Ultimate Cross-Country Trip - Ideas? Best Stops?

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Apr 13, 2019
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I've ridden Amtrak a ton locally within Virginia/Carolinas but have never done a cross-country trip on any of the long distance routes. With the discounted USA Rail Pass and a ton of vacation days saved up from not traveling last year, it made me think about maybe doing a trip later this year with the pass.

My initial thought was to look at the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, Coast Starlight from San Francisco up to Seattle, and then the Empire Builder from Seattle back to Chicago but I'm open to other ideas! (Is there a direction that works best with the schedules?)

What are some of your favorite destinations along these routes that are easily accessible by train? (also open to renting a car for a day to go somewhere if it's easy to do so)
 
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pennyk

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My first and last (so far) cross country trips were similar. In 2010, I took the Silver Meteor to WAS, the Cardinal to CHI, then California Zephyr to Denver (overnight), the CZ to SAC, then Coast Starlight to Seattle (for a few days), then Empire Builder to Glacier National Park for one day, then Empire Builder to Chicago and Capitol Limited to WAS, then Meteor back to Orlando.

In December 2019, I took 98 to WAS; 29 to CHI, 5 to SAC, Coast Starlight to SEA, overnight), Empire Builder to CHI (overnight), then 30 to WAS and 97 home (all on points). As a Floridian, I loved all the snow (see Avatar) and below zero wind chills.
 

tomfuller

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If you get the chance, take the Cardinal to get from Washington to Chicago. Make a 24 or 48 hour stop in Colorado (Denver or Glenwood Springs) and rent a car to see some of the Rockies. If you want to see some of California, get off the Zephyr and rent another car. Yosemite is great if it is not totally jammed with people.
Coming back from Seattle (or Portland) make a stop at Whitefish MT and rent a car to see Glacier NP or if you have plenty of time, head to Yellowstone NP.
Take the time to see some of the sights in Chicago while you are there.
My first Rail Pass was in 2001 starting about 6 weeks after 9/11. I still have a Facebook friend that I met on that trip.
 

Cal

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I think that's a great plan already, three of Amtrak's best routes.

I don't know Amtrak's policy on the railpass, but heres some other options.

1
Crescent NYP-NOL
Sunset NOL-LAX
Starlight LAX-SEA (Or to PDX)
Builder SEA-CHI (Or from PDX)
Cardinal CHI-NYP (Or LSL)

Or get off the Starlight in Norcal and then board the CZ

2
Cardinal/LSL/Capitol NYP/WAS-CHI
Zephyr CHI-EMY
Starlight EMY-LAX
Chief LAX-CHI
Cardinal/LSL/Capitol CHI-NYP/WAS

Or you could take the Texas Eagle or Sunset/CONO back to Chicago, or even the Sunset/Crescent back to NYP.
 

flitcraft

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Any of these circle trips will be a bucket list experience for sure. Two years ago, I took my brother and sister in law on their first Amtrak trip--Vermonter to DC, Capitol Limited to Chicago, California Zephyr to Emeryville, and Coast Starlight to Seattle. They still can't keep from talking about it to their friends.
 

niemi24s

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Not knowing what your interests are, all I can offer is a few resources for finding out what there is to see and do along the way:
• Amtrak Route Guides:
California Zephyr https://emountain.tur.ar/amtrak/0imagen/amtrack-zephyr.pdf
Coast Starlight https://emountain.tur.ar/amtrak/0imagen/amtrack-coast-starlight.pdf
Empire Builder https://emountain.tur.ar/amtrak/0imagen/amtrack-empire.pdf
• FRA Safety Map with several types of maps with Amtrak stations plotted along with station names. They let you see thousands of things along the routes https://fragis.fra.dot.gov/GISFRASafety/

We should all be grateful to the Argentinian Travel Bureau for making at least some of those route guides available - Amtrak can't be bothered with them any more. Viaje en tren por Estados Unidos por AMTRAK I have all of the Route Guides in pdf form on file, but no idea how to go about posting them.
 
Joined
Apr 13, 2019
Messages
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Not knowing what your interests are, all I can offer is a few resources for finding out what there is to see and do along the way:
• Amtrak Route Guides:
California Zephyr https://emountain.tur.ar/amtrak/0imagen/amtrack-zephyr.pdf
Coast Starlight https://emountain.tur.ar/amtrak/0imagen/amtrack-coast-starlight.pdf
Empire Builder https://emountain.tur.ar/amtrak/0imagen/amtrack-empire.pdf
• FRA Safety Map with several types of maps with Amtrak stations plotted along with station names. They let you see thousands of things along the routes https://fragis.fra.dot.gov/GISFRASafety/

We should all be grateful to the Argentinian Travel Bureau for making at least some of those route guides available - Amtrak can't be bothered with them any more. Viaje en tren por Estados Unidos por AMTRAK I have all of the Route Guides in pdf form on file, but no idea how to go about posting them.
This is great, just what I needed - thank you!
 

daybeers

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Not knowing what your interests are, all I can offer is a few resources for finding out what there is to see and do along the way:
• Amtrak Route Guides:
California Zephyr https://emountain.tur.ar/amtrak/0imagen/amtrack-zephyr.pdf
Coast Starlight https://emountain.tur.ar/amtrak/0imagen/amtrack-coast-starlight.pdf
Empire Builder https://emountain.tur.ar/amtrak/0imagen/amtrack-empire.pdf
• FRA Safety Map with several types of maps with Amtrak stations plotted along with station names. They let you see thousands of things along the routes https://fragis.fra.dot.gov/GISFRASafety/

We should all be grateful to the Argentinian Travel Bureau for making at least some of those route guides available - Amtrak can't be bothered with them any more. Viaje en tren por Estados Unidos por AMTRAK I have all of the Route Guides in pdf form on file, but no idea how to go about posting them.
I would love to have those Route Guides if that's possible!
 

fdaley

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Agree with Willbridge that if you're only going one way, the Coast Starlight is better northbound because you'll cover the Cascades of Oregon in daylight, whereas the southbound covers a lot of that territory at night. Also the Empire Builder eastbound is a safer bet than westbound for covering Glacier Park in daylight year-round, though you'll want to get up early on the first morning out of Seattle/Portland if it's on time.

If you're looking for places to stop over in the mountains, I recommend Glenwood Springs. The Hotel Denver is across from the station and convenient to the springs. We also broke one trip on the Empire Builder with a couple of nights at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, which we loved. We were able to rent a car there to explore Glacier.
 
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Willbridge

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Agree with Willbridge that if you're only going one way, the Coast Starlight is better northbound because you'll cover the Cascades of Oregon in daylight, whereas the southbound covers a lot of that territory at night. Also the Empire Builder eastbound is a safer bet than westbound for covering Glacier Park in daylight year-round, though you'll want to get up early on the first morning out of Seattle/Portland if it's on time.

If you're looking for places to stop over in the mountains, I recommend Glenwood Springs. The Hotel Denver is across from the station and convenient to the springs. We also broke one trip on the Empire Builder with a couple of nights at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, which we loved. We were able to rent a car there to explore Glacier.
The Hotel Denver in GSC had the most sleep-inducing beds that I've ever experienced. Of course, that was about 14 years ago, so "mileage may vary."

People have asked me "where in the Alps did you take those photos?" I enjoy telling them that it was in Glenwood Springs, Colorado and that I reached all these points on Amtrak and local public transport. (The last time I checked, their system including Aspen was the second largest in the state.)

2011 Colorado 011k.jpg

2011 Colorado 013k.jpg

2011 Colorado 019k.jpg

2011 Colorado 021k.jpg
2011 Colorado 022k.jpg
 

Philly Amtrak Fan

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Yet, Florida does have two daily trains, not even including the Auto Train...
But both travel to the same location(s) for the most part. Not helpful if you are from other parts of the country. And the Auto Train overlaps the Silver Service. If you want to go from California to Florida, you have to go to Chicago. It's easier to get to Seattle and Portland in this country on Amtrak than to get to Florida.
 
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