10 best stops on the California Zephyr route

California Zephyr in Colfax, CA

Connecting the Midwest with the West Coast, the California Zephyr route is one of the longest in the United States. The scenery from the train is stunning, plus you can get off the train at any of the stations on the route for a night (or longer) to explore different parts of America. To start planning your trip, our favorite California Zephyr stops are listed below with nearby hotels and things to do.

Note that you will need to buy separate one-way tickets for each leg of your trip or use the multi-city ticket option if you choose to get off and back on the train. We also may make a small commission if you book a hotel through the links below.

Chicago

Chicago River Skyline
Photo by Picken/Flickr.com

Chicago is either the start or end of the California Zephyr route depending on the direction of travel. Train layovers are also common here, more reason to get out and explore or stay a night in order to see more sights.

If you’re in the city in the spring, summer or fall, you can get on the water taxi near Union Station for a ride to the Riverwalk and the Magnificent Mile. World-class museums, beaches, Navy Pier, Wrigley Field and Willis Tower are some of the other popular attractions to visit. Music-lovers should also check out one of the many live music venues, and don’t miss the pizza and steak.

Closest Hotel: Holiday Inn & Suites Chicago-Downtown (5-minute walk from train station)

Omaha

Omaha Union Station
Photo by Ali Eminov

It’s a night or very early morning stop in Omaha, but if the unique attractions appeal to you, it might be worth dealing with train schedule. A short walk away from the Amtrak station is the Durham Museum, which is in the 1931 Union Pacific train station (pictured above). The building is gorgeous, and you can explore local history and train cars from the 1940s and 1950s. Before or after, you can visit the Old Market district, which has restaurants, shops, galleries, live music and events.

Other top attractions include the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Lauritzen Gardens, and the Joslyn Art Museum. And if you love railroad history, have a meal in Little Italy, where many railroad workers lived. Union Pacific railroad construction began in Omaha in 1863, and Union Pacific is headquartered in the city still today.

Closest Hotel: Embassy Suites by Hilton Omaha Downtown Old Market (11-minute walk from the train station)

Denver

Denver and Rocky Mountains
Photo by James St. John

There are many museums, breweries and activities to explore in and around Denver. The historic Union Station is in a walkable area near Coors Field and many restaurants. With a rental car or tour package, you can also visit Rocky Mountain National Park, Vail and Boulder.

Rail fans may also want to check out the Colorado Railroad Museum, which is about 25 minutes away from the Amtrak station by car. The museum has seasonal train rides, exhibits, and historic engines and rail cars.

Closest Hotels: Kimpton Hotel Born and The Crawford Hotel (2-minute walk from the train station)

Fraser/Winter Park

Winter Park Ski Resort
Photo by Robert Meszaros

In the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the Fraser/Winter Park stop is must-do if you like winter sports and outdoor activities. A free shuttle at the Amtrak station will take you to downtown Winter Park, the Winter Park Resort and Granby. In the summer, mountain biking and hiking are top activities — skiing and snowboarding are popular in the winter. There are also year-round events and a large number of breweries to check out.

Closest Hotel: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fraser – Winter Park Area (10-minute walk from the train station)

Glenwood Springs

Pool in Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Photo by Steven Martin

Glenwood Springs has activities for people of all ages and interests. It can be a relaxing or exciting stop. Choose from hot springs, spas, a theme park, trails, rafting and tubing, and a variety of snow sports. As a bonus, the Amtrak station is in walking distance of hotels, restaurants and the year-round Glenwood Hot Springs pool (pictured above).

Closest Hotel: Hotel Denver (1-minute walk from the train station)

Grand Junction

Winery in Grand Junction, Colorado
Photo by Marko Forsten

For beautiful scenery, wineries, unique shops and art galleries, consider getting off the train in Grand Junction. The Colorado National Monument is the top nearby attraction. A rental car is best for driving through the area and reaching hiking trails. You can walk eight minutes from the train station to Enterprise or arrange for a pick-up (requires a rental reservation).

The Amtrak station is in a walkable area, so you don’t have to rent a car to explore downtown. Main Street is about three blocks away, and in the opposite direction you can walk to the Colorado River.

Closest Hotel: Tru by Hilton Grand Junction (6-minute walk from the train station)

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City
Photo by Ken Lund

Full of cultural and outdoor attractions, Salt Lake City is the home of the Salt Lake Temple (pictured above) and The Tabernacle. A top attraction is the Natural History Museum of Utah, which has a great dinosaur collection, or check out Clark Planetarium to view exhibits and IMAX films.

For outdoor fun, head to Red Butte Garden, a large botanical garden with hiking trails at the edge of the city, or to Big Cottonwood Canyon, which is less than a 20-minute drive from downtown. Additionally, you can drive to many ski resorts in less than an hour.

If you are willing to drive a few hours, you can also visit several national parks, including Arches National Park. Multiple rental car companies are near the train station if you want to rent a car.

Closest Hotel: Homewood Suites by Hilton Salt Lake City-Downtown (10-minute walk from the train station)

Reno

Reno, Nevada sign
Photo by Ken Lund

“The Biggest Little City in the World,” Reno is a fun place to exit the train if you like casinos and gambling. But there is more to the city than that. There are several museums (including the National Automobile Museum), a riverwalk, wildlife sanctuary and a ski resort worth visiting.

It’s easy to get around once you arrive. The area around the Reno Amtrak Station is very walkable, plus you can get rides from Uber and Lyft, or rent a car at the nearby Enterprise.

Closest Hotels: Reno Suites and Whitney Peak Hotel (3-minute walk from the train station, and several other hotels are a short walk away)

Truckee

Donner Lake kayakers
Photo by Kent Kanouse

Truckee is a small mountain town near Lake Tahoe with a surprising amount of restaurants. Donner Memorial State Park (pictured above) and the Northstar California Resort are top attractions — there are many outdoor activities to enjoy year-round, and history buffs should stop by the park’s visitor center to view exhibits on the Donner Party and Sierra Nevada railroad construction.

Lyft and Uber are options for getting around. The ride to the state park is only 10 minutes from the Amtrak station, the Northstar California Resort is less than 20 minutes away, and the north side of Lake Tahoe is over 30 minutes away, with Tahoe Vista and Kings Beach the closest places to stay near the water. You can also rent a car at the Truckee Tahoe Airport.

Closest Hotel: Tahoe Star Hotel (4-minute walk from the train station – also check Airbnb and VRBO for a larger variety of accommodations near Amtrak and Lake Tahoe)

Sacramento

California State Capitol, Sacramento
Photo by Steven Pavlov

The capital of California, Sacramento is the home of the California State Fair, California Automobile Museum and the California State Railroad Museum, which features excursion train rides and a custom 1948 private rail car. There’s more history and fun to explore in the Old Sacramento Waterfront historic district. There are restaurants, nightclubs, bars, boat rides and locally-owned shops, not to mention a Ferris wheel and a carousel.

Another unique thing to do is visit one of the area’s farmers markets. Sacramento is near large agricultural areas that produce crops for the entire country. Kids and animal-lovers will also enjoy the Sacramento Zoo.

Closest Hotel: Hyatt Regency Sacramento (5-minute walk from the train station)

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