The California Zephyr begins its westbound journey at Chicago's Union Station . Passengers see the Chicago River and central Chicago as the train eases out of the station. The train soon leaves the urban zone behind, and crosses the open prairie of central Illinois, southern Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado. The following morning, the train pulls into Denver's Union Station .
After Denver, the California Zephyr climbs the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, passing through resort towns like Winter Park and Glenwood Springs as it follows the path of the Colorado River. Soon, the East- and West-bound trains pass each other, high in the mountains. The train continues following the increasingly-larger Colorado River, leaving the Rockies behind. The train crosses into Utah after sunset, and stops in Salt Lake City (typically before Midnight).
The bulk of the night passes as the train clears the salt flats west of Salt Lake City before entering the Great Basin of northern Nevada. In the late morning, the train arrives in Reno, gateway to the Sierra Nevadas. Early afternoon of day three, the train goes through the extraordinary scenery of the Sierra Nevada mountains, gradually descending to Sacramento. A couple of hours later (approximately 6:00 PM) the California Zephyr arrives in Emeryville.
The California Zephyr is timed so passengers will see the most-scenic points of the Sierras and Rockies, regardless of direction traveled.
Total route length is just over 2400 miles.