Just Sayin’: Time for Another Railroad Trip?


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.

Photo courtesy of John R. Signor, Western Railroad History specialist

Photo courtesy of John R. Signor, Western Railroad History specialist

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.

train in snow sans words

Photo courtesy John R Signore.

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?

Adrienne Jacoby
Adrienne Jacoby is a 40-plus-year resident of Shasta County and native-born Californian. She was a teacher of vocal music in the Enterprise Schools for 27 years and has been retired for 11 years. A musician all her life, she was married to the late Bill Jacoby with whom she formed a locally well -known musical group who prided themselves in playing for weddings, wakes, riots, bar mitzvas and super market openings. And, oh yes … she has two children, J’Anna and Jayson.
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8 Responses

  1. Avatar CoachBob says:

    The narrow guage railroad in the Yukon was a kick. Through Dead Horse Canyon….!

  2. Avatar cheyenne says:

    Before I moved from Anderson I rode Amtrak from Lincoln, Nebraska to Sacramento a few times.  I did it in winter and summer and summer is best, longer days to see the country side.   I rode the regular car but the bathrooms appear to be cleaned in Chicago and not cleaned again til Sacramento.  I rode in the private compartment, somewhat cramped not like the spacious ones in the movies, but the bathrooms were cleaned regularly.  Leaving Lincoln at midnight we were in the dark for most of Nebraska and at dawn reached the northeastern Colorado plains arriving in Denver about breakfast time.  The train then started up the Rockies, a docent who got on at Denver and would be there until Winter Park explained many oddities about the trek.  I won’t bore you, you’ll have to take the trip.

    After Winter Park the train descended down to the Colorado River and followed Interstate 70 to Grand Junction.  Along the way it passed a river beach called Moon Beach.  So named because in the summer the swimmers would “moon” the train.  As night fell the train headed toward Salt Lake City.  Morning would find us traveling across Nevada seeing the same boring landscape as driving on Interstate 80.  A little before Reno the scenery would change.  At Reno we picked up several Bay Area gamblers returning home.  Going over the Sierras was scenic but as we came down into the eastern suburbs of Sacramento the dirt road following alongside the tracks was a virtual dumpsite for all manner of garbage.  The only wart on a wonderful trip.

    Then I rode the bus to Redding.

  3. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    I am so envious!! I really want to do the Colorado part of that trip. Maybe . . . . um . . . . I think I really NEEEEED to do that trip! LOL!!

    I did take the train from Chicago to L.A. (not on Rt. 66) with two little kids (3 and 4) and not in a sleeper. We really managed quite well and the older of the two kids remembers it as a great time. Of course, on that route we went over the Rockies way south in New Mexico and into Albuquerque. Not quite as spectacular. BTW, did your route take you through the 6 mile Moffatt Tunnel?

    • Avatar cheyenne says:

      Yes we went through the Moffatt Tunnel.  What is amazing about that tunnel is that, along with other tunnels, is used to transfer water from the western slope to the frontrange.  Many towns have upgraded their train depots and I wish more money could be found to fund Amtrak better.

  4. Avatar Grammy says:

    Couple of years ago we took the Snow Train to Reno.  What a wonderful time we had.  The dinner that was served was fantastic.  The people that waited on you wonderful.  In Reno you choose you hotel and just hang out.  The next day we went to the car museum and visited our first pawn shop.  No we didn’t buy anything but it was just fun to see.  The trip back was just as wonderful.  We got to ride through snow falling all around.

  5. Avatar David says:

    You must be a mind reader; just last night Linda said she wants to take the family from Sac to Reno after (if?) it snows. I did the trip from Salt Lake to Sac in April 1993 after 600 inches of snow and the trip over Donner Pass was magnificent!

  6. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    Maybe I should start making a list of those who are interested.. . . . Just saying’. .. .

  7. Avatar Alice Bell says:

    I’ve done the “Fun train” from Sacramento to Reno and back (with 2 nights in Reno) a couple of times and loved it. You see some awesome scenery. 4 or 5 times a year we take the Capitol Corridor trains from Sacramento to San Francisco and back, usually just for the day, to go see musicals in SF. It’s very relaxing and beats driving and dealing with traffic and parking. You get off the train in Emeryville and catch a waiting bus (included in the price of the ticket) into SF with a choice of 5 or 6 drop off locations. We usually get off at the Shopping Center (where Nordtroms is located) since it’s not too far from the Orpheum and Golden Golden Gate Theatres.

    Also, we take Amtrak up to Seattle 3 to 4 times a year to visit friends. Other than the middle of the night departures from and arrivals in Redding, it’s a leisurely ride with beautiful scenery and you have the opportunity to meet interesting fellow travelers both young and old. Surprisingly, the train is usually close to being full. I especially enjoy hanging out in the observation car.

    if you’re on a tight schedule, train travel in the western U. S. Is not the way to go.