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Rail Travel in and Around California by Wizzle - The Southwest Chief The Southwest Chief -  Los Angeles to Chicago

Southwest Chief Travelogues

More information about the Chief and destinations along it's route are at: 02 October 1998 - Fullerton, California to Trinidad Colorado and Back

Sometimes it's fun to see if a thing can be done.  A 2,300 mile trip from California to Colorado over a week end seemed to me to fit into the "is it possible?" category and so I decided to take the trip.  Since it was just a week end get away and not a "real" vacation, I wanted to spend as little as possible which meant traveling coach.  Fortunately, Amtrak's Superliners have nice big comfy coach seats.

As you can see, there is plenty of space in the coach seats to stretch out and relax. In front of every seat is a pull down table, like on the airlines, except the table is way larger and not right under your chin!!  The windows on the Superliners, which are the standard long distance equipment, are very large so it is easy to see out both your own side of the train as well as to the opposite side. For a really great view, go up to the lounge car, which has ENORMOUS windows, specifically made for getting that fantastic view.  No plane, bus or car even comes close to the view from the lounge on a train since the windows are so big and you are getting the view from the second level, about 10 feet up.

My trip started after work on Friday with a drive to Fullerton Station.  Fullerton always has plenty to see, so I got there early and had a picnic dinner trackside in my car while watching freight trains and San Diegans rumble through.  Around 8PM I moved my car into the garage across the street from the station which is for long term parking.  It was a lovely, warm evening, typical of Southern California in the early fall. The station slowly began to fill with folks also taking my train, the Southwest Chief, and by the time it pulled in at 9:25PM we had a large crowd ready to board.  Both coach and the sleepers were sold out on this run, I later found out.  The crew got us sorted into cars according to destination and we were off about 20 minutes behind the scheduled time.

I was lucky to get a window seat but not by myself.  My seatmate was a pleasant young asian lady who spoke almost no english and was on her way to the University of Northern Arizona (Flagstaff).  We settled in and the lights were dimmed a little while after the stop at San Bernardino, about 10:30PM.

I've learned from this trip that I'm simply not a person who can sleep in coach.  At best, I dozed and was wide awake prior to dawn at 5:30AM.  I headed toward breakfast, curious to experience  a real dining car for the first time. I was seated at a table with a silent young man who stared out the window during the whole meal and a pleasant retired couple who had done quite a bit of travel by train. The menu offered french toast and it seemed appropriate to order this classic from the days of the great Streamliner trains.  Of course I also had Amtrak's coffee, which is strong and consistently excellent. While waiting for our meal, we pulled into the charming station at Flagstaff.  Lots of people got off the train at Flagstaff, which is the closest stop for the Grand Canyon, to be replaced by others who were on their way to Lamy, the stop nearest to Santa Fe.  The Chief seems to be used by many vacationers exploring the southwest. Breakfast was very good, but took a long while to be served because the kitchen crew was one short and the cook was brand new.  Our waiter was pleasant and kept the coffee cups filled, so that was not a problem for us, who had been seated in the first round, but was rather trying on the folks who were waiting.

Thanks to the web, I was armed with many pages of information about the route I was to travel and knew what to look for and when.  From the Trainorders discussion board, I was kindly sent a wonderfully discriptive and detailed set of information about things to look for by Evan Werkama. Also, I printed out the old Amtrak route information that Steve Grande has archived at his website.  Any Amtrak trip ought to start with a visit to Steve's site, in my humble opinion.  Your trip will be just that much better for knowing what's what.  We passed some of the wonderful old stations built by the Santa Fe Railroad when the route of the Chief was part of the "romance of the West" reached via Santa Fe's premier streamliner, called the Super Chief. In addition to stations, the route was enhanced by hotels built by Fred Harvey, of "Harvey Girls" fame.......if you remember the Judy Garland movie of the same name.  In the hey dey of "the great trains" many of Hollywood's stars, as well as the corporate movers and shakers, took the Chief to and from Chicago.  Frank Sinatra was a particular fan of this train.  It still takes a wonderfully scenic path through the deserts, along the red cliffs where American Indians established a fascinating culture and up into narrow river canyons in Colorado.  Going East, at Gallup, New Mexico, a native American guide boards the train to explain some of the history and geography of the area.  He departs at Albequerque, New Mexico.  The guide re-boards at Albequerque for the trip west.  Don't miss this part of the trip !!!!  It is available in the lounge car.

One of those gracious old Fred Harvey hotels in Winslow, Arizona is restored.  From my vantage point, it looked just great with its typical southwest colonial styling.  I got to Trinidad, CO, my destination, in the early evening.  Although a small town, Trinidad has good ammenities for the tourist and the taxi company picked me up some 10 minutes after I called them.  I stayed at Days Inn, which is maybe a mile from the station, and which had a very nice room and pleasant staff (they got me the phone number of the taxi company before I left Los Angeles).  There is a restaurant as part of the hotel, where I had breakfast the next morning.  Unfortunately, I got started later than I had hoped and was just in time to catch the Chief for my return journey.  I certainly wish I'd allowed for at least a day in Trinidad, as it was in a beautiful location in Colorado and looked like a very nice town with a distinct "old west" flavor.

I did catch a quick snap of the neighboring town of Raton.  As you can see, the main buildings are straight out of the last century.  I'd love to see this area under a winter snowfall......must be picture perfect.  The return (westward) trip features the Raton and Glorietta Passes in their full daylight spendor.  Raton Pass is particularly scenic, with canyon walls so close to the train you could touch them.  Night closed in on our journey as our Native American guide was describing the approach to Gallup and the cultures that dwelled among the fantastic red rocks of Arizona.

Did I like the trip??? much so that I made a second journey on the Chief just a few months later. Everything was really wonderful.....nice crew....excellent meals, including the best steak I've had in years....and great scenery.......the wide open panoramas of the West.  Doing the journey in a two day week-end was a bit much, though.  I'd suggest adding another day for some r&r in Trinidad.

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Updated: Thursday, November 5, 1998