Ten don’t-miss moments on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight

Northbound Coast Starlight crossing Stenner Creek Trestle, just north of San Luis Obispo CA. Photo: Loco Steve

As event planners, we’re always looking for more-sustainable options for our clients. Did you know that trains produce less than 15% of the CO2 per passenger kilometer as planes? With COP26 highlighting the need to decrease our CO2 burdens both individually and as a society, we recommend train travel anytime it’s feasible.

Practicing what we preach, we recently flew to Southern California to facilitate 7CTOs retreat in San Diego, with our Brompton folding bikes in tow. But for the return trip we decided to do something a bit different: Take the train home. We love using Amtrak for both short and long distance trips. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is their premier West Coast long-distance train, running from Seattle to Los Angeles. We booked a “sleeper”, our own compartment that features actual beds, and spent a day and a half looking out the window. Train travel can be both climate-friendly and better than the plane in several respects – one of them being all of the sights you’ll see!

Here are ten different points of interest seen from the windows of the Coast Starlight as it plies the West Coast, from south to north:

Los Angeles Union Station, the departure point for northbound Coast Starlight trains.

Southern and Central California beaches. If you’ve looked at Amtrak’s promotional imagery, you may have seen an image of a train hugging a coastline with cerulean-blue ocean beneath. That’s where the Coast Starlight cruises along the edge of the Pacific from around Ventura to south of San Luis Obispo. Pro tip: Make sure you get a seat on the left side of the train to get the best views!

Point Conception. North of Santa Barbara the Coast Starlight travels through the private Hollister Ranch, an area of chapparal-covered hills with little development. The Starlight actually heads west through this area until it reaches Point Conception, a small cape with lighthouse. The train then turns northwards to pass through…

Vandenberg Air Space Force Base, the home of America’s West-Coast space launches. Keep your eye out for Space Launch Complex 6, which was modified for Space Shuttle launches. Alas, Vandenberg never saw the Shuttle launch (or land) here, but the base hosts regular NASA and SpaceX flights.

Horseshoe Curve. Just minutes from departing San Luis Obispo station, the Coast Starlight heads into a big horseshoe curve. It’s possible to see both the front and end of the train at the same time!

The Central California landscape, seen just north of San Luis Obispo

Jack London Square. The Coast Starlight’s Oakland depot is located in an entertainment district next to San Francisco Bay. For several blocks the tracks run right down the middle of a city street, The Embarcadero.

Mothball Fleet. About ten minutes outside of the Martinez station, the Coast Starlight crosses Carquinez Strait and hugs Suisun Bay on its way to Sacramento. On the right side of the train in the bay is Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet. where outdated Naval ships go to await their final fate. Note: This site is best observed southbound, it may be dark by the time the northbound train passes through here.

Odell Lake at Willamette Pass. The Coast Starlight has been cruising along a high plateau to the east of the Cascade Range since it climbed up the Sacramento River Canyon. After leaving Chemult station, the Starlight heads to the Cascades where it will cross it at Willamette Pass and then follow the Willamette to Portland. Before the summit is postcard-perfect Odell Lake, seen on the right side of the train.

Westfir (Office) Covered Bridge. The Coast Starlight spends a good hour or more descending from Willamette Pass to the mountain-bike crazy town of Springfield. After a short tunnel the train passes through tiny Westfir. To the left, over the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River is the Office or Westir Covered Bridge. At 180 feet in length, it’s the longest covered bridge in Oregon!

Willamette Falls. On the Coast Starlight’s left side as it enters Oregon City is one of the mightiest waterfalls of the west! The Willamette descends 40 feet down to tidal level. The Falls have historically been a barrier for shipping traffic. Yet it was also major spot for fishing and trading for the tribes here before European settlement. The old Blue Heron Paper Mill is now owned by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and is being redeveloped for public use.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge(s)

Tacoma Narrows/Point Defiance. Now we are near the end of the journey. Closing in on Seattle, the sea comes into view again a short time after leaving the Olympia/Lacey (Washington) station. For several miles the tracks hug the shore of the Puget Sound, passing under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The Coast Starlight then passes through the Point Defiance tunnel. And the last few miles before entering downtown Tacoma cruise along the shore of Commencement Bay. (Please note: The other Amtrak route through this area, the Cascades, now uses the Point Defiance Bypass that cuts off this scenic section of track. The Coast Starlight route will remain along the waterfront for the time being.)

King Street Station in Seattle, the final station on the northbound Coast Starlight.

We hope this gives you a snapshot of the pleasures of traveling by train, and of the climate benefits. If you’re interested in setting up a group travel excursion for your next meeting or gathering, or in using a train for an event, please contact us.

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