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Riding the Amtrak from San Diego to Portland

posted by Russ, July 27 in travel, united states with tags , , , , ,

4 comments
View from Amtrak south of Santa Barbara
View from Amtrak south of Santa Barbara

JUNE 24 – I had previously taken the Amtrak from San Diego to New York City, and though it was a long and uncomfortable trip riding in coach, it didn’t change my view on traveling by train. Since then, I have always wanted to make the trip up the West Coast by Amtrak. I would have loved to go all the way to Seattle, but as it happened, we were planning a trip to Portland, Oregon, so only going as far as Portland would have to do. So it was settled, we booked one way coach Amtrak tickets to Portland, and then booked our return flights on Southwest. Incidentally, the total price for train plus one way airfare came to within $5 of what round trip airfare would have cost, so it worked out perfectly. I actually did look into the prices of sleeper cars as well, but they were pretty outrageous, so we stuck with coach.

It turned out to be easier for us to leave from Solana Beach rather than San Diego, which is the first station stop north, about 40 minutes from San Diego. We boarded the Pacific Surfliner train there at 7:30 AM, en route to Los Angeles. From there to Union Station would be about two hours. For much of the this leg of the trip the train follows right along the coast, and the view is near perfection. In fact, there are places where the train is closer to the coast than any of the roads or freeways are, and in some places you feel like you are nearly riding on the sand, or in the surf which I suppose is why it’s called the Pacific Surfliner. Once you get into Orange county, maybe an hour or so into the journey, the track cuts away to the northeast and moves inland, making the journey towards downtown Los Angeles, so that’s where the great view of the Pacific ends for the time being.

Typically if you’re going only as far as Santa Barbara, you can remain on the Pacific Surfliner (though it will still require a brief stop in LA), but if you are going further north a transfer is required in Los Angeles. The Coast Starlight is the train that will take you from LA all the way up the coast to Seattle. Based on my other long distance Amtrak journey, I had always thought the Pacific Surfliner trains were the nicest of all I’ve been on. However, I must say, the Coast Starlight was equally nice. Every seat has an electric outlet, which makes using your electronic devices a breeze. There is no need to venture to the cafe or lounge car to seek out an open outlet for charging the phone, iPod, or laptop as was necessary on my previous trip a few years ago. I’m not sure if this is merely a reflection of the times, or if certain trains are newer and have better amenities.

As I’m finding seems to be fairly typical for travelling by Amtrak, we did experience a few moderate delays. The first delay of the trip was about an hour, simply waiting for the train to leave Union Station. Once going though, the ride out of LA is quick, and before you know it you’re cruising through the foothills north of the city and descending back towards Ventura and the coastline, which the train then follows all the way past Santa Barbara, and once again you feel like you’re riding in the surf.

I think it’s pretty typical on the long distance trains for there to be a cafe car and a dining car. The cafe car is where you can get drinks, snacks, and cheap meals; things like soda, beer, chips, hot dogs, salads, burgers and sandwiches. They are nothing special, probably on par with what you would get at a convenience store. On the other hand, the dining car is where you sit down and have someone serve you. I won’t say the food in the dining car is great, but it’s better than the cafe food, and even if your instincts tell you otherwise I suggest you eat there at least once, if nothing else simply for the experience. There is something about sitting down with a drink and some food and watching the scenery fly by that seems part of the quintessential long distance train travelling experience.

The thing you should know if you do opt for the dining car is that it requires reservations, and is not cheap. While not necessarily expensive, it’s certainly not for the budget traveller, as dinner may run you upwards of $20 per person after meal and drink. While I do recommend eating there at least once, I think the way to go on the long distance trains is to bring your own food and then just supplement with the cafe or the dining car for a meal or two. We brought a bag full of fruit, vegetables, and other healthy snacks, so we were well stocked for most of the trip and only went to the dining car and the cafe car one time each.

Regarding the dining reservations I mentioned, it’s helpful to know that first precendence is given to those in the sleeper cars since the price of their ticket includes meals. Because of this little fact, it actually is possible that you won’t even be able to make a reservation. I never experienced this in the past, but on this trip there were a few meals where even if we had wanted to we were not given an opportunity to make a reservation. That said, on the first night we did (just barely!) manage to snag a spot, and had a nice view from our table while we dined as we passed through San Luis Obispo.

After San Luis Obispo it’s smooth sailing through central California and up towards the Bay Area. As you approach Salinas the view transitions to mostly fields of produce on both sides, and before you know it you’re cruising into San Jose, and night has fallen. From there, it’s on through Oakland and up towards Chico, Redding and on into Oregon.

San Jose Train Station
San Jose Train Station

Since the arrival into San Jose is around 9PM or so, there wasn’t much visible scenery beyond there until morning. Now, I know you may be wondering exactly what we were thinking riding overnight in coach seats. Before you dismiss us as crazies, let me assure you that it is actually not too bad, and that it is possible to enjoy a comfortable overnight sleep in the coach seats. There is enough room to recline and there is also a foot rest. I am just a bit over six feet tall and was nearly able to fully extend my legs. There is no comparison between coach seats on the Amtrak train and on airplanes. Train is by far and away more spacious and comfortable. I won’t say the my previous experience of three nights in coach was pure comfort, but one overnight heading up the West Coast is certainly bearable.

After a few hours of broken sleep, I woke as day was breaking, and we were just on our way out of Redding and heading towards Mt Shasta. Passing through the Shasta National Forest, the views in this part of the state are amazing, and this is where you realize that Northern California and its more populous and overdeveloped Southern half are really more like two different states. For about an hour the train cruised right along the river, and in places it was like we were at the top edge of a gorge, with the land dropping off steeply to the side and the white water of the river far down below.

We approached Mt Shasta from the southwest, and actually circled almost half of the mountain and continued on to the northeast, which provided some amazing views as we chugged on towards Klamath Falls and Oregon. Once in Oregon, I was actually quite surprised at the route the train takes. Rather than head towards the northwest and Eugene, the train continues north through some of the most amazing scenery you could expect to see. Straight through several National Forests (Crater Lake, Deschutes, and Willamette I believe), there were no roads to be seen and it seemed as thought we had the forest to ourselves.

About an hour or two from of Eugene is where we experienced our second delay. A freight train ahead of us broke down, causing us to sit idle for three hours, but it couldn’t have happened at a place with more beautiful scenery. Large pines loomed just feet away from the tracks on both sides, and though the delay was undesirable, there couldn’t have been better scenery. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if they let us out for some of that fresh forest air!

Once moving again, there were only two more stops, and they seemed to come and go equally fast. First was Eugene where we were finally afforded the opportunity to get out for a stretch, and next was the small capital city of Salem. From there it was a pretty straight shot to Portland, where we finally joined up again with the Willamette River which we followed straight into downtown.

Overall it was a great trip, taking in total just shy of thirty six hours. One of the best parts of travelling this way is the fact that you are essentially forced to relax. With little to do for a day and a half but watch the scenery cruise by, it is truly relaxation at its finest, as long as you are ok with dealing with and accepting the few quirks of this nostalgic form of travel. A book, some snacks, and some good company are all it takes to have a truly great train experience.

>> See The Complete Amtrak San Diego – Portland Photo Set

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  3. Riding the city bus in San Diego – mixed feelings


Originally posted on Wednesday, July 27th, 2011 at 6:53 AM .

4 Responses to “Riding the Amtrak from San Diego to Portland”

  1. David W says:

    I’d dig a trip like this. A friend of mine does a lot by freight, so that would be the ultimate goal. Amtrak to NY is pretty damn impressive though!

    • Russ says:

      Riding by freight is hardcore! Sitting in coach for four days is a luxury compared to that! Except for the lack of fresh air in those damn cars that you can’t open windows in.

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