A Western Mountains Circle trip on Amtrak
June, 1985

Don Winter

The proximate cause of this trip is the potential imminent demise of Amtrak under the proposed Reagan budget for Fiscal Year 1986, starting on October 1st, 1985. Because the ability to ride trains through the Rocky and Cascade Mountain may not exist much longer, we have chosen to spend a week taking a ‘circle” trip to Denver, using the Desert Wind, Seattle, using the Pioneer, and back to Los Angeles using the Coast Starlight. We will spend a full day at each of Denver and Seattle. This trip will allow us to travel the Denver & Rio Grande line through Utah and Colorado, and the Union Pacific line from Ogden tom Portland, as well as the BN line from Portland to Seattle and the SP from Seattle to Sacramento, all of which are new to us.


We’re starting out on the Desert Wind, which departs from Pasadena in early afternoon. After we’ve eaten lunch Chris’ brother Roger takes us over to the Pasadena Amtrak station, where we check a suitcase through to Denver. After a while, we hear the train climbing the hill through South Pasadena on its way up from Los Angeles. It comes to a stop in the station, and we board our sleeping car. Again, we have two Economy Sleepers on this trip, adjacent to one another because we booked them together. The sleeping car and coaches of this train will go all the way to Chicago, but the former Santa Fe high-level diner on the rear will go only as far as Denver.

The Desert Wind travels between Los Angeles and San Bernardino via the Pasadena subdivision, which includes a 600 ft. climb in the ten miles between Los Angeles and Pasadena (an average grade of greater than 1%, with a ruling grade of over 2%), through the urban areas of Highland Park and South Pasadena, then a series of gentle dips and climbs over the remaining 45 miles to San Bernardino, 200 ft. higher than Pasadena, through urban areas gradually decreasing to citrus orchards and farmland, with a steel-making plant thrown in for good measure.

North of San Bernardino, the line traverses Cajon Pass, with a summit 2400 ft. higher than San Bernardino, then drops gently to Victorville and Barstow. On the West slope of Cajon Pass, the line crosses the San Andreas Fault at ‘Blue Cut’. From San Bernardino to ‘Frost’, the traditional ‘current of traffic’ directions are reversed, in favor of left-hand running, to take advantage of favorable grades. The steepest grade on the former South Track (now simply Track 2) is 3%, while that on the former North Track (Track 1) is only 2.2%. Both tracks are now signaled for bi-directional running. The ex-Santa Fe mainline is at least double track all the way from Los Angeles to near Albuquerque, where the passenger main separates from the two-main-track freight main.

Barstow has a large freight yard, where Santa Fe trains to/from both Los Angeles and the San Francisco area are, in many cases, re-sorted from/to trains connecting to points East of Belen (near Albuquerque), such as Alliance Yard in Fort Worth, Argentine Yard West of Kansas City, or Corwith Yard in Chicago, or direct connections with Eastern railroads in Illinois.

South of Las Vegas, the line turns away from Interstate 15 to drop down onto the Mojave Desert floor by way of the long Cima Hill to the former helper station at Kelso. South of Kelso, the line turns west across a sandy plain that serves as the sink for the Mojave River, where once there was a railroad crossing with the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad that had served the Death Valley mining boom. Then the line turns south again, through the spectacular Afton Canyon, which it shares with the Mojave River, reaches the UP division point and yard at Yermo, then joins with the former Santa Fe at Daggett. UP has trackage rights from Daggett to West Riverside Junction, but the Desert Wind uses the same route as the Southwest Chief from Daggett into Los Angeles. All of this is across rolling terrain, populated only by scrub and desert animals, between numerous ranges of treeless mountains. At Daggett, the Union Pacific line from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, formerly used by the Desert Wind before that train’s cancellation in 1995, joins from the North.

During the Las Vegas stop in early evening, we step off the train for a few minutes. Even after dark, the air temperature in Las Vegas is very high, much hotter than we’re interested in standing in for very long.

Leaving Salt Lake City for Los Angeles, the line makes a big turn to the west, onto the former Los Angeles & Salt Lake line long owned by Union Pacific, then another big turn west of Smelter to head south across the high desert, through Lyndyll and Milford, curving northwest to Caliente, Nevada, then south again through the Meadow Valley Wash, site of numerous washouts during the early days of the line, and then dropping down in sight of Lake Mead to Las Vegas.


We awake in morning twilight with our segment of the train stopped in the Union Pacific station in Salt Lake City. Out of the window, I can see other train segments, so the process of combining them into one eastbound train has not yet begun. The process takes quite a while, but in the end, a single train is created, and we are, again, almost at the back of the train (with only the diner that will be taken off at Denver behind us). As the combined train departs southward, it passes the Rio Grande depot a couple of blocks to the south of the UP depot. We go to the diner just behind our car for breakfast, which is completed by the time the train reaches Provo. North of Provo, the line passes the former D&RGW Roper Yard, then passes the massive steel works at Geneva.

West of Helper, the line runs in a narrow canyon, alongside a river, through Castle Gate, then climbs away from the river to reach Soldier Summit. On the west side, the line drops through the loops at Gillooly, then reaches the former site of Thistle, buried in a 1983 mudslide that was bypassed by means of two new tunnels, built in the span of less than four months. From Thistle, the grade eases as the line descends to the valley floor at Provo.

After more desert running (westbound), and a branch in from Sunnyside to the north (used mainly by garbage trains, these days), the line reaches the division point of Helper, at the foot of the westbound climb to Soldier Summit. At the north (west) end of Helper Yard, the Utah Railway trails in from the south. The single tracks of the Utah Railway and the former D&RGW are operated as paired track from here to Provo.

As we sit in the lounge car, we see that a fellow-passenger is the same as on our 1983 trip across Donner Pass, namely the spitting image of ‘Thumbs”, the NMRA cartoon character. Today, he wants to know if everyone is ready for almost 300 miles of the Colorado River.

At Green River, the line descends to the eponymous river, then climbs out again on the far side. At Thompson, where there is a single building comprising an Amtrak flag stop, the branch to Moab and Potash curves away to the south. A few miles west of Grand Junction, the line joins the Colorado river after the descent from the Utah desert. West of Grand Junction, the Colorado National Monument (a giant mesa) is off to the left, and into Utah, the line runs on a narrow shelf between the Book Cliffs and the Colorado River. At Grand Junction, the line from Montrose trails in from the east, and there is a freight yard south of the main tracks. The line west of Glenwood Springs runs down the ever-widening Colorado River valley, with mountains still on each side, but with the river and valley floor at the altitude corresponding to the uplift of the Great Plains east of the Front Range, and thus effectively down from the climb over the Rockies. In 1985, earth moving for the construction of Interstate 70 has just started in Glenwood Canyon, and some slashes in the hillsides are visible from the train, but by and large the canyon still has only the railway on the south side and the two-lane US highway on the north side, both constructed without too much damage to the scenic beauty of the canyon.

Between Orestod and Dotsero, the train traverses the Dotsero cutoff, built in the 1930s to connect the D&SL and the existing Denver & Rio Grande Western line across Tennessee Pass, through yet more canyons. From Dotsero, it’s just a few miles through Glenwood Canyon to Glenwood Springs. West of the stop at Granby, the line passes through a sequence of canyons, including Gore Canyon and Byers Canyon, to Bond and the junction at Orestod. The line runs along the backside of Rocky Mountain National Park (with Long’s Peak and the other high mountains of the continental divide—through which the line had passed within the tunnel) clearly visible to Granby. The west end of the Moffatt tunnel is in the ski area at Winter Park, where the train stops.

The Moffatt tunnel was built in the 1920s to replace tortuous switchbacks that went up to over 11,000 feet over Rollins Pass, and takes 20 minutes to traverse at the maximum allowable speed. The scenery even adjacent to the line is now quite alpine in nature (as it should be, we’re now 9000 feet above sea level). Several miles of open valley running follow, where cars (and animals other than Rocky Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep) can reach trackside, the tunnel district is reached. From that point, the next fifty to sixty miles are contour-hugging along the mountainside and through several dozen tunnels, at first traversing along the edge of the Great Plains, then turning west along South Boulder Creek into South Boulder Canyon. Many turns and tunnels later, the line is through the “tunnel district” and heading down the front face of the Rockies.

At the base of the mountains, heading west, the line swings left 180-degrees, then right another 180-degrees, and finally another 90 degrees to the right, passing by the original approach a couple of hundred feet higher. The train reaches Denver on the onetime Denver & Salt Lake “Moffatt Route” track, north for a few miles, and then due west across the sloping plains towards the foot of the mountains.

At Denver, we leave the train and take a taxi to our hotel, a few blocks away. After putting Henry to bed, Chris and I pay a visit to the hotel cocktail lounge, where we find the crew from the diner-lounge that had been removed from the train at Denver. They will be heading back west on Monday, we will stay here until Tuesday.


Monday is our free day in Denver. We take the opportunity to sleep in for a while, then spend the day walking around the center of the city, including visiting the steps of the state capitol (but not venturing inside). We don’t venture out of the center of the city, so we visit neither the railroad museum in Golden, nor the Forney museum with the ex-UP Big Boy, closer in. For dinner, we eat at the same Mexican restaurant that we had patronized during our unexpected evening in Denver back in 1983.


We check out of the hotel and take a taxi back to Denver Union Station. Our train is a little late, but not severely so, and we’re onboard by mid morning. Today’s route is simply the reverse of the one we took on Sunday, getting us into Salt Lake City after Henry’s bedtime. Chris and I, however, get off to watch the train separation process, observing that some of the cars for the Pioneer, including it’s diner-lounge, are already waiting here in Salt Lake City for the through cars to be added to them. This is completed in time for us to visit the lounge section of that car, before it closes for the night.


This route heads north from Salt Lake City, past the local freight yard, along the UP mainline to Ogden (originally the Utah Central), and then along the former Oregon Short Line north through Brigham City to Cache Valley, on the route taken by Amtrak’s Pioneer, when it ran. The line as far as Ogden is double track, beyond that single. North of Brigham City, a branch line goes off to the west side of the line. The line we are on travels through a broad agricultural valley for a number of miles then enters the valley of the Bear River and curves eastward into a narrow gorge, exiting into Cache Valley, with the northbound line heading geographically south.

At Cache Junction, the main line turns abruptly east, on a wye with a branch continuing south. A few miles further east, the main line turns north again and heads into Idaho. At McCammon, ID, the cutoff line from the Overland Route at Granger, WY, enters from the east on another wye. North of this wye, the main line turns west, then northwest into Pocatello—where the line to Butte, MT, leaves to the north—then west again, passing to the south of the American Falls Reservoir and crossing the Snake River at American Falls.

Heading west across the largely barren plains of the Snake River Valley, a group of branch lines intersects from the south at the Minidoka wye, and the main line continues west through Glenns ferry, then turns northwest to Nampa. The train normally diverges from the main at Orchard onto the more northerly route through Boise, but trackwork somewhere along that line has caused today’s train to stay on the main line, making its Boise stop at Nampa. West of Nampa, the line continues northwest along the Boise and Snake Rivers, then crosses the latter into Oregon to reach Huntington. Here, the lines leaves the Snake River valley and cuts across mountainous territory to the northwest to gain the Columbia River Valley by a much shorter route than following the Snake to its confluence with the Columbia.

North of Baker, the steady northwesterly progress of the line is interrupted by the need to climb the Blue Mountains, northeast to Telocaset, northwest again through the La Grande valley (a branch diverges northeast at La Grande), then up, around and over the Blues, curving east, south, east and then north, descending the north slope of the mountains and turning due west for the descent to Pendleton. West of the latter, more curving track leads to the Columbia plain and the big marshaling yard at Hinkle, where the line from Spokane joins from the north. West of Hinkle, the line reaches the south bank of the Columbia, which has been reduced from its former status as a great river to a series of placid lakes behind the massive dams of the Bonneville Power Administration. A couple of short branches leave to the south, then the Deschutes River line from Bend comes down the cliff face to the south to both join the UP line and cross the Columbia on a massive bridge to reach Wishram on the north bank.

Continuing west along the south bank, at Hood River, the Mount Hood Railroad diverges to the south, climbing out to the plateau above the Columbia Gorge, through which the main line now passes at river level, passing Bonneville Dam and Multnomah Falls, before leaving the river bank to reach Troutlake, where the line splits. The train takes the more southerly of the two westward routes, through Graham to reach East Portland, the Steel Bridge crossing the Willamette River, and Portland Union Station on the west bank of that river.

All along today’s run, the train chief has been acting officious, hanging out in the diner-lounge. Now, he announces there’s only one seating for dinner—at 5 pm, which is much too early for me. His excuse is that he has to reserve later seating for people boarding at Portland (actually, only about six people board there). I think the real reason is so that the crew can be ready to detrain when the train arrives in Seattle, about 8 pm. I refer to the chief as “sergeant”, which leads him to decide that he should cutoff my access to wine with dinner. I decide that in that case I really don’t want dinner this early, and return to my room. Since Henry needs to eat, Chris and Henry stay and have dinner. I tell our car attendant about this behavior, and he offers his own negative opinion of the train chief.

North of Portland, ownership shifts to the BN (ex-Northern Pacific or Spokane, Portland & Seattle), with UP having trackage rights north from Albina Yard in Portland to its own facilities just south of Seattle. North of Portland Union Station, the line runs alongside a string of mills and grain silos along the Willamette, then crosses that river, with the UP connection coming in from the east and crosses the Columbia River into Vancouver Washington. The SP&S line along the north bank of the Columbia to Pasco and Spokane leaves to the east at the Vancouver depot, north of which is the Vancouver Yard. The line then runs within sight of the Columbia, past a one-time nuclear power station to the Kelso-Longview area, where the Columbia swings away to the west. Here the line crosses over the river leading down from Mount Saint Helens. Kelso is on one side of the river and Longview on the other. On the west side of the track are a large railroad trestle and many lumberyards.

The line continues north through Chehalis, Centralia, and the Olympia vicinity, and reaches the east shore of Puget Sound, which it then follows around and under a major promontory and into Tacoma, where there is a major harbor and associated yard, and an Amtrak prefab., around the corner from the former Tacoma Union station (which is now a museum and performing arts center). From Tacoma, the line heads east, and then turns north through Auburn (where the ex-NP line over Stampede Pass comes in from the east) and Renton into Seattle.

Arriving in Seattle, we see the train chief running off down the platform, suitcase and overcoat in hand. Either he has a hot date tonight, or he’s afraid we’re going to collar him and report his behavior to management (fat chance, at this time of night!). We take a taxi to our hotel, look Denis Bousquet up in the telephone directory, and call him to set of a get together on Thursday evening. Then, we go to the hotel restaurant so I can get something to eat before going to bed.


Again, we start out our day off the train by sleeping in for a while. We then leave the hotel to walk over to the waterfront, passing through the famous Pike Place Market on the way. Reaching the quays along Puget Sound, we walk south until we get to the Washington State Ferry slip that handles the ferries across Puget Sound. We elect to ride the ferry directly across the water to Bremerton, and return. We get lunch from the snack bar on the ferry, not the world’s most elegant lunch, but it’s available and is a cut above a street vendor’s cart. Departing from the ferry slip, we gradually see more and more of downtown Seattle revealed to us, followed by the mountain backdrop coming into view. We’re in luck today, in that the weather is clear enough for us to see Mount Rainier, off to the south.

The relatively open water in the middle of the sound is quite smooth, and after awhile, we enter the sheltered inlet leading to the harbor at Bremerton. Here, we’re required to disembark and then re-embark, with a time period in between that is long enough to get tired of standing, but not long enough to wander away from the ferry slip. On the way back, the views are subtly different, but we don’t really see anything new. Back in Seattle, we take a ride on the old time trolley line along the waterfront, leaving the trolley at the steps back up to Pike Place Market.

After dinner, Denis Bousquet arrives. We spend some time catching up on old times back in our respective Cincinnati days in the ‘60s, some of it walking around Pike Place Market, some of it just sitting on a terrace overlooking the harbor. We end the evening mostly because it is Henry’s bedtime, not because Denis has to leave.


This morning, we checkout of the hotel, and take a taxi back to the station. We check to suitcase through to Los Angeles, and wait in the waiting room of King Street Station until the boarding call for the train. As far as Portland, the route retraces Wednesday’s last segment. In Portland, there’s time to step off the train for a few minutes before the train continues southward.

West of Oakridge, the line runs through the Willamette River valley (all the way to and beyond Portland), passing along the south side of some man made lakes (within which the original trackbed lies flooded) to Springfield, then to Springfield Junction, where the north end of the Siskiyou line trails in from the south, and Eugene. The latter is home to Oregon’s State Capital and the University of Oregon. North of town is a once-large yard on the west side of the now northerly-heading track.  West of the main track, the southernmost extremity of the BN’s ex-Oregon Electric track can be seen. Further down the valley, whose floor is given over to agriculture and hillsides to forestry, is Albany, which lies across the river from Corvallis, home of Oregon State University, followed by Salem. Still further down the valley is Oregon City, where there is a large weir on the river immediately adjacent to a large mill. This effectively marks the southern boundary of the Portland built-up area. The former SP Brooklyn Yard, home of ex-SP 4-8-4 4449 and ex-SP&S 4-8-4 700 for the last quarter century, as well as forming the northern limits of most SP freights, lies along the west side of the line. A junction with the UP former OR&N line from Hinckle and the east leads directly to the Steel Bridge across the river into Portland Union Station.

North of Klamath Falls, the line runs along the east shore of the large (in area) but shallow Klamath Lake, and then along the boundary between the mountains to the west and the desert to the east. At Chemult, the BN (ex-GN) line to Bend and the Columbia River heads off to the north, and the SP line turns northwest to cross the Cascades. Cascade Summit is reached not very far along this line, after which the line starts the descent on the west side of the Cascades. The line passes through many tunnels and/or snowsheds, and snaking its way down the mountainside, now heading west, now heading east, into the Salt Creek valley. Finally, reaching the Salt Creek trestle, the line turns west again, deep in the evergreen forest, and continues its steady descent to the foot of the grade at Oakridge. Here there is a small yard with MoW and snowfighting equipment to the south of the track. The entirety of this line is single track with sidings spaced every ten miles or so, long enough for today’s mile-and-a-half long freight trains to pass one another.

We climb the west side of the Cascades at dusk. Chris and I are in bed shortly after the train leaves its service stop in Klamath Falls (Henry had gone to bed much earlier).


From Black Butte, the Natron Cutoff line runs across upland meadows, heading generally downhill, to Klamath Falls, where it encounters junctions with the SP Modoc line to Winnemucca, NV, and the BN (ex-GN) High-line to Bieber and Keddie (the latter portion ex-WP), and another SP freight yard.

The East Valley line runs north through Marysville and Binney Junction (where the former WP Feather River line crosses), then northwest through Chico to Tehama. All of this is through quite low level countryside, much of it barely above the water table, in the bottomland of the Sacramento River valley. At Diggs, there are several grain elevators alongside the line. North of Tehama, the Shasta Route passes through Redding and then along the 1930s Shasta Dam line diversion (away from the previous line alongside the Sacramento River) across the Pit River Bridge and through the Lake Shasta area. Back on the original line, trains pass through the Sacramento River Canyon to Dunsmuir, where once there was an SP yard and Division Point (of which there is little left). From Dunsmuir, the line climbs out of the Sacramento River Canyon, via the loop at Cantara and another curve at the upper edge of the canyon, to Mount Shasta and Black Butte (the junction with the Siskiyou line).

We awake in Sacramento, and eat breakfast as the train crosses the edge of the Sacramento River delta. North of Oakland 16th Street the line runs through Berkeley before reaching Richmond, the only place where Amtrak has a direct connection with the BART heavy-rail rapid transit system. The line then runs alongside San Pablo Bay through Pinole, past a couple of oil refineries and Crockett (where there is a large sugar factory) to Martinez., after which there is a stiff climb to the Carquinez Strait bridge, alongside another oil refinery which is connected to the Mococo line that diverged from the Cal-P just before the climb to the bridge began. East/north of the bridge is an automobile carrier yard, and the mothball fleet in Suisun Bay. The Cal-P line runs through the fringes of the Sacramento Delta to Davis and across the Sacramento River into Sacramento. From Sacramento to Roseville, where there is another vast marshalling yard and locomotive maintenance facilities, the line is in an urban area.

From north of Richmond to south of San Jose, the railroad is again in an urban area, although some of the line through the marshes and salt flats bordering the southern end of San Francisco Bay seems quite far from built-up areas. At San Jose, there is a Caltrain (JPB) Locomotive Depot on the west side of the line, followed by a small SP freight yard on the east side. At Santa Clara, the Coast Starlight turns away from the Coast Route, running through the aforementioned marshes and salt flats to Newark and Oakland. The Oakland station is at Jack London Square, in 2001; it was at 16th Street prior to the opening of the JLS station in the mid-1990s-the depot building at 16th Street was condemned following the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (the one that stopped the World Series and damaged the Bay Bridge). North of the Oakland station is the West Oakland yard and locomotive depot, and the Desert Yard (named because it had no water supply in steam days) where the line to the former bayfront station at the Oakland Mole cuts off. This is the border between the Coast Route and the Shasta Route, where the mileposts increase in both directions.

North of San Luis Obispo, the line crosses the coastal mountain range using the Cuesta Grade to reach Santa Margarita Pass, after which it descends into the Salinas Valley. After passing through Paso Robles, the railroad crosses to the eastern side of the valley, where it remains until north of King City. The south end of the Salinas Valley, at a higher elevation than further north, is mostly savanna with live oak trees fairly widely spaced. The northern part of the valley is one of the most fertile agricultural areas in the world, and the valley floor is completely given over to agriculture. Much of the produce (tomatoes, green beans, etc.) grown in this area is snapped up by the major food suppliers, such as Birdseye and Hunt-Wesson. The rest of the way into Salinas, the rails follow alongside US 101 again. North of Salinas, the railroad runs through the beautiful nature reserve at Elkhorn Slough, to Watsonville Junction where there is a small yard and the Santa Cruz branch cuts off. Then the line turns east through market gardens and crosses the San Andreas Fault from the Pacific Plate onto the mainland. Turning north, the line passes through Gilroy and descends to San Jose.

The line then enters the Simi Valley, passing through the towns of Simi Valley and Moorpark, then descends towards the Pacific Ocean at Oxnard. West of Oxnard, the line comes alongside the ocean, which it will run alongside, or very close to, for the next 100 or more miles. West of Ventura, there are places where there is barely enough space for the railroad and US Highway 101 (built to Interstate Highway standards) between the ocean and the mountains. This is soon followed by the Santa Barbara urban area, followed by a line segment which has a number of scenic trestles over beach-access ravines. West of Gaviota, the highway veers away to the north, and the railroad is alone alongside the ocean. At Point Conception, the coast, and thus the railroad, turns north from its heretofore east-west alignment. Here, it runs through Vandenberg Air Force Base, site of the launch facilities for the Pacific Test Range and polar-orbiting satellites, past Surf, and then turns inland. After passing Guadalupe, junction with the Santa Maria Valley shortline, the route brushes the shore again at Grove Beach, then turns inland for San Luis Obispo.

From Los Angeles to Chatsworth, the line runs through the urban fabric of Los Angeles, turning north at Mission Tower, across and along the Los Angeles River, past the Metrolink maintenance facilities and then the SP Taylor locomotive maintenance facilities, in separate parts of what was once SP’s massive Taylor Yard. After the Glendale station, the route heads north through some of the earliest industrial areas of greater LA (including the original airport facilities in the area-no longer connected to an airfield-at Grand Central Air Terminal). The route separates from the Soledad Canyon line at Burbank Junction and runs diagonally towards the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, passing the Anheuser-Busch brewery and the former General Motors car assembly plant at Van Nuys, along the way. West of Chatsworth, the lines passes through the famous ‘Chatsworth Rocks’ area, now permanently changed from its appearance in the days of steam by the extension of Topanga Canyon Boulevard to reach the Simi Valley freeway to the north, and then through a long tunnel under thousand foot high Santa Susanna Pass.. The mountains along this line, and further west, are covered in the typical Southern California brush and yellow grass (except in spring, when the grass is green).

In Los Angeles, Roger is waiting. We reclaim the checked suitcase and head home to Sierra Madre. We have Sunday to get ready for work on Monday morning.