A Totally Objective Guide to Riding the Rails through the American Southwest
American train travel has a reputation for being a bit of a joke, and it’s certainly not without its problems. Underinvestment, rolling stock that’s 40 years old, a messy network with huge gaps, and a dependence on freight lines that limit its speed and frequency are all factors which get in the way of having an extensive and heavily-used network like those found in much of Europe or Asia.
But critics who only look at American train travel through the lens of a spreadsheet on on-time arrivals miss something about what a serene and beautiful — if sometimes frustrating and bewildering — experience it can be.
The plan my girlfriend and I made to travel by rail between Denver and Seattle (via a few intermediate stops) emerged out of my far less ambitious suggestion that we spend a few days in Denver after my planned family visit in Southwest Colorado. It evolved into the sprawling continent-wide journey it did because it intersected with her planned trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia. She set off on VIA Rail (Canada’s train operator) nine days before we met up in Denver, and as a result, this account only covers the last third of what was frankly an even more interesting journey — but I’m the one with the Medium account, so if you want to hear about the joys of Schenectady, New York, you’ll need to read her Twitter thread.
I’ve intended this recap to be part diary, part fun observations, and part travel guide — for each leg I’ll be giving a few recommendations based on what we saw and experienced, but the nature of spending 24–36 hours in each place is that you’ll tend to miss stuff, so I wouldn’t by any stretch consider it definitive.
The Mile High City is one of those places that looks like an anomaly on a map — why does a city of nearly 3 million people exist so far from any of the coasts or, indeed, from any other major cities (it’s 600 miles to Phoenix or 550 to Kansas City)? Switching Google Maps to satellite view helps with this — it’s wedged right up against the Rocky Mountains, and would have been the last major stop before attempting to cross to the West Coast when it was founded in 1858. Oh, and the fact there was a gold rush there didn’t hurt, either.
I travelled from the extremely outlying suburb of Parker using the city’s surprisingly extensive light rail network (ten lines consisting of a mix of tram-style 1980s rolling stock and more traditional metro trains) and emerged at Union Station, a great reimagining of a classic building which underwent a major renovation finished in 2014.
Since Denver doesn’t actually see many intercity trains (one each way daily, travelling between the Bay Area and Chicago) most of the platforms serve the light rail system, and seeing trains arriving every few minutes helped give the place a sense of life that the half-empty old buildings that make up many western Amtrak stations can’t muster.
There’s also a bus station directly under the platforms, although the weird sense of train-riding Eloi with bus-riding Morlocks hiding underneath was hard to escape when I went down there to pick up a transit card for my collection.
Filling the space with restaurants, bars, shops and cafés helps too — especially when trains are either frequent like the light rail (keeping up a flow of commuters and travelers) or heavily delayed like the California Zephyr (creating a consumer base of the bored and hungry).
Downtown Denver is surprisingly pleasant and walkable for an American city, with plenty of pedestrianised areas and green space with trees if you wish to dodge out of the merciless July sunshine. A free bus service runs along 16th Street Mall, the central shopping area, and is useful if you want to get to the gold-domed Capitol Building without melting.
The rather strange constitutional nature of state legislatures in the US means that they’re very frequently not sitting (in Colorado’s case, they meet just four months of the year) which gives capitol buildings a strangely cold, dead air but does mean you can usually wander round unimpeded. To fill the space, Colorado’s has a pleasant collection of contemporary art in the basement, which serves as a nice break from all the gold leaf and columns.
I find that a lot of 19th-century and early 20th-century American buildings have a slightly desperate air of architectural try-hardism to them, as if to say “please God, Europe, take us seriously”. That’s why about 80% of the state capitols are basically identical, and it’s only the gold dome of Denver’s which makes it stand out — City Hall across the park from it is much the more interesting building.
I ate and drank in LoDo, a very bougie young professional sort of area full of renovated warehouses and brick buildings near the train station (it’s a contraction of Lower Downtown) which had a great array of bars and restaurants and gave me the typical freelance feeling that this was a place for people with salaries larger than mine. I caught up on work in a brewery near my hostel and grabbed a pizza from the van outside, which resulted in a strange (but quite endearing) encounter when a woman working in the back recognised my area code, and we had a chat about Seattle, where she was originally from.
I stayed in Hostel Fish in LoDo which was fine, with relatively comfortable beds and surprisingly pleasant showers, but accompanied by the usual hostel issues of late night disruption from people checking in or getting up at the crack of dawn to leave (I was my room’s villain on this occasion). But it was a bed for the night for under $80, and put me close enough to the station that I could walk to meet my girlfriend when her train arrived almost on time at around 7:30.
One of her travel routines is to check the Lonely Planet guide for a place and do the recommended walking tour, and Denver’s took us through the station and out to Confluence Park, where Cherry Creek and the South Platte River meet, and where you can splash around or, if you’re like the other people there who were braver than us, go for a swim in the fairly fast-moving water.
After a rare encounter with some American rugby fans (who got us to take a photo of them) and a trip to REI’s flagship outdoors shop (mercifully air-conditioned) we walked along a riverfront path, feeling very much as though we were in Manchester, before stopping for a drink at the station to dry off.
Having already seen the Capitol Building I made the stupid decision to ditch the rest of the walking tour and catch a bus to City Park, which I feel was frankly oversold. It was fine, but comparatively empty of people and with nothing to make it stand out from the kind of flagship large park you get in most major American cities.
With some time to kill until dinner, we hired an (annoyingly pricey) swan boat and pedalled round the lake, which was surprisingly hard work but also lifted my spirits! I highly recommend bringing someone you can have a good conversation with for an hour, unless you’re up for a long swim to avoid social awkwardness, but happily nine days apart gave us a lot to catch up on and apart from periods of furious pedalling it was a fairly relaxing experience. If you want extra fun, try pedalling through the spray from the large fountain in the middle of the lake; it’s a great way to cool off.
After a more direct bus back to LoDo, we grabbed cocktails and then went to Foraged for probably the best sushi I’ve ever eaten (which seemed miraculous over a thousand miles from the sea). Highlights were the grilled salmon belly and the crunchy rice (served in pleasing little cubes). With about 20 minutes to spare before closing time and an impressive level of coordination, we split up and ran to fetch Chipotle burritos and a selection of snacks for the train the next morning (scheduled for 8:05am).
Do: Check out Lower Downtown (LoDo), Union Station and the Capitol Building.
Don’t: Get on a bus to City Park with slightly intimidating men in balaclavas.
2: Denver — Salt Lake City (California Zephyr)
Fans of American trains won’t be surprised that our train was delayed. After my safety alarm at 7am, I checked the live tracking website (which proved very useful for scheduling on this journey) and found our train was still in Nebraska, buying us an extra three hours in bed followed by a leisurely breakfast.
One of the frustrating features of American train rides is that apart from commuter services, passengers are generally not trusted to get on a train themselves. The reason this proved bothersome for this journey was that we had to sit in the baking sun for 40 minutes waiting for our train to first arrive, disgorge its passengers leaving at Denver, and then load us on board. A mysterious hour-long delay later (you become used to not being told why things don’t work in America) we finally departed six hours late, and with a 15 hour journey ahead of us, we made the reluctant decision to book an extra night in our Salt Lake City hotel so we’d actually be able to grab some sleep after an overnight trip.
Happily, once we did depart, the journey was gorgeous, first following a slow, looping climb up from the Eastern Slope and into the Rockies (with some great views of the city and surrounding plains along the way), and then pushing through red-green gorges and dams before stopping at the ski town of Winter Park (or, strictly speaking, the nearby town of Fraser).
A few more hours of following the river later, we found ourselves in a deep red canyon pushing towards Western Colorado and our evening stop at Grand Junction. Along the Colorado River, it’s apparently become a tradition for the many people boating, fishing, holding barbecues and so on to moon the train, meaning I saw more genitals than I’d typically expect to on a trundling train journey.
After eating two comically enormous burritos, we fell asleep somewhere around Grand Junction, and missed most of the journey through Utah due to it being dark, but the sun began to rise somewhere around Provo, and we watched an orange glow emerge from behind the mountains and gradually illuminate Utah’s only major conurbation. Given we were meant to arrive at 11pm the previous evening, it was perhaps small comfort, but it was definitely a sight worth seeing.
Do: Enjoy the climb out of Denver into the Rockies. It’s slow but beautiful, and the train is the only way to see it.
Don’t: Moon back at the river. Your fellow passengers might not appreciate it.
3: Salt Lake City
After being inconvenienced by a train for the first time on our trip, our second occurred almost immediately afterwards. We arrived into Salt Lake City at 6am and, carrying heavy backpacks, decided the 25 minute walk to our hotel was a bit beyond us, so called a cab. It then proceeded to get stuck behind a 100+ car freight train before being able to pick us up, earning a 20 minute wait at the transit center (but giving me my first glimpse of the TRAX, Salt Lake’s light rail system which punches well above the city’s weight in terms of population).
Our downtown hotel was, shall we say, no frills, and the poor receptionist who got landed with the 6am shift had no record of our call the previous day to request an extra night. Happily we were able to book one on the fly, and dropped off for four hours’ sleep in a slightly dingy (but perfectly comfortable, and, crucially, air conditioned) room while the world outside turned into an oven.
Three things struck me when we left for downtown to explore the sights. First was the sun, with the force of a hurled boot. A temperature of 39 degrees is hard to handle even for locals, and when you’re used to soggy Pacific Northwest weather for nine months of the year, it can be a shock, even when tempered by very low humidity. A combination of hats, sunscreen and regular water got us through the worst of it, but for those stuck out in it for long periods it must be hellish.
The second thing, probably related to the first, was how empty the streets were. It felt at times as though we had the place to ourselves, and admittedly this probably had something to do with being there on a Sunday, when the Mormon Church still has as much power as it does. Liquor stores and most of the major shops were closed completely, and although restaurants and bars were open, we had trouble finding somewhere decent to get breakfast.
Third was how incredibly wide all the roads were. I’m not sure a city of 250,000 people needs six lane highways right through its downtown core, especially when they create such a terrible contribution to the urban heat island effect and make staying in the shade much harder. Combined with the emptiness of the city, it all felt very superfluous, and a great shame considering that there was plenty of great stuff to see.
We walked around the outside of Temple Square, headquarters of the Mormon Church (or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as they insist on calling themselves) and currently a massive building site. God may work in mysterious ways, but apparently those don’t involve speeding up construction work for his chosen people. We hit upon the idea of hiring scooters using an app, which worked great for avoiding sunstroke and generating a breeze to help keep cool, but also worked out at over $40 for two people using them for perhaps half an hour.
The Utah Capitol Building wasn’t one of those places closed on a Sunday and since a large marble structure seemed like a good place to escape the heat we ducked inside and wandered around looking at a disconcerting number of statues of famous Mormon men (and precisely one women and indigenous person) as well as the teensy legislative chambers (like Colorado’s, not in session) before playing a game of cards in the basement. I wagered a five dollar bill just to see if I could tempt God into smiting us. We were fine.
Dinner was at Eva, a small plates restaurant downtown, and on the way there we had the delightful experience of getting grit in our teeth from a dust storm blowing in off the Great Salt Lake. It looked and smelled apocalyptic, and although I wouldn’t describe the experience as particularly pleasant, it was definitely striking, and added to the experience of things going awry but in a memorable way that I also felt pedaling our swan through the fountain in Denver.
Dinner was expensive and surprisingly greasy — a lot of fried and aioli heavy dishes, which I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy, but everything actually turned out to be pretty delicious, again giving us leftovers for the following day’s train. We followed up with an attempt to get a drink at a nearby brewery which was foiled by Ana’s British Columbia ID card apparently not being acceptable in Utah — where they don’t trust devious foreigners with alcohol.
We settled on an alternative brewery after fetching her passport and found that they were playing a selection of the best ska-punk bands from when I was about 19, which I absolutely loved and Ana tolerated. The beer was okay, and it killed some evening before our train (due at 11pm and mercifully only delayed by around 90 minutes, saving us another night in the dingy hotel).
Do: Enjoy gawking at the weird Mormon stuff. Hire a scooter to get around downtown so the gigantic streets don’t wear you out. Bring plenty of water.
Don’t: Go on a Sunday. The city’s run by the Mormon Church so very little will be open.
4: Salt Lake City — Reno (California Zephyr)
Probably the least exciting of our train journeys on account of two thirds of it happening overnight, we found ourselves delayed by about four hours at the point we woke up near Winnemucca, which certainly is a town in Northeastern Nevada. Geography fans will know that Nevada’s population density outside of Greater Vegas or Reno is approximately that of Antarctica or the Moon, so being told that we had an hour and a half crew changeover in a town with the princely sum of 8,000 residents — and being in need of coffee — gave us the opportunity for a small adventure.
In the 2020 election Winnemucca’s county (in which it is precisely the only town) voted 80–20 for Donald Trump, which might explain the slightly concerning number of Trump 2024 flags around the place, as well as the odd sight of a restaurant flying a Blue Lives Matter flag alongside a Basque flag. My best spot was the pawn shop offering guns n’ ammo in exchange for Bitcoin.
After gawping for a bit we reboarded and sat through another four hours of desert before pulling into Reno.
Do: Get off and wander around Winnemucca if you’ve got a 90 minute crew changeover.
Don’t: Expect to see the Great Salt Lake — you’ll be going past it in the middle of the night.
The definition of the term “second fiddle”, Reno has had a difficult few decades after originally being synonymous with gambling in Nevada. It was overtaken fairly comprehensively by Las Vegas in the latter years of the 20th century, but retains a fairly substantial presence of casinos in its downtown.
We stayed in one of the main ones which meant a five minute walk from the cute Spanish-style station, past the National Bowling Stadium (which, tragically, doesn’t allow punters to rock up and play — it’s professionals only).
It’s quite fun to see someone who has never been to Reno or Vegas before experience all the lights and glitz for the first time, and especially so when you assume, as I had about my girlfriend, that they already had. So we spent a delightful couple of hours watching her have the visual equivalent of a sugar rush and spending a criminal amount of money on arcade games at Circus Circus before we got around to any proper gambling.
After an entirely adequate pint at the in-casino brewery (and a couple of games of the miniature Jenga we won at the arcade) we hit up the roulette and the swimming pool, making the most of the only hotel we stayed at where such a thing was both on offer and actually filled with water.
Leaving the casino area of Reno, as we did in order to explore the non-gambling bits of the city and grab some drinks at nearby distilleries and breweries, gives you a very odd feeling and it took me a few minutes to realise what it was. It’s the same aura as a slightly crumbling but still cheerful British seaside town, only with far bigger casinos, wedding chapels, and no sea. The slightly naff public art by the waterfront, the rapid descent from built up area into detached, quiet suburbs, and the lack of people on the streets all gave me the feeling of being in Lowestoft or Skegness, only with fewer kids on donkeys.
As well as a delicious cocktail at 10 Torr and an enormous flight of beers (it contained ten) I played my first game of Shuffleboard, which I got very into despite the very strange physics that playing a miniature version of curling entails. Ana handily thrashed me (as she does at so many things) and it’s not the sort of thing I’d find it easy to practice regularly.
After dinner at a local bar and another couple of drinks we hit the rum and roulette, coming out a cool $11.80 up after about an hour of gambling. Part of the trick is to know your way around statistics, and another is to switch machines fairly regularly so their algorithms to suck all your money away don’t kick in quite so hard.
Arising the next day with slight headaches (no idea why) we went before our 11am train to Mel’s, which bills itself as the diner from American Graffiti, but which I’ve since been informed is part of a chain. Never trust the marketing, I suppose, but their Oreo milkshake was very good.
Do: Play Blackjack, Roulette or the other games where a reasonable grasp of statistics can get you through.
Don’t: Bet more than you can afford to lose.
6: Reno — Martinez, CA (California Zephyr)
The only trip of this journey that didn’t require at least one night on a train, this was also the shortest leg. That’s a relative term, of course — we still took just over six hours to run across the span of California, first following the Truckee river and then pushing through the Tahoe National Forest towards the state capital at Sacramento. It really brings across the scale of California, and would have been more beautiful still if we hadn’t been a bit hungover and trying to organise wine tastings with very poor reception.
Do: Admire the Truckee River.
Don’t: Expect to have reliable mobile signal. You won’t until you get to Sacramento.
7: Napa, CA
The thing that shocked us about Napa more than anything else was the price. Washington and BC both have their own wine country, where a tasting will typically run you $15–25 and have its cost waived if you buy a bottle of wine at the end. In Napa, the cheapest we found were $40 apiece, and the discount only applied for purchases of four bottles or more. That’s the price you pay for reputation, I suppose.
The actual town of Napa is the archetypal Northern California town full of rich people, with a lot of boutiques, expensive gift shops and wine tasting rooms. As someone with a minimal grasp of wine, I did feel I benefitted from getting to know a little about it, and American hospitality means you’ll always feel welcome and appreciated as they stick a vacuum cleaner hose into your wallet.
Our hotel was a weird arrangement of small huts which weren’t interconnected like a typical motel layout, giving us the feeling of staying in a small concrete house. It was walkable to town, however, and fairly affordable, so we didn’t have any reason to complain.
We ate dinner at a very fancy pizza place, which left me slightly hungry for more despite the price, although the quality of what we ate was fantastic. In lieu of a proper dessert we bought ice creams and ate them in the park, enjoying the slightly lower temperature (relatively — it was still 31 degrees).
The following day we hit up the Oxbow market, a kind of covered food hall with local produce and an excellent distillery tasting (that was much cheaper than any of the wineries). As well as a flight of beers each we had a couple of glasses of wine and some really tasty Mexican takeout on a balcony. You eat and drink a lot in Napa — it’s kind of their thing. Naturally, we slept on the bus back to Martinez.
Do: At least one wine tasting at the actual winery. Get dinner at one of the fancy restaurants that’s not for the likes of you. Sit at the little riverfront park and eat ice cream.
Don’t: Expect to be able to walk between the wineries. Google Maps lies to you about the extra mile of driveway you’ll have to factor in.
8: Martinez, CA
We only had a short stop in Martinez — a couple of evenings — as it’s where my uncle lives, and the offer of a free bed when you’re staying in the Bay Area is one my bank account finds too tempting to dismiss. It’s a fairly pleasant town of about 30,000 people and home to an enormous Shell refinery. It also, by my reckoning based on nothing at all, might have some of the best intercity train services in America. Due to its location in the upper East Bay, it’s served by five trains per day each way to Bakersfield and Oakland, eleven per day to Sacramento and San Jose, as well as one each daily to Chicago/Emeryville and Los Angeles/Seattle.
As a result of this and the town’s relatively compact size, taking trains is actually a fairly common activity, which is an interesting comparison to Seattle, where I’ll regularly meet people who’ve never been on a train in their lives. It’s the only town I’ve ever been to where people hearing my foreign accent assume that I’ve come by train rather than flying.
On our first night we visited a local Thai restaurant, where the food was basically fine, and wouldn’t ordinarily have won any awards, but which after a couple of days of train food went down like nectar. On our second evening, after returning from Napa, we visited a local brewery (unremarkable) and a cocktail bar (surprisingly good but very expensive) where we gave some travel tips to a couple planning a visit to Vancouver.
Since everything in small towns closes early, at 10pm (and facing a two hour train delay) we headed to one of the two open bars and filled in some puzzles while drinking rum until we realised we’d had too much rum to make sense of the puzzles. It’s a fairly wonderful way to spend an evening.
Do: Talk to people there about the trains. They’re very proud of their trains.
Don’t: Expect to find many places to drink after about 10pm.
9: Martinez, CA — Seattle (Coast Starlight)
The Martinez to Seattle journey of 22 scheduled hours is one that I get fairly nostalgic for — when I moved to the States I flew to San Francisco rather than Seattle and took the train north, which gave the move a sense of adventure that a direct flight wouldn’t have managed. It’s also pretty good value at around $110 for a one-way trip, which if you’re not in a hurry makes it a good bet versus flying.
The route covers some of the most beautiful sights of our trip — the slow crawl through the Cascade Mountains between Chemult and Eugene, Oregon is one of the best bits of American railway journey and the summer replacement of snowcaps with lush greenery doesn’t detract anything — especially when you’ve only seen southwestern brown for the last five days.
What it does struggle from, though, is reliability, and being at the end of our fatigue and boredom tether after several days of travel and poor sleep on overnight coach class trains meant the piling up of multiple delays began to leave us a bit frayed. It was when I woke up at still in California — at a station we’d been meant to reach some five hours previously — that I realised things weren’t going well.
By the time we reached Portland at 9pm (six hours after our scheduled stop) things were getting a bit desperate. We’d run out of proper food, and the train’s card machine had stopped working. Since neither of us carry cash (we are under the age of 50) this meant we were stuck with the bottles of water and incredibly salty Chex Mix the crew provided for us to tuck into. It wasn’t a gourmet experience, and we were both starving and grumpy by the time we stopped for a mandatory engine check. We were told this would take between half an hour and an hour, but it actually took around three, and during that time the power to our carriage was cut off.
By the time we finally got moving for Seattle we were already five hours past our scheduled arrival time, and it was getting light by the time we left Tacoma on our final haul home. I think we earned the five hour sleep we took the moment we got through the door.
Do: Bring enough stuff to entertain you for 28 hours. Make sure you get a good viewing spot for the crossing of the Cascades between Chemult and Eugene.
Don’t: Rely on the Amtrak card machine working if you need food.
If there’s a theme to our journey it’s that things going smoothly to plan is never the most interesting way to live — the foot-down highway driving to the quirky backroads of the unexpected train delays, hosing down by a park fountain, or getting baked in a Napa vineyard.
I’m not saying I want to spend every day of my life exploring the States by train, but it’s hard to find a better way to experience how vast, varied, beautiful and fun the continent can be than with a full backpack, a dog-eared puzzle book and the company of someone you love.