The Pacific Coast Highway Is an Iconic Road Trip — But It's Even Better by Train
For travelers who prefer the convenience of being able to get up, stretch their legs, and wander for coffee — all without having to hold out for the next exit — there’s a hassle-free way to enjoy the scenery of the Pacific Coast Highway without having to drive until your eyes cross.
There’s one thing I love about road trips: when they’re over. Folding into a cramped seat, fighting nausea in stop-and-go traffic, and that anxious sense of inefficiency that plagues type-A travelers like me who are forever aware of all we could be accomplishing if we didn’t have our hands glued to a steering wheel? No, none of it appeals to me. Whether the excursion is cross-city or cross-country, getting there by car is not my preferred method of transportation.
But iconic American adventures like the Pacific Coast Highway are hard to resist for an ever-wandering Sagittarius — so imagine my delight at discovering there’s a roomy, Wi-Fi-equipped alternative to road tripping the scenic 1,377-mile stretch between Los Angeles and Seattle: Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. Board the bi-level train, store your carry-on overhead, and click your footrest into position as you settle in with a good book or an open laptop — no need to think about one logistic more. That is, until an attendant comes by to book your dining reservation in the restaurant car. And did I mention there are floor-to-ceiling windows in a separate observation car, just in case you tire of the view from your seat?
Unsurprisingly, views are in ample supply on a trek hugging the rugged coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. The Coast Starlight parallels the Pacific Coast Highway for much of the way through California, offering passengers a window into dramatic landscapes varying from shady redwood forests to stunning cliffside vistas (with Pacific Ocean waves crashing onto untouched beaches below) before gradually succumbing to the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington. You’ll even snake along the base of Mount Shasta before hitting Klamath Falls, Oregon, where you can break for an easy day trip to Crater Lake.
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Though no leg of the route is an eyesore, the most breathtaking views by far (and the ones you’ll recognize from Instagram) are found on the seaside stretch between Oxnard and San Luis Obispo. The southbound train is scheduled to traverse this section at golden hour, but we got “lucky” — our northbound train was delayed a few hours, so we rolled through these views at sunset, while the delayed southbound train hit them in the dark. Refer to the Coast Starlight timetable to plan your route, but understand that even the best laid plans are not guaranteed when it comes to the caprices of travel.
The Coast Starlight departs both Los Angeles and Seattle once daily, stopping in 28 cities in between. Whether you plan a north- or southbound trip, you’ll be on the train about 35 hours total if you opt to take the entire journey at once. That sounds like a lot (and it is) — but remember that traveling by train means you can walk around as you please; use the restroom; eat a hot meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (seared Norwegian salmon, anyone?); and even sleep through the night, all without pulling off the road to find a rest stop. It’s a timeless pleasure, train travel — the rhythm of the rails harkens back to an era when trains barreled forward as the vanguard of progress. It’s hard to deny the romance of it all.
Still, if spending that many consecutive hours on a train doesn’t sound tempting (I don’t blame you), you can instead book individual legs and customize the trip to your ideal itinerary. My husband and I stopped in Santa Barbara to celebrate our anniversary, as well as San Jose, San Francisco, and Portland, taking a couple days to explore each. Broken up this way, the journey gives you the chance to hit many West Coast highlights in one trip.
To book a trip on the Coast Starlight, head to the Amtrak website. Passengers have the option of reserving a seat in coach, a Superliner Roomette, or a Superliner Bedroom (outfitted with in-room toilet and shower). One perk of booking Superliner service is gaining access to an exclusive lounge car — an elegant space outfitted with curved couches, perfect for shooting the breeze over a round of drinks and a game of cards. Coach tickets start at $97 one-way (sometimes as low as $79 on sale) and all passengers get two checked bags for free. Whether you’re into city breaks or secluded hikes, you’ll find what you’re looking for on the Coast Starlight route.