muriel j smith 120a

muriel j smith 120aAlthough we passengers on Amtrak’s California Zephyr got to see some of the glory and magnificence of Utah, we didn’t get to see it all, and pretty much none of the approximate 400 miles through Nevada; in both directions, going to Sacramento and heading back home a couple of days later, the train only passes through Nevada and about 150 miles of California during the night.  Even after dark, however, it’s easy to see what a gorgeous, open country we have. Starlit nights are magnificent, with no city lights and only sparse country home lights taking away from the natural beauty of a big moon and millions of stars.

We went through Helper, Utah around dusk, a town named for the work that was done there in an earlier era. That’s when ‘helper’ engines were needed for the westbound freight trains to climb up the Wasatch Mountains to Soldier Summit where coal mining was the key economic activity. Didn’t get to see, but heard about, Castle Glen, just past Helper, another former mining town where Butch Cassidy is said to have held up the Pleasant Valley Coal Company for $7,000 in gold.

amtrak sunset over the wasatch

Photo: Sunset over the Wasatch

Although the Moffat Tunnel, at close to 10,00 feet, was the highest point on the trip above sea level, we were still at 7,000 feet at Soldier Summit, named for the Civil War soldiers buried there. Even in the early evening, you can see the rail fans lined up along the road here, photographing the headlight lit Zephyr as it reaches the top.  Then it’s on through a canyon, the ghost town of Thistle, made so by a 1983 mudslide that moved the mountain, blocked the creeks, and formed a dam, flooding the town. Not much other than a few rooftops remain in Thistle, and it’s said to see.


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amtrak grandy cliff

photo: Grandy Cliff

Provo and Salt Lake City are both Mormon territory, and had town allowed, it would have been terrific to get off, spend a few days at either…they’re only about 50 miles apart, before getting on another day’s Zephyr to continue west.  Brigham Young University is in Provo, it’s also where the famous Osmond family lived, and it’s the entrance town to a couple of national forests.  Salt Lake City, the headquarters for the Mormon Church  …more correctly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints….is headquarters for the religion and its magnificent six-tower temple.  The Mormons are well known and respected for their interest and preservation of genealogy and were serving those needs for the world long before came along. The money-making company isn’t affiliated with the Church, though its owner is a Mormon and lives in Utah.

amtrak skilift over train

photo: Ski-lift over the train

Elko, Nevada is another 175 miles or so past Salt Lake City, and where clocks get changed for the third time since New Jersey, putting us now on Pacific time for the rest of the trip.  During the night, we made stops at Elko, Winnemucca, and Reno, before arriving at Truckee, California sometime after 9 a.m. on the third day and after the second night on the Zephyr.    It’s fascinating last 100 miles between Truckee and the capital. First, just passed the city, is Donner Lake, another beautiful scene from the train, but with a tragic and unique history. It’s where the Donner Party, early travelers heading west to a better life from Illinois, were stranded during the winter of 1846, partially because of poor leadership, partially because of inadequate mapping, but where of the 87 folks in the party, only 48 survived….and where some of the survivors resorted to cannibalism to live to see another day.

 The last tunnel we pass through heading west is at Mount Judah, where we’re still 7,000 feet above sea level, and where you can see the ski lift carrying skiers directly over the train.  A few more ski areas, more incredibly magnificent mountain and snow scenes, and even the view of the American River some 2,000 feet below the railroad. That’s on one side of the train…look on the other and there’s a steep slope we descend to Colfax, the steepest part of the ride.

amtrak pulling in sacramento

photo: Pulling into Sacramento

From Colfax it’s 50 miles to the capital, or 150 miles to Emeryville, California, the end of the line for the Zephyr. From there, it’s a short bus ride to San Francisco, but since it’s a sanctuary city and held no allure for me, I opted to give up the last 100 miles of the Zephyr and spend the night in Sacramento. 

A short cab ride, an opportunity to meet new people, including a gentleman originally from Colts Neck, NJ, a great night’s sleep, a workout in the hotel gym in the morning, and I was ready and eager to board the next day’s Zephyr just after 11 a.m. for the return trip; I stayed on the same side of the train going home, so I could see if I missed anything on the way out.

NEXT: California, where the homeless like the railroad.


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Muriel J Smith

Muriel J Smith an award-winning journalist, former newspaper editor, book author and historian, Her newest venture is her blog, in...