Turns out, you don’t need a car to see America.
Traveling coast-to-coast across the United States by
train is one of the world’s greatest travel experiences.
Amazingly, it’s also one of the world’s greatest travel
bargains — the 3,400-mile trip can cost as little as $213.
The American railroads are reminiscent of a bygone era.
These were the trains that tamed the Wild West, fueled the
Gold Rush, and served as the backbone of the Industrial
Revolution. At its peak, it was the most luxurious mode of
transportation that money could buy. Alas, the golden age of
American railroads came to an end. Automobiles arrived and
the airplane industry took off. Soon, many railroad
companies had to cut losses and ceased their passenger
Today, the USA still has an excellent rail network for
visitors that’ll take you to almost all the towns and cities
a visitor would want to see. Arguably, the most scenic and
historic of all the train routes in America is the
cross-country journey from San Francisco to New York. As you
climb through the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas, and further
east through the heart of the Rockies, you may find it hard
In December 2011, I traveled from San Francisco
to New York by train.
This is my trip in pictures.
The 3,400-mile coast-to-coast train ride takes 4 days if you
do it without stopovers. Of course, you should make
stopovers, but you’ll need to buy separate tickets for each
The train doesn’t technically depart from San Francisco but
20 minutes away in Emeryville.
I arrived at the station and found my train — the famous
California Zephyr, a direct train traveling 2,438 miles from
San Francisco to Chicago over 3 days.
At 9:10 am, I boarded the train to begin my journey across
The train begins its journey running alongside the tranquil
waters of the San Francisco Bay Area for some fabulous
some parts, the train was literally a foot from the water.
the distance, I saw something that wasn’t too inviting.
The famous fog of San Francisco was rolling in, and it
rolled in fast.
the splendid bay view became this.
It appeared that we may have made a wrong turn into the
enchanted forest, and life around us started dying.
The window eventually became a smokescreen of white. I fell
asleep soon after.
I woke up some hours later and noticed that people were
drawn to the scenery outside.
that it was something worth looking at.
I moved to the Sightseer Lounge car, fitted with enormous
windows that wrapped upward into the ceiling.
At Sacramento, an expert from the California State Railroad
Museum came onboard to give live commentary of the scenery.
As we passed Donner Lake, he retold the story of the Donner
Party who were stranded here in the winter of 1846. Some of
the party of 87 resorted to cannibalism; only 48 survived.
Strangely enough, this made me hungry. So I went down to the
cafe and bought myself some lunch.
As the train climbed into the Sierra Nevada, the temperature
dropped quickly and we were suddenly surrounded by snow.
Another few hours later, the landscape turned into a vast,
barren desert. If you fall asleep and wake up, it’s almost
like you were transported to a different planet.
With a gleaming casino in the distance, it became clear — we
have crossed into Nevada. The train calls at Reno, the
Biggest Little City in the World.
Somewhere in the middle of the desert, I lost cell phone
resorted to talking selfies to pass the time.
In the evening, we were treated to a view so sublime, you
begin to wonder if people who fly across the country and
never take the train are quite possibly insane.
As the sun set, it was time for dinner.
There’s some luck of the draw involved with dining on an
Amtrak train. There are usually insufficient seats for
dinner, so passengers are seated with random strangers at
You never know who your dinner companion would be. It’s
awkward for the first time, but many frequent train
passenger actually find it to be one of the joys of train
travel — meeting people from all walks of life.
As for me? I enjoyed a half rack of baby back ribs with a
man who didn’t like talking very much.
An hour later, at a small Nevada town, there was a scene
of confusion as the train pulled into the station with
police cars standing by. The police boarded the train and
arrested my dinner companion on suspicion of possessing
During the night, the train crossed from Nevada into
Utah. Entering a new time zone, the clocks are adjusted
an hour forward.
At 3 am in the morning, the train pulls into my first stop,
Salt Lake City.
I spent a day exploring its Mormon heritage before moving
The journey between Utah and Colorado is regarded to be the
most spectacular train ride in all of the United States.
We spent the morning chugging through the American Wild
The train follows the southern rim of the astonishing Book
We crossed into Colorado, marked by the sign “Utah-Colorado”
painted on the wall of Ruby Canyon straddling the two
The California Zephyr climbs into the Rocky Mountains and
snakes for hours through beautiful Colorado canyons.
For much of its journey through Colorado, the train follows
the path of the Colorado River.
You’ll get a chance to see a particularly odd breed of
Colorado wildlife indigenous to the area.
It’s long been a tradition for rafters to salute the passing
train, giving this area the highly appropriate nickname of
There were also dozens of Amish folks traveling on the
train. They tend to avoid technology and not use cars or
airplanes. Occasionally, they resort to taking the train.
Soon, it was my favorite time of the day: lunch.
Once again, it was a game of “social roulette”. I was
assigned to sit with two elder ladies, who may or may not
I ordered a bacon cheeseburger, which looked surprisingly
good for something that was cooked on a moving train.
The train passed the Byers Canyon Rifle Range, and for a
brief moment I was hoping there wasn’t a moron aiming his
gun the wrong direction.
The train eventually emerged from the Rockies onto the Great
Plains as we approach Denver.
The train pulls into Denver, the Mile High City. Despite its
location on a vast flatland, Denver still stands at 5,280
feet above sea level.
Denver makes a lovely stop for exploring the city and its
surrounds. I spent two days there before moving on.
Today’s journey would bring me through 4 states — Colorado,
Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. I slept through most of the
journey as the train traveled through the night.
Sleeping on the train is surprisingly comfortable.
The seats are spacious with plenty of legroom and they
recline a good 40 degrees. They’re more comfortable than
economy class seats on planes; perhaps something more like
business class on a crappy domestic airline.
Sleeper cabins are also available, albeit at a significantly
The California Zephyr completes its journey at Chicago’s
Union Station, a historic landmark in its own right.
A noteworthy attraction for movie fans is the stairway from
famous stroller scene in ‘The Untouchables’.
I spent a day exploring the city. The view from John Hancock
Tower is particularly impressive at sunset.
The California Zephyr gets you as far as Chicago. To
complete the journey to New York, you’d need to transfer to
the Lake Shore Limited.
The many hours on the train makes for a fantastic time to
Amtrak actually offers a
writers’ residency program where they provide free
train rides just for you to sit and write.
The train travels through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and
Pennsylvania, before entering New York state.
As soon as you see the Hudson River, you feel a sense of
exhilaration that airline passengers will never know. We’ve
almost crossed America by train!
The train finally pulls into New York Penn Station, ending
my journey on the east coast of the United States.
Well, that concludes it — an epic 3,397-mile journey
across America. It took me through 11 states and 4 time
zones to cross the entire North America continent from coast
to coast. In just four days, I’ve seen both the Pacific
Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean without taking a flight. Some
people have told me that I’ve already seen more of the
country than most Americans.
Traveling by train gives you a glimpse into the soul of
America. The experience rewards you with far more stories
and experiences and sights than you could ever witness alone
in a car, eyes fixed to the road, or on a five-hour flight
across the country.
If you want to see tourist America, rent a Cadillac, get
on Route 66 and stop off at a few cutesy diners and motels.
If you want to see the real America in all its spectacular,
crazy, kooky glory, get on the train.
How much did it cost me?
I paid $429 for a 15-day rail pass.
You can do it for much less.
The rail pass includes 8 train rides which I used to
explore other cities after my cross-country journey. If
you’re thinking of stopping at a few cities, a rail pass can
be a great value. Note that a 3-day journey counts as one
ride, but so does a 30-minute one! If you work out the math,
each ride is $54 on the rail pass. In comparison, most
long-distance journeys cost upwards of $80.
For some people, buying the direct California Zephyr and
Lake Shore Limited tickets should suffice in getting you
from San Francisco to New York. Tickets for the entire
journey are available from just $213.
So how can you book a
trip like this?
You can have your trip professionally arranged by
personal travel assistant app. For most people, this is the
easiest and best way to book your trip.
adventure traveler and entrepreneur. He created the
Berkeley Ridiculously Automated Dorm (BRAD), a viral
YouTube hit which actually has fewer views than 10
Cutest Cat Moments. He has been featured in TIME,
Forbes, CNN, BBC, The Guardian, and TechCrunch. He knows how
stupid writing a third-person bio of himself can be.