California Zephyr in the winter?

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Joined
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CA, USA
Hello fellow train lovers,

I am thinking of taking the California Zephyr the entire way some time between November 2022 - March 2023. I have taken it from Emeryville to Chicago before in October 2019, but I wish to travel along that route again when the mountains are covered in snow. I was wondering if you had any recommendations regarding:
1. Which particular month in that range (November to March) is best?
2. Which direction is best in the winter if one wishes to see mountains covered in snow?
3. How likely is it that the California Zephyr is cancelled due to bad weather in the winter?

Are there any other factors you are aware of that I have not considered? Money is tight for me, I will likely not be able to do this again, so I really appreciate any pieces of advice you may have for me!!

Thank you so much to all of you who take out some time to help me out!!
 

pennyk

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I have taken the CZ from CHI to SAC in early December 2019 and from Martinez to CHI in mid December 2011. I enjoyed both trips, but I like going west better on the California Zephyr. I recall seing more snow in 2019 than in 2011, but I am not positive. December (between Thanksgiving and Christmas) worked well for me with regard to fares and passenger loads. Technically, it was not winter yet, but for a Floridian, it sure was winter. Photos are from the Sierra Nevada mountains in 2019 (where there was more snow than in the Rockies).

433.JPG 442.JPG
 

Willbridge

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You can get averages based on science, but on any given day from mid-November there might be more, less or no fresh snow. The same applies to snow disruptions of service. I've experienced all of the above and would suggest mid to late January and the first half of February to see real winter conditions. Fares are usually lower during that period and even if the weather is mild there should be accumulated snowpack in the mountains.

The only way to be sure of seeing dramatic snow is to depart Denver westbound on the day of a snowstorm that has come from the west. And westbound you are most likely to enjoy the climb from Denver into the most rugged part of the Rockies in daylight.

I looked for some file photos with dates. The best were on the Coast Starlight northbound between Dunsmuir and Eugene. Here are some from California Zephyr country.

Sierras dusted with snow on Dec. 2, 2018.
P1050740.JPG

Denver on Jan. 27, 2016 - sidewalk cafes open. A chance of snow and cold on that same day in other years.
P1040080 (2) Colfax.JPG

Another year: Denver on Feb. 3, 2012.
2012 February Snow 008k Starbucks.jpg

Sierras dusted on November 21, 2011.
2011 West Coast Thanksgiving 051k.jpg

Late January 2005 - slides in Rockies and in Sierras. Bustitution from Denver to Sacramento.
Winter2004-05 015.jpg

Rockies dusted on Dec. 1, 2016. Seen from eastbound (dark upon exiting Moffat Tunnel).
P1040693.JPG
 

oregon pioneer

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I just took a CZ trip this past winter, eastbound in early January and westbound a month later. I believe that snow came pretty late to the Rockies this year, maybe not much till around Christmas. As mentioned above, snow cover varies quite a bit in Nov/Dec. Here is a sampling of photos from the Colorado Rockies:

Eastbound, January 11 (platform is Granby, CO):
newengld22_eb17.jpg newengld22_eb18.jpg newengld22_eb20.jpg

Westbound Feb 6 (first photo is the tunnel district climbing out of Denver:
newengld22_wb13.jpg newengld22_wb18.jpg newengld22_wb22.jpg

The deep canyon in both series is Gore Canyon west of Granby. There was slightly more snow in February than January, but this was not a very good year for deep snow. Denver was bare and dry.

As for eastbound/westbound, I like them both but I have a slight preference for eastbound. I really like descending into Denver at night, with the city lights glittering below. Westbound, the big difference is you get to see the tunnel district in the daylight, for sure. If what you want to see is snow, for my money, I'd choose to travel in Jan/Feb. Take extra food and warm clothing so you are prepared for any delays and ready to step outside at longer stops to appreciate the brisk mountain air.

Have a great time, and do report back on how your trip goes!
 
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I have taken the CZ from CHI to SAC in early December 2019 and from Martinez to CHI in mid December 2011. I enjoyed both trips, but I like going west better on the California Zephyr. I recall seing more snow in 2019 than in 2011, but I am not positive. December (between Thanksgiving and Christmas) worked well for me with regard to fares and passenger loads. Technically, it was not winter yet, but for a Floridian, it sure was winter. Photos are from the Sierra Nevada mountains in 2019 (where there was more snow than in the Rockies).

View attachment 28320 View attachment 28321
Thank you! This is really helpful. The photos are stunning!! Do you mind sharing why you liked going west better? So lovely you got to take this train in both directions!
 
Joined
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Messages
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You can get averages based on science, but on any given day from mid-November there might be more, less or no fresh snow. The same applies to snow disruptions of service. I've experienced all of the above and would suggest mid to late January and the first half of February to see real winter conditions. Fares are usually lower during that period and even if the weather is mild there should be accumulated snowpack in the mountains.

The only way to be sure of seeing dramatic snow is to depart Denver westbound on the day of a snowstorm that has come from the west. And westbound you are most likely to enjoy the climb from Denver into the most rugged part of the Rockies in daylight.

I looked for some file photos with dates. The best were on the Coast Starlight northbound between Dunsmuir and Eugene. Here are some from California Zephyr country.

Sierras dusted with snow on Dec. 2, 2018.
View attachment 28322

Denver on Jan. 27, 2016 - sidewalk cafes open. A chance of snow and cold on that same day in other years.
View attachment 28323

Another year: Denver on Feb. 3, 2012.
View attachment 28324

Sierras dusted on November 21, 2011.
View attachment 28325

Late January 2005 - slides in Rockies and in Sierras. Bustitution from Denver to Sacramento.
View attachment 28326

Rockies dusted on Dec. 1, 2016. Seen from eastbound (dark upon exiting Moffat Tunnel).
View attachment 28327
The photos are beautiful!! Which direction did you take the train? If it is not any trouble, it would be lovely to see your photos from the Coast Starlight too! 🙂
 
Joined
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Messages
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I just took a CZ trip this past winter, eastbound in early January and westbound a month later. I believe that snow came pretty late to the Rockies this year, maybe not much till around Christmas. As mentioned above, snow cover varies quite a bit in Nov/Dec. Here is a sampling of photos from the Colorado Rockies:

Eastbound, January 11 (platform is Granby, CO):
View attachment 28329 View attachment 28330 View attachment 28331

Westbound Feb 6 (first photo is the tunnel district climbing out of Denver:
View attachment 28332 View attachment 28333 View attachment 28334

The deep canyon in both series is Gore Canyon west of Granby. There was slightly more snow in February than January, but this was not a very good year for deep snow. Denver was bare and dry.

As for eastbound/westbound, I like them both but I have a slight preference for eastbound. I really like descending into Denver at night, with the city lights glittering below. Westbound, the big difference is you get to see the tunnel district in the daylight, for sure. If what you want to see is snow, for my money, I'd choose to travel in Jan/Feb. Take extra food and warm clothing so you are prepared for any delays and ready to step outside at longer stops to appreciate the brisk mountain air.

Have a great time, and do report back on how your trip goes!
This is so helpful, thank you! I will definitely follow your advice about extra food and warm clothing, and about preferring Jan/Feb for the snow. Weirdly, right now, the family bedroom is cheaper than the roomette for all dates I looked at for next Jan/Feb, and all are wildly expensive. I'm hoping there is a sale soon or the prices decrease for some reason!

Whenever I am able to go, I'll definitely post about it here!
 

Willbridge

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The photos are beautiful!! Which direction did you take the train? If it is not any trouble, it would be lovely to see your photos from the Coast Starlight too! 🙂
I've taken trips in both directions and in all seasons. I have family and friends on the West Coast and I've lived in Denver since 1986. Since 1997 I've also made a few trips all or in part on intercity buses, not always that I wanted to. I've made a few air trips in the region, but in winter the seat belt light is often on for the whole flight over the mountains and you can't see much.

I can start a separate thread for Coast Starlight in winter.
 

pennyk

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Thank you! This is really helpful. The photos are stunning!! Do you mind sharing why you liked going west better? So lovely you got to take this train in both directions!
In the winter, some of the best scenery going eastbound could be in the dark if the train is late. I prefer CZ going west and EB going east, altlhough I am fortunate to have done both in both directions.
 

basketmaker

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Brighton, CO (DEN but FMG-Preferred)
Hello fellow train lovers,

I am thinking of taking the California Zephyr the entire way some time between November 2022 - March 2023. I have taken it from Emeryville to Chicago before in October 2019, but I wish to travel along that route again when the mountains are covered in snow. I was wondering if you had any recommendations regarding:
1. Which particular month in that range (November to March) is best?
2. Which direction is best in the winter if one wishes to see mountains covered in snow?
3. How likely is it that the California Zephyr is cancelled due to bad weather in the winter?

Are there any other factors you are aware of that I have not considered? Money is tight for me, I will likely not be able to do this again, so I really appreciate any pieces of advice you may have for me!!

Thank you so much to all of you who take out some time to help me out!!
1. Though snow is a possibility year-round through the Rockies. (I've driven thru it on July 4th) but March and April is normally the snowiest months except this year where April was the driest in history. But they are getting 6-8" up there today.
2. I have done round-trips several times from Denver or Ft. Morgan, CO to Emeryville just for the ride. I much prefer the westbound leg due to timing and daylight hours. But both directions are breath taking.
3. Best of my knowledge it would be a very rare occurrence that the CZ would be canceled due to weather. And if there was it mostly would be in the Sierras. The normal issues freight derailments, track work and the like are always a possibility.
 
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In the winter, some of the best scenery going eastbound could be in the dark if the train is late. I prefer CZ going west and EB going east, altlhough I am fortunate to have done both in both directions.

I have traveled the same itineraries in late January and early February and agree with pennyk's reasoning as to why I prefer WB on the CZ.
 

oregon pioneer

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This is so helpful, thank you! I will definitely follow your advice about extra food and warm clothing, and about preferring Jan/Feb for the snow. Weirdly, right now, the family bedroom is cheaper than the roomette for all dates I looked at for next Jan/Feb, and all are wildly expensive. I'm hoping there is a sale soon or the prices decrease for some reason!

Whenever I am able to go, I'll definitely post about it here!

Not sure why it is so expensive right now. Last year, I waited till about August to book, and found the first week of January was pretty steep, but later dates worked well. I had to try many, many dates to get a good price.

You implied budget was an issue, so I assumed you might be traveling coach. If you are in a sleeper accommodation, food probably won't be an issue unless the train is really, really late! I have always been always satisfied with the quantities (and usually the quality too) in the diner, and never hungry.

However... when the train is really late to its final destination, they will take care everyone is fed (coach passengers included), but the quality and quantity will be - er- DIFFERENT. The first thing they usually do is break out the "Amstew," cans of Dinty Moore beef stew that are kept in a storage area of the train just for emergencies, usually served with green beans, and a roll if you are lucky. I've also been fed hoagy sandwiches (when the kitchen facilities on the LSL had no power), and Kentucky Fried Chicken (on a 12 hour late Portland section of the EB). In those circumstances, I was grateful I had good quality snacking nuts, dried fruit, protein bars and (absolute necessity) chocolate!

Enjoy your trip! I am looking forward to your trip report later!
 
Joined
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We went westbound in a bedroom in February 2019. Lots of snow and gorgeous scenery. The only problem was the water went out in our bedroom the night we left - so much for showering in our room! Amtrak did give me a partial credit, however.
That sounds lovely! I hope I get to see a lot of snow too. I’m sorry about the water, but glad they gave you some credit—I did not know Amtrak did that. Good to know I guess!

I have traveled the same itineraries in late January and early February and agree with pennyk's reasoning as to why I prefer WB on the CZ.
All of you have convinced me—whenever the trip happens, it will definitely be in the westbound direction!

Not sure why it is so expensive right now. Last year, I waited till about August to book, and found the first week of January was pretty steep, but later dates worked well. I had to try many, many dates to get a good price.

You implied budget was an issue, so I assumed you might be traveling coach. If you are in a sleeper accommodation, food probably won't be an issue unless the train is really, really late! I have always been always satisfied with the quantities (and usually the quality too) in the diner, and never hungry.

However... when the train is really late to its final destination, they will take care everyone is fed (coach passengers included), but the quality and quantity will be - er- DIFFERENT. The first thing they usually do is break out the "Amstew," cans of Dinty Moore beef stew that are kept in a storage area of the train just for emergencies, usually served with green beans, and a roll if you are lucky. I've also been fed hoagy sandwiches (when the kitchen facilities on the LSL had no power), and Kentucky Fried Chicken (on a 12 hour late Portland section of the EB). In those circumstances, I was grateful I had good quality snacking nuts, dried fruit, protein bars and (absolute necessity) chocolate!

Enjoy your trip! I am looking forward to your trip report later!
I feel hopeful hearing (or rather, reading) that! I will wait too and hope for the best. This is a big splurge for me to treat myself after a quite rough year, but it is definitely not something I will be able to do again without considerable planning and saving (I’m a grad student who doesn’t know when I will be done 😅).

The Amstew sounds scary, although at the same time I like how they gave it an Amtrak-themed name. What are hoagy sandwiches? Did you like them better than the Amstew?
Now that I know about the existence of the Amstew and that it might be a possibility—I will *definitely* make sure to take enough snacks and chocolate on board with me!! Thank you for such detailed advice!!

at least in the winter time. you don't have worry about moon river lol..
Lol. I didn’t see anything even when I took the train in October 2019. I don’t know whether to say I am lucky or unlucky?

I took the CZ a few years ago westbound from Chicago to Emeryville in early March. Lots of snow in the mountains. I was in the last sleeper so great pictures and videos coming out of tunnels from back window. I too agree with Penny on the west direction.
That sounds amazing! I was under the impression though that the sleeper accommodations are at the front of the train—is that not the case? Or does it depend on the train and/or crew?
 

cirdan

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I took the CZ in November a couple of years ago. I did get to see some snow but nothing like the Winter landscapes other users have posted on this thread. In fact it was sunny most of the time and things looked pretty much as in the summer (especially in the areas where the trees are mostly coniferous). One of the highlights was when we spotted a bear.

On the other hand the short hours of daylight means I may probably have missed out on some worthwhile scenery.
 

Keith1951

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We just got off the California Zephyr Sunday. We traveled the whole route Chicago to Emeryville. Our SCA was named Janelle and she was super. The food to us was very filling and good. The only bad thing was a storm came through and we had to sit and wait. Conductor said high winds up to 70 mph with hail and lightning. But overall the train travel was great, in fact it's a vacation in itself. Only one more long distance route to take and then we will have completed all long distance routes.
 
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That sounds amazing! I was under the impression though that the sleeper accommodations are at the front of the train—is that not the case? Or does it depend on the train and/or crew?

I think it's essentially random based on how the cars are placed in the yard when they are building the consist. They do keep similar cars together, and often use the service cars (cafe/dining) to split the coach from sleeper, but which set gets the quieter location at the end of the train is mostly random, just like which side the bedrooms are on.
 
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In my opinion, Amstew is definitely not scary unless people are scared of canned food. My wife and I had the Amstew on a very late Zephyr a few years ago and while it wasn't our favorite meal of the trip, it was fine. I personally preferred it to my last meal (contemporary dining I believe) on the Lake Shore.
It is nice to know that Amstew can be better than some of the flex meals!
 
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