Tracks in the snow
A car with a view can help you re-discover the Sierras
Sacramento life is punctuated by the warning bells and halted traffic of train crossings. The perpetual clatter of freight cars over railroad ties forms the underlying rhythm of the downtown experience. Clock enough time waiting behind red-and-white crossbars, watching trains speed by for destinations unseen, and you’ll find yourself yearning to board a train and live the other side of the equation. Once you catch the railway wanderlust, each blast of the engineer’s whistle sounds a call to follow the tracks across America.
Of course, a cross-country train trek requires an investment in time and money, a few personal hygiene compromises and the patience to ignore the baby on board that cries from Denver to Chicago. For wanderlust sufferers with few days or dollars to spare, there are simpler ways to satisfy the rail-riding urge.
Taking Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Sacramento to Reno combines some of America’s most stunning scenery with the historic perk of traveling the western portion of the country’s first trans-continental railroad—all in one afternoon. When the weather is nice, the six-hour train ride may seem irrationally slow in comparison with a three-hour drive up I-80. During the winter months, however, the convenience of travel without chains or traffic more than makes up for the delay.
Winter is the ideal season for this trip. From January through March, the peaks of the Sierras are covered in pristine snow and riding the train is a uniquely comfortable way to experience the otherwise inhospitable terrain. Extreme snow sports look thrilling on soda commercials, but after all, this is the terrain that doomed the Donners. Better to watch Donner Lake from the cafe car while sipping hot cocoa.
When undertaking this journey, take a lesson from your childhood days on the school bus and try to get a window seat at all costs. A window is key to the magic of the rail trip because everything takes on the look of a stage set when framed in the window of a moving train. The unreal quality of the objects rushing by below creates a refreshing distance from the everyday world. Even terminally hectic places, like Costco and Denio’s Farmer’s Market, look like storybook scenes through the curtains of an upstairs train window. If, despite your best efforts, you find yourself stuck in the aisle, fear not! You can always move to the observation car for a better view.
Spy on the barbecues and pools of backyard suburbia before the homes give way to the horse-dotted acreage of the foothills. The train tracks part the manzanita and oak forests that surround Colfax and Auburn, before climbing into the panoramic tableaus of snowy evergreens and jagged crags that characterize the Sierras.
The moderate pace of train travel provides an opportunity to notice details normally hidden to motorists—the boulders at the bottom of the Truckee River, the trickle of water off a train trestle, the tail of a jackrabbit flashing through the fields. The train journeys through the shadowy tunnels that drivers only glimpse from the freeway. You can gaze at the majestic summits as long as you like without worrying about steering, and take photographs without pulling over.
To add a historical component to the scenery-gazing, volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento deliver an informative narrative in tandem with the rolling view. The volunteers ride the train between Sacramento and Reno in both directions every day of the year. From tales of the Chinese laborers who built the trans-continental railroad in the 1860s to the details of last summer’s forest fire near the Nevada border, their stories revive the characters and events that shaped California.
Well aware of the attraction Mother Nature’s winter splendor adds to the trip, Amtrak offers special train/hotel packages for the winter season. The best ride for observing scenery is the Snow Train—a mid-week trip to Reno during peak daylight hours. One round-trip fare on the Snow Train gets you two nights’ hotel accommodation in Reno, the historical narration by the museum volunteers, and also includes strolling minstrels and a piano lounge car. If you’ve only a weekend to spare, the Fun Train to Reno leaves Friday nights and returns on Sundays. This train lives up to its name with a dance car, live band, piano bar and a magician. The fare also includes two nights’ hotel accommodation in Reno and gaming instruction to help you outsmart the casinos. Hey, if you win big in Reno, you can buy another ticket and keep following that railway wanderlust.