When I planned for this trip several months ago, I wanted the "getting there" to be as much a part of my vacation as the wonderful things we had planned to do once I got to California. The Southwest Chief is one of two Amtrak routes that connects Chicago to Los Angeles. I chose this one because it was a bit more expedient plus, it covered some areas that are said to be interesting in terms of the landscape. It did not disappoint.
My starting and ending point for my train adventure was Milwaukee, where I live. There is a commuter train that connects us to Chicago, offering several trips per day. I was able to take Amtrak's Hiawatha service which provided ample connection time at Chicago's Union Station.
This "stations across the nation" trip would feature stops through Illinois, one in Iowa, a couple in Missouri and several in each of the remain states including Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and ultimately California. The "boring" part of the ride (Kansas) was largely during the nighttime (dark) hours, saving the best scenery for daylight.
I most enjoyed the time through Colorado and New Mexico, with the flat plains giving rise to the Rocky Mountains at Raton, NM (elevation 7834 feet) along the old Santa Fe trail. Through this part of my journey, several herds of elk and antelope were seen. The National Park Service volunteer along for the ride between La Junta, CO and Albuquerque, NM reported seeing a couple of black bear the day before.
About the partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service (NPS), on several routes, there are volunteers who provide information on the national parks in the area. This is a seasonal feature and subject to volunteer availability. I spent some time in the sightseer car listening to the volunteers who were along for my return trip. They were informative and interesting. It was a nice feature of the trip.
Traveling by train isn't without some drama. I've now taken two round-trip vacations on Amtrak and each has had some element of inconvenience created by passengers creating havoc. On my trip out to California, there was a guy taken off the train in Ft. Madison, IA for smoking in a bathroom. On the way home, there was a lady who had some sort of breakdown which included assaulting a conductor. She was escorted off in some town (not a scheduled station stop), somewhere in New Mexico.
I had a roomette which is considered "first class" on the train. It provides the luxury of privacy and someplace comfortable to sit and sleep, along with showers and free meals. On this trip, the meals were a mixed bag . . . some were outstanding . . . others rather unremarkable or average. I most enjoyed the roasted half chicken dinner, followed closely by the eggs & sausage breakfast.
Another benefit of traveling in a roomette (or bedroom sleeper) is having access to the Metro Lounge in Chicago's Union Station. There travelers can enjoy a cold soft drink, relax on comfy chairs or sofas, watch TV and/or use the free WiFi. While I was able to use this service on my outbound trip, I did not bother on my return since I had just about an hour for my connection.
I've read suggestions to bring twice a much entertainment as you think you'll need for your trip. Given that my train ride would be roughly 40 hours in each direction, I had several movies loaded for viewing . . . and a couple of books on my Kindle for reading. I watched about half of my movies and never touched the Kindle. I more often than not, just enjoy watching the world pass by as I hope to catch a glimpse of some wild animal and possible snap a photo or two.
People often ask me about how dependable the timetable is when traveling by Amtrak. For my trip, I was about 30 minutes late to arrive in California; 20 minutes late to depart the following week; and about 45 minutes late into Chicago. All in all, not bad. Heck the airlines could hope for such a track record.
My R/T rail ticket Milwaukee to California was $360 . . . a few bucks less than what airfare was running when I was doing my initial planning at the beginning of the year. The roomette sleeper was $319 each way and included the two nights sleeps accommodation, plus four/five meals and the opportunity for showers along the way. I think this is a good value and will travel by Amtrak again when the schedule fits my travel needs.