Riding this train through California’s snowy mountains rules right now


Crossing up and over the fabled Donner Pass in the northern Sierra Nevada and descending to Lake Tahoe is one of those essential rites of passage for Californians.

But forget doing it in a car. Now is the time to hop on board Amtrak’s long-distance California Zephyr and see the amazing snowpack from the comfort of the train’s observation car. A series of storms in the last few weeks have left California’s mountains with a lovely cloak of fresh powder.

The Zephyr goes all the way to Chicago over two days, but don’t be intimidated. I’m here to evangelize for this essential intra-California trip. I made the last-minute trip to Truckee from the East Bay after my wife and I realized we couldn’t all fit in her mom’s FJ Cruiser — our baby’s extensive gear and mom’s two dogs essentially claimed my seat. Taking two cars seemed like a waste.


No worries, for $62 I grabbed a coach seat on the next day’s train for the five-ish hour ride to Tahoe.

The train departs daily from Emeryville in the East Bay at 9:10 a.m. though the next stop a few minutes later in Richmond has the added benefit of an adjoining BART station for the true transit sickos among us.

I dropped my bag at my assigned seat and made my way to the observation car with a couple snacks and coffee in hand. There are great views of the San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait but the real star of the show is the Sierra Nevada and you will have to wait for that.

Scenes from a ride on Amtrak's long-distance California Zephyr train trip through the northern Sierra Nevada.
(Javier Panzar / Los Angeles Times)

Now is an important time to emphasize that the key to enjoying any Amtrak trip is cultivating a strong mental detachment from timeliness. The train will be late. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Develop a discipline to forget all that. Leave behind whatever clock normally dominates you.

Kill time any way you can. Pack a nice meal, zone out with music, bring Uno if you are traveling with pals or want to make new friends.

Scenes from a ride on Amtrak's long-distance California Zephyr train trip through the northern Sierra Nevada.
(Javier Panzar / Los Angeles Times)

But the best way to pass the time is the dining car. The staff opened up for lunch after we left Sacramento and I was quickly making small talk with three strangers about menu strategies. The cheeseburger with chips was solid as ever but the buttercake from Frank & Louie’s Italian Specialties in Delaware was new and it was mind-blowing. If you stay on the train long enough for dinner, the Amtrak Steak has never let me down.

As we ate, the Sierra Foothills started to appear out the window as we made our way up the mountains along a ridge. You can peer down into the amazing intricate forested canyons carved by the North Fork American River and its tributaries.

Perhaps you’ve come across this popular train on TikTok, where people rave about its gorgeous observation cars. Here’s what the ride in coach is really like.

Dec. 1, 2022

Now it was time to grab a seat at an observation car table and wait for the approaching snow. Somewhere between the historic gold rush towns of Auburn and Colfax you can start to see the bright, almost blinding white peaks of the Sierra jutting out from above the tree line as the train climbs. After these weeks of storms you start to understand why John Muir described this range as “so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.”

Scenes from a ride on Amtrak's long-distance California Zephyr train trip through the northern Sierra Nevada.
(Javier Panzar / Los Angeles Times)

Slowly the scenery transforms as the snow cover spreads and deepens. Soon enough the train passed through two different ski resorts and vacationers greeted us by unleashing a barrage of snowballs on the observation car. The train goes through a few tunnels and amazing views of snow-covered ridges greet riders on the other side.


Donner Lake’s clear waters appear next below the train, you will want to have a seat on the left side of the train for this. The lake is down the hill and you can see the snow capped-hills reflected back.

If you go

Amtrack's California Zephyr: Emeryville to Truckee

Departure time: Every morning at 9:10 a.m.
Ride length: 5 hours (but expect delays)
Best side to sit on: Sit on the right then hop to the left to see Donner Lake
Most scenic stretch: Colfax to Truckee
Learn more: Amtrack’s California Zephyr

Downtown Truckee followed not that long after, a great place to stroll around and grab coffee. Public transportation can take you to the various ski resorts but I was lucky enough to grab a ride from a family friend already in town. The train isn’t for everyone but it’s a great way to take in the grandeur of California.

I always end up striking conversations with fellow passengers. Amtrak has a special way of attracting interesting oddballs from all over the country. Unlike air travel, most people are content with taking the scenic route at a deliberate pace. This ride I passed the time chatting with a teacher from Omaha and a fellow train enthusiast from Japan. He said Japan’s trains are definitely faster, but for the scenery, nothing beats America.