I recently decided to abandon temporarily the sardine-canned airplane travel experience and take the train from San Francisco to Chicago. The California Zephyr train, which departs daily from Emeryville, CA near Oakland (San Francisco has no Amtrak station, but a bus shuttle is provided from the SF Ferry Building to Emeryville), is truly one of the great train rides in the US and even worldwide. After leaving the San Francisco Bay area, the train heads to Sacramento and climbs through the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains to Reno and from there via Nevada and Utah, follows the Colorado river up the Continental Divide, though the 6.2 mile Moffat Tunnel and down to Denver. From there the train crosses the Great Plains via Nebraska and Iowa, the Mississippi river and finally reaches Chicago Union Station.
The trip takes 52 hours, give or take a few hours: don’t expect it to arrive on time or to have onboard Wi-Fi (or even a cellular connection in some spots). Do expect to lose track of time, meet interesting people and be reminded of how vast and beautiful the American West is, something one forgets zooming over it on a jet. The maximum speed is 80 Mph, but usually the train goes much slower. There are many “smoking stops” on the way, where one can step out of the train, stretch one’s legs and even buy some souvenirs at local stations. The ride is surprisingly comfortable and one can book a reclining seat (similar to old business class airline seats) or a sleeping cabin with real beds and sheets, some which have en suite shower and toilette. A dining car serves meals, but I recommend buying fruits in advance as the food is quite traditional. A beautiful lounge car that is open to all passengers has huge windows and glass ceilings, and provides excellent panoramic views.
You can find all the information that you need for the journey on the Amtrak site and also on the excellent train site The Man in Seat 61. The pictures I took below speak for themselves. Simply a great journey worth doing at least once.