Amtrak, Trains

Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Denver to Glenwood Springs to San Francisco

I’ve taken the Amtrak’s California Zephyr many times over the years, but something from my bucket list was to visit Glenwood Hot Springs in Colorado during the winter. The town of Glenwood is on the western side of the Rocky Mountains at the mouth of Glenwood Canyon along the Colorado River. The town boasts one of the largest naturally heated hot springs pools in the world. Conveniently, it’s one of the many stops along the once-daily California Zephyr route, making it an ideal 24 hour stopover.

In January 2020, Vanessa and I decided we should make use of the MLK weekend and take a trip. Our itinerary:

Thursday night: Fly Oakland – Denver

Friday: Work remote and visit Denver

Saturday morning: Amtrak Denver to Glenwood Springs (5.5 hrs)

Sunday afternoon: Amtrak Glenwood Springs to Emeryville/SF (27.5 hrs)

Monday evening: Arrive in San Francisco

This gave us 24 hours in the town of Glenwood from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, as well as a day in Denver.

Out trip started after work Thursday with a BART ride to Oakland Airport where we caught our (on time) Southwest departure to Denver. One of the nice things about Denver airport is the train that runs frequently to Union Station downtown in under 40 minutes.

RTD train at Denver International Airport

This worked out really well for us since we decided to stay at the Crawford Hotel in Union Station. Not only convenient for our trip in from the airport, the renovated Union Station also has coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and easy access to public transit. You should definitely visit if you’re even in the Denver area. It literally took us 30 seconds to walk from the train to check in at the hotel.

Denver Union Station

We told the hotel we were celebrating our anniversary (sure, we were there in January and our actual anniversary is in June) and they made sure to get us a room facing the train platforms as well as a small bottle of champagne. Super sweet and an example of the excellent service we experience at the Crawford Hotel.

View from the hotel room at the Crawford, within Union Station

Little did we know, this really did end up being our anniversary celebration since COVID put a damper on the actual one come June.

We arrived just in time to get an Acme pizza before they closed at 1am at Terminal Bar, within the station. It was barely 20 degrees outside and we needed to work the next morning, so we called it a night.

Terminal Bar within Union Station

The next day we grabbed excellent coffee and breakfast at Pigtrain Coffee within Union Station. We worked until the late afternoon and then headed out for a very cold walk around downtown Denver. It’s always nice to see protected bike lanes and 17th Street has some cool bus lanes. Unfortunately for us, Denver had just shutdown their bike share system so we weren’t able to try biking around. Still, there’s lots of restaurants, shops, and bars around downtown within walking distance from the train station. Eventually we ended up on the north side of downtown in Highland where we had a couple of great German-style beers at Prost Brewing Co. I highly recommend it!

Bright and early the next morning, our train was looking to have an on time (8am) departure. We grabbed a quick cup of coffee at Pigtail and picked up some donuts as a gift for our future sleeping car attendant. The Zephyr backed into the station about 45 minutes before departure, unloaded, and began being serviced. It was quite the swarm of activity. Meanwhile, we lined up with 80+ others waiting to board. The bitter cold air made my hand holding the coffee hurt – the sub freezing temps and wind chill were a bit much for waiting in line!

Once in our roomette, we met the very nice sleeping car attendant who advised that we hurry to add ourselves to the dining car list for breakfast since so many people were boarding in Denver. The waiting room for breakfast was in the Sightseer Lounge, a pleasant place to wait.

We had a pleasant breakfast where (thanks to communal seating) we met a father and his 8 year old son doing a cross country trip to San Francisco from Chicago. The son was so excited to tell us about their trip so far.  During our meal, the train began the long climb across the Rocky Mountains. We had beautiful views of the plains and slowly morphing into snow mountain scenery. At one point we passed the popular Ski Train which takes passengers from Denver to ski slopes that are literally just steps off the track.

As we continued across the Rockies, scenery got more and more dramatic. We were glued to the window as we started passing into Byers Canyon where the creek below us was completely frozen. The snow pack got thicker and thicker. Meanwhile we were warm and cozy in our room.

Before we knew it, lunch was called. On Amtrak, you lose track of time, but it seems like it’s always some sort of a mealtime.

Thanks to the communal seating, we were paired up with a couple from Colorado also heading to Glenwood Springs for the weekend. They made sure to tell us that we had to visit the Yampah hot caves in Glenwood, just a few minutes walking from our booked hotel. We had never heard of it before, and wow, am I glad they told us about them since it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.

During lunch we entered into the dramatic Glenwood Canyon, following the partly frozen Colorado River. The distinct cliffs and rock formations are worth the cost of the trip.

Having done the entire route from Chicago to Emeryville, the part between Denver and Glenwood is my favorite scenery of the entire journey.

On time into Glenwood Springs, we almost didn’t want to get off the train. Maybe that’s because it was a balmy 20 degrees outside, maybe it was the thick ice across the station platform, or maybe it’s just because I enjoy riding a train, tough to say.

For our accommodations, I booked a room at The Hotel Colorado, a historic hotel built in the 1890s at the same time as the hot springs pool. There’s a pedestrian footbridge (or a shuttle if you don’t want to walk on ice) that takes you across the river, straight from the train station to the hotel.

The ice covered pedestrian bridge across the Colorado River

The hotel is well known for being haunted and, while nothing fancy, is a great place to stay. With a prime location, you can walk to everything in town and it’s across the street from the hot springs. We could even see the river and pools from our room. The lobby is especially nice and was hosting a wedding the night we were there.

The lobby at The Hotel Colorado

I couldn’t wait to get into the hot pool. Since the train was on time, we had time to check in and then leisurely make our way to the pools to pay a discounted evening admission. As the sun went down, the temperature dropped to 14 degrees, but the natural springs keep the huge pool at 93 degrees and a smaller (but still sizable) pool at 107 degrees. The temperature juxtaposition is what makes the experience in winter so unique. The fog caused by the hot spring water vs the cold air covers the surface of the pool so you couldn’t see anyone else. It felt very private. But looking up, you could clearly gaze at the stars. I highly recommend a visit, it was everything we hoped it would be.

Glenwood Hot Springs pools built in 1888

We had been up early and were relaxed after our hour long swim, so we retreated back to the hotel and got some rest. The next morning, after breakfast, we walked half a mile to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park to ride a gondola to the rim of the canyon. It’s a fun ride up the hill and the weather was perfect for a dramatic view up the canyon.

Since the couple we had met at lunch on the train spoke so highly of the Yampah Caves, we made sure to give ourselves enough time to check it out. It’s a modest looking spa from the outside, but once you go inside, there is a stairway that takes you underground into natural caves that are steamy and hot from the natural springs under the rocks. You just get in a bathing suit, go in, and relax. The heat is intense and so we did a couple of 20 minute stints and then had to head out to catch the train. It was even more relaxing than the pool and is not to be missed if you ever visit. (I didn’t get a picture since you can’t take photos in the spa.)

We grabbed our luggage from the hotel and made our way back across the bridge to the train station.

The Amtrak Station along the Colorado River

Looking at the status map, it looked like our train would be 45 minutes late or so, so we popped into Hotel Denver across the street where we had a nice lunch and some good beer from Glenwood Canyon Brewpub.

The train station to the left and Hotel Denver/Glenwood Canyon Brewpub to the right

It’d be near impossible to miss your train there since it’s just across the street. Our train ended up arriving about an hour behind, but that’s not too bad for long distance Amtrak.

Once in our room, the sleeping car attendant came by and introduced himself. He had made sure to get us a dinner reservation before we boarded since the train was running a little late – nice touch! I think we may have skipped dinner otherwise, having just eaten, but it is included in the sleeping car fare…

The sun set shortly after departing and the Zephyr sped quickly across the high desert. Before long we were in Utah and, shortly after that, we had our beds turned down and caught some sleep.

Early the next morning, no time had been made up, but that didn’t matter much to us. Our train had already crossed into Nevada and we were moving along at a quick 79mph. I’m such a sucker for desert scenery, I couldn’t help but snap a picture. Breakfast was served, and our attentive sleeping car attendant took the time we were in the diner to turn up the room.

Before long, the train departed Reno and we began our day of climbing the Sierra Nevada. This part of the trip is particularly scenic and a bit different than the Rockies. You follow the Truckee River until Donner Pass.

The Truckee River

As you snake along the mountain landscape, the train enters a number of tunnels and snow sheds that protect it from potential avalanches. It’s a good reminder of how inhospitable the pass is during this time of year. There have been occasions we have taken the train across the Sierra when the passes are completely impassable by road. This day was a bit nicer, weather wise.

Descending down the mountain, the crew fed us one last time as we passed through Sacramento. Before we knew it, the familiar sight of San Pablo Bay came into view, rather picturesque as the sun was setting.

San Pablo Bay, north of San Francisco Bay

We pulled into Emeryville – last stop of the Zephyr – less than an hour late. Our connecting bus, a guaranteed connection no matter how late the train is, was waiting. About 40 minutes later we were dropped off at Salesforce Plaza in San Francisco.

This trip was just what we needed. It took us through winter scenery, across some of the most amazing mountain crossings in the United States, to little mountain towns, and big mountain cities. We were always comfortable and never hungry. Only a couple of months later, we’d be stuck home for the rest of 2020, but thankful we had made this long weekend trip.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to leave your comments below!

8 Comments

  1. Mike Acken (aka Palmland)

    Thanks for posting this, Parker. We loved the photos as they brought back so many memories. The first train trip I took with a girl I was dating in 1967 was on the California Zephyr in January. The scenery hasn’t changed and the sightseer lounge is almost as nice as the dome cars. 52 years later that young girl is still my wife and we have taken many train trips since. We return to Colorado often and several years ago we stayed at the Hotel Colorado and thoroughly enjoyed its old school charm. Your report makes me want to go back in the winter and recreate that first trip on the CZ in winter.

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      Parker Day

      Hi Mike – thank you for reading and taking the time to share your sweet story! I think you should recreate the trip. Hopefully we’ll cross paths at some point on Amtrak in the future.

  2. Scott Feeney

    Beautiful photos and storytelling. Makes me feel like I was there with you, which is exactly what I needed after ten months of shelter-in-place.

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      Parker Day

      Thanks for reading, Scott. It was an escape to write it, so I’m glad it did the same for you, if only momentarily.

  3. K.J. Crandall

    Reading about your adventure really gives me the bug to do another California Zephyr trip. I just retired from airline flying and for me seeing the world from 36,000 feet just doesn’t compare at all to seeing it from the windows of the C.Z. Wasn’t aware of the things to do in Glenwood Springs and the hot springs pool. Will have to put it on my list. Thanks for taking us all along on your adventure.

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      Parker Day

      Thanks for reading KJ! I hope you have an enjoyable retirement with many Amtrak rides.

  4. Bob Denaude

    Parker- You took this trip in January of last year before the covid restrictions existed. I’m planning a trip but am wondering how things on the Zephyr are now with the restrictions. I’ve heard that sit down dining is gone and it’s all the flex meals now. One thing I’ve heard a lot lately is that the flex meal food is not good at all, it being inedible as stated by some. I always loved the self serve coffee nook in the front of the sleepers also. Wondering if that is gone now. Do you have any personal experience or have you talked to people who have ridden Amtrak recently as to what the experience is like now after all the covid restrictions have been put in place?

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      Parker Day

      Hey Bob – I don’t have a lot of experience with the COVID Amtrak situation, but a lot of the people over at https://www.amtraktrains.com/ do.

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