Riding to Reno on the “Motown Snow Train”

Riding to Reno on the “Motown Snow Train”

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Elvis had left the building.

Followed by Martha Reeves of “Martha and The Vandellas” of Motown music fame.

Martha Boarding Train
(Jade Chapman/Key Holidays Photo)

Then me.

Over the next seven hours we sang and danced two-hundred odd miles from Emeryville, California on eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, across California’s Central Valley, past Sacramento, over the Sierra Nevada mountains, and into Reno, Nevada, “The Biggest Little City in The World.”

Well, they did. I just went along for the ride on the “Reno Snow Train.”

I Don’t “Do” Driving in The Snow

My winter driving skills have waned to nil since I left Washington State in the late 1960’s, so when Jade Chapman, President of Key Holidays, invited me to join her last week as a guest on the first “Snow Train” trip of the season to Reno and back, I jumped at the chance to travel across the mountains without worrying about slid-slipping around on icy roadways or chaining-up to make it over Donner Pass.

(Jade Chapman/Key Holidays Photo)

(Jade Chapman/Key Holidays Photo)

When the roads between my home just north of San Francisco and Reno are clear and dry, I can drive to Reno in my own car in about half the time it would take me to get there by train. But highway traffic for the first hundred miles would likely be heavy, so I’d have to keep a close eye on the road before me rather than sitting back and watching the scenery roll on by as would be the case if I went by train.

And even if I made it to Reno without crashing my car or becoming a complete nervous wreck behind the wheel, I’d know that I’d arrive much more relaxed if I left the driving to the Amtrak engineers who guide the locomotives that pull the “Snow Train.”

Amtrak Alternative

I’d done a similar trip about twenty years ago on Amtrak’s California Zephyr which daily makes it way 2,438 miles between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, stopping at Reno, going and coming. And while the Zephyr still makes that run these days, the Reno Snow Train offers a more entertaining and stylish rail adventure.

My train boarding pass, four pages of practical information about the trip, and a “Winners Book” of coupons good for up to $100 in discounts on dining and entertainment, arrived in my mailbox about two weeks before the scheduled departure date.

The only trip planning I had to do was to estimate the driving time to the Emeryville Amtrak station where I’d board the train, decide whether to eat breakfast at home or near the train station on the morning the trip began, and how to spend the one full day and two evenings I’d have in Reno during the three-day/two-night journey.

If you take the California Zephyr to and from Reno, you’ll pay for all of your on-board meals and beverages in addition to the train fare, unless you go to the unnecessary and extravagant expense of booking a sleeping compartment where you’ll probably spend little or no time during daytime trip.

And unlike the Reno Snow Train, which packages hotel lodging in Reno with the round-trip train price, travel on the Zephyr doesn’t include a Reno hotel stay, although you can use the Amtrak Website to book lodging, at a cost in addition to train travel.

“Snow Train,” Two Ways

There are two levels of service on the Reno Snow Train: “Silver Service” and “Gold Service.”

Both include round-trip reserved seating, lunch aboard the train, on-board entertainment, lodging (including taxes and resort fees, and a shuttle ride to hotels not within walking distance of the Reno Amtrak station), access to the train’s Dance Car, Piano Lounge, and Smoking Car.

“Silver Service” passengers ride in reclining seats in single-level Amtrak cars. You can bring aboard your own food and beverages and your ticket price includes a coupon good for $10 off purchases of $50 or more at BevMo! stores, including one not far from the Emeryville Amtrak station.

“Silver Service” looks to me to be a particularly good choice for large groups like “Don and the Old Crows,” forty-odd members of the Crow Canyon Country Club who set up their own bar in their Snow Train car.

Those who opt to pay the extra $150/person for “Gold Service” sit high above the tracks at “booths” with a table between facing seats and sweeping views through the dome car’s large windows.

“Gold Service” cars have a staffed bar pouring complimentary soft and alcoholic beverages on the upper seating level.

A three-course lunch is served in the dining area on lower level of the dome car.

Gold Service Dining IMG_2048

Snow Train Menu IMG_2049The first course composed salads were expertly arranged atop very fresh greens.

Passengers have a choice of entrees, including lime-grilled chicken dish and pasta with artichokes and tomatoes which I chose.

Chef Daniel told me that everything was cooked on-board, except for the desserts. But I found the commercially purchased Key Lime Pie and Cheesecake with Strawberries flavorful and and a good accompaniment to the rest of the meal.Key Lime Pie IMG_2054

I had the privilege of riding in “Gold Class.” Service by bartender Jack on the upper level and Paul in the dining section was prompt and courteous.  I recommend “Gold Class” for single travelers, like myself, as well as parties of two to four people, who want a comfortable and luxurious train travel experience.

Carrying the “Motown Sound” to Reno

When Martha Reeves arrived in Detroit she wasn’t a big star. She was a singer, but hadn’t hit the big time yet.

One day she showed up at music producer Mickey Stevenson’s office without an appointment, thinking he wanted to book her as a solo act. But instead, she was told to answer his phone while he stepped out for a while. She carried out that task so well that she ended up being hired for a secretarial job rather than a singing gig.

But in 1962, she and the other two members of “Martha and The Vandellas” were signed to a contract and later recorded memorable hits such as “Dancing in The Streets” and “Nowhere to Run.” The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

Martha performed twice during during my “Motown” themed Snow Train trip last week, first singing and dancing with passengers in the train’s Dance Car.

During a question and answer session in the Piano Lounge later that afternoon, she offered up an inspired rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” when asked to name her favorite song.

Martha apparently enjoyed performing on the Reno Snow Train as much as guests such as myself loved seeing and hearing her on that “stage on rails.” By the end of the day, she’d agreed to return for next year’s March 3-5, “Motown” trip.

In the meantime, when she’s not on the road, Martha still lives in “The Motor City,” where she served as a member of the Detroit City Council from 2005-2009.

Getting “up close and personal” (Martha was standing right next to me before the “Q&A” started!) with a celebrity singer isn’t an everyday occurrence. In fact, if you try to do so during a concert I guarantee that you’ll be hogtied, arrested, and carted off to the slammer where you you be singing an extended version of “Jailhouse Rock” until you are bailed out.

Elvis Lives!

Just two years after graduating from high school in 1954, Elvis Aaron Presley, often referred to as “the King of Rock and Roll,” or just “The King,” garnered musical stardom that has shined on long after the world was shocked by his untimely death in August of 1977 at age 42.

But Elvis lives on, not just on music collectors’ old vinyl records and digital versions of his songs, but in the form of perhaps hundreds or thousands of “Elvis impersonators” (also called “Elvis Tribute Artists”) who have re-made themselves into Presley “look-alikes” or “sing-alikes.”

Dennis Thornberry, who goes by the stage name “Colorado Elvis,” roamed through the Snow Train talking and joking with passengers in between stints singing in the Dance and Piano Lounge cars. He has a vast wardrobe of Elvis attire and, faster that you can say “Blue Suede Shoes,” can belt out a medley of Presley tunes from the over 300 in his repertoire.

After his last set in the Dance Car on the train ride back from Reno, I told him he was “The Real [Elvis] Deal” to which he exclaimed, “Oh, no! That means I’m dead!”

But I assured him that he was definitely alive and well, and the spitting image of “The King of Rock and Roll” resurrected.

More Entertainment, Please!

In addition to “Elvis,” John Lee Sanders performs on keyboard in the Piano Lounge on all Snow trips.

And when I rode the Snow Train last week, a magician entertained passengers at their seats with card tricks.

The “Talk of The Town” a capella group crooned their way from one end of the train to the other before performing in the Dance Car. They’ve been invited to join Martha Reeves on the March, 2015 “Motown” themed Reno Snow Train trip.

Chris Crockett, a strolling guitar minstrel, will perform on other Snow Train departures this year.

Weekend “Fun Train”

For those who are retired, self-employed, or willing to play hooky from work, the Tuesday through Thursday Reno Snow Train offers the chance to visit Reno for fewer dollars and when hotels and casinos are a bit less crowded than on weekends.

But just because you’re stuck at the office when the Snow Train travels to Reno and back, doesn’t mean you have to miss out entirely on a a wintertime excursion train ride.  Key Holiday’s Friday-Sunday “Reno Fun Train” is perfect for those who are still “wage slaves.”

Both the Snow and Fun train trips are based on a party theme like the “Love Train” on Valentine’s Day, “Aloha Hawaiian” the following week, and “Mardi Gras.”

A Train with A View

When I made the trip last week, thanks to a recent, albeit pretty weak weather system that flew hit Northern California, there was a bit of snow at the higher elevations along the route.

But rain that began while I was in Reno and continued through this past week has dumped several feet of new snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, so odds are good that you’ll see piles, and piles of the white stuff near the tracks, and atop the trees and peaks, on any Snow or Fun Train trip during the remainder of their 2014 season.

Meeting New People

Flying on an airliner is like traveling in a bubble that surrounds you. Unless “Chatty Cathy” (or “Garrulous George”) is in the seat next to you, one probably won’t exchange a single word with anyone other than the flight attendants who take your beverage order.

But on the Snow Train, you’re free to roam about, visit the Dance and Piano Lounge Cars, and chat with other passengers and the friendly staff.

Perhaps you’ll have a “It’s A Small World Experience” as I did when I learned that Mark, sitting across the aisle from me in the dome car is, like my wife, a volunteer for The Marine Mammal Center, a non-profit animal rescue and rehab organization whose California education, research, and treatment facility is near San Francisco.

Snow Train Lunch IMG_2052

And in the “Gold Service” dining area you may end up sharing a table at lunch, as I did at the invitation of Tina (behind the camera) and Rephina from San Francisco.

Trip Souvenirs

While I’m sure you hope that you’ll be hauling a big bag of gambling winnings when board the train for the return trip, because the odds always favor “The House,” that might not happen.

If you “lost your shirt” at the gaming tables, but still have a few bucks left in your wallet or on your credit card’s limit, you can pick up a T-shirt or other souvenir in the train’s “Mini-Mall” gift shop on the way home.

Better yet, buy them before the train gets to Reno, just in case you get tapped out at the casinos.

Is the Price Right?

The best fare for two people riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr round-trip to and from Reno will probably be about $200, exclusive of meal and beverage service aboard the train. Add in the cost of a two-night hotel stay in Reno, and the trip cost jumps to about $240 or more.

“Silver Service” aboard the Snow Train will run two people $539 and up (depending on hotel choice), including meals on the train, two-nights hotel stay, and the “Winner’s Book” of discount coupons.

Add another $300 for “Gold Service (including a three-course lunch plus free alcoholic and non- alcoholic beverages on-board—which I’d value at $200 or so) and two travelers will spend around $800-plus to ride the Snow Train.

So if “Cheap Thrills, But No Frills” ride to Reno appeals to you, make the trip on Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

But is taking the Snow Train worth the extra cost over riding the Zephyr?

Hanging out with “Elvis” and dancing and singing with a star-spangled celebrity like Martha Reeves was for me, a priceless travel experience that taking Amtrak couldn’t have delivered.

I was fortunate enough to make the trip in “Gold Service” with the compliments of Key Holidays, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do the trip again in the future on “my own nickel.”

The view from the dome cars is superb, the bar is handy, and the food served in the elegantly styled dining area is quite good considering its cooked up in a postage-stamp sized “kitchen.”

But those traveling with me in “Silver Service” had just as much fun as I did.

So, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow in the mountains while you sit back and enjoy the train ride to Reno and put off a road trip to the Tahoe-Reno region until summer and fall.


If you go….

When to Book

The Reno Snow and Fun Trains only run in February and March and are very popular with Northern California travelers, so plan to book as far in advance as possible. Reservations for 2015 will probably open in June of 2014.


Luggage-wise, plan to “travel light.

“Silver Service” cars have overhead luggage racks large enough to hold small roll-aboard bags

“Gold Service” dome cars have limited room to stow carry-on luggage below or between seats, but the train staff will check your luggage for you. (Key Holiday’s recommends bringing one wheeled bag no larger than 2’ x 3’.)

Travel Dates: February and March

The Reno Snow Train departs from the Emeryville, California Amtrak every Tuesday morning through March 11, 2014, and returns in the late afternoon or early evening two days later on Thursday. The train stops at Richmond, Martinez, Suisun-Fairfield, Sacramento, and Roseville stations along the way.

The February 11th departure is sold out, but during last week’s trip I was told that seats remained for the February 18-20 trip.

Reno Snow Train fare/hotel packages range from $269-$349/person, double occupancy, or $255/person for the train ride without lodging. Seniors deduct $10, children 2-11 travel for $99 with an adult, and free on the February 18-20 trip. A San Jose connection is available for an additional $30.

The Reno Fun Train departs the San Francisco Bay Area on Fridays and returns on Sundays through March 14-16.

Reno Fun Train fare/hotel packages range from $299-$379/person, double occupancy, and $259 for the train ride without lodging. Seniors deduct $10. Sorry no children; passengers must be at least 21 years of age. A San Jose connection is available for an addition $30.

Call Key Holidays (1-800-783-0783) for rates for single travelers, or groups of three to four. Special pricing available for groups of 16 or more. Check the Key Holidays Website (www.keyholidays.com) for terms and conditions, especially payment and cancellation information.

Parking at Emeryville

If you’ll be boarding at Emeryville, parking normally costs $20/day, but Snow/Fun Train passengers only pay $20 to park for three days in the lot on the north side of the Amtrak station (overflow parking is in a garage on the south side). Make a note of your parking space number, and enter it and “1” (not “3”) for the number of days, and pay with cash (which the machine wouldn’t take when I made the trip) or credit card. Write the dates of travel on the parking pass sent to you by Key Holidays, and place it plusthe receipt issued by the parking lot machine face-up on your car’s dashboard.

Breakfast at Emeryville

The Emeryville Amtrak station has a snack bar with coffee and snack items. Cabucci’s, where I had breakfast, is located in an office building at 6121 Hollis Street, directly across from the station, offers espresso drinks, a couple of breakfast paninis, and at least one hot breakfast choice. Peet’s Coffee & Tea has a location within 4 minutes walk from the station. Coffee and pastries should also be available on-board for Snow/Fun Train “Gold Service” passengers.

Staying overnight at Emeryville

Courtyard by Marriott, Four Points by Sheraton, and Hyatt hotels are located relatively near the Amtrak station if you want to overnight in Emeryville before or after your Snow or Fun Train trip.

Public transportation to Emeryville Amtrak Station

To reach the Emeryville Amtrak station via the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) light-rail system, get off the BART train at the MacArthur Station in Oakland, and take the free “Emery Go-Round” Hollis shuttle bus.

Spring-Fall “Gold Service” on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

From April through September this year, Key Holidays plans to offer “Gold Service” aboard its dome cars, round-trips to Reno, on most Fridays through Sundays on Amtrak’s California-Chicago California Zephyr.

Other Train Trips

Key Holidays offers a number of  train travel packages to destinations other than Reno, such as Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and the Pacific Northwest. And the company is now part of the Premier Rail Collection which runs excursion trains, such as the “Pullman” between Chicago and New Orleans, in other parts of the United States.

(Key Holidays provided a no-cost “Gold Service” Reno Snow Train train and lodging travel package to Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan.)

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12 Replies to “Riding to Reno on the “Motown Snow Train””

  1. Oh my gosh — Martha Reeves! What a treat! Thanks for the thorough review of the trip. I first heard of the Snow Train at the Travel and Adventure Show recently and would have loved to take that ride. I’ve also wanted to go through the mountains by train and this adds a whole fun dimension to the experience.

    1. Thanks, Cathy.

      You and Mr. TWS should do one of these Key Holidays Reno train trip. If you’re a big Motown fan, pencil in March 3-5, 2015 on your calendar and book the trip when reservations for 2015 open later this year. Martha Reeves will be performing on both the trip to Reno and the return trip next year.

      (The President of Key Holidays discovered that we had common Facebook Friends and so she invited me to take either the Snow or Fun Train.)

  2. Great views and live music too? Sounds like an amazing trip. We used to drive to Reno from Vancouver but the train sounds like a much more relaxing yet lively way to go. Via Rail should consider bringing top talent like Martha Reeves to liven up our national railway’s cross-country trips!

    1. You’re a great singer, Dennis, but what impressed me the most was you taking the time to engage with the “Snow Train” passengers throughout the trip. Best wishes for a long and fruitful career as “Elvis.”

  3. My husband and I are major train buffs and were planning this train trip on that sometime soon list. Thanks for such a completely detailed explanation of what to expect. The videos really added to the reader experience.

  4. Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my post, The Abandoned Town of Centralia. Yes it has been burning for over 50 years and will continue to for maybe another thousand years. It’s crazy.

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