The Amtrak California Zephyr is a once in a lifetime experience, so riding it at the best time of year and being on the best side of the train are critical. We’ve taken this train trip in all seasons and the best time of year to be on the California Zephyr is the fall. The best side of the California Zephyr to be on is the south side of the train. If you are heading west that is the left side in the direction of travel and if you are heading east it is the right side in the direction of travel.
Best Months to Ride the California Zephyr
California Zephyr In The Fall
The prettiest time to ride the California Zephyr is from mid September to late September when the fall colors are beautiful in the gorges of Colorado.
The Colorado section of the trip is the highlight, so plan your trip around the weather in that area only. Most years the fall colors peak between mid September and early October in Colorado.
If you wait too long into the fall, such as late October and early November, you’ll miss the fall colors and be too early for the best snow scenery as well. November is the worst month to ride the California Zephyr as you’ll be dealing with colder temperatures and probably not have the best scenery.
California Zephyr in Winter
Riding the California Zephyr in winter is a delight. You’ll see snow covered mountains and gorges that will amaze you. Make sure you’ve given enough time for a decent snow fall before your trip. The early winter months of November and December are not ideal as there isn’t enough snow on the ground. February is the best winter month to ride the California Zephyr due to the heavy amounts of snow falling in the area. March is also good.
The views in winter are simply wonderful. It is an incredible feeling to see the snow capped Rocky Mountains outside your windows as you ride through Colorado.
California Zephyr in Spring
In Spring the snow melts and gives way to green vistas again. As with other seasons you want to be careful to not be on board between seasons, when the snow is gone, but the new growth has not happened yet. Spring is not our favorite time to be on the California Zephyr, but May is a good choice due to lower crowds if you need to visit in this time frame.
California Zephyr in Summer
The worst season to ride the California Zephyr is the summer. You’ll be riding with more passengers and miss out on both fall colors and snow. The positive aspect of this time frame is that you’ll have more light in the day and should have good weather. This is our least favorite time to ride the train.
California Zephyr Best Side Of The Train
The views are best from the south side of the California Zephyr. You’ll see the absolute best views and gorges during the Colorado section if you are on the south side of the train during this section.
If you are facing the north side you’ll also see great views, but not the most stunning parts of the canyon. As you get into California, and near the Donner Pass area, the views are better to the north.
The best thing you can do is get to the observation car before the canyon section of the trip and you’ll be able to see out both sides. During summer months we have seen trains limit the amount of time passengers can spend in the observation car due to crowding. This is less of a problem during the winter.
If you are wanting to take photographs of the canyons from the train, follow these Amtrak train photography tips.
California Zephyr in Sleeper Cars
If you are riding in a sleeper car, you cannot guarantee which side of the train you’ll be on. The cars are often put on in different orders and directions so on some trips a car may be facing the opposite direction. When you board, check which side you are on and make a plan to get to observation car, or dining car to see what you want to see.
You’ll have traditional dining on the California Zephyr, which is a long meal. You can ask your dining car attendant to be on a specific side of the train and enjoy the views from whichever side you want. Eat your meal slow and soak up the views as this is one of the best train experiences you can have anywhere in the world.
California Zephyr in Coach
If you are in Coach Class you’ll likely have more options for getting the seat you want. Sometimes you’ll be assigned a seat ahead of time and other times it will be open seating, where you can pick a seat when you board and then that is your seat for the entire trip. If that is the case just pick a seat on the side you want and you’ll be all set. If you end up on the wrong side of the train, just ask a conductor if you can switch sides to your preferred side, and they will usually accommodate you.
California Zephyr Scenery
If you’d like to see the actual scenery you’ll be seeing on the trip, we made a ride along video during a late September trip of just the views from the train.
The California Zephyr is the prettiest rail route in the United States so it is important to get your timing right on this vacation. With some planning ahead of time you should be able to see the best sights at the right time of year and from the best side of the train.