The Coast Starlight is perhaps the premier train in Amtrak's fleet. It is justly popular and sold out on a regular basis as it takes its passengers past spectacular scenery.....California's coast, the Cascade mountains and the San Juan de Fuca Sound as it arrives in Seattle. However, scenery is only part of the story. The Starlight stops in many enticing destinations, both large cities and small towns. Innovative and attentive service completes the experience as the Coast Starlight makes its leisurely journey along the West Coast.
Coast Starlight Travelogues
A story of going coach on the Coast Starlight with two college guys.
Amtrak offers some great bargains and one out here in California was a 3 fer deal during the month of November only. First person rides full fare, second person is half price and third person is free. I wanted to introduce my son, who is 21 and at UCLA, to trains and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. We asked his lifelong buddy who is at Cal-Poly up in San Luis Obispo to join us.
We left my house pretty early on Friday morning, as I was worried about getting tangled in LA's infamous traffic downtown (I live near the airport). Turns out it wasn't a problem at all. We took the 105 freeway and the 110, both of which now have a special carpool lane for two or more in a car. Took 25 minutes. LAX is a great old station, built in 1928 and nicely restored. It's now connected to an inter modal terminal for MTA busses and light rail. See pics at my website (wizzle.simplenet.com). Matt, my son, picked up a fabulous lox and cream cheese bagel from a shop in the station for breakfast on the train. He had his laptop with him and the Amtrak coach attendant helped us find the one set of seats that has an outlet in the Superliner II car.....nice fella. We were off promptly at 9:30AM. The Sunset Limited had come in late....8:30....so that was still in the station along with numerous Metrolink trains as we pulled out. Nice start.
The really glamorous amenities on the Starlight are not available to coach passengers, but it's a great train anyway. There is not smoking at all.....unlike the Southwest Chief, which has a smoking area downstairs in one of the coach cars.....makes the upper level of that car smell....yuck. The Starlight also has a kiddie car to amuse the youngsters and that helps us oldsters have a more pleasant trip too. Our train had the usual off-season consist of 2 Genesis engines, 2 sleepers, the Pacific Parlor car, dining car, sightseer lounge and 3 (or 4) coach cars. Superliner II coach seats are great....tons of room for my son and his puter....and it's fairly easy to see out both sides of the cars due to the large windows.
Out of LAX we passed the UP yard, which I enjoy seeing. The ride through the city is pretty ho hum, but not as depressingly ugly as in the Bay Area where the industrial areas along the tracks are truly ugly. The real scenery starts at the Santa Susanna pass....where the old westerns used to be made....and continues at the end of Simi Valley where it narrows between the hills.....has farmland and is very reminiscent of Italy. Between Ventura and San Luis Obispo is probably the most famous part of the route....right along the coast...much closer in places than Highway 1.....spectacular!!! Passengers who had come from the east to ride the train said the view exceeded their expectations...and it was a beautiful day so the Pacific was showing off many shades of blue.
At SLO we picked up our friend at 4:30, having lost an hour along the way. I saw an SP tunnel motor in the siding and thought of the gang on Trainorders, a great website for learning about trains and the railroad industry. Learning about trains has proved to be a real enhancement to my travels since I notice many details I would otherwise have missed. I packed my Altamont Press timetable which has a locomotive roster....so I looked up what I was seeing as we went along. Above SLO is Cuesta Pass......splendid!!! This is a wide pass rather than a narrow canyon with views down into the golden hills. Dusk found us stopping at Paso Robles and heading inland. With night closing in, I stood us to a couple of rounds of microwbrews. The Starlight has a good selection of beers and wines. Dinner was a really excellent tenderloin steak for me (all the steaks I've had on Amtrak have been wonderful), ribs for Matt and the vegetarian selection for Adam, our friend, plus a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Everyone was satisfied with their choice and the boys shared apple tart (fab) a la mode for desert.
Although the Superliner coach seats are very
comfortable, recline and have foot and leg rests, I just don't sleep well
on a train. So I took in what there was to see at each stop and after lights
out....could see the moonlit landscape fairly well. We lost additional
time in Oakland and waiting at a siding for a freight. But this was a real
blessing because at dawn we were just crossing parts of Lake Shasta. As
the light became stronger we entered the Sacramento River Canyon, which
looks much like the pictures of the
Feather River Canyon I've seen.......plus the colors on the trees were a brilliant gold. It was quite a sight....our train wending along close to the river's banks in this narrow canyon. The highlight...and a real surprise....came when it started to snow! The canyon turned quickly into a fairy land of white, greens and golds. Thank you Mother Nature and Amtrak!
Now seeing snow from a train is one thing...but
we had to de-train in the stuff at Dunsmuir while it was really coming
down....and landing as sort of a slushy mess. We squelched from the train
into the UP office...the Amtrak "station" is really just a bench and the
rest of the station belongs to UP. From the
Trainorders webcam you see the station as the small building to the
left with the green roof. One of the UP guys took pity on us and provided
a lift to our motel.....really kind. It wasn't far, but with all our baggage
and the snow it would have been a trek. We stayed at the Travelodge and they were nice enough to let us check in way before the official time of 2PM. We had a two nice, clean rooms (mini suite) for the very modest price of $60. Travelodge is about 6 blocks from the station (up the hill two blocks...over to the right 4 blocks on the main street) and you can hear, but not see the trains.....they do sound wonderful in the canyon, though.
Our stay in town was spent exploring and just enjoying the scenery. By the afternoon the snow had stopped and we had more or less dry feet again. The weather cleared entirely for Sunday when the boys took some long walks along the river. Dunsmuir is beautifully located and has about 2000 people. We walked down to the station and left Monday at 12:30AM...the Starlight was right on time. The trip home had different views The San Francisco Bay area was in the daylight this time. As happens so often with trains, the tracks offered special views not available from a car. They were right along the Bay where the morning mists were lifting to reveal marshlands full of birds. For the birdwatchers....don't forget to pack your binoculars if you take this train. Our conductor pointed out sights as we passed, including a ghost town in the marsh. Heading out of the Bay Area we passed into Santa Clarita Valley and stopped in Salinas, described by the author Steinbeck. After dropping of Adam in SLO, night fell once more and Matt got in some serious work on his laptop. We got home an hour late after losing time in Oakland.
If you can only go in one direction on the
Starlight, I'd recommend going north to catch the famous view of the California
coast. The trip is as advertised by Amtrak......great!!!!
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