Across America on Amtrak Southwest Chief Chicago to Los Angeles

Passing through Red Rock mountains in New Mexico. Amtrak Chicago to Los Angeles.
Passing through Red Rock mountains near Colorado / New Mexico border. 

Forty hours, an ice storm and 2,250 miles of American history and landscapes.

Travel across America on Amtrak Southwest Chief Chicago to Los Angeles.

At three o’clock the conductor shouted, “All aboard,” the doors clanked shut and our train rolled out of beautiful Union Station in Chicago. The weather report didn’t look good.  Ice, sleet and snow were forecast for much of the lower midwest.

Amtrak Southwest Chief dining car.
The dining car is all set for dinner. First class (sleeping compartment) guests have complimentary meals.

Right out of the station, dinner reservations were offered.  Being tired and hungry, I chose an early dinner time. It’s community seating and a great way to meet new people.

Dinner in the diner. Baked salmon, wild rice and mixed vegs. Salad and rolls included, too.
Dinner in the diner. Baked salmon, wild rice and mixed vegs. Salad and rolls included, too.

Over the next five meals, I met several people who, like me, realized they could take the train to or from a cruise on either coast and no need to fly!

Amtrak deluxe bedroom sleeping compartment.
Amtrak deluxe bedroom compartment includes en suite bathroom with shower. 

After dinner, I settled into my bedroom aboard Amtrak’s Southwest Chief knowing that this train could forge ahead despite the awful weather.  Wintry weather is much more tolerable at “see-level” than 30,000 ft.

By the time we reached southwestern Illinois, the snow had created nearly a white-out condition, but we were running on time.  During the night, Kansas City, Missouri greeted us with an ice storm.

Amtrak Southwest Chief car attendant, Joy.
Car attendant checks out the ice that accumulated overnight.

Covered in ice, we awoke to blue skies in La Junta, Colorado.  Slowly, it began to melt but not before many of us took a few photos.

My car attendant, Joy, brought us local newspapers in the morning.
Our car attendant, Joy, brought us local newspapers in the morning, in La Junta, Colorado.

The Southwest Chief follows the weathered but still visible, rutted wagon path of the old Santa Fe Trail. This former “highway to the West” begins in Independence, Missouri and jig-zags all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Southwest Chief follows the legendary Santa Fe Trail past the Dick Wooten Ranch near Raton Pass.
The Southwest Chief follows the legendary Santa Fe Trail past the Dick Wooten Ranch near Raton Pass.

I had no idea who Dick Wootten was, but it’s a pretty cool trail-marker.

Navaho vendors in Albuquerque, New Mexico selling handicrafts and jewelry.
Navaho vendors in Albuquerque, New Mexico sell handicrafts and jewelry to train passengers.

For decades, Native American vendors have set up colorful tables to sell jewelry, pottery and clothing alongside the train for the station stop.

Lesser-known Confederate and Union battlefield in New Mexico.
Lesser-known Confederate and Union battlefield in New Mexico, named, “The Killing Field.”

Our conductor pointed out interesting and historical facts through New Mexico.  Throughout this area, residents still find artifacts and clothing from the Civil War.

Amtrak observation car aboard Southwest Chief
Amtrak observation car aboard Southwest Chief

Open to all passengers, the Observation Car is the best seat in the house for the extreme vistas and rocky cliffs so close you can almost touch them.

Navaho pueblo homes blend into the landscape.
Pueblo homes almost disappear into the landscape.

Amazing how these homes seem to disappear into the background.  Traditional domed adobe ovens for bread baking are located in many backyards.

Los Angeles Union Station is restored to its original design and lustre.
Los Angeles Union Station is restored to its original design and lustre.

We arrived into Los Angeles ahead of schedule, giving those traveling on, a few extra minutes to marvel at the beautifully restored art deco Union Station.

This is the third time I’ve been on this route.  My first experience, it was (train buffs will remember) the Santa Fe Super Chief.  In this quick, 40-hour trip you can relax, read, eat way too much and simply enjoy the journey of a nostalgic train travel experience.

Read more: Advice for Amtrak Sleeping Car Passengers
Aboard Amtrak Chicago to Los Angeles

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25 thoughts on “Across America on Amtrak Southwest Chief Chicago to Los Angeles”

  • Hi Linda,
    Thank you for taking the time to write. Under perfect conditions, you could be fine to fly in the morning of your departure. If you plan to check a suitcase, you need to be at Union Station no less than 45 minutes before departure. Personally, I would take the train from Newark and connect in NYP for the Lake Shore Limited. If you do this, be sure to tell the reservation agent that you want a room on the water side, which would be the left side of the train going out of NYP.

    It gets into Chicago at 9:50am which gives you plenty of time to check your suitcase if it’s not going into your sleeper with you and head across the street to Lou Mitchell’s for lunch! If the Lake Shore Limited is late and you miss the Southwest Chief, Amtrak will get you onto the next train and most likely put you in a hotel for the night (but I would definitely ask the reservation person first since EVERYTHING is changing with Amtrak.) It’s considered a guaranteed connection if there is at least one hour (maybe now it’s two hours) between trains.

    If this is not an option, I would possibly suggest flying in the day before. As you said, weather in March is unpredictable. Also, please consider getting travel insurance and if possible, also add Cancel For Any Reason. It seems that most travel insurance companies are not covering cancellation for simply fear of coronavirus. Cancel For Any Reason will have you covered…but again, check the fine print in the policy.

    That said, thank you so much for taking the time to read my articles. Have a wonderful train trip!

  • Hi Sherry,
    I am planning on flying from Newark, NJ to Chicago where I will pick up the Southwest Chief. My plane lands around 10:30 and the train leaves at 2:50. Am I pushing my luck given what weather can be flying into O’Hare in late March or should I fly in a day earlier or take the train from NY to Chicago? Thanks!

  • Hi Paul,
    It sounds like you have a really nice trip ahead of you. I would suggest that you call Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL) and speak with a real person. When robot “Julie” answers, you need to say, “Agent” and do this three times for each question. You’ll get a real person. Tell him/her what you want to do. I would also suggest printing out the Southwest Chief route schedule on the Amtrak website. Then you can know when and where you would like to leave the train and pick it up the next day. Of course, I will say that you should spend 2 days in Chicago. Also, Glenwood Springs, Colorado is perfectly timed for a day or two layover. Once you have a chance to look at the schedule, you can find where you’d like to overnight.

    Have a great trip!

  • I hate to sleep through the scenery.And missing sleepers seems a little loss.So would like to break trip into segments. If we traveled a summer-long day spent the night in a hotel, and caught the train next morning how long would it take and where might breaks make sense with timetables etc.

  • Hi Mary,
    I don’t know which Amtrak station from which you will depart. If you have carry-on bags, then you will walk with them to board your train. If you plan on checking your luggage, then you will need to arrive at least 30 minutes before your train arrives and bring them into the station so that the Amtrak person can check it in for you and load it into the baggage car. Always keep your unchecked bags with you.

    Thank you for your email. Have a nice train ride!


  • When you arrive at the train station do you take all your baggage in the depot or leave it out on the loading deck?

  • Hi Charles,
    Your best bet is to call Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL). When ‘Julie’ answers, you say, “Agent”. Answer each question with the word “Agent” and you’ll be connected with reservations. I’d check a few dates as the cost of a roomette can drastically vary depending upon the day and date of travel. The leg from Chicago to Milwaukee should be easy to include in your reservation. Have a fun cross-country trip!

  • Hi Dave,
    You’ll need to contact AMTRAK at 1-800-USA-RAIL to get rates for your trip. When “Julie” answers, you say, “Reservations” and repeat “Reservations” every time she asks a new question. That’s the fastest way to get to a real person.

    Pricing depends on availability and how far out into the future you’re ready to book your train trip. You will have to change trains in Chicago from Michigan. I know there’s a bus from E. Lansing to Ann Arbor to pick up the Wolverine to/from Chicago. AMTRAK reservations will be able to give you the best connection times.

    As far as prices, for the long-haul train between Los Angeles and Chicago, a deluxe bedroom with ensuite bathroom will cost you anywhere from about $850 total to $2000 depending upon any discounts you may be able to get and what I mentioned above. A roomette will run at least half as expensive if not even less. Both sleeping accommodations include bottled water and all of your meals in the dining car.

    My best advice is to book your trip as far out into the future as possible. Also, I’d suggest spending a little time on their website ( and play with different days as prices can vary by day of the week, too.

    Enjoy your cross-country train trip!


  • Hi Dianna,
    Thank YOU for sharing your upcoming trip! What a great route it is, too. I also remember traveling with my daughters (two under three years old) in coach, but only for 6 hours and still it was a challenge! I’ve done coach overnight and it can be a challenge, I agree! Have a fabulous circle America trip! Thank you for reading my articles.

  • HI 🙂 My husband and I are taking this very same trip in November. We live in Ohio, so we’ll take the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, and catch the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles. We will continue on the coast starlight to Portland Oregon. Visit my daughter and some friends. Then back home on the Amtrak cascades to Seattle, hopefully visiting a cousin for our 4 hours layover, then catch the Empire Builder back to Chicago and again Lake Shore limited back home to Toledo. I have traveled by train many times. Only once a long distance. Portland Oregon to Pittsburgh in coach with my 4 yr old son. I will never travel by coach on such a long trip again. By day 2 I can’t even remember what we saw, I was to exhausted. My son on the other hand slept great and was a perfect angel until 30 min before we got to Pittsburgh. Poor kid, would could blame him, he was ready to get off that train!

    Thanks for sharing your trip 🙂

  • Hi Praveen – In all honesty, I would be hesitant traveling with an entire family in coach for 2 nights on the train. If budget is a concern, you could contact Amtrak and find out about getting two roomettes for only one night (the last night when you’ll need it most) and all your meals are included. Look at the route map and find a good halfway point to move into an accommodation. But Coach is definitely do-able if you plan ahead. You didn’t mention the ages of everyone traveling or how many there are in your group. If one night of the two takes you out of your budget, then for sure pack comfy small blankets and pillows. You might even consider asking Amtrak about buying an extra seat if they would allow it. Have a fun and wonderful trip across America! Thanks for your question. Sherry

  • Hi, am considering travelling with family from Chicago to Los Angeles one way on August 5th. Would you recommend the coach seats? Are they comfortable enough for the 40 hour journey?

  • Hi Rose,
    As of right now, the long haul trains from California to Chicago do not have wifi. Much of the trip is through very remote parts of the country and would make connectivity very difficult, I’d imagine. However, the Silver Service trains between NYC/WAS and Florida do have wifi.

    You can always try your luck with your service provider but as I mentioned, there will be brief times when there isn’t even phone service or it’s spotty at best. When you’re on the train from DC, look for AmtrakConnect as the service provider and simply log in.

    I hope this is helpful and have a wonderful cross-country trip.


  • I will be travelling from Los Angeles to N. Carolina this November. There will be 2 change trains, Chicago & DC. Do you know if WiFi is available on this route.

  • Good advice, James. You never know when a good ol’ turkey sandwich will be just perfect. Glad to know you enjoyed the trip, despite the breakfast issue. The scenery is gorgeous. Thanks for your comment.

  • I live in Detroit and went to visit my son in Phoenix for Thanksgiving in 2005. Took the train to Chicago and then changed to the Southwest Chief and traveled as far as Flagstaff where my son picked me up. The scenery in New Mexico was breathtaking and fortunately we passed through that area during daylight. But I would not recommend this trip during the winter because the daylight hours are so few. Most of the trip was in darkness. I’d love to do it again in June some year! My only complaint: just plain terrible breakfast food. If you can imagine a frozen breakfast tray consisting of an omelet and other things. Inedible. Bring plenty of ham and turkey sandwiches and live on those and stay away from the Amtrak dining car.

  • Hi Ellen, thank you very much for your interest! I will definitely look for the link and send it to you. Sometimes there’s a hiccup. Sorry for the inconvenience. Sherry

  • Sorry, enjoying this story of your trip to Hawaii, but I seem unable to go to the next part in the story once you reach Los Angeles? Would love to read the rest. Can you help me find the proper link? Thanks

  • Hi Carolyne,

    Thank you for your question. On the issue of safety, I have always felt safe aboard Amtrak. Of course, if you opt for coach rather than a roomette, you’ll want to not leave any valuables at your seat if you plan to leave the coach for a while (like for a meal in the diner). But personal safety has never been an issue for me. As far as being in coach for 25 hours, it isn’t horrendous, but do bring your own blanket and a pillow and plenty of movies or shows to watch. Cell phones work for almost all of the trip, with the exception of a few minutes here and there and maybe an hour when you’re out in the middle of nowhere.

    Hopefully you will be able to have two seats to yourself so you can stretch out a bit. You might inquire about purchasing two seats…I’ve never done that but I have spoken with people who have and were very happy about it.

    Have a wonderful train ride…the scenery is beautiful, you can eat in the dining car and meet all sorts of interesting people.


  • I am currently contemplating taking this Amtrek train from Chicago to New Mexico and had a few questions for you.

    I have never done anything like this and will be traveling alone, do you feel these trains are safe?

    I was not planning on spending the $ for a room and I am not sure what it will be like to be in a seat for 25 hours?

    What wisdom or advice would you give someone who truly does not know what to expect if I choose this route of travel?

    Thank you!

  • Hi Susan,

    Good for you! I even met two couples on the Southwest Chief who boarded the train in Kansas City, MO and were going on the same cruise with me. Word is getting around! Thanks for your comment.


  • Great story – we have done much the same, coming from St. Louis on way to a round trip cruise to Hawaii. Heavenly. We came back via the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle. Always so relaxing, and a great way to see Hawaii.

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