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Rocky Mountain High

USA and Canada trip, Summer 2023: Week 3

  • Denver, CO to Emeryville, CA for San Francisco (Amtrak): 1,524km
  • Livermore, CA/San Francisco, CA

In last week’s episode, I left us at the start of day three of the four-day rail journey across the USA. It’s time for the most scenic day of all. This will almost certainly be the most pictorial blog post of the trip, because for the first day at least, words just can’t do justice to what unfolded.

It takes hardly any time after leaving Denver for the scenery to really pick up. We steadily climb into the mountains around a twisty track, with the promise of eventually reaching over 2,800m above sea level at the Moffat Tunnel. It’s almost impossible to take your eyes away from the scenery unfolding outside of the window.

Amtrak's California Zephyr train climbing out of Denver westwards

In just a couple of hours we’re up into proper mountainous territory. This stuff just rolls by, with a different view around every bend.

Amtrak's California Zephyr train climbing out of Denver westwards

Eventually we pick up the Colorado River, which we’ll run alongside for over 300km. This takes up most of the afternoon.

Amtrak's California Zephyr train running alongside the Colorado River

The continually unfolding landscapes are almost overwhelming, hour after hour, and on several occasions I decide to pick up my book just for a break. But every time, I’m drawn back to the scenery outside almost straight away.

Amtrak's California Zephyr train running alongside the Colorado River

Even when it’s time to go to the dining car for lunch or dinner, the views and the conversation are dominated by what we’re seeing. A fellow passenger remarks: “Can you imagine a restaurant anywhere in the world with views like this from your table, changing every few minutes?”

At times we’re on plateaus, at others travelling through gorges. Sometimes we appear to be alone in the world, at others we run alongside busy highways. It’s never the same for long. The train staff offer commentary fairly frequently, which is great; here’s an example:


During the evening we pass from Colorado into the deserts of Utah, and the scenery changes dramatically, while being no less enthralling. As we’re running a couple of hours’ late (not unusual, and indeed, to be expected), we’re in the right places to catch some amazing sunset scenes.

Utah desert

Utah desert

Utah desert

Very different territory

Day four dawns, and we’ve made a major stop at Salt Lake City during the night, where quite a few people got on and off the train. We’re now in very different territory, although just as fascinating in its own way.

Utah scenery

This lasts for a couple of hours, after which we pass into California, where there’s another abrupt change of scenery, back to lush woodland. It’s not quite as memorable as the previous day, but still fascinating to watch.

Eventually, at the end of the day, the train pulls into Emeryville, its final destination. This is on the edge of San Francisco, which due to its location on a peninsula in the bay, never got a transcontinental railroad station of its own. Passengers for downtown get a free bus service for the last few miles.

Meanwhile, I get an Uber to Livermore, some 70km west of San Francisco, where my old schoolfriend Andy and his charming partner Ann have graciously offered to host me for the next week. It’s great to catch up with Andy, and their house is amazing, looking out on a genuine California vineyard.

The next day, Andy and I head into San Francisco on the local BART train. Andy suggests a visit to the Ansel Adams photographic exhibition at the De Young museum, and then we sit outside in Golden Gate Park for the San Francisco Free Folk Festival, which is a lot of fun. It’s only a single stage in front of a few hundred people, but it’s a tiny compensation for me missing the Cambridge Folk Festival for the first time in 30 years.

On the Sunday, it’s back into San Francisco, where Andy and I do a Chinatown Food Tour, my third food tour of the trip, and another excellent one. Then we head off to the city’s greatest landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge. Oh, you know what it looks like, but I’m going to add a photo anyway…

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Photos don’t convey the scale of the bridge, which takes a good half hour to walk across, and of course things are ear-splittingly windy. Despite its vast size, as a suspension bridge, the Golden Gate really moves: it’s designed to sway 5m vertically and 8–9m from side to side.

At the north side, there’s almost nothing, so you either need to walk back, or – as we do – walk along to the delightful little town of Sausalito, from where you can get a ferry back to San Francisco.

Over the next few days I explore more of the city on my own, including taking guided walks to discover the architectural transformation of the cityscape after the 1906 earthquake, and to find out about the Gold Rush years which started it all. If you’ve ever got a few days in this amazing city, head for the free San Francisco City Guides tours, which offer guided walks on all sorts of subjects for a voluntary donation.

I also spend a lot of time with the city’s amazing cable car system, both travelling on it and browsing the free museum at the centre of it all. There you can see the actual cables running; there are three lines, of 2.3km, 2.6km and 3.4km, each with a loop of cable running under the street which the cars clamp on to. Each cable is powered by a 380 kW electric motor driving some wonderful machinery:

San Francisco Cable Car machinery

There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world, and although authorities over the years have tried to get rid of it in the name of ‘progress’, the system is now listed historically and will (I hope) be safe into the near future.

San Francisco cable car

I have a few more days in San Francisco, then a couple that I haven’t planned yet, followed by a visit to LA. Watch this space. If you want more, I’ve made a video about the coast-to-coast train journey for my fledgling YouTube travel channel, aimed at people wondering whether it can be done! You can watch it here though.

Your comments

  1. Another amazing blog and we loved the video too. I’d love to do every bit of the trip that you’ve done so far. xx

  2. Hi Chris enjoying your blogs and videos …….noted you’re reading the birthday book …..hope you are liking it. Suitable reading for a US trip

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