Riding the rails: Seattle to California by train

Amtrak's Coast Starlight stopped at San Luis Obispo station
All aboard the Coast Starlight...
"Many see the highlight of the ride as being the coast-hugging, 117-mile run from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara"
  • | by Sean Davies

The intimidating bulk of Mount Rainier imposes itself on my gaze as I drop from the frozen north into the beautiful city of Seattle.

It's been quite a ride from Reykjavik on Icelandair, over the terrifying starkness of Greenland and northern Canada's vast, white wilderness. Yet the sight of this lone mountain - part of the Cascade Range, but standing in splendid isolation - is something to behold.

A view of Seattle from the air with Mount Rainier looming over it (photo by by Liesl Matthies)

Image: Liesl Matthies

It must be quite a thing to live in a city that's surrounded by volcanoes, and Rainier - considered so dangerous that it's on the terrifying 'Decade' list - is just one of five that Seattleites have to worry about. To the north there's Mount Baker and Glacier Peak, to the south Rainier, Mount Adams and, perhaps the most famous of them all, Mount St Helens.

With more of the Cascades running to the east and the Olympic Mountains to the west, it's some sight to take in from the top of the Seattle Space Needle and one that could easily lead to existential contemplations. But I've only got a day and the natives seem unconcerned… so let's just glory in the majesty of nature, taking it in with the help of a few craft beers and the freshest of seafood from the wonderfully vibrant Pike Place Market.

The reason for the whistle-stop tour is that I'm here to hop on Amtrak's Coast Starlight, the famous train service that runs 1,377 miles along the Pacific seaboard from Seattle to Los Angeles.

Amtrak's Coast Starlight pulls into a station (Photo: Marcel Marchon, Flickr)

Image: Marcel Marchon, Flickr

For those with the time, stop-offs along the way could include Portland, Eugene, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo and more - the train runs daily, so sort out your ticketing and accommodation, then hop on and off to your heart's content. But my time and budget is limited, so I'm on for the long haul, 36 hours non-stop down to the southern depths of the Golden State.

The languorous nature of a long-distance train journey has always attracted me and North America has some of the world's great tracks to ride - even if the tragic Amtrak crash in Philadelphia during my journey emphasised the fact that the USA's neglected railroads are perhaps better contemplated as heritage holiday highlights rather than viable commuter alternatives.

To cater for those of a touristic bent, stepping on board with me at King Street Station were two representatives of the Trails and Rails program, a partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service that gives enthusiastic and expert commentary along specific parts of the route from the train's sightseer lounge.

Trails and Rails presentation on board Amtrak's Coastal Starlight (Photo: Russell Neches, Flickr)

Image: Russell Neches, Flickr

The lounge, with its panoramic windows, offers the best views of the glorious Pacific north-west as the swaying train - and the bar stewardess's huskily voiced promise of 'ice-cold beer' - rolled the world's worries away. The afternoon's wine tasting in the bar car, highlighting the glorious grapes of California, put some extra sway into that roll.

Abundant alcohol aside, the train offers enough comforts to persuade you that you're on a holiday rather than a journey. Make your bookings for breakfast, lunch and dinner to enjoy some pretty tasty fare in the dining car in the company of fellow travellers who are ever-eager to chat and share their stories.

Come bed time, you've already paid your money and been given your choice. If you've booked a sleeping car you can head to your own bedroom, but for me it was back to the coach seating which was, it has to be said, pretty comfy, featuring a wide, reclining seat with leg rest. For one night the coach seat is definitely a budget option worth considering, but if you're taking a longer Amtrak journey remember that a sleeping car gets you additional perks such as inclusive meals and access to the dead-posh executive lounge.

After an atmospheric night winding up through the Cascades with stops at numerous folksy stations, the morning brought us down into the San Francisco Bay area for a distant view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Alongside the grand spectacles, the grimier underside of capitalist life is also clearly on display, with hobos sheltering under what seems like every bridge and overpass as the train rolls in and out of stations.

Amtrak's Coastal Starlight takes a horseshoe curve (Photo: Loco Steve, Flickr)

Image: Loco Steve, Flickr

It was back to the sightseer lounge for the descent into Steinbeck country, the vast acres of lettuce fields filled with migrant workers putting into stark relief the go-to topic of conversation for every native on the train; California's desperate water shortage.

The state is now well into its fourth year of severe drought and the early May glimpse we'd just had of the nearly snowless Cascades suggested that there was little glacial relief to come this summer. Never fear, though, the administrators have the answer to hand; Los Angeles restaurants can no longer automatically give diners their expected jug of free iced water unless they ask for it.

Apres moi, le deluge… with no time to take in the delights of Salinas, Carmel and Monterey, I rattle on towards what many see as the highlight of the Coast Starlight ride, the cliff-hugging, 117-mile run from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara.

The California coast looking south from Big Sur (Photo: Joseph Plotz)

Image: Joseph Plotz

Considering the fact that I'm travelling past prime, coastal real estate situated between the two greatest and richest cities on the USA's west coast, the beauty and desolation is remarkable.

For mile after mile there's simply no sign of habitation save for a few surfer beaches and, erm, Vandenberg Air Force Base's space-rocket launching platforms (it's California's equivalent of Florida's Cape Canaveral, if you hadn't heard of it).

A rocket launcher at Vandenberg Air Force Base

Well, that was an unexpected protuberance...

Dusk is descending and the second day's dinner service is in full swing as I reluctantly leave my rolling home at Santa Barbara, waving the mighty iron horse off as it heads inland for its final 100-mile cruise into Los Angeles' Union Station.

For me, there's time for a quick look at the beautiful and affluent beach city and a night of food and live music at the Endless Summer bar-cafe before I prepare to head for Las Vegas and the next, very different, part of my trip through the western US.

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