For our first father and son trip, we decided to try train travel via Amtrak’s California Zephyr train. My son, Jacob, recently turned 16 and I knew my time for hanging out with my boy was soon coming to an end. Sports is already taking some time away, girls are on the horizon, and that will be the end of things as I have known them.
What better way to get to know my son, than being trapped with him for several hours on a train, right?
After reviewing the basic idea with Jacob, I booked a weekend adventure from Modesto, California to Reno Nevada, with an overnight stay in Reno. Apparently, the California Zephyr train through Reno is a popular route, all of the standard coach seats were booked, and our only option was a “Superliner Roomette”. According to my research, we were to enjoy a large window, two facing seats, table, and privacy for our upgrade.
Getting to Sacramento from our local train station in Modesto would require a partial train trip with a connecting bus ride to Sacramento for us to catch the California Zephyr train in time. The overall trip time was about the same as going directly to Sacramento from Modesto via train. Sounds like an adventure to me!
Traveling by Train
After being dropped off at the Modesto train station, they do have ample parking available, we had only a short wait till our train arrived. The Modesto train station is modern looking, spacious and clean, with a very large train deck to wait upon. Conveniently equipped with soda/candy machines for those needing a fix and clean restrooms for use.
Having purchased our tickets in advance, there was no need to check-in at the counter, we just presented our tickets to the train conductor once boarded. Vastly easier than air travel!
Large comfortable coach seats awaited us and they were only two across so we didn’t have to ride the annoying middle seat during our short trip to the Stockton train station. Convenient fold-down tables and large windows made this part of the trip very enjoyable.
Easily and quickly apparent, are the views from the train, that only train travel can deliver. A slower, more leisurely pace, providing ample time to take in the views unlike driving. Seats are up high, windows are large and you can see for miles when the view is right. As the primary driver for our family, only because I am a terrible passenger, I never get to enjoy the scenery as we travel the roads to new adventures. Train travel has changed all of this for me.
We arrived in Stockton, a short 30 minutes later to a very nondescript off the to the side train station, to board our bus.
This whole process took about 10 minutes to disembark, find our bus (there were two waiting), then another minute to board the bus.
Again, I am impressed with how clean the bus was and how easy it all went.
30 minutes later we arrived in Sacramento.
Amtrak’s Sacramento train station
Our layover was for a little more than an hour, which was perfect as we needed to find something to eat and I wanted to explore the area around the station for another trip I was already planning. Turns out Starbucks occupies the same building as Amtrak does, or at least the opposite end of the building.
Sustenance provided, we promptly toured the Amtrak facilities. Though it looks like it is either going through a remodel or perhaps the completion of a new build as few sections were still unfinished, it was clean and spacious. Perhaps this will become a theme in my travels aboard Amtrak’s trains, I can only hope.
The Sacramento train station sits adjacent to Old Town Sacramento and the old Rail-yards of Sacramento, giving everything a nostalgic feel to it. Even the new/remodeled station is a massive brick building with beautiful murals and marble highlights, old train station pews.
With a hotel across the street, Old Town Sacramento two blocks away and a $15 one-way train ticket from Modesto, I’ll be back just to enjoy a weekend adventure here.
The path from the Amtrak station to the train tracks is a bit of a walk, perhaps the length of two football fields, maybe a bit more. Never worry as they offer an assistance cart for those unable to walk that far. If you do take the walk, you will be treated to various native plant displays and comfortable resting areas both above and below ground.
Once you arrive at the actual train track, you are treated to great views of the Old Sacramento Train-yard. Massive brick buildings that housed the infrastructure of the old days.
Boarding Amtrak’s California Zephyr train
Our first fumble, in our train adventure, happened when we tried to find our train car. Not as easy as one would think especially for a first-time train rider. We were looking for a specific car number on the side of the train as it arrived and that was confusing for me, so we ending at the opposite end of the train before being turned around to the front where we belonged. The rule here is to ask questions!
We were greeted by our cabin steward and shown to our Superliner Roomette, which is definitely an upgrade in privacy, comfort, views and price point from the coach seats. Cozy at only 4 ft wide (estimate), an upper fold down bed and two seats that join together into a bed, both a tad bit small than a single size bed mattress.
I loved the huge wall-to-wall window and table that we had to use, complimentary water was nice also. As soon as the train started on its journey, we were given a quick introductory welcome and review of the train by our cabin steward.
We were quite excited to learn that our meals were included with the cabin!
Amtrak Dining Car
Honestly, the included meals were a highlight for both of us.
All cabins come with meals from the Amtrak dining car including the daily specials and drinks with the meal (non-alcoholic). Amtrak offers a full menu which includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We were quite impressed with the menu selection offered, several items to choose from for each sitting.
The Amtrak dining car offers 4 per table seating allowing you to meet fellow train travelers if your group doesn’t fill up a table of four. I loved having the opportunity to meet our fellow passengers in this manner, no awkward approach necessary, just a quick introduction and you have new friends. Of course, if you prefer the solitude of your room, your cabin steward will be happy to order you a meal delivered to your room.
I was fortunate to meet one of the Chefs on board and he explained how they have a complete commercial kitchen below the dining car. My request for a quick visit was denied, this time, but I have hopes that eventually I will be granted a quick tour of the kitchen in the future.
You can view Amtrak’s sample menu here:
Our California Zephyr experience included access to the glass domed “Sightseer Lounge car” with its panoramic windows offering unrestricted views of the countryside as you pass by. This very roomy train car offers large swivel seats to relax in as you enjoy your trip. Once the train gets moving, these seats fill up fast, so consider yourselves warned.
On our trip we had onboard guides from the California State Railroad Museum join us to share the history and trivia of the route we traveled. Our guides were very interesting and made the breathtaking scenery of the Sierra Nevada mountains even more fascinating.
If by chance you get hungry enjoying the view, as my son did, you can stroll downstairs and pick up a snack or beverage from the well-stocked cafe. The Café includes tables to sit at and enjoy the view from as well as bathroom access.
For the majority of our trip to and from Reno, we enjoyed our Superliner Roomette, sitting in the full-sized comfortable chairs, looking out the large wall to wall windows. Our privacy was complete as soon as the room door and curtains were closed. We could talk undisturbed, read, relax, or just stare out the window at the amazing views passing by.
My son, ever the curious one, decided at some point to explore the comforts of the upper berth by folding it down and crawling into it for a so-called nap. At the prime age of 16, naps are not a common activity and true to form, he was back down in five minutes to proclaim his completion if nap time. It was worthy to note he comments about how comfortable the bed seemed, a positive note to take for an overnight trip.
Superliner Roomette Amenities:
- Meals included
- Picture window
- Two comfortable seats which convert to a bed; upper berth which folds down from wall
- Available on both upper and lower levels of the Superliner
- No in-cabin toilet or shower; restrooms, showers nearby in same train car
- Electrical outlet
- Climate control
- Individual reading lights
- Garment rack
- Fold-down table
- Fresh towels and bed linens
- Soap and shower amenities
- Personal service (turn-down, coffee, make-up bed)
- Bottled water
I could certainly find myself enjoying a much longer trip in one of the Superliner Roomette’s or possibly upgrading to the larger train cabins offering bathrooms and showers. Though for one or two people, the Superliner Roomette is perfect for an overnight trip.
Final thoughts on Amtrak Train Travel
Always the first question I get is “Would you travel this way again?”, yes.
100 percent positive! In fact, I have another trip planned with my youngest son planned for a couple of weeks from now to San Luis Obispo, for no other reason than the Amtrak train goes there. We will be traveling coach and be staying the night in a Hostel a couple of blocks from the train station.
Clean, safe and friendly – yes, it was.
Relaxing – I was so rested by the time we arrived in Reno, certainly ready to walk for miles, as opposed to needing a sedative. Unlike how I would have felt if I made the long drive from home. Stress-free train travel, with happy people enjoying the freedom of letting someone else do the driving.
I truly felt I received appropriate value for my money by taking the Amtrak train to Reno and back. It was convenient, easy, enjoyable, weekend adventure that made my son and I firm believers that this is a great way to travel.