This Epic 8-state Train Journey Covers the Best of the American West — Including the Grand Canyon, Pacific Ocean, and Petrified Forests
Amtrak's Southwest Chief train route travels between Chicago and Los Angeles, stopping in eight states along the way.
There’s nothing like a train trip through the American West to take you back in time. As you travel through the vast expanse, it’s all too easy to imagine a lone cowboy riding in the distance or a group of Natives rounding up a herd of buffalo. The effect is only amplified by the fact that you’re traveling by train, a mode of transportation that enabled many to settle out West in the late 19th century.
That nostalgic feeling is alive and well on the Amtrak Southwest Chief route, which travels between Chicago and Los Angeles on a lesser-visited course. The journey, which passes through eight states, promises stunning landscape views not visible from interstate highways. And then there’s the fact that you can experience it all while enjoying breakfast or sipping a pre-dinner cocktail in the dining car. Now, this is why we’d argue train travel deserves a full comeback.
Here’s what you need to know before hopping aboard Amtrak's Southwest Chief route.
Highlights on Amtrak's Southwest Chief Route
The Southwest Chief route travels in both directions, but let's focus on a highlights reel for the western-bound trip starting in Chicago. Not long after you slink out of the Windy City, you’ll cross the Mississippi River in Fort Madison, Iowa. From there, the train travels through Kansas City, Missouri, and Topeka, Kansas, before dipping into Colorado and heading south to New Mexico.
The shift into New Mexico marks the start of what is arguably the most scenic part of the trip. The train stops just south of Santa Fe (a mere 18 miles), before making its way down to Albuquerque, which was founded as a Spanish colony in 1706. The city is full of adobe buildings and an impressive Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, which traces the area’s tribal history.
The train crosses the Continental Divide, just west of Albuquerque, before cutting through the great Navajo Nation and other Native American reservations. From there, the route passes directly through Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, known for its colorful petrified wood and preserved petroglyphs. From the “Rainbow Forest,” the train travels into Flagstaff, which acts as a gateway to some of Arizona’s many wonders, including Grand Canyon National Park (1.5 hours to the north) and the Sinagua cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon National Monument (20 minutes to the east). Sedona and its iconic red cliffs sit 50 minutes to the south.
After briefly dipping into the Hualapai Indian Reservation, the train crosses the Colorado River and drops into California. From there, it’s not long until the sprawl of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean come into view. The train travels through the San Gabriel Mountains, before reaching San Bernardino, then Riverside and Anaheim, before finally making its final stop at Los Angeles Union Station.
Sleeping and Seating on Amtrak's Southwest Chief Route
The Amtrak Southwest Chief route takes more than 40 hours and includes two overnights, so passengers have several seating and sleeping options. Coach class (either in the upper or lower level) includes wide, reclining seats with plenty of legroom, dining trays, no middle seat, and electrical outlets.
The next tier up, the Superliner Roomette, offers two seats that can be transformed into beds with bedding, pillows, and towels. Roomette guests get a dedicated first-class attendant, complimentary meals, priority boarding, and lounge access. Plus, there's a bathroom and shower room in each car.
The Superliner Bedroom is a first-class offering with double the space of a Roomette. The two-person room comes with a sofa and chair that transform into beds and all the amenities of a Roomette — plus, a private, in-room sink, bathroom, and shower.
The next tier, the Superliner Bedroom Suite, accommodates up to four people and has double the space of a Superliner Bedroom. This room type features two adjoining rooms and two in-room sinks, bathrooms, and showers. It also comes with all the Roomette and Bedroom amenities, including linens, a dedicated attendant, lounge access, priority boarding, and all-inclusive meals.
There are also Superliner Family Bedrooms and Accessible Bedrooms aboard the Southwest Chief.
Dining on Amtrak's Southwest Chief Route
Dining is a true experience on Amtrak's Southwest Chief route. Guests who book a private room (the Superliner Roomettes and up) can drop by the dining car for three chef-prepared meals a day, including a three-course dinner served on white linen tablecloths with glassware and cutlery. The first alcoholic drink is included, and those who would rather dine in their sleeping car can take advantage of the train’s complimentary room service. A selection of kid-friendly items is also available. The Southwest Chief route offers cafe service as well, with meals, snacks, and beverages available to purchase for all guests, including coach class travelers,
Perks on Amtrak's Southwest Chief Route
You can check your bags for free on the Southwest Chief route. Small dogs and cats are also welcome, with some restrictions. When you’re nearing the route’s most iconic landscapes, make your way to the Sightseer Lounge for the best views. It’s worth noting that the Southwest Chief does not have Wi-fi, and cell service can be spotty.
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