By now you’ve probably seen the article circulating about how you can travel across the USA for 213$ (the author did it for 429$ really…) via Amtrak’s California Zephyr and Lake Shore Limited trains. For those gluten free adventurers this may seem like a daunting task that’ll leave you wide stretches with no safe food, but I’m here to tell you that’s not the case!
I know from experience that you too can take that 213$ cross country train ride even if you’re gluten free. Last April I took this exact route from New York City to San Francisco for my birthday with my husband, brother, and two friends. It is by far one of my favorite trips I have EVER taken. There are no words that can express what it feels like crossing this vast country in a manner that lets you view and experience it all, unlike driving which comes with the distraction of being the driver or the copilot. The best part? You can do it all in a week!
In this post I’ll guide you through how to eat gluten free and what to do for fun on the two trains as well as in the four stops we made: Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. We spend about a day in each destination except San Francisco (we spend 2 days) because the train goes through once a day. I hope it will inspire you to take your own adventure, and to never be held back by your gluten free diet.
What to Pack
As usual I prepared by gathering together some gluten free snacks that are both filling and nutritious including the below pictured items:
You’ll see that I tried to pack a balance of items that were fresh, protein dense, satiating, and varying. I like a good mix of sweet and salty options because, well, I get bored. We also got a bit cosmopolitan on this trip as well, since we left on my birthday, and picked up pound cake and two baguettes from a local gluten free bakery to eat the first day with apples and brie. We dined on this in the observation car while making our way up the Hudson River at sun set, and it was the perfect start to our trip.
Outside of the food there are two things to consider: Pack light and bring entertainment. While the seats have ample room the over head luggage storage area is tight so you are best packing a small luggage, especially since you’ll be lugging it on and off the train whenever you stop. Think items that’ll work more than once: one jacket, one pair of sneakers etc. Entertainment wise you’ll need some stuff to do while on the train. Although you could occupy your self entirely staring out the window at the three if not more ecosystems you’ll pass through having some music to listen to, games to play, books to read or coloring books to draw in will make it all the more fun.
Dining and Fun on The Lake Shore Limited and California Zephyr
The observation car will become your new best friend. It has the best views as it has almost floor to ceiling windows, and you’ll get some great people watching in too:
I saw people doing everything from journaling to spreading out DJ equipment and making music here. Arrive ASAP to snag a table and you’ll be set for an area for fun and dining when you aren’t sleeping at your seat. In particular parts of the trip they also have narrators from the National Park Service giving you facts about the area, which is a great way to learn more about what you are seeing out the window. You can also follow along in the route guides, which describe everything you can see and every town you go through. I found it fascinating.
As referenced above I spent a good amount of time staring our the window while reading, drawing, or playing games. We played HOURS of games, having packed small card style games that 2-5 people could play including Sushi Go, Tiny Epic Galaxies, and Hanabi. I highly recommend picking up some if you plan to do this route with a game living group.
But what about the food? Both the Lake Shore Limited and the California Zephyr have a cafe under the observation car that offers only gluten free drinks (Pepsi products, Gatorade, wine and liquor) and snacks (Dannon yogurt, lay’s chips, and candy). Mid day I was left to munch on my own snacks while everyone else had nachos and sandwiches. Oh well!
Options were more available in the Dining car, the car right behind the observation car. Dining here often requires reservations, some waiting, and potentially sharing a table with strangers as all seats must seat four if people are waiting. None the less it was a fun experience. Us gluten free folks have a variety of options:
Marinated Vegetable Salad
Black Bean Veggie Enchiladas
Black Bean and Corn Veggie Burger on a gluten free bun with a side salad and chips
There is also a Pad Thai option, and I was told some of the fish catches of the day were gluten free although I didn’t partake. I am sure the hamburgers and steak are safe, but I am not a meat eater. The benefit to train dining is there is limited preparation to cause cross contamination. Most items come pre made and are heated up on their plates, or their containers with the exception of the salads which seemed to be rather fresh. Be careful though and always double check as presentation will often vary (ex pad Thai came in bowl one night and microwaved container the next). Overall I found the options suitable for the number of times we dined on the train, and the items were good quality although they all ranged on the spicier side flavor wise.
Our first real stop was Chicago, where we departed the Lake Shore Limited. We met up with my good friend Pedro, who gave us a spectacular tour of the city that I highly recommend to anyone with limited time there. We visited: the Bean, Lakeshore trail, the rivers via an architecture boat tour, Navy Pier, Shedd Aquarium, Old Town, and my favorite:
The John Hancock Building. It’s the best birds eye (or probably taller) view of the city, which is truly humbling and disorienting.
We found a few good spots for dining including the Hot Wok where we stopped for sushi and Thai Iced teas. With four locations across the city they can make almost any roll gluten free, including spicy rolls made using sriracha, and have gluten free soy sauce on hand. I snagged a bunless Chicago style hot dog (topped with yellow mustard, chopped white onions, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers and a dash of celery salt) at Dog House Grill in Old Town because that was a total must:
At My Fit Foods, a chain which has since closed, we were able to find several prepackaged and health conscious gluten free options. The crowing glory of gluten free dining in Chicago was ChicaGo’s where you can find classic Chicago pizza including deep dish, thin crust, and stuffed. Just look at these beauties:
We tried the stuffed and the deep dish. Our favorite was the stuffed crust which was both crispy and soft. My Native Chicago friend, new to gluten free says: “it isn’t half bad- it is deliciously acceptable” & “If I didn’t know it was gluten free I wouldn’t thought so.” In addition to the gluten free pizzas there are plenty of gluten free desserts, including white chocolate rice pudding, gluten free salads, pastas, and sandwiches! To top it off the staff is WONDERFUL, they were always working turned up to 11. Ask for Margarita (Margie) if you want to feel totally loved.
Between Chicago and Denver you cross the Mississippi River and the route becomes flat and monotonous as you make your way through Iowa and Nebraska. We arrived in Denver bright and early the next day to a beautiful station, promptly picked up a car and made our way down town to visit the capitol’s Mile High step:
Then it was off to view some of the art around town before heading to the botanical gardens. Definitely visit the greenhouse and the Japanese garden if you stop here and pickup some Celestial seasoning teas, gluten free baked goods (had pumpkin spice- pretty good but a bit too spicy), or gluten free rolls at their outdoor dining kiosk. We also visited the Denver Mint, Dinosaur Ridge, and Red Rock where we took a long hike in the drizzling rain that only made the rock colors more vibrant. All this in one day!
While we picked up dinner at BeuJo’s to have their gluten free pizza (with honey on the crust) and to crush the locals in Trivia Night, Linger was a restaurant to die for (literally). Located at the site of an old mortuary this spot has several gluten free alcohol beverage options, multiple safe food options and a dedicated gluten free fryer. Gluten free items come marked with wooden gluten free toothpick signs as well. I highly recommend trying the sweet potato waffle fries, Devils on horseback (dates wrapped in bacon and stuffed with goat cheese), hang over ramen, and seared fish tacos. They were just lovely:
Right after Denver you enter the Rocky Mountains and cross the Continental Divide, the part of the trip that I most anticipated. I was not disappointed. In fact I was moved to tears by the sheer beauty:
As the mountains level out you slowly enter the Colorado Plateau, a vast expanse of strange desert rock formations that is equally as beautiful as the mountains and just about as remote. Sometimes you even needed a reminder:
Salt Lake City
Then it was on to Salt Lake City. We didn’t rent a car here, but instead either walked or biked around. Our day was jam packed with some fantastic destinations: the beautiful capitol building, a Mormon museum, Temple Square, Leonardo Museum (which has fun and interactive arts, science,and social justice exhibits), and an amazing (but exhausting) hike to the living room. This overlook has a view of all of Salt Lake City and the Great Salt Lake in one direction, and the mountains in the other. It’s gained its name from the many rock seats and couches that have been created. It was gorgeous:
For a quick lunch we grabbed food at City Creek Center, which has a variety of small restaurants in their food court. I grabbed greek food at Mykonos, which was made fast and was filling. Just don’t order any fried items from them, as gluten is fried in the same fryer. For dinner we ate at Red Iguana, hands down the best meal of the entire trip. This restaurant was featured on Food Network’s Diners Drive Ins and Dives so the wait is long but as their motto says it’s “Killer Mexican Food That’s Well Worth the Wait!” We had an exceptional feast of Mexican food: guacamole, Hongos Alajillo (garlic,butter and wine sauteed mushrooms), Rajas de Chile Poblano Con Queso (chiles with tomatoes, onions, and cheese eaten with corn tortillas), nachos, Tiger prawn Fajitas, Mole Special, and Horchata:
This is a meal that I would still fly half way across the country for. With full bellies we boarded the train later that night. The last leg of the trip brings you through Donner Pass where luckily you don’t have to resort to eating your travel companions thanks to Amtrak’s dining car (and the snacks you’ve packed and hopefully still have). 3,400 Miles later we finally made it to Emeryville California, the end of the line for the California Zephyr.
We spent a little more time in San Francisco than the other locations before catching our flight back home, and it such a diverse and interesting city. We did our own personalized walking tour that first night stopping in Japantown and the Castro. Dinner was had at Sweet Lime Thai where virtually all options are gluten free and the staff are friendly and knowledgeable. Be sure to try the Choo Chee salmon and the Fresh Roll. Everything was great, and equally as well presented:
After dinner I made it a point to snag a Dainty Gentleman from Bi-Rite Creamery, an ice cream sundae with honey lavender ice cream, hot fudge, blood orange olive oil & maldon sea salt. GET IT. They also have gluten free cones available, although I got mine in a bowl.
The next day it was across the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods.The bridge was a milestone for us, as Mike (my husband who has (had) a fear of heights) walked his way across and away from his fear. It was a real proud wife moment:
The Muir Woods are indescribable; vast trees, vibrant moss and clover, calm shadows, and pacific shoreline well worth the visit and preservation.
We spent several hours strolling around the various parts of the park before we got too hungry and headed to The Plant Cafe Organic in Mill Valley. Here, gluten free items are made separately, staff know to change their gloves, allergens are indicated on the order receipt and you have your pick of gluten free sandwiches, salads or bowls. If you get a sandwich be sure to ask them to grill it on tin foil. We ordered the California Veggie Sandwich,Korean BBQ bowl and German Chocolate Cake, and were not disappointed.
For the remainder of our day it was back to downtown San Francisco to hang out with one of Mike’s college friends, see their new home, and take a stroll to Alamo Square park to eat a Little Chihuahua garlic shrimp burrito, smothered salmon burrito and nachos. We dined in front of the Full House opening scene house:
The next morning before catching our JetBlue flight we had brunch at Radish, a posh little eatery that offers gluten free pancakes and French Toast. This restaurant has since closed, which makes sense because it took over an hour to seat a party of seven, the service was slow, and the food was sub par.
And there ended our trip. To me it was life changing, and packed full of memorable experiences. Train travel is a great way to travel gluten free across the country and I’ll certainly consider another train trip! If there are any other things you’d like to know about my experiences please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.