The year 2023 was forecast to be another drought intense year for the western states until Mother Nature spurned predicament letting down the barrier to a never ending stream of rain, hail, snow and flooding to the West Coast. Between bought of seemingly infinite rain, calm conditions in the Sierra Nevada mountain revealed a winter wonderland unseen in intensity for decades. Decadence aside, Donner Pass is still a forbidding mountain gauntlet. It sits over 7,000 feet and its 300-500 inches of annual snowfall is more than just about anywhere else in the Continental US. But what better machine to overcome the elements than a train?
Amtrak’s California Zephyr line is known for traversing the same pass with relative ease continuing through the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah before ascending the Rocky Mountain range. Cutting through snow and storm while bypassing a horde of traffic was an enticing proposition for a weekend of sightseeing. Getting from San Francisco to parts beyond Donner Pass is still a perilous and daunting trek unchanged from the time of settlers moving west over the Sierra Nevadas except you can still meet a dire fate in comfort thanks to the advent of cars. Surely more cozy than horse drawn carriage though still just as lacking in a pummeling storm.
Recent storms had dumped record levels of snow turning the Sierra Nevada mountain range into a winter paradise. However, new storms were tough to predict and Federal emergency declarations prevented any traffic from traversing the range. That meant Amtrak, even if it could make its way was prevented from doing so. Finding an opportune window for travel while competing with every weekend traveler was a fraught gamble. My bet wagered on March 11th and 12th being the time to try.
A little overlooked fact by even the most hardcore Bay Area resident is BART technically travels to Tahoe. The Zephyr picks up passengers from Richmond, sharing a station with BART’s northern most terminus. Making a connection is a simple walk from platform to platform as if you were connecting to a San Francisco bound train from Berkeley at MacArthur station. Taking the Zephyr to Truckee connects you within the same station to TART — Truckee Area Regional Transportation — taking you to Crystal Bay or Tahoe City with stops along for Palisades, Alpine Meadows and Northstar Resort. BARTing and TARTing sound like delightful adventures in public transit.
Donner Party Or Dinner Party
Any Amtrak ride is a visual feast depending on your appetite for the industrial or natural. Criss crossing through factories and heavy industry along the Bay then crossing wide plains and marshes to Sacramento is no less an enthralling affair each time you take it. If that’s not enough, not needing to camp in traffic nor suffering the indignation of air travel should be a much more welcome reprieve. The Zephyr from Emeryville — its closest connection to San Francisco — takes a few hours to reach the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The landscape changes dramatically about ten minutes north of Colfax. Vistas began to open. Green forests shrouded in fog gave way to snow covered banks and white tipped pines. A much better vantage point for epic views was to be had in the Observation Car. To one side, banks of trees ascended endlessly. The other, a mountain valley drenched by snow.
A group of overly excited women yelped loudly at every sight as it changed. A war veteran critiqued our train operator's performance in hazardous weather with brutal commentary. A family yelled after every move of a card game. I’d imagine this was a modern day saloon given our destinations lined up with Gold Rush era travel.
At a sharp bend we came to a slow halt opportunistically looking over another valley. Minutes passed before our train operator announced we’d encountered a red signal before tracks converged from two to one. We’d wait here to allow a westbound California Zephyr to pass in about twenty minutes. Another announcement we’d wait for freight traffic to pass us. After an hour of delay we’d need to wait another half hour for the snow plow ahead to meet us and escort the Zephyr through the pass to Truckee. A snow storm had been rolling through bringing heavy snow to the rails, roads and skies.
Despite the punishing elements shutting down car traffic, invoking small amounts of fear and angst amongst our passengers — “Would we be the next Donner Party?” — the Zephyr moved on without care. Our enemy was not the elements but poor planning and logistical failures manmade in nature. Snow plow trains are normal in mountain passes during the winter. Grinding up snow and clearing tracks, the Zephyr continued its march through the Sierras guided by a familiar friend. We lurched suddenly then glided without care. The cabin populace produced subtle applause, amazed at our newly optimistic outlook.
The glaring downside of rolling delays were the waning hours of daylight in what may be the most picturesque scenes in this trip. Night descended well before reaching Truckee. I resigned photographing anything worthwhile until the next day. I’d be seeing this route in reverse anyway hopefully 12 hours from now. Night turns the Observation Car into a more muted affair. I couldn’t see anything discernible in the pitch black night other than my reflection staring back, illuminated by the dimmed light in the cabin.
I returned to my roomette to pass the hours until arriving in Reno. What would have been a 4 PM arrival was now 9:15 PM, give or take a few minutes. My main concern was checking into my hotel — The Jesse — before the bar closed. Thankfully it was located a short jaunt from Amtrak’s Reno station. Although chosen more for its proximity, the Jesse is a restored historic building boasting good bones and a warm, inviting cocktail bar. I dropped off my things and made it over minutes before last call guzzling down a few drinks.
The following morning would bring unwelcome news: the California Zephyr going West I’d be boarding would be delayed arriving in Reno by at least 7 hours, longer than the trip from Reno back to San Francisco itself. Rocks falling on tracks in Colorado had delayed the trip. Unknown to me, this would be the harbinger for an avalanche of logistical blunders imperiling my return. A sightseeing tour of the mountains became more high stakes than I anticipated. “I should have just gone to Denver to see the full range of the Rocky Mountains.” As if how much mountain I could pack into a weekend were the extent of my problems. Making the best of a situation beyond my control, I walked around Reno, camera in hand.
A Series Of Calamities Came To Follow
- March 12th, 6:15 PM - Our delayed train — 9 hours at this point — pulls in to Reno station.
- March 12th, 6:45 PM - We hold suspiciously long at Reno. Tensions rising awaiting a status update.
- March 12th, 7:00 PM - An announcement is made: we’d continue holding at Reno until the track ahead was clear.
- March 12th, 8:00 PM - A snow plow derailed blocking the single track between Truckee and Colfax.
- March 12th, 9:00 PM - An announcement is made: we’d be on standby awaiting a clearance to move assuming the derailed snow plow was fixed.
- March 12th, 11:00 PM - The path seemingly clear, we trudge west to Truckee and I fall asleep.
- March 13th, 1:30 AM - Our path still lay blocked. Poor assumptions had been made conditions would clear by time we approached.
- March 13th, 2:30 AM - Admitting defeat, we slink back to Reno. A complicated affair done at night against poor visibility.
- March 13th, 4:15 AM - I awake expecting to see the Bay Area through my window. Seeing we never “left” Reno I’m startled.
- March 13th, 4:30 AM - I piece together what happened and resign myself to spending a significant amount of time in my current predicament.
- March 13th, 5:00 AM - Our train crew has clocked out. Their well deserved 8 hours of rest begins. No replacement crew arrives.
- March 13th, 7:00 AM - Breakfast is served and food supplies are fully depleted.
- March 13th, 1:30 PM - Our crew is rested and eager to continue forward. However, we must await for Eastbound traffic to clear.
- March 13th, 3:00 PM - Eastbound traffic continues to pass leading to delays.
- March 13th, 5:30 PM - We lurch forward unexpectedly leaving Reno at last.
Clearing The Path To Ascend
At some point, you ascend the mountain. Perhaps metaphorically. Sometimes literally. In this case, perhaps both while lacking some sort of divine discovery at the end of a spiritual trek. Highways lay bare and my trip began in reverse, covering the same valleys, passes and mountains I’d encountered two days earlier. From Reno to Truckee, a winding path in a valley of majestic mountains draped in snow. Rivers fighting against freezing temperatures mixing water and slush. Seemingly endless snow banks rising higher and higher. Trees buried under mounds of snow.
Night descended during another snow storm, both competing to drown out any gasps of light from the day. Ominous shadows and eerie silence before me. Snow banks partially illuminated from the Zephyr’s windows.
A certain joy of triumph exists getting over something that sucks. I felt relief wash over as we pulled into Sacramento knowing threat of nature was a much smaller worry. Home still several hours away though time felt unimportant. It felt safe to say I’d avoided the fate of another sight seeing train through the Sierras some decades earlier. I slunk back in my seat dozing off to clock some bit of sleep.