Coast Starlight: 24 hours on one of America’s most scenic railroad routes
(CNN) — Along the West Coast of the United States, 1,377 miles of train tracks connect Seattle to Los Angeles – a route often named one of the most beautiful train journeys in America.
The route, called Coast Starlight, takes a total of 35 hours to cross Washington state, cross Oregon and meander along the California coast. It’s billed on Amtrak’s website as “a great west coast rail adventure”, and a quick Google search turns up a number of travel blogs and YouTube videos offering scenic scenery along the way. .
After being stuck in Hong Kong – quarantine capital of the world – for over 20 months, I decided to give it a shot in November.
Some travelers make it a multi-day trip, kayaking the mountain lakes of Klamath Falls in Oregon or wine-tasting in Paso Robles, California, before setting off again. But I had a schedule to keep and a Thanksgiving dinner waiting for me, so I decided to take the direct route: 24 hours by train from Seattle to San Francisco.
The Coast Starlight train at Salem station on October 15, 2020.
Brian Hayes/Statesman Journal/Imagn
The Pacific Northwest
I chose the more affordable option of a coach seat (starting around $100), which had more leg room than expected – not that I spent much time in it.
For much of the trip, I sat in the Sightseeing Lounge, the Coast Starlight’s main attraction – an airy observation car with windows that stretch to the ceiling, allowing for unobstructed views.
As the train pulled away from Seattle, I spotted the looming silhouette of Mount Rainier and its distinctive flat volcanic peak in the distance. We passed through lush Pacific Northwest forests with evergreen Douglas fir and hemlock; a few remnants of autumn still dotted the landscape of yellow and orange.
The Coast Starlight train tourist lounge, pictured November 24, 2021.
One of the pleasures of train travel – perhaps especially for international visitors like myself – is getting a glimpse of the different slices of life along the route.
There were wet fields covered with hundreds of pumpkins; a house buried in the woods, a man mowing the lawn outside; horses in winter jackets, ducks wading in ponds and cows grazing on short grass. A woman on her porch waved at the passing train; delighted, I replied.
We also passed through small towns and industrial centers – sawmills, a recycling plant and warehouses containing haystacks and lumber.
A view from the window of the Coast Starlight.
It was cloudy that day, which offered its own surprises as we drove through Washington. At one point, the snow-capped peak of Mount St. Helena came out of nowhere, only to be engulfed again just as quickly.
November meant the skies started to darken at 4 p.m. shortly after we crossed the state line into Oregon. As night fell, I focused on a more pressing issue: what to eat and how to sleep.
If you have a flexible budget for a long train journey, it may be wise to spend a little more on a sleeping car.
Normally, coach passengers are allowed to order meals in the dining car and participate in “community seating”, where you eat and chat with other passengers. But that program has been put on hold due to the pandemic, meaning coach passengers are limited to buying food from a small cafe where most items are frozen or prepackaged.
The cafe works well for a few meals – I had microwaved mac and cheese for lunch and cup noodles for dinner – but at the end of the first day I thought longingly of the menu offered to passengers with private rooms, which includes fresh salads, pasta dishes, grilled salmon, omelettes – the works.
The Coast Starlight dining car, where passengers were allowed to eat and chat together before the pandemic, pictured on December 16, 2017.
As it was getting late, I settled into my coach seat for the night. The seat can recline quite far back, but I still had back pain and woke up periodically. Still, I managed to get seven hours of sleep as the train rolled through Oregon.
During the summer, when the days get longer, passengers can catch glimpses of the waterfalls near Portland or forest views as the train ascends the Cascades and through the steep Sacramento River Valley.
In fact, these views were obscured by darkness – and by the time I woke up, the sun was beginning to slip over the horizon as the train approached Sacramento, California.
California here we come
As we drove through the northern part of the state, the waterlogged fields and swamps gave way to palm trees and fishermen surrounding San Pablo Bay.
At one point, the train tracks were so close to shore that it looked like we were gliding straight through the water – nothing but blue waves outside the window.
Before I knew it, we were on our way home Oakland just outside of San Francisco, and my 24 hours were up.
If I had continued to the end of the line, I might have seen the low, rolling mountains of Santa Cruz; the strawberry fields and apple orchards of the Santa Clara Valley; and the beautiful blue ocean of the Southern California coast, with the train following the Pacific coast for more than 100 miles.
The train may not be the most efficient way to travel (before the trip, several friends checked that I knew, in fact, that a plane could do the job in two hours instead of 24) – – or most comfortable unless you book a sleeping car. Some of the scenery is ruined in winter, when much of the trip is in darkness.
But if you have a day or two to spare, podcast episodes to binge on, and the patience to soak up the sights as they come up, sit back and enjoy the ride.
Top Image Credit: Alexander Cimbal/Alamy