Traveling on the Coast Starlight Train

As I mentioned in my Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle recap, I’ve wanted to run Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle for the past year. When I found out I’d need to be in San Diego the week before Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle, I briefly worried that would thwart my plans, particularly since the idea of flying Chicago to San Diego to Chicago to Seattle to Chicago in the space of roughly a week did not appeal to me. The idea of flying from San Diego to Seattle was moderately more appealing, but flying isn’t my favorite mode of travel and I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of adding another flight to my trip. In thinking about this, it occurred to me that one can travel up the entire West Coast via Amtrak, and thus the last piece of my epic West Coast trip fell into place.

After I wrapped up work on Wednesday, I hopped on the California Surfliner from San Diego to Los Angeles. The trip lasts about two and a half hours, and BOY do I recommend making this trip on the 6:43 p.m. train in early June. Doing so gets you to the coast right as the sun is setting over the Pacific, and that was a beautiful thing to witness.

I spent the night in Los Angeles, and then the real part of the trip began: my journey from Los Angeles to Seattle on the Coast Starlight train!

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(Side note: I could not get over how beautiful Los Angeles Union Station was. I could’ve spent hours just staring at it.)

Long time readers may recall that I made a similar journey two years ago when I took the City of New Orleans train from Chicago to New Orleans. This ride was a bit longer–scheduled to be 30, ended up being 35 for reasons I’ll get into later–so instead of taking coach, I decided to ride in style in a bedroom. Now, I will admit that traveling in the sleeper car with a bedroom reservation is not the most economical way to go, but it was MORE than worth the splurge. The bedroom came furnished with a couch/bench that folded down into a bed, an upper bunk, a separate seat, a fold-down table, a toilet and shower (WHAT) in each compartment–this proved to be far handier than I had hoped it would be, given the stomach bug situation–a sink, REAL TOWELS, and in-room controls for the temperature, lighting, and audio announcements. On top of that, all your meals in the dining car are included in your fare: in this case, two lunches, two dinners, and one breakfast. The food in the dining car was actually really delicious–airplane food this was not–and also not particularly cheap, so that was an amazing added benefit. On top of all of that, the car also had an attendant assigned to it, who was happy to help with whatever you could need during your trip: turning down the bed, providing you with hot coffee, getting you extra blankets.

It was unreal. I had no problems traveling in coach before, but this was on a totally different level. Also, while I would not particularly recommend traveling on a long haul train the day you come down with a stomach bug, if you do happen to come down with a stomach bug the day you’re scheduled to leave, at least a bedroom allows you relative privacy and comfort compared to a coach seat 😛

Onto the journey!

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The train leaves Los Angeles Union Station at 10:10 a.m. Breakfast is not provided, so you’ll either need to eat beforehand or bring food with you on the train, which is what I did. If you keep your eyes peeled as you leave the station, you’ll be able to see Dodger Stadium up on a hill! You head through the hills and into the valley, stopping in Van Nuys, Simi Valley, and Oxnard before the main event: the Pacific Ocean.

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I had heard that this was one of the most scenic train rides in the country, and the rumors were correct. From Oxnard until just south of Santa Maria, the train tracks hug the coast line, giving you uninterrupted views of the oceans and beaches. It was stunning.

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When the train stopped in Santa Barbara, two volunteers associated with the National Park Service got on the train as part of Amtrak’s Trails & Rails program. From Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo, they gave a talk in the lounge car about the areas we passed through. I missed the majority of their talk due to my lunch seating time, but I caught the tail end and found it very interesting!

Another cool part about this portion of the trip is that you go through Vandenberg Air Force Base. Obviously you can’t normally travel directly through an Air Force base, but since since the tracks do, you can see features of the base, including SpaceX launch pads. The terrain is relatively untouched compared to the other parts of the coast as well, and it was cool to see the uninterrupted landscape.

We stopped in San Luis Obispo for about ten minutes, which was plenty of time to get out and stretch your legs, and then headed further into the Central Coast area.

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I was disappointed to only spend a few hours right along the Pacific until I realized how beautiful the rest of the landscape of the West Coast is as well. Prior to this trip, my only experience with California was limited to a weekend in San Francisco. I had no idea how much the terrain changed as you headed north, nor did I have any idea how so many different kinds of landscapes could be equally beautiful.

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We spent awhile in San Jose, though I was eating dinner at the time and didn’t have a chance to get off the train, and then continued north to Oakland as the sun set on the first day of travel.

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I didn’t get the best sleep of my life on the train, but again, I had extenuating circumstances that made the entire trip less pleasant than it should’ve been. I was in bed and asleep-ish through the rest of the train’s California stops: Emeryville, Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Chico, Redding, and Dunsmuir.

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Northern California at sunrise.

If you’d like, you can ask your car’s attendant to come knock on your door at a particular time to wake you up in the morning. This ended up being more important on my trip than it will hopefully be for most people taking this trip, because my train made its last stop in Klamath Falls, Oregon around 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning. About a week and a half before my trip, a tunnel between Klamath Falls and Eugene partially collapsed during maintenance. No one was hurt, but it did make the tracks impassible. Because of this, we all had to get off the train and onto a bus that drove us three hours from Klamath Falls to Eugene. While it definitely was a bummer to have the train trip interrupted like that, the bus ride was stunning. The vast majority of the ride was through National Forests and Parks, and it was absolutely beautiful. I even saw a BALD EAGLE hanging out by a lake. Amazing!

We arrived in Eugene around 12:30 p.m., and then had five free hours to do whatever we wanted in Eugene. We couldn’t head north until the train that travels from Seattle to Los Angeles arrived, and it wouldn’t get into Eugene until around 5:30. Had I felt not-terrible, this would’ve been an awesome opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Hayward Field, a mere 1.5 miles from the train station, or if I was feeling really adventurous, to Pre’s Rock, 2.5 miles from the station. Alas, I was unable to wander too far from a bathroom (and feeling too sorry for myself to want to wander anyway), so I spent most of those five hours in the train station. I have to admit that I’m especially disappointed that I wasn’t able to go to Hayward Field, 1) because it would’ve been my last chance to see it as-is before the planned renovations that will dramatically alter the historic venue and 2) because the NCAA Track & Field Championships were going on right then, and it would’ve been really cool to see some of that. Curse you, stomach bug!!

By the time the southbound train arrived in Eugene, the VAST majority of the passengers who had been on the northbound train with me had given up the ghost and found some other way to get to their final destination. In all, only 16 of us got on the train in Eugene to continue north to Seattle, and nearly all of us were sleeper car patrons. That made for a very different vibe for the second leg of the trip. There were no seating times for dinner that night – anyone could go whenever they wanted. In fact, everyone on the train went at the same time! We watched the Oregon countryside pass by (I saw an osprey at one point during dinner!), and eventually we arrived in the last major city we encountered with daylight: Portland.

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After making it through Portland, I laid down and took a bit of a nap while we continued north to Seattle. We pulled into King Street Station (also gorgeous) just after midnight, and the trip was complete.

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While I, once again, would perhaps not recommend making this trip with a stomach bug, assuming you are in good digestive health, I CANNOT recommend this trip enough. It was a truly amazing way to see the West Coast. I loved watching the landscape evolve from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest and seeing all the different ways nature can be beautiful. Making the trip in a sleeper car was a particular treat. I loved getting to chat with new people at each meal, and it was nice to have space to spread out and relax. I really think Amtrak is an amazing way to travel, and traveling on the Coast Starlight is a trip I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

 

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4 thoughts on “Traveling on the Coast Starlight Train

  1. Oh man! I was gonna say that you could have seen Hayward before the demo (did you see the demo pics that came out last week?)!!! Damn that stomach bug. Thank heavens you had your own room to deal with that.
    This sounds so gorgeous and I am impressed with their attention to detail and culture – it’s so cool that they had a lecture on the landscape!

  2. Gosh this sounds like such an AMAZING trip. I would love to ride a train like that. Sounds a bit like a cruise but on land. I would worry about feeling cramped. Did you get to walk the train at all or were you sitting most of the time?

    • Yep, you can get up and walk around as much as you like! The bedroom was surprisingly spacious, and when I traveled on a similar train to New Orleans a few years ago, I was shocked at how much space the coach seats had – like at least what you’d expect on a first class seat on a plane, if not more. It’s definitely a very comfortable way to travel!

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