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Amtrak makes this a great time to see the Sierras

Train treats riders to California’s amazing winter scenery in mountains

By Javier Panzar, Los Angeles Times
Published: March 16, 2024, 5:55am
3 Photos
Scenes from a ride on Amtrak&rsquo;s long-distance California Zephyr train through the northern Sierra Nevada.
Scenes from a ride on Amtrak’s long-distance California Zephyr train through the northern Sierra Nevada. (Photos by Javier Panzar/Los Angeles Times) Photo Gallery

Crossing up and over the fabled Donner Pass in the northern Sierra Nevada and descending to Lake Tahoe is one of those essential rites of passage for Californians.

But forget doing it in a car. Now is the time to hop on board Amtrak’s long-distance California Zephyr and see the amazing snowpack from the comfort of the train’s observation car. A series of storms in the last few weeks has left California’s mountains with a lovely cloak of fresh powder.

The Zephyr goes all the way to Chicago over two days, but don’t be intimidated. I’m here to evangelize for this essential intra-California trip. I made the last-minute trip to Truckee from the East Bay after my wife and I realized we couldn’t all fit in her mom’s FJ Cruiser — our baby’s extensive gear and mom’s two dogs essentially claimed my seat.

No worries. For $62, I grabbed a coach seat on the next day’s train for the five-ish-hour ride to Tahoe.

If you go

Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Emeryville to Truckee

Departure time: Every day at 9:10 a.m.

Ride length: Five hours (but expect delays)

Best side to sit on: Sit on the right, then hop to the left to see Donner Lake

Most scenic stretch: Colfax to Truckee

Learn more: www.amtrak.com/california-zephyr-train

The train departs daily from Emeryville in the East Bay at 9:10 a.m., although the next stop a few minutes later in Richmond has the added benefit of an adjoining BART station.

I dropped my bag at my assigned seat and made my way to the observation car with a couple of snacks and coffee in hand. There are great views of the San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait, but the real star of the show is the Sierra Nevada, and you will have to wait for that.

Forget about time

The key to enjoying any Amtrak trip is cultivating a strong mental detachment from timeliness. The train will be late — maybe a little, maybe a lot. Develop a discipline to forget all that. Leave behind whatever clock normally dominates you.

Kill time any way you can. Pack a nice meal, zone out with music, bring Uno if you are traveling with pals or want to make new friends.

But the best way to pass the time is the dining car. The staff opened it up for lunch after we left Sacramento, and I was quickly making small talk with three strangers about menu strategies. The cheeseburger with chips was solid as ever, but the buttercake from Frank & Louie’s Italian Specialties in Delaware was new, and it was mind-blowing. If you stay on the train long enough for dinner, the Amtrak Steak has never let me down.

As we ate, the Sierra Foothills started to appear out the window. We made our way up the mountains along a ridge. You can peer down into the amazing, intricate forested canyons carved by the North Fork American River and its tributaries.

Now it was time to grab a seat at an observation car table and wait for the approaching snow. Somewhere between the historic gold rush towns of Auburn and Colfax, you can start to see the bright, almost blinding white peaks of the Sierras jutting out from above the treeline as the train climbs. After these weeks of storms, you start to understand why John Muir described this range as “so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.”

Slowly, the scenery transformed as the snow cover spread and deepened. Soon enough, the train passed through two ski resorts, and vacationers greeted us by unleashing a barrage of snowballs on the observation car. The train goes through a few tunnels, and amazing views of snow-covered ridges greet riders on the other side.

Donner Lake’s clear waters appeared next. You will want to have a seat on the left side of the train for this. The lake is down the hill, and you can see the snow-capped hills reflected back.

Downtown Truckee followed soon after, a great place to stroll around and grab coffee. Public transportation can take you to the various ski resorts, but I was lucky enough to grab a ride from a family friend already in town.

The train isn’t for everyone, but it’s a great way to take in the grandeur of California.

I always end up striking conversations with fellow passengers. Amtrak has a special way of attracting interesting oddballs from all over. Unlike in air travel, most people are content with taking the scenic route at a deliberate pace.