The Journey to San Francisco (or, the Coast Starlight is a magical name for a train)

We arose at the crack of dawn in our hostel in Downtown San Diego and walked to the train station in the pitch black darkness and pouring rain, which led me to the realization of two things. Firstly that my waterproof jacket was in actual fact not waterproof, and secondly that 6.30am is one of my least favourite times to walk about in the pouring rain. I was soggy, I was cold, I didn’t even have a hood and upon entering the station the animal I most resembled is a drowned rat. San Diego, Schman Diego, it was freezing. Thank God I had the promise of a magical journey on The Coast Starlight to pull me through that dark time. 

We had about two hours on the train from San Diego to LA, and sat the whole journey with a very lovely English couple called Maddie and Bobby who we’d met the night before in the same room we were staying in at the hostel. That’s the strange thing about hostels; it’s quite normal to meet new people just as you’re bunking down for the night and are literally seconds from pulling the sheets over yourself. What a weird scenario to be in, I tell you! They both had hoods so they didn’t work the ‘drowned rat’ look quite as well as me. Also, Bobby has a bike so that meant he’s allowed on the train before anyone else; less waiting in the rain. They are a wise and well-prepared couple, that’s for sure. We parted ways in LA and changed onto our second train of the day- The Coast Starlight route, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a downright magical name for a train, on the same level as The Polar Express surely.

I am in love with Amtrak, for so very many reasons. And The Coast Starlight train is probably one of the most awesome journeys I’ve ever been on.

The trains are like massive industrial silver bullets with mega-booming voices- way comfier than planes, and more sociable. As soon as we sat down in our seats a Japanese man on the other side of the aisle introduced himself and excitedly told us about the concert of a country singer that he’d just been to in LA. He was particularly proud of his brand new signed CD which he showed us several times during the conversation, and went on to inform us he was getting the train all the way back to his home in Vancouver…he was smartly dressed in a navy blue suit but at the end of our conversation he swiftly kicked off his shoes and socks and promptly went to sleep. I’m not sure exactly why, but my bf and me did find the shoe and sock removal to be quite an awkward moment. Maybe it’s an English thing.

Our conductor lady came through the car just as the train was pulling out of Union Station to let us know the rules of Amtrak and gave a full on hilarious speech which had everyone cracking up big time. What a glorious lass. She finished up by saying to not hesitate to call for assistance if we need anything, except if we get stuck in the bathroom because she definitely would not be helping anybody out in there. And that’s fair enough, I think. We paid for the most basic ticket although there are sleeper cars available as well as a dining car where you can have a proper meal; so for our budget journey we were sticking to hotdogs and coffee from the café. There’s other food to pick from but it’s mainly synthetic-tasting microwave style snacks, so we learnt for future Amtrak journeys to pack more food with us.
The Route Itself…

…is full on glorious!

Immediately out of LA you pass through a rocky, mountainous area where they used to film Westerns back in the golden age of Hollywood (in fact don’t quote me on this but I’m pretty sure they still do at Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley- which the train passes through). The whole area really reminded me of watching Westerns when I was a young’un, you know!? Proper beaut.

Coming out of the mountains we were travelling directly parallel to the Big Sur coastline which is truly and amazingly BEAUTIFUL. If we’d have had more time I would’ve liked to explore some of the little beach towns of this area, as I’ve heard awesome things about them. The land is very rugged-looking right up to the shoreline, and was covered in flowers during March when we were there…and I even saw a dolphin in the sea, you guys! It was the first time I’d seen a dolphin so even though it was from the shelter of a train it was still awesome, and shows how close the train is to the ocean. Cor blimey. It felt like the sky was full of birds flying alongside the train- mainly buzzard-type things and pelicans. It was DA BOMB.

After the rugged coastline of Big Sur, the train climbs about 1,000 feet up the mountains, slices through tunnels and winds through the valleys of John Steinbeck country (you know- Of Mice and Men? If not, you should read it for sure).  It stops regularly at lesser-known towns where they mainly seem to grow one particular type of vegetable…Salinas, where they grow lettuce, Gilroy, where they grow garlic, and the town of Castroville which fascinated me as it is The Artichoke Capital of the World and those kind of titles generally fascinate me. Every year the town holds an artichoke festival and crowns the artichoke queen, the first of whom was actually Norma Jean Baker aka Marilyn Monroe. What an amazing fact!

As the majority of San Francisco isn’t actually part of the mainland, the train doesn’t go as far as the city itself- so after 11 hours on the train from LA (not to mention the first 3 hour journey from San Diego that morning), we had to get a connecting bus from Jack London Square, Oakland into Downtown San Francisco. It was really mega late by the time the train pulled into Oakland and after approximately five minutes of waiting with a small group of fellow travellers I began to get paranoid that the bus wasn’t going to turn up. Five minutes really isn’t that long to wait, so it was very silly of me, but when you’re in a dark location in the middle of the night it can get a little disconcerting.

The bus journey into the city wasn’t very long either, and the majority of the time was spent going over a crazily-long bridge, in the style of a magical mystery tour. Exciting times! And even though it was dark and scary outside, we managed to find the hostel quite easily without the aid of Google Maps or a GPS navigation system or anything. (I’m a dab hand at copying maps off of hostel computers, in record timing might I add).

Logistical Statisticals 

  • The cost of a Saver ticket between LA and San Francisco is normally somewhere between $50-60, however I signed up to receive emails receiving offers from Amtrak so bought our tickets in advance for half that price. Always sign up for offers, you guys!!! It’s totally worth it.
  • Amtrak provides the bus into San Francisco from Jack London Square Station which is included in the price of your ticket. (as long as you select San Francisco as your final destination)
  • The Coast Starlight continues all the way to Seattle and the entire route just looks full on AMAZING. I would love to go back and do it one day.
  • California is really really really massive. Which means that the journey we went on took up an entire day- let’s face it, if you need to be somewhere in a hurry, this train is not for you, and San Francisco is only about halfway up the coast of California. But if you want to see how awesome this part of the world is and don’t have the time to stop in every single location then this is definitely the way to go. It’s definitely one of the most breathtaking journeys I’ve ever been on, and would 100% recommend it to anyone and everyone.

2 thoughts on “The Journey to San Francisco (or, the Coast Starlight is a magical name for a train)

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