only saw about 10% of people doing this, but I remember seeing a lady with a full-on duvet.
Our next rest stop was at Elko, Nevada. Elko is the largest city between Salt Lake City and Reno, located along Interstate 80. The platform was a little tight but it was a nice way to get one more breather before going to sleep.
From 10:00pm to 7am is Amtrak’s quiet hours. The lights got dim, and the conductor announced through the loudspeaker for everyone to be quiet. He also let us know that there will be no announcements as to which stops are next until morning. Sleeping was comfortable since I had both seats to myself and lay fully flat down. Good night Nevada!
Day 2 – Utah to Colorado
I woke up to the sounds of people getting on board and talking at 4:45am in Salt Lake City, Utah. At this point, we were an hour and 18 minutes late, and just the beginning of the huge delays we had throughout the trip. The guy in the seat in front of me was talking to the lady across from him about where she was going and about the train. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I grabbed some snacks and went to check out the sightseer lounge, although it was almost 5am, there were 2 other people chilling in there.
As I was sitting in the seat, I kept going in and out of sleep for the next hour. As I was actually starting to wake up, sunlight started coming into the train and the sun came up at around 6:30 am. As we kept going up the elevation, some traces of snow were popping up. It felt so weird to see some snow since I thought I left that all back at Kirkwood. It follows me everywhere!
At this point, I’m finally fully awake and we make a quick stop at Helper, Utah. This area is called Helper because “helper” locomotives would stand in readiness to aid trains traveling up the steep terrain that we just passed through!
During this Cross Country Amtrak trip, we saw a good amount of wildlife from the trains from Elks, deer, bears, and cows. Right around here is when we found out that we were going to be very delayed. We were about 100 miles from Grand Junction and were told that we will be stuck at the Grand Junction station for hours due to a mudslide that covered the tracks that prevented us from going through it.
One of the first very first scenic areas that we passed through was Ruby Canyon, a 25-mile (40 km) long canyon on the Colorado River located on the Colorado-Utah border. This canyon is only accessible through rail and rafting. Although it was very beautiful, the whole sightseer lounge was filled with people asking the conductor about the delays and about people’s potentially missed connections.
The conductor said that the train will be held at Grand Junction, Colorado until around 6:30 pm. A total of 8 hour delay was predicted on top of the original 1-hour delay before we got to Grand Junction. The conductor said free lunch was provided for everyone, and people who wanted to leave the train can go out and explore, but had to come back by 4pm. The conductor made it very clear that we would not be moving before 4pm. I decided to walk around and explore the area and try some food. When will I ever really be able to take a look at a town in the middle of Colorado?
The station was luckily only a 15-minute walk to the downtown area. I was no prepared for the weather since it felt like summer and around 80 degrees. I was walking around sweating into my sweater. Since we knew about the long stop beforehand, I already had some places looked up and researched that I wanted to check out.
As I was walking by the street, I noticed a cozy-looking bagel shop and decided to give it a try. I saw it on my google maps beforehand and remembered it had good reviews. A New Yorker trying a bagel in Colorado, I just had too! Main Street Bagels is a family-run downtown bagel shop & bakery open since 1995 with a kids’ play area & art gallery. I got a Jalapeño bagel with herb smear. Of course, it wasn’t as good as New York Bagels, but it is New Yorker approved!
After relaxing at little bit at Main Street Bagels, I walked around the area and checked out a small bookstore and game store, and then headed to Enstrom Candies to check out their chocolates and ice cream. The interior of Enstrom Candies felt so grand and fancy with many different areas to buy different products. The ice cream area was all the way in the back. After trying some samples, I got the graham cracker and salted caramel flavor ice cream on a waffle cone. It was amazing how creamy they both were. The seating area was in front of the factory where I was able to the chocolatiers make toffee and chocolate through a glass partition.
While eating at Enstrom Candies, at around 2:00 PM I got an email saying that the train was going to be taking off earlier than expected. The email said “Hello! The route ahead has reopened, and your train is ready to depart. We’d like all customers to return to the train as soon as possible so that your travel can resume. We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused.” After getting that message, I speed walked back to the train and was genuinely confused if it was really for me. The conductor seemed very clear that it wasn’t until around 6:30, but I still headed back to the train.
As everyone was prepared to be away from the train for hours it seemed like some people went pretty far out or they weren’t getting the message to head back to the train. The train staff was doing head counts making sure that everyone was back on board. They were even calling all the people that they couldn’t find telling them to head back. It took a while, but after they accounted for everyone and no one was left behind, we departed at 4:36 PM.
As we departed Grand Junction we headed to the next stop, Glenwood Springs as we continue running beside the Colorado River. The snowmelt runoff was insane with the river going up right by the ground and the water being very muddy. We were also held up here for about 15 minutes for the opposite 5 California Zephyr train to pass us.
Right nearby the Glenwood Springs station, we passed through the aftermath of the mudslide. It wasn’t too bad, but the mountains and the surrounding were obviously run down and damaged by the mud. I’m glad that they were able to mainly get rid of the mud from the rail and we weren’t even more delayed.
We arrived at Glenwood springs at 4:50pm and had a short rest stop here. Glenwood Springs is a resort city known for its hot springs. It sits in the rugged Rocky Mountains, surrounded by the vast White River National Forest. While we were waiting for people to board back on the train, I overheard some people saying that the left side is going to have better views. From here I also switched from being at the right side of the train to the left. This was definitely the right choice.
At around 6:30pm I started to get hungry but didn’t want to pay $45 for dinner in the dining cart. Throughout the whole trip, I didn’t have the chance to check out the cafe that was located right under the sightseer lounge so this was the perfect chance to do so. I headed downstairs and I was actually surprised by the amount of food that was available here.
There were many different drinks, food and snacks to choose from. The hot selections were all microwave food but actually looked pretty good!
One of my friends mentioned that the hot dog was really good while on her Amtrak trip so I decided to give it a try. There were many different condiments packets that were free to take. The hot dog was delicious and filled me up!
The conductor pointed out that this is one of the prettiest parts of the ride and encouraged people to look outside or go to the observation cart. As we got higher in the canyon, it was so cool to see the landscape, and the Colorado river below us. The sunset was also making this experience a beautiful one.
We passed by a few rafters. It must be fun but also quite scary and secluded at times!
We arrived at Fraser-Winter Park for a longer rest break. The sun was basically set and we were 5 hours and 4 minutes late. It was a bummer that we were going to miss the prettiest part of the ride, the area around the Moffat Tunnel. When it was built in 1928, the Moffat Tunnel was the largest railroad tunnel in the Western Hemisphere at 6.2 miles. It was also the highest main line railroad ever built in the United States, reaching a height of 11,680 feet at the top of pass. Although it was completely dark outside, the conductor let us know when we were inside the tunnel.
We arrived at Denver, Union Station, Colorado pretty late at night. Everyone was mostly already asleep. It was about a 30 minute stop since it was a crew change station, but since it was so late, there was no reason to go off the platform. If we were to arrive at the station without the 5 hour delay, at around 6:30PM, it would of been nice to take a quick walk around the station. After a quick walk on the platform, I got back on the train and got comfy on my chairs and fell asleep.
Day 3 Nebraska to Chicago
After a nice long uninterrupted sleep, I woke up to the train being stopped at Omaha, Nebraska and we were still very delayed at 5 hours and 21 minutes. Apparently, there was a slight miscommunication with the staff at Lincoln, the station before Omaha, and we had to wait an hour at Lincoln.
The ride between Nebraska and Iowa was mostly just flat with nothing really interesting. It really made me realize how big America is, and how there’s just so much empty space and land. It also kinda made me think, why are we so cramped in New York when there’s so much land out here?
At around 1:05pm we were around the town of Afton in Iowa, and I decided to try the dining cart. With the insane delays, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have time to eat a Chicago style pizza in Chicago. Just in case I wouldn’t be able to get a real meal, I went over to the dining cart and had their Monte Cristo Grilled Sandwich. It had Honey Cured Ham, Turkey breast, swiss and cheddar, with a side of chips and a drink of my choice, in which I got the seltzer water.
Dessert was included in the price with the option of either a butter cake or a brownie. The butter cake was a little too sweet so I unfortunately couldn’t finish it. For this meal, I was seated in a 4 person booth with 3 other solo travelers and it seemed like I was the only one who ate in the dining cart and was part of the coach. After 2 days of not really talking to anyone, it was nice to have a little chat with others.
A rest break at Ottumwa, Iowa. This was my first one of the day since I woke up pretty late and it felt so nice to get fresh air in the perfect weather. The air in the train is definitely getting pretty stuffy, but it wasn’t noticeable when on the train.
We crossed the Mississippi River right next from the town of Burlington in Iowa across the border to Illinois. The river was so much wider than I imagined! Did you know that the widest part of the Mississippi can be found at Lake Winnibigoshish near Bena, MN, where it is wider than 11 miles?
We arrived at Galesburg, this was the home stretch, as we were just 3 stops away from Chicago. At this point, we were 6 hours and 2 minutes late. I already knew that the layover in Chicago would be about an hour if I was lucky.
Naperville was the last stop before Chicago and the last sunset on the California Zephyr. It was bittersweet seeing the sky turn people and knowing that I will have to part ways with Zephyr after a long 50 hours with it. This felt like a monumental moment of my Cross Country Amtrak trip.
On May 3rd exactly at 8:40pm, after 50 hours and 28 minutes hours, we finally arrived in Chicago, Illinois, with a delay of 5 hours and 44 minutes. The first segment of my Cross Country Amtrak trip done! A lot of people missed their connection and were told to go to the customer service booth to arrange a new transfer and a hotel for the night. My connection at 9:30pm was the only one that we didn’t miss. The lake shore limited was actually right across from the California Zephyr but it wasn’t boarding time yet.
The original 6-hour layover was turned short to a layover of just under an hour with the train departing from Chicago at 9:30 pm. Boarding started at around 9:00pm and I had a friend who came to the station and brought me some Chicago pizza from Giordano’s, a 5 minutes walk from Union station. We were supposed to hang out the whole day but this was the best that could of done in my situation. The boarding door closes at 9:25pm so I said bye to my friend and headed to the track at around 9:20 to get on the 48 lake shore limited.
Amtrak 48 Lake Shore Limited
(Segment 2 of my Cross Country Amtrak)
The whole journey on the Lake Shore Limited from Chicago to New York took 20 hours and 12 minutes, passing through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. From Albany in New York, half of the train goes to Boston while the other half runs down the Hudson River to Penn Station, New York.
The bathroom was noticeably not as clean as the Zephyr and although it was mostly kept clean throughout the ride, it consistently smelt pretty bad in there.
Since I boarded last, I unfortunately had to sit next to someone as there were no more seats that had both seats open due to it is a first come first serve. Amtrak has a no middle chair policy, so when sitting next to someone, it feels so much closer than it really is. There is no armrest to divide the seats, and the aisle space is pretty small. There was also wifi on the Lake Shore Limited which was great, coming from such a long ride with no wifi access. It was really a big difference from going from being able to completely laying down to sleeping airplane style, but I tried my best and tried to go to sleep.
Day 4 – Indiana to Penn Station
Overnight we passed by Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and we were already in New York. Since I was sitting in the aisle seat, I wasn’t able to take many pictures or see outside during this time. Everyone mostly had their curtains to cover the window and we not as laid back as the people on the Zephyr. Another thing that I also noticed how much faster the Lake Shore Limited was. Through online research it seems like the Lake Shore Limited runs on an average speed of 80 mph and the California Zephyr at 55 mph.
Our first major stop and rest break was at Syracuse, and a lot of people got off. I grabbed my ticket that wrote NYP and stuck it to a newly opened seat and gathered my stuff and sat in open seats where I can watch outside and enjoy the space.
The scenery was pretty much very similar throughout the whole ride, it was noticeably just dark and gloomy. The landscape was so different from the previous sunny days.
As we arrived at Albany-Rensselaer station, we crossed the Hudson and saw some people kayaking.
We arrived at Albany at 2:52pm and were told the train was going to be at the station until 4:10pm. This is when the train separates between Boston and NYC. We were also told that the food services will not be available for the New York-bound train as it will not be going to Penn Station with us. Since we had over an hour before the train was going to depart, I went out to grab something to eat nearby.
About a 5-minute walk from the Albany-Rensselaer was Son of Egg, a small Asian restaurant. I ordered the Tonkatsu and Thunder potato. It was a while since I had good Asian food so it was really nice. I also dined with 2 other riders who thought the same thing about eating out.
The train was running on time and departed from the Albany-Rensselaer station at 4:10pm. We ran along the Hudson River and saw many kayakers, fishing boats, islands, and lighthouses on the river.
On May 4th, 6:34pm, after a long 71 hours and 30 minutes, we finally arrived at our final destination, Penn Station at the Moynihan train hall station earlier than predicted! We completed the Cross Country Amtrak trip successfully! The right escalator up was hard to find as it was at the end of the platform, and I accidentally exited from the wrong escalator at first and exited to another area of Penn Station. After I asked a staff member and was pointed to the right way, I got to the new Moynihan train hall and followed the signs to baggage claim.
The baggage area was just like an airport with a conveyor belt-style luggage dispenser. I saw my suitcase and grabbed it and my ski bag was already at the counter, probably due to its large size. I gave them my luggage claim ticket and they made sure the numbers on the ticket aligned and then I was reunited with them.
Overall Experience of my Cross Country Amtrak trip
Spending 71 hours and 30 minutes on the train and doing a Cross Country Amtrak trip was something that I can now cross off my bucket list. It is something I recommend doing if you have time and wouldn’t mind if there were delays. Everyone on the train was very nice and relaxed, and everyone riding it was there for the experience. Check out my Amtrak blog, What I learned on my 72 hour coach Amtrak trip to see tips for your upcoming trip!
I really recommend that everyone does a Cross Country Amtrak at least once in their life. Although the no-shower part sucks and people were starting to get stinky, it was bearable. I was able to see so many sights that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, like the areas in the middle of America. Please do a Cross Country Amtrak trip if you have the chance!
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