A couple months ago, my dad Rudy invited me to join him on a trip down to California as he wanted to visit his cousins who live around Los Angeles. With it being in the middle of the colder weather of a Seattle winter, I looked forward to the opportunity to enjoy some warm weather for a bit. The catch was that he no longer desires to fly, so it would be by train to get down to Los Angeles, and then driving back up after the week. While my lone experience of a long-distance train ride in the states was less than Ideal, I was willing to go along to spend some quality time with him, and even though it was longer, I had a feeling a few factors would help to make this a different experience.
The previous long ride with Amtrak was from Orlando, FL to Raleigh, NC. This was a 12-hour ride in December, so it was dark by the time we departed, and the sun was only out for the last hour or so of the ride, so you couldn’t really watch scenery because there wasn’t anything to see but darkness, save for the first bit when we rode through downtown Orlando. I also had a hard time sleeping as the train would rock like crazy and the passenger I was seated next to didn’t seem the most hygienic, so those took away from the experience as well, not leaving me with the highest opinion on train travel at that point. Eventually, I did take another ride on Amtrak to go from Anaheim to San Diego, which was a beautiful ride along the Pacific Coast, so I had learned that if you have things to see, it helps make the ride better.
Keeping that in mind, along with knowing that we would have a lot of time in daylight hours to take in the scenery from the train, and Dad arranging for us to have a sleeper cabin so that we could actually lay down to sleep, I had a feeling this would be a different experience. The day came to meet up with him down at King Street Station, the oldest operating train station in Seattle dating back to the year 1907. I had not been to this station before to catch a train, but have passed by it many times as the tour company I work for has it as part of the city tour route, so it was neat to be able to actually use it for once. The interior is quite pleasant as it had been refurbished and some of its original interior design with some modern amenities. It is not nearly as complex as stations you will find in other countries since there generally are fewer passenger trains operating in the United States than others (Which is a shame, as I'll explain later).
For this journey, Dad and I would be taking the Coast Starlight line the entire length of the route from Seattle to Los Angeles. A scheduled 36-hour ride, this would provide more opportunities to enjoy the views along the way with a morning departure and arrival the night after, essentially giving us two days-worth of scenic viewing.
The sleeper cabin that was booked was one of the smaller ones where the two seats inside could be folded to make one bed, and the above the seats was the bunk that could be positioned up for more headroom getting in and out of the cabin. The seats were wide enough that you could turn to face the window, and use a pillow or coat to help pad against the armrest. This cabin would be perfect for Dad and I to point out the sights, determine where we were, share travel memories and just to enjoy each other’s company.
The first stretch of our journey would take us through Tacoma, and around Point Defiance. For those who were familiar about the news of the derailed train, this part of the route was the old routing, thus we did not pass through where the derailment had occurred.
The best part of this routing was the ability to enjoy views I have not seen before of this area, including the side view from the shore of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. I have been over these bridges a number of times, both as a kid riding with my parents, and now as an adult upon returning to the Pacific Northwest, yet this was the first time to have seen them from this angle.
Just a bit further along in University Place, the train would also bring us alongside Chambers Bay. Golf fans may be familiar with this course as it was the host site of the 2015 U.S. Open Tournament, which was won by Jordan Spieth.
Continuing down would take us through woods and countryside of Washington, and just before we left the state, it was lunchtime. When booking a sleeper cabin with Amtrak, your meals are included with the ride (additional charges for alcoholic beverages would apply), thus we were able come and enjoy some time in the diner car. Over the course of this 36-hour ride, we could have had a breakfast, two lunches and two dinners, although we would skip the second dinner as we had other plans for when we arrived to Los Angeles.
One aspect of the dining car that some may not care for is the way in which they seat people together as you may be seated with others whom you are not traveling with (like two groups of two people placed at the same table. What dad and I found though was that this provided an opportunity to talk to new people in some great conversation.
As for the food quality, if they were operating a traditional restaurant, it’s not food that I would make a point of eating, but it was still a decent meal each time, and certainly better than what you may expect from some airlines. The staff of the dining car were also very pleasant.
As lunch came to an end, we were crossing over the Columbia River into Oregon, and towards Portland.
One of the features that really stood out for this journey was the ability to see several of the larger peaks of the Cascade Mountains. Before lunch, we had been able to see Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens (Although only for brief moments as buildings, trees and other trains kept coming up and clocking the view when I tried to take pictures). After lunch, we were treated to views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Washington and the Three Sisters in Oregon, and the Oregon countryside.
As the ride continued, there would be more of the countryside of Oregon as the sun would set, so after dinner it was time for bed. I took the top bunk so that dad could have the lower bed. As previously mentioned, from my past train ride from Orlando to Raleigh, I had a hard time sleeping, which I think was from a combination of the rocking of the train with the more upright position from being in a seat rather than a bed. This bunk was inline with the car, so there would be side-to-side movement, which led to the occasional “Oh s*it!” moment when laying on my side as the train swayed felt like I was going to fall off. Fortunately, I never came close, and there was a strap to help keep me up top if I had. While the top bunk a bit hard, I certainly appreciated that I generally slept more than I thought I would, so this was a much-appreciated improvement over the last long train ride.
Another benefit to booking a sleeper cabin is the on-board showers. They were a bit tight in space, and the rocking of the train may add a bit more time to your typical shower routine, but it was wonderful to be able to freshen up from a full day and night on the train, making day two even more pleasant.
After the shower, we had an extended stop in Oakland as they added a private car to the end of the train that would go with us to Los Angeles. This private car was for guests of a wine tour to enjoy, so it was not available to regular passengers, but it was still neat to see this old car join us.
Much of the morning stretch of our journey would take us through the farmlands of the Salinas Valley through Monterrey County. It was pretty amazing to see just how expansive these farmlands were as they went on for miles and miles.
What threw me off as we headed further South in Monterrey County was how there were parts of the of the valley that looked a lot like the savanna of Africa. I would never have guessed that there was a part of California like this, but it was quite amazing to see. It makes me look even more forward to an upcoming journey that I have in March to South Africa.
Further along, we would begin to descent through the Coastal Mountains in San Louis Obispo County, making for a lot of S-turns when heading down. This would make for an interesting partial loop when heading into the town of San Louis Obispo.
As the sun began to set, before the stop in Santa Barbra, we were treated to one of the best views of the entire journey. This was where we were able to get a view of the Pacific Ocean, and it did not disappoint! It seemed like a perfect last sight before nightfall, and the end of our journey.
And clocking in at just under 35 hours after leaving from Seattle, we arrived in Los Angeles and met with Dad’s cousin Heath. It was a long journey, but I feel like this was a redeeming one for taking an Amtrak train when compared to the first time. I would certainly like to give another route a try in the future, and I feel like more people should give train rides an opportunity because there are some views that you just cannot enjoy from the road while you are driving, or from 30,000+ feet in the air on a plane. I also really appreciated to opportunity to spend some quality time with my dad as my work schedule can make it tricky to do so when I am home, but I enjoyed the stories shared and memories reminisced with one another.
That concludes the journey on the Coast Starlight. Up next, we'll head to one of the largest theme parks in Southern California.