Amtrak’s Southwest Chief: Chicago to Flagstaff & 5 Days Solo in Arizona

Two-and-a-half years ago I jumped on an Amtrak train all by myself, traveling from Chicago, IL to Flagstaff, AZ. In this blog post, read about my journey venturing the Southwest, with stops at the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and more!

61%252B%2525281%252529.jpg
46.jpg

Itinerary Overview:

  • Day 0 - Decision Day

  • Day 1 - From Chicago’s Union Station to Missouri

  • Day 2 - Colorado to Flagstaff

  • Day 3 - Flagstaff, Sedona, and down to Sierra Vista

  • Day 4 - Exploring Sierra Vista

  • Day 5 - Grand Canyon National Park

  • Day 6 - Antelope Canyon, Glen Canyon, and Horseshoe Bend 

  • Day 7 - Grand Canyon National Park

  • Day 8  & 9 - Amtrak from Flagstaff to Chicago

Day Zero - Decision Day

It was a Thursday in mid-October 2.5 years ago, only one day before my university fall break started and I had absolutely no plans. Both my parents would be working the whole week, and I was itching for an adventure. I didn’t want to sit at home. After considering a whole array of plans (such as driving from Indiana to Montana - a VERY bad idea in October in my 2002 VW Beetle), I somehow told myself it wouldn’t be as crazy to book a 1,600 mile train ride from Chicago to Flagstaff on 24 hours notice.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Route, Chicago to Flagstaff,  Google Maps

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Route, Chicago to Flagstaff, Google Maps

The tickets were a steal for one day’s notice. For $293.40, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief would spirit me away, over 1,600 miles and 32 hours, all the way to Flagstaff, AZ. Amtrak advertises this route taking you “…through the vast expanse of the fabled American West. You'll be mesmerized by this region's beauty and allure. We'll take you across the mighty Mississippi through eight states — past wheat fields and ranches, missions and pueblos, mountains and deserts. Carving through curving canyon passages only a few feet wider than the train itself, you'll see spectacular landscapes and pristine vistas not visible from interstate highways.” I longed to be in the mountains, to dance through canyons, to look at the horizon and only see desert as far as my eyes could see. I ached to be far away from where I was and to be immersed in this world’s natural beauty. This was the exact trip I needed. While I was not exactly sure where this expedition would take me, I booked my tickets with no second thoughts and began a journey I would never forget.

Day 1 - From Chicago’s Union Station to Missouri

Union Station, Chicago, IL

Union Station, Chicago, IL

I took an Amtrak from Niles, Michigan to Union Station in Chicago, Illinois for the first leg of my journey. I had a friend drop me off at the train station so that I wouldn’t have to worry about parking my car in Chicago for a week. 

On board the Southwest Chief

On board the Southwest Chief

After waiting around Union Station for my train to board, it was finally time to begin the longest part of my journey. For my Amtrak ride, I opted not to get a roomette or bedroom for the long trek to Flagstaff. I decided to stick it out in the Coach section, and I don’t regret this decision. If you’re on a budget and only have a single night to worry about, the coach seat isn’t bad at all. Since it was the off-season for Amtrak, I didn’t have anyone seated next to me, so at night, I could just recline my seat and stretch out. Just make sure to bring a traveling pillow and blanket! They don’t provide these for you. Also, if you’re curious about some more logistics - there are bathrooms on board, a snack cart, and a dining car. What is great about Amtrak is that there is both a coffee/snack cart and a dining car. I was exhausted and didn’t really feel like talking to anyone, so i opted to buy snacks from the coffee/snack cart on the first day.

As the day came to an end and the sun was setting, we crossed over the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa. The water was like glass and created a beautiful reflection on the river. With the light gone, I decided to go to sleep. I’m not sure of my exact location, but I think I fell asleep in Missouri, and the train continued across Kansas overnight. 

5.jpg
6.jpg

Day 2 - Colorado to Flagstaff

Sunrise in Colorado

Sunrise in Colorado

On Day 2, I woke up in the southeast corner of Colorado to a lovely, cotton-candy pink sunrise. I slept surprisingly well for sleeping on a train (or maybe I was exhausted from all the exams and papers I had written during mid-terms week). Waking up, I felt a rush of adrenaline. I was in awe. I felt so alive. Less than 24 hours ago, I was in Indiana, and today, I woke up in Colorado, far, far away from my life and completely alone. What’s more invigorating than that?

Today would just be another full day on the train, continuing on to my destination of Flagstaff.

On Day 1, I hadn’t checked out the dining cart on the train, so I figured for breakfast I would give it a shot. They had a full breakfast menu, so you can choose whatever you want. I opted for some eggs and grits (yes, I love some southern food!). What’s neat is that how the dining cart works on Amtrak is that they always fill the full booth, so for breakfast I ended up sitting with a nice, older couple. They told me they had always dreamed of taking this Amtrak all the way to Los Angeles, so they finally decided just to do it. I was also seated with a 75-year old gentleman traveling to Los Angeles. He had just finished an “extraordinary trip to DC,” but he had to go alone because his wife’s and brother’s health would not permit travel. He’s been doing Amtrak for a long time. He spoke of how 40 years ago, he took his children, ages 3 and 4 at the time, on a 24-hour Amtrak from LA to La Junta, CO. A local Ford dealership let him borrow a car, as there were no rentals in the area. He and his kids explored all over Colorado and had a wonderful time, but now his kids don’t remember much of this trip at all. During our breakfast, our train stopped in La Junta, and he went outside quickly to take a picture of the station. One of my favorite parts of traveling is hearing other people’s stories and dreams. 

Observation Car

Observation Car

Since today would be a full day on the train, I decided to camp out in the Observation Car. These cars have seats that face outward toward floor-to-ceiling windows, which makes this car the perfect place for day-dreaming landscape-lovers. There are no assigned seats in the Observation Car. There are single seats, tables, and family seats available and you can hang out as long as you wish. I grabbed a single seat and hunkered in for the day. I could sit all day and just watch the landscape roll by.

Today’s journey was through Colorado, New Mexico, and then my final stop at Flagstaff. It was a really beautiful ride. We got to go through towns like Las Vegas, NM and Albuquerque, NM. In Albuquerque, the stop is a bit longer so you can get off the train, stretch, check out some local arts vendors, grab some snacks, etc. But don’t wander too far!  You wouldn’t want the train to leave without you. That night, we had another really beautiful sunset and moonrise in the Southwest landscape.

As darkness rolled around, we finally approached the stop where my journey on the Southwest Chief would end - Flagstaff, Arizona. I hopped off and the train continued on its path to Los Angeles. I took a taxi to a nearby hotel and went to sleep, as it was already after 10 pm. I needed to rest up before the next leg of my journey began.

29.JPG
25.JPG

Day 3 - Flagstaff, Sedona, and down to Sierra Vista

33.JPG

Now the real adventure begins. I woke up early the next morning to go pick-up my rental car from the Flagstaff Airport. I opted to go with Hertz, which was surprisingly cheap for the week (only $337 for the whole week - for renters 25+ years old, it would have only been around $200 - I had the “underage” surplus).

I had never been to northern Arizona before, I couldn’t believe the mountains. I was awestruck. I didn’t realize how high of an elevation I would be at. I decided to head down to Sedona and check out some of the red rock beauty. I took AZ-89A S, which was must curvier than I had expected. It was an incredibly beautiful drive, surrounded by red rock giants. I felt so free and happy. This was my first official “solo” trip and I had never felt so alive. 

35.JPG

I first grabbed a coffee at the Sedona Starbucks, and then hopped on AZ-179 S and stopped off at the US Forest Service - Colonia National Forest Red Rock Ranger District Visitor Center to grab some information and take in the views. This was also the place I got over my fear of asking random people to take photos of me. I knew this was a trip I would want to remember, so I just asked someone random to snap a quick pic. After a brief stop and taking in the warmth and sunshine, I hopped back on the road and continued heading south. Looking back, I wish I had stopped and done a quick hike in Sedona, but I had a long 5 hour drive ahead of me to Sierra Vista to visit some family. 

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument

I continued on AZ-179A S to get on to interstate I-17 S. While driving, I saw a road sign for Montezuma Castle National Monument. What you’ll learn about me is that I am addicted to going to National Monuments, National Historic Sites, and basically any National park of any sort. I have the neat little National Park stamp book, which is filled with stamps from places I’ve been all over the USA. So naturally, I figured I could squeeze a quick stop in to see Montezuma Castle National Monument. This monument consists of protected cliff dwellings that were built by the Sinagua people. After my brief stop, I continued my journey south through Arizona to Sierra Vista.

Day 4 - Exploring Sierra Vista

Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine

Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine

While my family was at work, I decided to explore Sierra Vista a bit. I went to Our Lady of the Sierras Shrine, which is a little chapel on the side of a mountain and has a 75-foot cross. It is a very serene place. From it, one of my favorite things is that you can see mountains in Mexico on the horizon. If you need some time for self-reflection and to enjoy some silence, I recommend taking a stop here. 

During the afternoon, I decided to take a tour of Kartchner Caverns State Park. The first National Park I ever went to was Carlsbad Caverns National Park, so caverns have a special place in my heart and they are quite intriguing. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed. The caverns were definitely worth the stop if you are in the area. 

39.JPG
46.JPG

Day 5 - Grand Canyon National Park

The following day was spent mostly driving from Sierra Vista up to Grand Canyon National Park.  It was a 6 hour drive, but I left early enough so that I still got to spend a few hours in the park and catch the sun set. 

View from Mather Point

View from Mather Point

I first stopped at the South Rim Visitor Center. There are a ton of parking spots, but even in the off season it was fairly full. Since I didn't have too much time, I decided to walk along the Rim Trail, which was easily accessible from the visitor center. Mather Point will probably be your first stop along this trail if you’re heading out from the Visitor Center. This offers probably one of the most iconic views of Grand Canyon. 

For sunset, most people opt for the designated viewpoints right along Desert View Drive/Highway 64 (which are great, don’t get me wrong), but I wanted a little more peace and quiet. I decided to do a 1 mile walk to Shoshone Point (about 2.1 miles roundtrip). This is technically a viewpoint, but takes a little more effort to get to, which made it the perfect spot to watch my first sunset in the Grand Canyon. There’s a small parking lot at the trailhead, just east of the Pipe Creek Vista. 

I caught sunset just in time and had a little section of the canyon wall all to myself. As the sun went down, the canyon became a pastel painting in front of my eyes. The air became crisp and I felt incredibly free on that canyon edge. As it became dark, it was time to hike back to my car, and head to the hotel for the night. 

30.JPG
Dusk at Shoshone Point

Dusk at Shoshone Point

Day 6 - Antelope Canyon, Glen Canyon, and Horseshoe Bend 

I’ve come to realize that when I travel, I seem to think I have superpowers and can survive on next to no sleep (and fast-food). I think the adrenaline of the adventure fuels my body and my mind. It definitely gets me through the day. Day 6 of this trip is definitely a prime example of this. I woke up around 4 am and hit the road by 4:30 am. My goal was to get to Horseshoe Bend early enough for sunrise. However, the world has a way of shifting your plans. There was a horrible accident on the highway and I ended up being stuck in stand-still traffic for 3 hours, instead. 

Lower Antelope Canyon

Lower Antelope Canyon

Once the highway was cleared, I headed straight up to Page to catch my 11 am tour of Lower Antelope Canyon tour with Ken’s Tours. No words can describe the otherworldly beauty of Antelope Canyon. Approaching the canyon, it just looks like a mere crack in the earth. You wouldn’t suspect that an orange-drenched world was hiding below. Beams of light shone through the sand-dusted air, making the canyon walls glow red. 

Entering Lower Antelope Canyon requires waiting in lines outside in the sun (there is a shaded area to stand under), and then descending some steep ladders into the slot canyon. Since it is a bit more physically challenging to enter, it is a little less crowded than Upper Antelope Canyon. Antelope canyon was hands down the highlight of my trip. I was lucky enough to capture a couple light beams shining into the canyon.

43 (1).JPG

After my tour, I took headed over to Glen Canyon National Recreational Area and stopped at the Glen Canyon Dam. I took a short drive through the area, stopped to snap a few pictures, and then headed to Horseshoe Bend to get a prime spot on the edge of the canyon before the sun set. 

Glen Canyon National Recreational Area

Glen Canyon National Recreational Area

The parking lot for Horseshoe Bend is right off of Highway 89. When I went to Horseshoe Bend in 2016 there was not an entrance fee, but from the recent research I’ve done, it looks like there is a newly implemented fee this year for $10 a car. Once you park, it is about a .75 mile hike to the edge of the canyon. At the end of the trail, you will find the iconic Horseshoe Bend, with its 1,000 ft drop and 270-degree bend. 

I got there early so I could hang out for a couple hours, enjoy the view, and find the perfect spot to capture the sunset. Sitting on the edge is not for the faint of heart, but I found a nice spot to set my tripod up at looking right over the iconic bend and enjoyed the view until the sun set. Horseshoe Bend, even in October, is very busy most hours of the day. I found that it was extremely busy at sunset, hence why I got out early to get a good spot on the edge, but if you wait a few minutes after sunset, most everyone starts to leave and you get the spot a little more to yourself. The desert air cools, colors fade, and the blue shades of dusk emerge on the horizon. The voices fade away and a serene essence takes over. Once people cleared out, I was finally able to back my tripod up a bit more from the edge and snap one of my favorite photos of all time (pictured below).

It had become dark and chilly, so I reluctantly made the hike back to the parking lot and began the couple hour drive back to my hotel by the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

61.JPG

Day 7 - Grand Canyon

The first day I was at the Grand Canyon, I didn’t get much time to explore the South Rim, so I decided to commit most of my last day to stopping at the viewpoints along the South Rim Road. If you ever have just a day to explore the Grand Canyon, it is pretty manageable to hit all of the viewpoints you can drive to. I was able to go to all of the following viewpoints, working my way from the western side of the South Rim and heading towards the eastern exit:

Desert View Watchtower

Desert View Watchtower

  • Lookout Studio

  • Hopi House

  • Verkamp’s Visitor Center

  • Yavapai Point and Geology Museum

  • Grandview Point

  • Moran Point

  • Tusayan Museum and Ruin

  • Lipan Point

  • Navajo Point

  • Desert View Watchtower

At the final stop, Desert View Watchtower, I spent a decent amount of time here, exploring the Watchtower and enjoying the view. I didn’t want to leave, but I needed to head back to Flagstaff to drop off my rental car and get to my hotel before my long journey home the next day.

Day 8  & 9 - Amtrak from Flagstaff to Chicago

My week of adventure was coming to an end. The Amtrak departed early in the morning, and the next two days would be spent traveling back to Chicago. I spent most of the ride home editing photos, doing some homework, reflecting on my last week, and sleeping. If you ever feel like you need to get away and don’t know where to go, I highly recommend just jumping on a train and seeing where it will take you. You never know where you’ll end up. 

91 2.JPG