Amtrak’s Scenic Route from Seattle to Los Angeles
The train along the coast of California passes by plenty of scenic panoramas — and takes you to parts of the state that are undeservedly missing from road trip itineraries.
“The journey is too fast, it passes too quickly; what a yearning I have now for long journeys!” — Franz Kafka
Story and photos by Libor Popisil
“The journey is too fast …” is how Franz Kafka felt on his train trip in Europe. If you want to take a train trip yourself without experiencing Kafka’s disappointment, you can always board an Amtrak train in the United States. Amtrak offers several lengthy routes, along which you see plains, deserts, forests, oceans, or high mountain peaks. Such railway journeys are something akin to a meditative retreat.
With the pandemic having slowed down our rhythm of travel, I felt sufficiently mellow to take a train in America. I jumped on an Amtrak train in the most important railway junction you have never heard of — my adopted hometown of Martinez, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The train, called Coast Starlight, would take me to Los Angeles along the most scenic route in California, without any transfers.
To European eyes, the schedule looks eerily long. Coast Starlight sets off from Seattle and covers the distance of 1,377 miles (2 216 km) to Los Angeles in thirty-six hours. Franz Kafka’s short trip involved crossing three European countries, while Coast Starlight spends twenty-one hours on tracks just in California.
The train moves at a leisurely average pace of 40 miles per hour (62 kilometers per hour), hardly an attractive alternative to driving or flying. With Coast Starlight, however, it is about the romance of the journey, not the efficiency of the schedule. European trains may be faster but none of them follows edges of ocean cliffs. Coast Starlight, moreover, brings you to parts of California you might otherwise miss.
Your train is your home
At the Martinez station, I found out the train would arrive an hour late. The cause was straightforward — Coast Starlight passes through the Shasta area in northern California where wildfires had damaged the tracks.
When the train finally pulled in, I walked into the business class car. All the cars are steel double-deckers, so you end up feeling like stepping into an edifice as opposed to a train. A conductor led me up a staircase where I could choose any available leather seat. En route to Los Angeles, choose a window seat on the right, to be on the coastal side.
Coast Starlight consists of Superliner cars, some of which have walls and ceilings covered with a carpet-like fabric — that flashback of the early nineties. But despite their age, the cars exude a clean and comfortable ambiance. For overnight passengers, the train offers private sleeper cars, and for those wanting to spend less, it has economy cars too.
After leaving Martinez, the train meanders along the winding shore of the Carquinez Straight, where fishermen gather in the early morning light. When the train passes through the Bay Area cities, you can see the microcosm of California— high-tech industrial plants, ornate neighborhoods, bike paths, but also homeless encampments and abandoned warehouses.
The Grapes of California
The Coast Starlight continues along the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and then appears in the marshes of the Monterey Bay. The next stop is Salinas, known as a farming town these days, which does not sound exciting to travelers. But Salinas is also the birthplace of John Steinbeck, whose museum stands a short walk away from the station. An Amtrak bus offers a short side trip to Monterey, which may be famous for its pier, festivals, and aquarium, but thanks to its role in the Cannery Row novel, it has a Steinbeck connection as well.
From Salinas, the train follows the valley along the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. It is filled with never-ending vegetable farms, interrupted only by the Sand Andro oil field. At the end of the valley, the scenic highlights are finally coming. With Paso Robles, the train enters the up-and-coming Central Coast Wine Region. And then, with help from several tunnels, it overcomes the highest point of the journey — Cuesta Pass. Although the pass does not sit at an impressive elevation by world standards, the subsequent downslope toward San Luis Obispo has a few scenic vista points. Along them, the train descends a respectable 1,140 feet (347 m) on 8 miles (13 km) of tracks, which bend and curve in countless turns, including the famous horseshoe switchback. From there, you will spot what I call the garden of California — small fields, orchards, and vineyards, with the backdrop of volcanic hills. The most prominent of them is the jagged Bishop Peak towering over San Luis Obispo. But it is only one of the “Nine Sisters” of hills that lead all the way to Morro Bay, the popular Central Coast resort. Morro Bay is easily reached from the San Luis Obispo station within half an hour.
After making it down from the pass, the train crosses the Stenner Creek Trestle, the longest bridge on the route (960 feet, 290 meters), and arrives at San Luis Obispo. In the era of highways and flights, it is hard to appreciate how important the construction of the railway was for the region. Unlike San Francisco and Los Angeles, which had been major ports for a long time, the Central Coast region felt remote and almost forgotten by the rest of the state. Local businessmen had to use all kinds of methods when inciting the Southern Pacific company to bring tracks to their town. It was therefore with a big fanfare, when on May 5th, 1894, the inaugural train arrived from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo. It was welcomed there with a cacophonous sound of bands from all over the county and a party that involved grilling of “twenty beeves”.
Since the tracks down from Cuesta Pass were the most expensive and challenging section of the route, it is incredible that they took only two years to build. The company hired Chinese laborers for the arduous tasks of tunneling and laying down the tracks, while the Stenner Creek Trestle was assembled from pre-fabricated pieces. Those had to be shipped by fifty freight trains from a steel mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The construction fell seriously behind and the festivities could proceed only because the laborers laid ten thousand feet of track on the day before the opening! And also “because the contractors allowed half the standard number of ties per rail length, and left the bed graded without gravel.“ But those were minor issues. San Luis Obispo was finally connected to a railway from the north, and several years later, tracks were built farther to the south to reach Santa Barbara. As a result, the Southern Pacific could begin running its coastal trains from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1901. The trains were called variously Shore Line Limited, Coaster, or Starlight — depending on the time of their departure. When Amtrak was established in 1971, it paid homage to this history by putting the Coast Starlight service on its schedule.
Today, San Luis Obispo is a thoroughly pleasant town with a historical district, a Spanish mission, wineries, and mountains in the backdrop. Its energetic vibe comes from the presence of California Polytechnic University, which was, coincidentally, founded in the same year as when the coastal train began to operate. Since then, the Central Coast has been firmly placed into the mosaic of California.
When a train becomes a hyperreality
From San Luis Obispo, the train heads toward the coast. Hours are flying by, and passengers are becoming more and more restless. What do you do when stuck on a train for a full day and the views are not scenic for a while? Some people watch movies on their tablets. I wanted to make it a screen-free day, so I read through the pile of books I brought on board. In between, I talked to the conductor — each Amtrak car has its own conductor, which creates a feeling of familiarity you rarely encounter on European trains. I asked her about meal options: “Because of the pandemic restrictions, the dining car is unfortunately available only to sleeper car passengers.” Being denied the white tablecloth dinner on the train was the journey’s biggest pandemic downer.
The conductor suggested another meal option to me — the lounge car has a café on the lower floor. Placed between the business and economy classes, the lounge car is what makes Amtrak Amtrak. The upper floor has a few tables and benches to eat. But there are also armchair seats facing large windows curving overhead, making passengers feel like they are a part of the landscape. Those are the right seats to enjoy the scenic spots along the tracks. And you do not have to enjoy them alone since the well-lit design of the lounge car encourages socializing. That contrasts with the dim ambiance of the business car, where lonely figures rest in their separate places.
As I made myself comfortable in the lounge car, strangers around me mingled and conversed, with whatever social distancing possible. I smiled because it reminded me of what I had read in a book just a moment before. In it, Umberto Eco described his travels on the West Coast as a trip into hyperreality. I suddenly understood what he meant. In Europe, a train is a service; a mode of transportation. In America, a train is a world of its own — a hyperreality of life, which you can spend relaxing in your private space or getting to know new people in a communal area.
From sea to shining stars
The chatter in the lounge car paused with the first glimpses of the ocean. In a short moment, the train made it all the way to the coastal cliffs and followed them for tens of miles. Sometimes, the train seemed to veer too close to the edge, with nothing below but a steep slope of ice plants and the waves of the Pacific. The ice plants around the tracks looked as Californian as redwood trees, but in fact, they were brought from South Africa to make coastal soil more stable for railway construction.
What makes this coastal section melancholic is the lack of any cell phone signal. No town of significance is anywhere nearby. No internet service is onboard since Amtrak’s hyperreality is one of the time past. Unless you download your movie, you are out of luck — your only option is to talk to others or to watch the ocean. The remoteness has its upsides. You get to see Californian nature inaccessible by other means. Or sites that do not make it on road trip itineraries, such as the Vandenberg Space Launch Complexes, which the train passes in that remote region. Even though some of the Complexes have ceased to operate and are now museums, their glory days are far from over. In 2013, Elon Mask revived one of them, Complex 4, and used it as the launchpad for his Falcon 9 rocket.
Eventually, we left the rugged coast behind and arrived into a Spanish-style resort town of ubiquitous arches and red-tile roofs, the unmistakable signs of Santa Barbara. There, the train swelled with a large crowd of passengers, who turned out to be Angelenos, returning home from their getaway. With a look out the window, I understood why they liked Santa Barbara. The train passed by parks, where small groups of people barbecued under palm trees, and then I spotted at least two weddings on the beach, positioned against the sun setting behind the ocean. For some reason, the wedding scenery generated the most excitement among the passengers, and the “Did you see the wedding?” conversations kept going for the next dozen miles.
The train only rushed through Montecito, the hometown of Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Willis, and the exiled British royals, so I had mere seconds to admire the luxury mansions on the hill. Instead, I returned to watching the ocean side of the tracks, where surfers had their campers parked for the weekend.
Are we there yet?
According to the map, we approached our final destination. So, it was hard to believe that it was still two hours and one mountainous obstacle ahead. Even Franz Kafka would have been saturated with sights by then. The train turned away from the coast to rise through Simi Valley, passed through a tunnel, and then slowly descended into the dry San Fernando Valley. Our quick arrival at the Union Station in Los Angeles came therefore as a surprise — we made it there half an hour early, despite the late start at Martinez and the mellow pace of the long journey.
Those yearning for even a longer trip can always transfer to the Pacific Surfliner train, which continues along the coast to San Diego. Even though Coast Starlight let me have a unique look at California, I was ready to walk again. So, I packed my pile of books and entered the beautiful station building, styled as a grand, colonial-era cathedral. What a fitting terminus to a train service, which, maybe inadvertently, managed to preserve the charm of the old times.
IF YOU GO
- The Coast Starlight train runs three times a week between Seattle and Los Angeles, via Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area. It covers a distance of 1,377 miles (2 216 km) in 36 hours. The distance from Martinez in the Bay Area to Los Angeles is 496 miles (798 km) and the journey takes 13.5 hours.
- The schedule of Coast Starlight, including the related bus connections, can be found here: https://www.railpassengers.org/site/assets/files/20928/coast-starlight-schedule-101220.pdf
- You can book an Amtrak ticket through their website https://www.amtrak.com/home, or on a mobile application here: https://www.amtrak.com/mobile.
- A conductor assigned to your car will welcome you on the platform, check your ticket ticket, and accompany you inside. Neither economy, nor business car tickets have assigned seats — you can choose a seat after boarding the train. Naturally, the business class offers comfortable seats with extra legroom for a slightly higher price.
- En route to Los Angeles, choose a window seat on the right if you want to watch the ocean.
- Several pandemic restrictions are in effect on the train — you have to wear a mask at all times, except when drinking or eating. You will not get another passenger seated next to you. And you can use the dining car only if you travel in the sleeper car and if you booked dinner in advance.
- Amtrak bus connections are offered along the entire route of Coast Starlight. In Oregon, a bus departs from the Klamath Falls station to Crater Lake National Park. In California, a bus from Martinez goes to Napa wine country. San Francisco is easily reached by bus from Oakland, and Monterey by bus from Salinas. And Morro Bay is just a short ride away by a taxi or a county bus from San Luis Obispo. With all these options, the Coast Starlight journey can be turned into a full-scale exploration of the American West.
An earlier version of this story appears on Travel Examiner, where you can view dozens of award-winning national and international travel destination articles. Visit here: https://travelexaminer.com/