What It's Really Like to Ride Amtrak's Coast Starlight
Climb aboard and soak up every moment on one of the most scenic train trips in North America.
Many consider Amtrak’s Coast Starlight to be among the most scenic train routes in the country, traversing 1,400 miles between Los Angeles and Seattle. I recently spent 22 hours on this train between Union Station in Los Angeles and Klamath Falls, Oregon. Here’s what I learned.
The views really are that good.
It’s true, the views are outstanding, particularly in Southern California. The train hugs the coastline for some 350 miles, so we saw plenty of sand, surf and cliffs, as well as local families out enjoying a Saturday afternoon on the beach. Once we traveled inland, the views changed to agricultural communities and wine regions, like Paso Robles. Then Northern California and Oregon brought pine forests and snow-capped mountains. It was hard not to look out the window.
A seat in the observation car is worth the wait.
The coach seats are pretty comfortable, but the glass-dome observation car is where to go for stunning views. In the front of the car, comfy seats face outward, allowing riders to more fully enjoy the passing landscape. In the back of the car are booth-style seats. Bring a deck of cards, dominoes or some travel-size games to pass the time. It’s also a great spot to eat a snack from the café car, but seats in this car are in very high demand, so it’s never a guarantee you’ll find a seat (we had to check in multiple times before finally nabbing a booth).
For better or worse, you get to meet other passengers (and hear their stories).
It’s not easy to meet other travelers while also keeping a watchful eye on three children, but we managed to meet a few who were also eager to experience the Coast Starlight. We met one man traveling to Denver on a multi-day journey who just wanted to see the views. We met the train attendants who shared secrets on which rail stops are best for ordering take-out that’s delivered right to the train. Then there was the guy whose luggage got picked up by someone else. We listened to him make many phone calls as he sought to track it down and refill prescriptions.
You don’t want to pass up a meal in the menu-service dining car.
You may have to take a 9 p.m. reservation like we did for the table-service dining car, but I think you’ll find it’s worth the wait for silverware, wine service and a signature steak dinner. For kids, choose from a hot dog or macaroni and cheese (though I’ll admit the mac did come out of an all-too-familiar blue box). Sleeper car passengers get first dibs on reservations, hence the reason we were seated so late in the evening, but the kids loved chowing down as we rolled along.
For overnight journeys, I can’t recommend a sleeping car more highly.
It may seem obvious to book a sleeping car for an overnight rail trip, but I thought we’d be fine in the regular coach seats. I’ve flown the red-eye with my kids many times, so I figured this would be the same. Totally manageable, no problems. The train seats are much larger than airline seats, yet somehow all that extra space made it so much harder to get comfortable. Quiet hours on the train start at 10 p.m., but people board the train all night long. Northern California rail stops, like Chico and Redding, pick up passengers in the wee hours.
There’s a power outlet, but no Wi-Fi.*
Since we were to be on the train for 22 hours, it was a godsend to have power outlets right next to our seats (at the window). My worst nightmare during this journey was expired phones and tablets, and it’s not like I thought to bring portable power banks to charge up along the way. This extra juice kept my kids occupied for most of the journey, even without Wi-Fi, which was not to be for coach passengers like us. I later learned that Wi-Fi is only available to sleeping car passengers* (another reason to book a sleeping car).
You’ll wake up to the most beautiful views, and it will all be worth it.
We did manage to get some sleep as we continued north on the Coast Starlight train through California and into Oregon. When we awoke from our less than restful sleep and pulled open the curtain, we were greeted by the most beautiful views of Ponderosa Pines and a snowy white Mount Shasta in the distance. We had just 90 minutes left in our journey to Klamath Falls and it was hard not to stare out at a landscape so different from the day before when we were in SoCal.