Somewhere, in the back of my memory, I think I promised I would write more about train travel. Did we talk about Donner Summit? No? I didn’t think so.
Many of the train trips that used to be a fairly simple excursion experience no longer offer passenger service. Fortunately, the Donner Summit trip isn’t one of them.
My dad liked to say that he had three train trips on his bucket list. Of course, that was before the term “Bucket List” became popular, but it was the same idea:
#1. The Southern Pacific route over Donner Summit.
#2. The Union Pacific’s Feather River Canyon route
#3. The Royal Gorge in Colorado. . . Denver and Rio Grande Western line.
Daddy didn’t get to do any of them. But I count it as kind of a tribute to him that I experience them in his memory. Today I want to tell about #1. The Donner Summit trip.
So, I digress. There is still traditional Amtrak service from the Bay Area to points east. All the way to Chicago, if you so desire. This one would take you through Salt Lake City and by way of historic Promontory Point and various other points east. The part that I enjoy, partly because it is so accessible and partly because it’s a beautiful trip, is from the Bay Area to Reno. There is a company that runs excursions over this route two times a week in the winter. I’m not doing a commercial here, but I’m just saying that there are other options if the scheduled Amtrak train doesn’t suit your purpose.
Of course, you realize that there is no train service directly out of San Francisco for parts north or east. If you go to the San Francisco Amtrak station, you will be bused across the bay to Oakland to pick up the train part of the trip. You can board the eastbound train in Oakland, Richmond, Martinez or Sacramento.
I love it all, so I usually plan to board in Richmond. BART and Amtrak are in the same station there so if you want to park in Concord or some such, and take BART to Amtrak in Richmond it is really an easy transfer.
Traveling from Richmond to Sacramento is interesting because you get to transverse Suisun Bay on the Benicia Bridge. I also will refer to this part of the trip when we talk about the Feather River trip in a future column.
Going east out of Sacramento, you will cross the American River. You will have already crossed the Sacramento coming into town. Next stop is Roseville, which is one of the largest and busiest rail yards in the country. It was initially enlarged and put into heavy use during WW II, but is now a designation yard for a lot of the containers coming out of the Oakland Port.
Then it’s time for the AHHHHH factor.
Winding through the foothills through Auburn and Colfax is especially beautiful in both in Spring, when the apple orchards are in blossom or the Fall when colors are in evidence. Then there you are, curling around the north wall of the American River Canyon.
It may not be the Royal Gorge of Colorado, but it’s pretty impressive. After that, you sit back and enjoy beautiful timbered scenery until. . oops, what was that? A tunnel? Maybe. There are several on this route, but a better guess would be a snow shed. Remember the passenger (city of San Francisco) train that got stranded for a number of days in a blizzard back in the early ‘50s? That was before the development of snow cats or Ski-doos. So after several days, when supplies started running low, things got kind of desperate. The SP had built many miles of snow sheds before that point, but greatly expanded them after that incident.
One of the times I took this trip, it was in November and a blizzard was in progress over Donner. Needless to say, this wasn’t in the last three years! We could barely make out I-80 on the other side of the canyon. Did we feel smug in our warm, carefree train car sitting with a hot toddy in our hands watching the poor drivers on the highway install chains? YUP!!!
If the weather is clear, you get a great view of Donner Lake, and then you travel down the Truckee River into Reno.
If you are traveling on Amtrak you can book your ticket home for whenever it suits you. Also, if you are on Amtrak, you can disembark in Truckee and spend a few days there if Reno isn’t your thing.
If you are on the excursion train, it includes a round trip ticket and two nights in a hotel of your choice, plus food on the train both outbound and inbound.
Amtrak tickets are available year round. The excursion is, as I said, only available during the winter months.
Think I’ll take that trip again in winter . . . . maybe after the first of the year . . . anyone want to join me?