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Along the West Coast of the United States, 1,377 miles of railroad tracks run from Seattle to Los Angeles – a route often named as one of the most beautiful train journeys in America.
The route, called the Coast Starlight, takes 35 hours in total to wind through Washington state, cross Oregon and snake down the California coastline. It’s billed on Amtrak’s website as “a grand west coast train adventure,” and a quick Google search turns up a number of travel blogs and YouTube videos boasting picturesque scenery along the way.
After having been stuck in Hong Kong – quarantine capital of the world – for more than 20 months, I decided to give it a go in November.
Some travelers make it a multi-day trip, getting off to kayak in the mountain lakes of Oregon’s Klamath Falls or going wine tasting in California’s Paso Robles, before jumping back on. But I had a schedule to stick to and a Thanksgiving dinner waiting for me, so I decided to make it a straight ride: 24 hours on the train from Seattle to San Francisco.
The Pacific Northwest
I chose the most affordable option of a coach seat (starting from about $100), which had more leg room than I anticipated – not that I spent much time in it.
For much of the trip, I sat in the sightseer lounge, the main attraction of the Coast Starlight – an airy observation car with windows that stretch up to the ceiling, allowing expansive views.
As the train pulled away from Seattle, I spotted the looming silhouette of Mount Rainier and its distinctive flat volcanic top in the distance. We passed by lush Pacific Northwest forests with evergreen Douglas firs and hemlock trees; some remnants of fall still dotted the landscape with yellow and orange.
One of the pleasures of train travel – perhaps particularly for international visitors like myself – is getting a peek at different slices of life along the route.
There were damp fields covered by hundreds of pumpkins; a house buried deep in the woods, a man mowing the lawn outside; horses wearing winter jackets, ducks wading in ponds and cows grazing on stubbly grass. One woman on her porch waved to the passing train; delighted, I waved back.
We rode through small towns and industrial centers, too – lumber mills, a recycling plant, and warehouses containing stacks of hay and timber.
It was cloudy that day, which offered its own surprises as we moved through Washington. At one point, Mount St. Helen’s snow-covered peak rose out of nowhere, before it was swallowed up again just as quickly.
November meant the sky began darkening by 4 p.m., soon after we crossed the state line into Oregon. As night fell, I turned my focus to a more pressing problem: what to eat and how to sleep.
If you have a flexible budget for a long train trip, it might be wise to spend a little more on a sleeper car.
The Coast Starlight offers roomettes, a bedroom option, a bedroom suite and larger family bedrooms – ranging from about $430 to $1,325. Though they differ in size and comfort, they offer three crucial amenities: a horizontal surface for sleep, complimentary meals and in-room or in-car private restrooms and showers.
Normally, coach passengers are allowed to order meals from the dining car and participate in “community seating,” where you eat and chat with other passengers. But that program has been suspended due to the pandemic, which means coach passengers are limited to buying food from a small cafe where most items are frozen or prepackaged.
The cafe works fine for a few meals – I had microwaved mac and cheese for lunch and cup noodles for dinner – but by the end of the first day I was thinking longingly of the menu offered to passengers with private rooms, which includes fresh salads, pasta dishes, grilled salmon, omelets – the works.
As it got late, I settled in my coach seat for the night. The seat can recline pretty far back, but I still found my back aching and woke up periodically. Even so, I managed to sleep seven hours as the train cut through Oregon.
During the summer when days stretch longer, passengers might catch a glimpse of the waterfalls near Portland, or forest views as the train climbs up the Cascades and through the steep Sacramento River Valley.
As it was, those views were obscured by darkness – and by the time I woke, the sun was beginning to creep over the horizon as the train approached Sacramento, California.
California, here we come
As we made our way through the northern part of the state, waterlogged fields and marshes gave way to palm trees and fishermen surrounding the San Pablo Bay.
At one point, the train tracks were so close to the shore that it looked like we were gliding directly on the water – nothing but blue waves outside the window.
Before I knew it, we were pulling into Oakland just outside San Francisco, and my 24 hours had come to an end.
If I had continued on to the end of the line, I might have seen the low rolling Santa Cruz mountains; the strawberry fields and apple orchards in the Santa Clara Valley; and the stunning blue ocean of the southern California coast, with the train following the Pacific coastline for more than 100 miles.
The train perhaps isn’t the most efficient way to travel (before the trip, multiple friends checked that I did, in fact, know a plane could do the trick in two hours instead of 24) – or the most comfortable unless you book a sleeper car. Some of the scenery is wasted in the winter, when much of the trip is spent in darkness.
But if you have a day or two to spare, podcast episodes to binge, and patience to soak in the views as they come – sit back and enjoy the ride.
Top image credit: Alexander Cimbal/Alamy