By Jill Dutton
While riding Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles to Seattle is spectacular -- following the coast for nearly 350 miles, traveling through mountains and rolling hills, including Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Rainier -- it can be an even greater adventure if you plan to stop at some of the amazing destinations along the route.
I’ve planned out stops in seven cities for an overnight visit to each. With premium daytime arrivals and departures (no detraining at 3 a.m. and trying to find a ride to your hotel in the middle of the night), these cities -- in addition to being trip-worthy on their own -- are great places to get off the train, stretch your legs, and explore during overnight visits.
The Coast Starlight runs a 35-hour route daily. One train departs from Seattle to Los Angeles and another from Los Angeles to Seattle each day. This itinerary follows the Los Angeles-to-Seattle route.
Many consider Amtrak’s Coast Starlight to be among the most scenic train routes in the country, traveling 1,400 miles between Los Angeles and Seattle. Keep in mind when planning your trip that the train runs once daily, so if you detrain in a city along the route, you won’t be able to get back on the train until the next day. The good news: We’ve done the planning for you. All you need to do is make your reservations, then jump on board to enjoy the views as you travel to these seven cities along the Pacific Coast.
Day 1: Los Angeles
Arrive in Los Angeles. If you come in the day before your train departs, check into the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, a four-star hotel located 1.6 miles from Union Station. Or if you’re traveling on a budget, check out a Podshare location in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles, just over half a mile from Union Station. For dinner, try the Grand Central Market, where you’ll find the tastes and flavors of Los Angeles under one roof. Then head to OUE Skyspace, California’s tallest open-air observation deck, to catch an iconic L.A. sunset. A visit to L.A. wouldn’t be complete without visiting Last Bookstore and taking a walking tour of the Arts District.
Day 2: Santa Barbara
Time to depart on your train adventure! You should either pay for and print your tickets or download Amtrak’s app before you get started. Head to L.A.’s Union Station for the first leg of your trip on the Coast Starlight. Union Station is a historic landmark building located in a rich, diverse area of Los Angeles, nearby Chinatown, Olvera Street, and downtown proper. All aboard for your 10:10 a.m. departure for Santa Barbara.
Once you’re settled on the train, head to the observation car to take in the coastal views. After a 2-hour-and-23-minute ride, you’ll arrive in Santa Barbara at 12:23 p.m.
Santa Barbara has been considered the American Riviera for more than a century, since visitors from the East Coast first started arriving by train to spend winter months in the city. These days, Santa Barbara is uniquely suited for car-free travel, with attractions located in close proximity to the Santa Barbara train station. Adjacent to the station is the waterfront with Stearns Wharf, the oldest maintained wooden wharf in California, just two blocks away.
There are many hotels located near the train station with different price points. For more on Santa Barbara accommodations and activities, pick and choose from our weekend getaway in Santa Barbara tips.
Day 3: San Luis Obispo
You’ll depart for your next stop, San Luis Obispo, at 12:40 p.m. After another brief yet enthralling ride of about 2 hours and 42 minutes, you’ll arrive at your next destination at 3:22 p.m.
San Luis Obispo offers walkability from the train station plus public transportation options to nearby wine country and a lively downtown area.
Just over half a mile from the train station, check into the SLO Brew Lofts. Designed with a modern, urban aesthetic and a sense of comfort and sophistication, each of the Loft’s five suites offers a unique setting and outlook.
You’ll find charming shops and restaurants located in turn-of-the-century mercantile buildings and a Spanish mission in the heart of town. Known as Happy Town, you’ll enjoy San Luis Obispo’s college town vibe, hiking trails, wineries, and surf shops. Get your hands on some Santa Maria-style cuisine at Old San Luis BBQ. After dinner, stop by Nightcap at Granada Hotel and Bistro for an intimate cocktail experience in the heart of downtown.
Day 4: Paso Robles
Today’s train ride is just about one hour and 20 minutes. You’ll board in San Luis Obispo at 3:35 p.m. and arrive in Paso Robles at 4:37 p.m. Due to the convenience and ease of access from the Amtrak stop, Paso Robles, with its quaint downtown square, is an ideal stop to make along the Coast Starlight route. Within a five-minute walk from the station, you can access assorted lodging options, restaurants, boutique shopping, assorted arts, cultural and heritage activities, winery tasting rooms, and craft breweries.
Check in at Hotel Cheval (voted the top small luxury hotel in the U.S.), a boutique lodging experience complete with a wine bar and the option to indulge in evening s'mores by the fireplace.
Stroll to Il Cortile for Italian dining at its finest. After dinner, cruise by Studios on the Park to see the work of local artists and designers who call Paso Robles home. Make a reservation (ahead of time) to pop into Eleven Twenty Two -- the downtown speakeasy -- and experience one of their signature cocktails in a warm and relaxing setting.
The next morning, walk over to the Cowgirl Cafe for a filling breakfast to start your day. Stop by the El Paso de Robles Carnegie Museum for a peek into Paso Robles history through beautiful exhibits and collections curated from the estates of local pioneer families. You'll have time for an early lunch and a quick pint of locally crafted beer before heading to the train station for your early afternoon departure.
Day 5: Oakland
Board the Coast Starlight at 4:37 p.m. for your longest leg so far. After just under five hours aboard, you’ll arrive in Oakland at 9:24 p.m. Spend some time in the observation car to watch the sun set on the way. Or make a reservation for dinner in the train’s dining car and watch the sun set while meeting other passengers and enjoying a white tablecloth meal.
The Waterfront Hotel, located in Jack London Square, is walking distance from the train station. Oakland is a great stop along the Coast Starlight if you’re looking for an exciting and culturally-enriching urban experience. In addition to the Oakland Urban Wine Trail and the Oakland Ale Trail, coffee-lovers now have the Oakland Coffee Rush, which just launched. Cocktail drinkers can also grab a Mai Tai in the city where the iconic drink was invented.
Since your train doesn’t depart until 9:39 p.m. the next evening, you can spend a full day exploring the area (ask the hotel if you can leave your luggage for the day). Try a water sport -- like kayaking or stand up paddle boarding -- on the Oakland Estuary right outside your hotel. After some outdoor recreation, explore the beautiful architecture in Old Oakland, only a short walk from the hotel. After a full day exploring Oakland, you’ll be ready to board for your next destination.
The ride from Oakland to Klamath Falls is an overnight trip that takes 10 hours and 28 minutes. For this segment, you may want to consider a sleeper car. Although it’s a higher fare, the sleeper cars give you a private space to spread out, relax, and enjoy the morning view and breakfast in the dining car before arriving at Klamath Falls at 8:07 a.m. If you are traveling in a roomette or bedroom, you will also have access to the popular Parlor Car. This car offers more dining options (including a full-service bar), wine and cheese pairings, board games, books, and large observation windows which can be viewed from the plush vintage seats. On the second level of the Parlor Car there is a movie theater that screens family movies every evening. If you choose to overnight in coach, the seats do recline and offer plenty of leg room.
Day 6: Klamath Falls
Klamath Falls, your first and only Oregon stop, makes a great location to hop off the Amtrak for many reasons, but the best is that it is an ideal hub and spoke location. You’ll arrive at 8:07 a.m. and can make your basecamp here. You’ll be within an hour drive of great locations like Crater Lake National Park, Lava Beds National Monument, six different national wildlife refuges, and multiple pristine mountain lakes and rivers perfect for relaxing, paddling, boating, and fishing.
Check in at either the Maverick Motel or Cerulean Hotel in downtown Klamath Falls if you want lodging close to the station. Also note that most hotels and motels in Klamath Falls have shuttle service, meaning you could request a pickup from the train station.
If you’ve never been to Crater Lake National Park, you may want to spend the day there. If you’d rather not rent a car, there is a shuttle service that can take you there. If you opt for the shuttle service, you’ll leave at 9 a.m. and return at 4:30 p.m. You can purchase this package through Amtrak.
Day 7: Seattle
Jump back on board for the last, and longest, segment of your trip. You might want to break up the trip a bit by adding a visit to Portland to your itinerary, but if you choose to stay on board from Klamath Falls to Seattle, you’ll be in for 11 hours of travel time.
You’ll depart Klamath Falls at 8:17 a.m. and arrive in Seattle at 7:56 p.m. This is your chance to really settle in to the train experience. Spend time in the observation car, talk to fellow passengers (one of my favorite parts of train travel is learning about other travelers’ stories), reserve a table in the dining car, bring a great book, and take a chance to be lulled by the clacking of the train and the beautiful scenery.
Seattle is the end of this train journey, but you’ll want to spend some time exploring this innovative and inspiring city with its enticing downtown and array of unique neighborhoods, vibrant arts and cultural institutions, and signature retail shops. Whether you are interested in getting out on the water, discovering one of three easily accessible national parks, experiencing local music, or exploring the famous Pike Place Market, Seattle is a truly distinctive destination for every kind of traveler.
Check in at the Embassy Suites Pioneer Square, one of the newest all-suite hotels in the Hilton family. The hotel is located in the Pioneer Square neighborhood near King Street Station, stadiums, Pike Place Market, and other major Seattle attractions.
For dining near the hotel, check out Pioneer Square. Seattle’s original neighborhood has undergone an extensive restoration over the past several years, with major improvements to parks and public spaces, new and thriving businesses, a lively arts culture, and vibrant shops and eateries.
Tip: To reserve your train tickets, visit Amtrak.com or call 1-800-USA-RAIL. And don’t forget, seniors get a 10 percent discount.
Hopefully these suggestions will get you started in planning your own tour of the Pacific Coast by train. All aboard!