From Earth to Mars on the California Zephyr

March 13, 2017Travel Ideas
Train chugging alongside a river and red canyon walls.
– Amtrak

Since the beginning of the 20th century, railroads have played an active role in promoting and developing America’s national parks, providing a scenic and relaxing way to visit some of the most picturesque public lands. The California Zephyr – considered to be among the world’s greatest train routes – continues this tradition today. The impressive train first took to the rails in 1949, and the current double-decker, superliner version offers riders a one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience some of the most breathtaking views in the Western U.S., along 2,438 miles of railway traversing Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. And a ride on the Zephyr wouldn’t be complete without stepping off the train and exploring some of the country’s most spectacular national parks along the way, including Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah, and drive up from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

On the Zephyr route spanning from Denver to Grand Junction, CO, you’ll climb through the heart of the Rockies and further west through the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. Experience the majestic splendor of this region with a stop at Rocky Mountain National Park, spanning 415 square miles in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Because of the sheer size of this alpine world, a guided sightseeing tour provides the perfect way to explore all the park’s must-see attractions, including Winter Park, Berthoud Pass, and Grand Lake.

As you head from Colorado into Utah, take note as the grey and green mountains shift into the red rock landscape of Utah, looking more like Mars than Earth.

A further feast for the eyes are two of Utah’s impressive national parks: Arches and Canyonlands. Spanning over 76,000 acres in eastern Utah, Arches National Park is a geological treasure featuring over two thousand natural sandstone arches, including the massive, red-hued Delicate Arch in the east and the long, thin Landscape Arch in Devils Garden to the north. The park's rich colors, textures, and landforms highlight the extraordinary balanced rocks, fins, and pinnacles.

Canyonlands National Park offers a stunning landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. These areas share a primitive desert atmosphere, but each offers different opportunities for sightseeing and adventure. Experience the astounding size and solitude of the park from the Island in the Sky, a 34-mile roundtrip scenic drive that follows the rim of the mesa and offers unparalleled views.

As you continue to head west toward Salt Lake City, delight in the impressive views of the gorgeous Wasatch Mountains as you kick back and relax in the observation car and gaze out the floor-to-ceiling windows. From Salt Lake City, make time for a day-trip via roundtrip shuttle to experience the wonders of Yellowstone National Park, home to the most impressive geothermal areas in all of North America.

This nearly 3,500 square mile area sits atop a volcanic hot-spot, with canyons, alpine rivers, forests, hot springs, and gushing geysers, including its most famous, Old Faithful. It's also home to hundreds of animal species, and nearly 200 species of exotic (non-native) plants.

The park is located mostly in Wyoming, but spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho. The town of West Yellowstone in Wyoming, located adjacent to the park’s West Entrance, is filled with lodging, shopping and outdoor activities to delight every type of traveler. And when it’s time to venture into the park, enjoy a full-day tour of the lower loop of West Yellowstone, open seasonally. Highlights of this fascinating tour include Old Faithful Geyser, the Old Faithful Inn, Isa Lake on the Continental Divide, and many more amazing sites.

Need help planning your next national park train adventure? Be sure to download your free copy of our Owner’s Guide, “National Parks by Rail,” created in partnership with Amtrak Vacations. Filled with detailed maps, travel tips, and inside information on what not to miss, this guide will inspire you to hop on board!


Whether you are looking for this itinerary, a short national park weekend getaway, or looking to saturate yourself in all of nature’s glory, Amtrak Vacations provides a personalized adventure for everyone and anyone who is looking to add another check to their bucket-list. For more information visit AmtrakVacations.com.

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