Every year we attend a family retreat in Colorado Springs and most years we have flown to Denver and then made our way to the Springs, from there. One year we drove but K made me swear we’d never do it again. This year we took the Amtrak California Zephyr. If you have any need to go to Denver and have a few extra days on either side of your plans, I highly recommend the Zephyr for an inexpensive, fun and easy trip between the bay area and Denver. If you live on the other side of the country, the Zephyr runs both ways between Chicago, IL and Emeryville, CA.
We arrived at Emeryville Station, where it’s possible to park for free in a secure parking lot right beside the train station. The conductor provides a ticket for the dashboard with return date on it, and you’re good to go.
The Train tickets for two adults and two kids were $605 after a AAA discount and half-price for the kids. This could change; ticket prices on Amtrak are not set. The seats were comfortable, with both leg and foot rests and a great recline. Sure it’s not a bed, but for one night on board in each direction, we were ok. (The train departs Emeryville at 9:15am and arrives in Denver the next day at 7:25pm.)
It was great to be able to plop our stuff from the car straight onto the train with no security or other airport hassles! Then we settled in and explored the train.
The viewing car (aka “the lounge” or “the skyliner”) was a great place to chat with other passengers, who by the way were a truly mixed bunch. We came across Amish families, dread-locked 30-somethings, European travelers and Train Enthusiasts traveling for the train-ride itself.
The food in the dining car, which offers three meals a day, is reasonably good, all things considered. Since lunch was half the price of dinner we had our one restaurant meal per day then and purchased food from the snack bar --or ate snacks we brought with us-- the rest of the time.
Arrival in Denver was simple. Union Station is gorgeous; a real old-style train station!
We easily and enjoyably spent the two days reading, napping, playing cards and our recent discovery, banagrams, chatting, watching the great paper-folding documentary, Between the Folds, drawing, looking out the window, dining, etc. We have been holding on to the video, which was a gift from our friend Jacquie, for months and the train ride finally gave us the time we needed to watch. Some fellow travels looking over our shoulders were so intrigued that I lent it to them once we were done. Incidentally, my favorite person featured in the documentary was Erik Demaine, who was homeschooled and is also a fellow Canadian.
Before the trip I ordered Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America by Henry Kisor and enjoyed the simultaneous reading of the book, whilst traveling on the train.
During my pre-trip prep, I researched computer A/C power access and read many reviews describing the complex machinations required for charging technology. It turned out that the Zephyr (at least the one we were one) was a new enough train and offered a two-plug power station at each seat. Now if only they could provide WiFi…
On both ends of the Colorado Springs portion of our trip, we stayed in Denver for one night and we all emphatically agreed that Denver is a wonderful city. That conclusion was reached very quickly on this trip, largely by virtue of having arrived at Union Station right in the heart of Downtown Denver, which is radically different from arriving at DIA! That said, even the kids commented on how helpful and friendly everyone in Denver was to us.
My Priceline bid of $80 yielded great 3.5 star hotels on both sides of Denver stay. When we got off the train we walked to our hotel, Courtyard by Marriott Denver Downtown. It was a fifteen-minute walk, but if you do it, and you’ve read this blogpost, then you’ll know that there is a free shuttle, which runs along the central mile of the 16th Street Mall starting at Union Station.
There is also the option to pay for horse and buggy or pedicabs but we took the free shuttle most of the time. If every person in our party was more than 4.5 feet tall we would have used the fabulous looking bike-sharing program, Denver B Cycle (think Zipcar for bikes), which allows you to take a bike and return to one of over 40 stations. This is a super cool idea and very affordable, too. Too bad the bay area is so hilly!
On our return trip we stayed at The Curtis, which bills itself as a “Uniquely Fun Boutique Hotel”. The kids only regret was that we weren’t on the Simpsons themed floor 9, but instead were put on the “Dance” floor ie. Floor 12. They did like the fact that we could borrow Yahtzee and other games, however.
If only we’d had more time we would have returned to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science which is free for us with our local science center membership by reciprocal agreement through the ASTC Passport Program. The DMVS is currently hosting Body Worlds & The Story of the Heart through August 15, 2010, which, if you haven’t seen it, is a thought-provoking, inspiring, controversial, educational and beautiful exhibit.
I think we’ll definitely take the Zephyr again next year.