New York >> Los Angeles by Train
Did you ever want to go cross-country in the United States but didn’t feel like driving? You might want to take a look into all that Amtrak has to offer. In my opinion, it is one of the best ways to see the country. It is affordable, comfortable, and has incredible views.
When I signed my first post-college job offer with a company I had already been interning with for a few months, I was excited and ready to start my “adult” life. I knew working full-time would take up a decent amount of my schedule, so I wanted to plan a big adventure before I became full-time. One of my coworkers [turned best friend] brought up Amtrak and how he wanted to take it cross-country. I immediately fell in love with the idea and ran with it. Once I had a general idea of where I wanted to go [spoiler alert: California] I texted my cousin, Colleen, and said something along the lines of “hey, would you want to take a train cross-country with me?” and she quickly responded, “Yes!!!”.
Me being the over excited traveler I am, recommended we take the route that detoured to Washington D.C. instead of heading straight from NYC to Chicago to LA. Why not add in some extra sightseeing since we had the time? We also decided that once we arrived to LA, we would rent a car and drive down California’s Pacific Coast Highway to San Diego to spend a few days there. Jam packed schedule: check.
Day 1: Penn Station, NYC >> Washington D.C. >> En route to Chicago
We scheduled our Amtrak to leave NYC at 9:30AM on a Wednesday without considering that it would be rush hour heading into NYC. The two of us obnoxiously boarded a 6:30/7:00AM rush hour train from Long Island with all of our luggage and made our way to NYC’s Amtrak station. Our uncle met us in Penn Station since he lives close by and wanted to send us off on our adventure. He bought us coffee and even made us little goody bags with snacks and other things to take on the train with us because he is the best. He walked us to the Amtrak platform and we were off!
Colleen and I excitedly boarded the Northeast Regional train. For this leg of the journey we reserved standard train seats since it was a relatively short trip from New York to D.C. and we had to switch to a different train to head to Chicago anyways. We arrived at Union Station in D.C. around 1:00PM with no plan on what we wanted to do there and we only had three hours to explore so we needed to decide quickly. We wandered around and saw some monuments, the Capitol Building, the reflection pool, and a bunch of “KEEP OFF THE GRASS” signs, before we made the decision to go to the United States Botanical Garden. The Garden was so serene and had such a relaxing atmosphere. It was filled with colorful flowers, ponds, and all different trees and greenery and was just absolutely beautiful. When we walked out of the Gardens we saw some very handsome security guards walking around the premises since we were so close to the capitol building. Me being the annoying, boy-crazy person that I am said, “Mmm, how do we get us some of those security guards” to which Colleen wittily said “just step on the grass”. We could not stop laughing. This trip was starting off so perfectly! Our time in D.C. quickly came to and end and we made our way back to Union Station to board the Capitol Limited for our journey to Chicago.
This leg of the trip was a little longer and we wouldn’t arrive until around 9:00AM the following day, so we reserved a sleeper car. We walked over to our room, which just had two chairs in it that folded into a bed and a bed that pulled down from the wall, essentially making bunk beds. We didn’t realize how small the room would actually be, but we did go with the cheapest option that didn’t include a private bathroom so we should have assumed. There was barely any room for our luggage in there, and we both said we wished we spent a little more money for the bigger room, but what was done was done and we made the best of our cramped situation. (When you plan your Amtrak adventure, I suggest splurging a little bit and getting your own private bathroom!) Thankfully Colleen & I have a close relationship to begin with so we didn’t mind being basically on top of each other for a few days. For the rest of the evening we explored a bit to find the viewing car, find the dining car to have some dinner, and relaxed for our big day in Chicago.
Day 2: Chicago >> En Route Los Angeles
The breakfast alarm went off bright and early, I want to say something like 6:00 or 7:00AM, so we got ready for the day, had some breakfast, and prepared to enjoy our day in Chicago. We arrived in Chicago before 9:00AM and didn’t have to be back to Union Station (yes, the same name as D.C.) until 3:00PM, so we had a good portion of the day to explore the city. I had been to Chicago previously, but I was young, so I was excited to be going back, even if it was just for like 6 hours or so. We had plans to go to the Shedd Aquarium as soon as they opened at 10:00AM. Shedd is such a fun place, so definitely add this to your Chicago itineraries! The Shedd Aquarium focuses a lot on rehabilitation, conservation, and proper care for all of the animals in their facility. We spend the better part of the morning and early afternoon at the aquarium and then made our way to the Navy Pier to indulge in some Chicago style, deep-dish pizza. After stuffing our faces with pizza and exploring the pier, we went back to Union Station to board the Southwest Chief to begin the longest leg of the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. From this point, there were a few small stops, but nothing longer than an hour or two and we wouldn’t be switching trains again.
A majority of the evening after we got back on the train was us heading south through Illinois, and we decided to sit in the viewing car, which was filled with extra long & wide windows, so you could take in all of your surroundings. Let me tell you. From what we saw, outside of Chicago there is not much going on in Illinois. We saw corn stalks for literally 3 hours. (Disclaimer: I know we were on the train route, so there could be so much more to Illinois than I saw, this is just what we saw from the window of the train). Colleen wanted to read her book, so after a while she said to me “let me know if you see anything interesting and I’ll look out the window”. After about a half hour of her reading and enjoying her book I was getting a bit bored, and I excitedly yelled “oo Colleen, look!” She looked up, and I just said “more corn! …and some other crop” And thankfully she burst into laughter rather than being annoyed with me. All of our little witty and funny comments were starting to become standard for this trip and I decided to start writing all of these moments down in my notes so we would have the memories after it was over.
After I had enough of looking at the corn stalks, I went back to our tiny little room to read and take a little nap. My phone started buzzing and it was Colleen. I got up and made my way back to the viewing car to catch the end of a conversation between Colleen and some random guy on the train. When he finally left she couldn’t even hold in her laughter anymore and immediately told me all about her strange encounter. This guy just started talking to her, completely ignoring the fact that she was reading a book, and telling her all about his life. His mom, some casino where I think he worked. He said something in his strong southern accent to her that made its way right to our memories notes. “I was employee of the month last year. There’s gonna be twelve of those this year!” As if it was novel to have 12 of something that occurs monthly in a year… He was just one of the interesting people we met/saw throughout our trip, but he was definitely one of the most memorable after that comment.
We made quick pickup/drop off stops throughout the remainder of the day/night, and that night we stopped for a quick half-hour in Kansas City, Missouri. Since it was only a half hour we decided to stay at the station to avoid possibly missing the train leaving the station.
Day 3: En Route to Los Angeles
The Friday morning breakfast alarmed chimed right on time and we were woken up in Colorado! Unfortunately, there were no long stops in Colorado, but the scenery we drove through was absolutely incredible. I spent most of the day starring out the window and taking some time in the viewing car. The southwest region is so different from New York, and I was astonished by how beautiful all of the mountains, deserts, and rocky structures were. I had never seen anything like that before. In the late afternoon, we stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico for approximately one hour. We had time to wander around and shop at some of the local jewelry stands near the station. After the hour quickly passed, we got back on the train for another night full of sightseeing from the windows.
We made friends with a lovely older gentleman named Sam who was one of the train attendants who was always in the dining car, where we admittedly spend a ton of time. He would joke around with us whenever we ran into him, and he made the entire train experience even better.
We were in our room; sightseeing from our bunk beds and a strange smell came through our room. We had been getting whiffs of the bathroom every so often since the beginning because we were right across the hall but this smell was different. I finally figured it out and blurted out “it smells like salmonella in here!” Which obviously made zero sense whatsoever. Colleen looked at me like I was insane. Fair. I meant to say citronella but salmonella came out. Another night full of laughter and another quote for the memories notes!
Day 4: Arriving in Los Angeles, California!
The day had finally come to get off of this train! Not that I wasn’t having a great time, but 4 days on a train in a tiny cramped room and using a shared bathroom/shower was enough for both me and Colleen. We were starting to go a little stir crazy. The night before, after dinner, we had a little conversation about how we couldn’t wait to sit at a table for a meal without strangers …unless they were attractive …and didn’t smell bad. Yup. Some people aboard this train were a little lacking in the hygiene department if you ask me.
We made it to Los Angeles and got off at you guessed it, Union Station. We grabbed a cup of coffee and then went straight to Enterprise to pick up our rental car to begin our road trip to San Diego began. I’ll save our road trip/San Diego story for another time to avoid flooding you with too much in one sitting.
All in all, taking Amtrak across the country was an incredible experience. There were some minor bumps here and there, but I would definitely do it again. My only advice to you with taking Amtrak is: if you’re on an overnight adventure, get the room with your own private bathroom. You will not regret it and you won’t smell salmonella (hehe).
Have you ever taken Amtrak or explored your country via train? Tell me all about it below in the comments!