Rail – Through the Feather River Canyon on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

IMG_2814.JPG Have you ever woken up feeling that today was the day that you absolutely must go to Winnemucca?

It wasn’t quite so spur-of-the-moment but about a month ago I found out a major trackwork project in the vicinity of Donner Pass would force the Union Pacific to close the mainline entirely for five 24 hour periods between 12 August and 9 September 2008. As a result, Amtrak quietly made it known that on each of the five days that the line would be shut down it would operate the Emeryville (Oakland)-Chicago California Zephyr by way of the Feather River canyon.

If you know anything about trains in the West then you recognize just what a treat this promised to be. However for non-rail-crazy folks here’s the significance. Prior to Amtrak’s assuming the operation of long-distance passenger trains in May 1971, the Western Pacific (in conjunction with the Denver & Rio Grande and Burlington railroads) ran one of the most famous long-distance passenger trains in postwar history: the California Zephyr. (Above and to the left is a W.P. timetable from 27 April 1958.)

The original California Zephyr began in Oakland, stopped in Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville and Oroville before tackling the Sierras by way of the Feather River canyon. It stopped in Keddie and Portola and then passed out of the Sierras about where Hwy. 70 has its junction with U.S. 395. From there it went northeast some distance to the small towns of Herlong and Gerlach, Nev., and then continued in a mostly easterly direction toward Winnemucca, and on through Utah, Colorado and ultimately to Chicago.

Unfortunately this grand train didn’t survive until Amtrak day (1 May 1971). Its last run was on 22 March 1970. A truncated remnant of the train did operate after that date but only from Chicago to Ogden, Utah.

In 1983 Amtrak renamed it’s Oakland-Chicago train the California Zephyr but in California and Nevada it has always operated over the line used in pre-Amtrak days by the Southern Pacific’s name train in this market, the City of San Francisco. Once in a while, a special excursion train is operated over the Feather River canyon route by a tour operator that caters to railfans but to my knowledge Amtrak’s Zephyr never before detoured over the old Western Pacific route. (If anyone knows otherwise please let us know by commenting.) So the chance to ride through the canyon on a regularly scheduled passenger train at a very reasonable price was irresistible to me and to others.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr normally makes stops in Truckee, Reno and Sparks before reaching Winnemucca, Nev. around 7:00 p.m. But since the detouring Zephyr would not go through those cities, it would not have any passenger stops between Roseville and Winnemucca. It would make one stop only in Portola for the purpose of a crew change (engineer and conductors), who were shuttled in from Reno.

Consequently I had no choice, I was going to overnight in scintillating Winnemucca and then turn around and come back the very next day on the westbound (and not detouring) California Zephyr . I alerted my brother and a couple of friends to see if I might get a travel companion and, sure enough, my pal Martin joined me. He lives near Walnut Creek so he got on in Martinez while I boarded in Sacramento,

It was a terrific trip!

In general, the tracks are situated at a greater height in the Feather River canyon than is Highway 70 so you get a different and better perspective of the canyon from the window of a train than from a car. We had lunch in the diner while the train was in the lower part of the canyon and that was a real pleasure to eat our meal and overlook the Feather River.

Even after the most dramatic scenery is behind you, it still was a lovely ride through Plumas County’s forests and meadows from Keddie to Portola where we made our quick stop for a fresh crew. As you pass out of Sierra Valley to Hallelujah Jct. (where 70 and 395 meet) the train heads to the northeast. By now the sun was setting, which made for a splendid backdrop to dinner.

Both the normal route over Donner Pass that the California Zephyr plies and the Feather River canyon route are beautiful but I think in some ways the canyon route is superior.

The U.P. gets high marks for not putting our train “in the hole” (railroad parlance for being forced to wait on a siding while another train passes) as they sometimes do to Amtrak. In nearly all cases the freights waited for the passenger train.

Due to the detour, the train was late into Winnemucca – about 10:15 p.m. that night. We overnighted at a motel and then were up bright and early the next day to catch the westbound Zephyr about 7:45 a.m. Now this train was operating on the normal route but both freights and passenger trains were delayed in the Sierras due to the trackwork near Donner Pass.

The train arrived in Sacramento about 7:15 p.m. I’d covered a lot of ground in 36 hours but it was worth the investment in time and money.

Now there is a chance that the UP may need to close the Donner Pass route again for the same reason. If I find out about it I will let you know in the blog. By the way, if the train has another detour you also have the option of doing the trip I just made in reverse: outbound to Winnemucca the day before and then taking the westbound train through the canyon the following day.

Here are a few pictures I took along the way:

IMG_2768 (crop).JPG

From the Sightseer Lounge car on the train:
IMG_2770 (crop).JPG

IMG_2774 (crop).JPG

The Keddie wye:
IMG_2782 (crop).JPG

Sign noting the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in Winnemucca in 1868:
IMG_2789 (crop).JPG

A 100+ year old Basque restaurant in Winnemucca near the station:
IMG_2787 (crop).JPG

This crowd is larger than what you’d normally see boarding in Winnemucca. Nearly all of them were fellow rail enthusiasts who had been on the detoured train the day before:
IMG_2791 (crop).JPG

This entry was posted in Rail and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Rail – Through the Feather River Canyon on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

  1. Jake Early says:


    Awesome! I love it! I’ve always fantasized about a train trip through the Feather River Canyon and never done it (one “bachelor party” idea that never happened was to hop a freight through the canyon). Anyway, this is terrific and I’m really excited to see and read more.

  2. Eric Lerude says:

    Great story for train enthusiasts. Thanks for sharing it. Another plus about the Feather River Canyon route is you get to travel along the edge of the famous Black Rock Desert. By the time you got there it was dark so you didn’t see much. Let me know when this opportunity arises again. I would be interested in doing it.
    Best regards,
    Eric in Reno

  3. Kathy Betty says:

    Thanks for sending me notice of this. I have always wanted to do train rides and really never have. Looking forward to lots of your interesting info.

  4. Rob Glass says:


    Enjoyed your travelogue and erudite musings! Keep traveling and posting. Maybe you can find a rail trip to the great state of Texas sometime and see a “really big” canyon (Palo Duro).

  5. Jane says:

    Sounds like a wonderful, rare highly scenic trip.

  6. Anni Herborn says:

    Hey Greg! I was working late at Coal Canyon Powerhouse and waved at a passenger train going by. Maybe you saw me? Ha-ha, yea right! Sounds like fun. Hope all is well. See you soon at upcoming events. Anni.

  7. Greg Fischer says:

    Hey, Anni. Of course I remember you. But didn’t I see from the train that you were drinking a beer on PG&E property? Just kidding.

    Mixing my two posts, you and Pete should run on a Whiskeytown Relay team sometime. Great fun, I can assure you.

  8. martin raumann says:

    I am interested in the next Feather River excursion.
    Any info is appreciated.
    Martin Raumann

    Thank you for the comment, Martin.

    I don’t have any news on when another Feather River detour may come to pass but a friend at Amtrak said it might occur next spring. I promise to post in my blog the moment I hear about it. If it should come to pass the news probably won’t emerge until a few weeks or so in advance.

    Keep your fingers crossed. If you can take the ride through the canyon you won’t be disappointed.

    — Greg

  9. martin raumann says:

    Greg, I’ve driven the canyon 100+ times, can’t wait for the train !

    And since the next detour – if there is one – is probably some months off you’ve got time to research all of the sights you’ll want to take in in Winnemucca! You might want to stay longer than just one night in order to see it all!

    Actually, checking out the Basque restaurant across from the train stop might be fun and I surprisingly had a pretty good Chinese dinner there on another occasion when I was doing some work in W-mucca.

    I hope another detour does take place for more folks to enjoy the ride through the canyon.

    — Greg

  10. Tom Crowell says:

    Thanks Greg. Great read. Hopefully I’ll still be on sabbatical when the opportunity to ride the rails through Feather River Canyon presents it self again.

    Another twist on train travel I wanted to offer is to do the train one way and return via your own car! Yes I have done this several times combining a one way train or plane trip with a drop shipment of our car. So far it has worked beautifully using Uship.com to transport the car. This last Spring we took the Zephyr from Emeryville to Grand Junction where our car met us just 150 feet from where we stepped off the train. I definitely recommend the services of Uship.com. (The train ride was comfortable and beautiful too.)

  11. Greg Fischer says:

    Thanks, Tom.

    I’m going to take a look at Uship.com. That sounds like a good way to to customize a trip by arranging for your own ride to be waiting for you after a one-way by rail (or by air).

    It’ll be interesting to compare the price for Uship.com with a one-way car rental.

  12. Tom Hannah says:

    Hi Greg, thanks for the info. I’ve always wanted to travel by rail through this canyon. I would appreciate receiving any updates when Amtrak does it again.

    Thanks again,

    Tom Hannah

  13. Greg Fischer says:

    Thanks, Tom.

    No word yet on any further detours via the Feather River but stay tuned. My understanding is that the UPRR still has further work to do on the Donner Pass route which is what would likely force a reroute via the canyon.

  14. Raymond says:

    Hi greg, I enjoy catching up on your travels now and again and was wondering if you have any news from your buddy at Amtrak with regards to any future rail detours up the FR Caynon? Would have loved to ride the 844 up last weekend, but the required donation put it a little out reach.
    Thanks in advance if you hear anything,

    Raymond Cooper

  15. Greg Fischer says:

    Hi, Raymond.

    Sorry to say I’ve heard nothing about further detours via the Feather River Canyon. My sources include a couple of friends at Amtrak as well as travel agent briefings to which I have access.

    My understanding last year was that the work in the Sierras that caused the detour was not finished and would thus result in more detours but they have not come to pass.

    I promise that as soon as I hear of anything I’ll let you know via the blog.

Comments are closed.