Outside the window, the warm red glow of the Nevada desert slowly transforms into the canyons and mountains of the old Wild West. As Derek Low relaxes in his seat, some of America’s most famous landmarks whistle by. But this is no luxury sightseeing adventure meant only for a privileged few. In fact, this incredible trip from coast to coast can be booked for less than the cost of a flight from San Francisco to New York.
Low was born and raised in Singapore, before studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California. While still a student, he gained internet fame with a video that gained more than two million views. In it, he filled his room with gadgets in an attempt to create the most automated dorm that the school had ever seen.
Low also went on to found two startups, Tripboard and Learnyard, as well as a non-profit astronomy website. However, it is his work as a writer that has won him the greatest recognition. Indeed, as a fan of adventure travel, Low has already visited over 50 nations. What’s more, he loves to write about discovering the world.
In December 2011 Low embarked on what would become his most talked about trip yet. He would travel from San Francisco, California, where he now lives, to New York, some 3,400 miles away. The journey would take him all the way from the west coast to the east coast of the United States. And there was something else – he would do it all without stepping on a plane.
Instead, Low planned to make his epic journey entirely by rail. Using two iconic trains, the California Zephyr and the Lake Shore Limited, he planned to undertake what’s often referred to as one of the greatest journeys in the United States. Even without stop-offs, the ride from San Francisco to New York takes four solid days.
Low, however, intended to take his time. He sketched out a route that would see him go from Emeryville, just outside San Francisco, to Salt Lake City, Utah, before travelling on to Denver, Chicago and New York. So instead of traveling straight through, he planned to alight at several stops along the way.
First, Low traveled to Emeryville, some 20 minutes from central San Francisco. There, at 9:10 a.m., he boarded the California Zephyr for the first leg of his incredible adventure. As the train pulled out of the station and began skirting the waters of the San Francisco Bay Area, Low sat back and soaked up the view.
Before long, the infamous fog rolled in off the bay and Low’s view became obscured. With nothing much to see outside the window, he then drifted off to sleep. However, when he awoke, something amazing had happened. The scenery had shifted to the wooded hillsides of northeast California. Low and his fellow passengers were enthralled.
As the train made its way through the stunning landscape, an expert joined the carriage to recount a haunting story. Back in 1846, a group of pioneers had become stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Eventually, they’d had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. As the story was told, the California Zephyr made its way past the very lake where the tragedy took place.
Next, the train hurtled past the casino city of Reno and on through Nevada. As the sun set over the desert, Low began to wonder why so many people choose to forgo the railways in favor of air travel. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a drama unfolded. In a small town somewhere in Nevada, police began to board the train.
Shockingly, Low’s dining companion, who had been assigned at random in the busy dining car, was arrested. Apparently, he was suspected of possessing firearms. Despite this bizarre interlude, the train continued its journey into Utah, where Low made his first stop-off.
After enjoying a day in Salt Lake City, Low climbed back on board the California Zephyr, bound for Denver, Colorado. Taking in the otherworldly scenery of Book Cliffs and the canyons and peaks of the Rocky Mountains, this stretch of railway is renowned as one of the most scenic in the whole of the United States.
For two days, Low explored the city of Denver, located some 5,280 feet above sea level. Then, it was time to get back on board the train and head for Chicago, Illinois. After traveling through four states, the California Zephyr arrived at its final destination – the historic Union Station.
The next day, Low boarded a new train for the final leg of his journey. The Lake Shore Limited would take him through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, before finally arriving in New York State. Low again felt enthralled as the view outside the window showed the wide sweep of the Hudson River.
As the Lake Shore Limited arrived at Penn Station in New York City, Low reflected on his adventure. He had crossed four time zones and 11 states, travelling from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean without once stepping on a plane.
And what was the final cost of Low’s incredible journey? A measly $429 – but you can do it even cheaper. His 15-day rail pass covered him for eight journeys, although this epic coast-to-coast trip used up only four. In fact, Low used his other four journey passes to travel to different cities after his big adventure.
For those just wanting to travel from San Francisco to New York, tickets start at only $213. For this, you get a comfortable, reclining seat with lots of legroom. According to Low, they are similar to a business class seat on a domestic airline. The views, however, are first class all the way.
For Low, the train ride was a chance to see the real America away from the tourist traps found on other famous journeys such as Route 66. What’s more, he says he’s been told that he’s seen more of the United States than many people who were born there.
“Traveling by train gives you a glimpse into the soul of America,” Low wrote on his website. “The experience rewards you with far more stories and experiences and sights than you could ever witness alone in a car, eyes fixed on the road, or on a five-hour flight across the country.”
Clearly, Low’s words have inspired a new generation of train travelers. His article about the adventure, entitled “Across the USA by Train for Just $213,” has attracted more than 15 million readers. In fact, Low has set up a travel planning service to cater for those who wish to mimic his journey. So for just $49, he’ll help you arrange your own coast-to-coast odyssey.