Empire Builder vs California Zephyr

Empire Builder in the Rocky Mountains

The Empire Builder and the California Zephyr are two of Amtrak’s most popular routes. Both travel in the western half of the United States through the Rocky Mountains. The main difference is that the Empire Builder offers additional views of forests and rivers in the Pacific Northwest while the California Zephyr has more mountain views as it travels through the Colorado Rockies and Sierra Nevada.

Another major difference is how seasons impact views along the routes. A trip on the Empire Builder is best in the summer as early winter sunsets limit views of the scenery. However, Colorado Rocky Mountain views from the California Zephyr trains are minimally impacted by fall and winter daylight changes, making this route great to ride all year long.

For more differences and similarities between these two Amtrak routes, see the information below.

California ZephyrEmpire Builder
Route Length2,438 miles2,200+ miles
Travel Time50+ hours45 hours
Type of TrainSuperlinerSuperliner
Sightseer LoungeYesYes
Dining OptionsCafé for coach passengers, traditional dining car for sleeper car passengersCafé for coach passengers, traditional dining car for sleeper car passengers
States on the RouteIllinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, CaliforniaIllinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon
End-of-the Line StationsChicago and EmeryvilleChicago, Portland, Seattle
Popular StopsChicago, Omaha, Denver, Winter Park, Salt Lake City, Reno, Sacramento, EmeryvilleChicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul-Minneapolis, East Glacier Park, Whitefish, Portland, Seattle
LandscapesMidwest farms, Great Plains, Colorado Rocky Mountains, Colorado River, Ruby Canyon, Sierra NevadaMidwest farms, Great Plains, Montana Rocky Mountains, Columbia River Gorge, Puget Sound
Best SceneryColorado Rocky Mountains and Sierra NevadaMontana Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest
National ParksRocky Mountain National Park (via Denver)Glacier National Park

More Information

Top photo credit: Loco Steve/Flickr.com