For an adventurous, no-hassle, and incredibly scenic winter getaway, just hop Amtrak’s California Zephyr to Reno, Nevada.
I did just that a few weeks ago. I’d never visited the “biggest little city in the world,” but riding the rails over snow-laden mountains and spending a couple of days exploring a new destination sounded like fun. And it was.
Running for 2,438 miles between Chicago and Emeryville, the California Zephyr is Amtrak’s second-longest route. A Superliner, the train offers reserved sleeping cars, plush and comfy coaches, and a Sightseer Lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows. The daily eastbound Zephyr to Chicago departs Emeryville shortly after 9 a.m., pausing briefly to load/unload passengers at seven stations before chugging into Reno in mid-afternoon. For Sonoma County residents, the nearest boarding stations are Emeryville, Richmond, Martinez, Davis and Sacramento.
We opted for Davis, which turned out to be a great choice. The depot there — a beautiful 1913 Mission Revival building listed on the National Register of Historic Places — is tucked away on the edge of the small, walkable downtown and offers free parking to ticketed train travelers.
Most North Bay residents could make the 10:36 a.m. departure time at Davis by leaving home a couple of hours in advance, but you might consider starting your getaway a day early by driving up to Davis in the afternoon and spending the night. That’s what we did, booking a room at the well-run Hallmark Inn next door to the depot. It’s quiet, friendly and a tasty breakfast buffet is included in the cost of the room.
Time passes quickly in Davis, a friendly college town that’s loaded with shops and eateries within walking distance of our hotel. If you have time, the impressive Manetti Shrem Museum of Art is a 10-minute drive away on the University of California campus. Through April 14 it’s hosting a Bruce Nauman exhibit, “Blue and Yellow Corridor,” to coincide with a Nauman retrospective at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.
We arrived in the late afternoon, so skipped the museum. Instead we browsed a few interesting shops, enjoyed excellent modern Italian cuisine at Paesanos, and then took in a new release at nearby the Regal Cinema.
The next morning we checked our bags at the station, placed the free parking permit we’d been given on the car’s dashboard, and were set to board when the Zephyr pulled in right on time. Our reserved seats on the coach’s upper level were wide recliners, extremely cushioned and comfy, possessed a huge amount of legroom, and the storage space above had ample room for the day bags we’d carried on board. Since the seats are up high and the windows unobstructed, the view is wide open.
We sat back, relaxed, and let the scenery flow by. For most of the trip, the train parallels Highway 80. At the beginning, the highway is visible but then it vanishes except for an occasional sighting. After the Zephyr leaves Sacramento, farms begin making an appearance; they gradually change into vast stretches of open land. Distant hills become close-by mountains, and then the train starts climbing. In winter months, the world quickly turns white once the ascent begins.
We sat for a while in the comfy chairs of the Sightseer Lounge, gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows at soaring fir and pine trees backdropped by thick drifts of untouched, glistening snow. Eventually we emerged from the forest and below, lit by the sun and stretching for nearly 3 miles, lay the icy blue waters of Donner Lake, rimmed on the far side by mountains. It was a breathtaking sight.
If You Go
Basic round-trip coach fares on the Zephyr (Davis to Reno and return) are $98 during the week and higher on weekends. Seniors over 65 receive a 10% discount, kids 2 through 12 ride at half price (under 2 ride free), and U. S. military personnel, spouses and dependents save 10%.
Make a reservation at www.amtrak.com. After paying, you’ll be emailed an e-ticket as a PDF attachment. You can either show the barcode on your phone to the conductor, or print out the ticket and bring it with you.
Each passenger can check two bags for free and also carry aboard up to two bags. The Zephyr has a snack bar where you can purchase sandwiches, beer and other items. The dining car serves a sit-down lunch on the way to Reno with numerous selections and wine by the glass.
Where To Stay
Hallmark Inn, 110 F St., Davis. Rates range from $159-$229. A buffet breakfast is included in the room fee. hallmarkinn.com
Whitney Peak Hotel, 255 N. Virginia St., Reno. The on-site restaurant, the Roundabout Grill, is excellent and eye-catching. Rooms are large and most offer great views over Reno to the mountains beyond. Rooms start at $135.
Thing To Do
Nevada Museum of Art, 160 W. Liberty St., Reno. Exhibits that grab your imagination and make you think. Highly recommended. nevadaart.org
National Automobile Museum, 10 S. Lake St., Reno. Automobiles become high art in this wonderful museum. automuseum.org