It takes 35 hours to get from Los Angeles to Seattle on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train. Thirty-five. Hours.
Tasked with finding out what it’s like to ride a train for a day and a half, I armed myself with books and crosswords to combat boredom, an extra hoodie to serve as blanket and pillow leverage, and a bag of toiletries to limit my own contributions to the odors of the showerless.
I figured that even if I was cramped, cranky and wild with cabin fever by Hour 8, at least I’d be entertained and perfumed.
Here’s how it all went down.
10 a.m. (Hour 1; Location: Union Station, Los Angeles)
I boarded with ease at Union Station a half-hour before our 10 a.m. departure time. There were no long security lines, no baggage check and the train was right on time. On board I had my choice of seats, and stretched out into a surprisingly roomy seat that would be my workspace, bed and possibly my torment for the next 35 hours.
I settled into a practically empty business class car (it was only 30 bucks more than a coach ticket), where I was greeted by business-class car attendant Raymond Luna who reassured me when I told him Seattle was my destination.
“Oh you’re with me all the way?” he said, “OK, I got you.”
11 a.m. (Hour 2; Location: Simi Valley, California)
The ocean views began in earnest and were absolutely stunning. At times, the train ventured closer to the coast than the highway and offered glimpses of beaches so isolated they seemed like tiny desert islands.
In the lounge car, passengers sit in swiveling chairs facing the floor-to-ceiling windows that run along both sides of the car, some excitedly hold cellphone cameras to the glass, while others just blend into the charming scene as they sip wine and read in the natural light as the countryside jogs past.
Many of the views along the way are as incredible as I’d imagined. In southern California, the sunny beaches and vast ocean views seem to stretch from right under the wheels of the train all the way to the ends of the earth. In northern California and Oregon, the snowy landscape seems at times to press right up against the train windows before breaking open into vast valleys that literally sparkle as the sun gleams off the snow, streams and lakes.
Even the more mundane scenes of daily life captured the imagination as we passed through residential areas and caught momentary glimpses into backyards.
In one rural town, the whole community seemed to be outdoors, working their lawn mowers and landscaping projects on a Sunday afternoon. In a small suburb, two women sat in a backyard eating birthday cake amid an otherwise empty circle of tiny chairs decorated with balloons.
4 p.m. (Hour 6; Location: San Luis Obispo, California)
Just after the San Luis Obispo station we passed the tall, foreboding walls of the California Men’s Colony, a prison. From the train, I spied a small courtyard inside the walls, where a couple of prisoners wandered along the confined circular path. Such a sobering contrast to the privilege of my thousand-mile journey up the coast.
5 p.m. (Hour 7; Location: Paso Robles, California)
I would have thought that seven hours of staring out the window might make me antsy to move around, but I had to tear my eyes away from the window to try to get some work done. Unsuccessful, I nodded off and woke up to an announcement that the dining car was accepting dinner reservations.
6-9 p.m. (Hours 8-11; Location: Salinas to Oakland, California)
The dining-car experience
The dining-car experience is basically an awkward social experiment. If you’re rolling solo like I was, the dining-car attendants will seat you in a four-person booth with three strangers and leave you to comment on the weather and navigate conversational land mines.
My tablemates were a father and son from Arizona and a teacher from the Bay Area. We dutifully made conversation out of the menu options. I chose the thyme roasted chicken breast ($18.50) and didn’t regret it. The mashed potatoes had the slightest taste of cardboard that indicated they probably came from a box, but I was surprised to find the chicken was tender, juicy and well-seasoned.
Soon we graduated to more interesting topics. The father and son, it turned out, had also boarded in L.A. and were Seattle-bound. They planned on jumping right back on the train the morning after they arrived in Seattle to go straight back to L.A. in time for a family reunion. They were on a sort of father-son retreat, they said. It was all for the Coast Starlight experience itself.
Eventually, after I brought up that I’d gone to hear Kimberlé Crenshaw talk in L.A., the teacher and I got into a nerdy conversation about intersectionality and white allyship that lasted until the dining car emptied and he had to disembark at Oakland.
10 p.m. (Hour 12; Location: Emeryville, California)
Back in my seat and still energized by the conversation, I stayed awake, staring out the window until the lights from San Francisco shining across the bay disappeared and the views faded into pitch darkness. Luna handed out pillows, and generously offered me a second pillow with a look that said, “trust me, you’ll need it.”
11 p.m.-7 a.m. (Hours 13-21; Location: Martinez, California, to Klamath Falls, Oregon)
Adventures in sleeping upright
I tried the knee-hug, but quickly abandoned it for a solid recline, which eventually morphed into a semi-upright fetal position across my the two seats, happily unobstructed by an armrest. Then, it was back to the knee-hug.
In short, I didn’t sleep very well. But when I woke up to snow-covered evergreens of southern Oregon sweeping past my window I quickly forgot about the cramp in my neck.
9 a.m. (Hour 23; Location: Chemult, Oregon)
This time I had a table to myself in the dining car, accompanied by a book and a coffee, and a cozy wintry scene outside my window.
The little plastic cup of Tostitos salsa that arrived on my breakfast plate kind of maimed the charming scene. The flavorless omelet and the home fries that somehow managed to be both soggy and too dry at the same time nearly sent the romance into its death throes.
But no amount of depressing eggs could ruin the charm of enjoying a cup of coffee with a snow mountainscape brushing past the windows and an adorable couple sitting next to each other a few booths away looking out at the snow.
1 p.m. (Hour 27; Location: Eugene, Oregon)
Everyone in the lounge car seemed lulled into the same peaceful mood. Hours passed before I looked up from my book to find that the snowy landscape had become lush green.
3-6 p.m. (Hours 29-32; Location: Portland, Oregon, to Olympia-Lacey)
Luna announced over the speakers that we were nearing Portland and warned us to move to the left side of the train if we wanted the best views of Puget Sound en route to Seattle.
6-9 p.m. (Hours 33-35; Final destination: Seattle)
In the last hours of my trip, I felt like I was only just gaining a degree of fluency in trainlife. I’d learned how to walk a straightish line in rhythm with the jostling cars, and had new theories on sleeping positions I wanted to try.
A couple of hours after sunset absconded with the Puget Sound views, the train staff began to bustle about the cars, making preparations for arrival in Seattle.
I was shocked to find that I wasn’t ready for the trip to be over! I’d just spent 35 hours on a train, and, despite the bad omelet and the awkward sleeping postures, I wanted more time. It had been exactly the kind of slowdown I’d needed and a fascinating way to experience some of the varied landscapes of the coast.
When I disembarked at King Street Station, I lingered in the station, still not ready to relinquish this slowed-down version of my life. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to find the father and son I’d met in the dining car.
We shared a ride from the station, and I sent them off with well wishes and a bit of envy that they’d be back on the train the next day. Back at home, the envy and nostalgia waned after a hot shower and a good night’s rest in my own bed.
About the Coast Starlight:
- The Los Angeles to Seattle route is 1,377 miles.
- 10.7 percent of Coast Starlight passengers take trips of 1,000 miles or more
- The Los Angeles-to-Seattle route is the second most popular Coast Starlight route.
If you go:
- Ask your car attendant which side of the train to sit on for the best views.
- Bring your own snacks to save some money and free yourself from the mercy of the lounge-car and dining-car hours.
- Coach: $58
- Business: $89 (includes two bottles of water and Wi-Fi — though it wasn’t working on my ride)
- Sleeper: $254 (includes meals in the dining car)
*Rates vary, these are based on 2018 rates from Rail Passenger Association
- Breakfast: $8.50-$13.75
- Lunch: $12.50-$14.50 (children’s meals available)
- Dinner: $16.50-$39 (children’s meals available)
- Bar selections available