Kyle Peters, who is our lead designer at Passion Passport, has a particular affection for locomotives. He grew up in Portland, OR, and his family regularly climbed aboard Amtrak trains to journey across the country to visit relatives, and for summer adventures.

My romance for steel wheels first came alive as a junior through timeless stories like The Little Engine that Could and Thomas The Tank Engine, epics of the sort that inspired me to overcome obstacles and created a magical association to trains.

Kyle has been living in San Francisco for over three years, and had been dreaming of making the journey up to Truckee and Tahoe area by train. When the opportunity arose, we arranged to cross the Golden State as a team.

Riding in the Amtrak observation car to Truckee
Riding through the California countryside in the observation car.

We crossed the Bay early on a Friday morning to Emeryville, terminus of the California Zephyr. It would be five hours up to Truckee, near the fabled Donner Pass, but time compressed as we rolled out of the station and landscape succeeded landscape. The journey began with views of beautiful waterways, fields of crops, and suburban boxed homes as the train progressed North towards Sacramento. Eventually, it turned from workaday to mesmerizing as our train gracefully banked upward, as verdant forest and rocky landscapes emerged. By the time we crossed through the Tahoe National Forest, we were mesmerized. All the while, Kyle regaled me with stories of childhood journeys, games played with his family and new friends in the observation car, and quirky characters who included his own relatives.

Taking in the scenery as we entered Tahoe National Forest

A couple hours into our journey, we negotiated the Emigrant Gap, the greatest rail drop in the United States, where once pioneer wagons were lowered by ropes to the valley floor. Our own journey was significantly more comfortable than that of our forebears, but dramatic enough to produce waves of gasps throughout the observation car. Onward we rolled to reach Donner Pass, on a stretch elevated above the crystal waters of Donner Lake, and, finally, our destination, the historic town of Truckee, where we bid farewell to passengers heading onward.

Truckee Historic District near the Amtrak station
The Truckee Historic District

Truckee station is in the middle of the old town. The surrounding area is known for its offerings of active pastimes, but there are surprises just a stroll away from where you detrain. The main street is a hubbub of restaurants, an art gallery, boutiques, and shops with nice touches like goods made by local artisans or antique letterpresses.

We met up with our friend Will—also in the area for the weekend—and headed to Coffeebar, reputed as the best place to find a good cup of joe. We picked up some lunch and caffeine (if you stop by, make sure to order the beet salad) before we headed North to Independence Lake. On a clear July day, the sun beat down on us and everyone in the car was riddled with excitement. We couldn’t get to the lake soon enough. Since it was a weekend and close to sunset, we anticipated that the lake would be packed with visitors, but to our surprise we discovered a pristine lake surrounded by mountains and devoid of visitors. After an hour or so, and many excited (yet chilly) moments swimming in the lake, the three of us spent the remaining sunlight hours staring at the incredible vista, a superb way to end our first day in Truckee. We stayed in the area for a memorable weekend of camping, swimming, and outdoor activity.

sitting at independence lake
Independence Lake

Independence Lake is just one of plenty of magnificent options in the area for a swim or a lazy afternoon in the sun. Just South of Truckee there is Donner Lake, a half hour drive away the famed Lake Tahoe awaits, and there are other small lakes that will enchant you as well. While we chose Independence Lake as the focal point for our trip, the area around Truckee is filled with fantastic options. And if swimming isn’t your cup of tea, I’d recommend scoping out one of the area’s many hiking or mountain biking trails, or even venturing over to Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Olympics.

Will looking at the MIlky Way near Independence Lake
Gazing at the stars near Independence Lake