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 Oakridge. 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.

Revisiting: San Juan Islands (and Fidalgo Island) weddings

A Washington State Ferry passes between Lopez and Shaw Islands.

Thinking about a wedding location that is the perfect balance between sea and forest? Consider a wedding on the San Juan Islands!

The San Juan Islands are an archipelago in the Puget Sound of Washington State, north of Seattle and south of Vancouver. They are just west of the Skagit Valley. There are over 400 islands and rocks in the archipelago. The four largest islands, San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw, are accessible to the mainland via the Washington State Ferry System.

The islands offer a rich tapestry of forests, farmlands, and beaches. Plus there are spectacular views of the water and mountains. You’ll find several wineries and organic farms dotting the islands. The islands are rural and pastoral in flavor. But you’ll find urban services in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Lopez Village on Lopez Island, and Eastsound on Orcas Island.

Roche Harbor Resort on San Juan Island. From their website.

Here are some ideas for wedding venues in the San Juan Islands.

San Juan Island

Lopez Island

Orcas Island

Majestic Inn and Spa, Anacortes.

Fidalgo Island/Anacortes

Anacortes lies on Fidalgo Island, the gateway to the San Juan Islands. The area gives a similar vibe to the San Juans without the ferry logistics.

A note about transportation

Since we’re talking about islands, transportation logistics is a very important thing to consider!

The Washington State Ferry Service (WSF) is the primary transportation to the islands, connecting the San Juans to Anacortes and then the mainland*. Plan on bringing your car on the Washington State Ferries on weekends or during the summer months? Advance reservations are strongly recommended! However, you’ll always get on the next ferry if you are on foot or bicycle, no reservation needed. Long term paid parking is available at the Anacortes terminal.

Not driving? You can take Amtrak to Mount Vernon Station, then Skagit Transit buses will bring you all the way to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal. You can find taxi service on San Juan, Orcas, and Shaw Islands. There is also bike rental available on the islands, including dockside rental at the Lopez terminal.

The Victoria Clipper runs a passenger-only ferry from downtown Seattle to Friday Harbor. There is also privately chartered boat and plane transportation available.

*****

The San Juan Islands are a beautiful place that feel removed from the rest of the world. Yet, they are close enough to major destinations like Seattle and Vancouver BC. So consider having a wedding in the San Juan Islands!

 

*Anacortes is on Fidalgo Island, which is connected to the mainland via two bridges.

 

Revisiting: Skagit Valley Wedding

large barn with old car in front
Tulip Valley Winery, just outside of Mount Vernon, Washington

Have you considered a Skagit Valley wedding? Located about halfway between Vancouver BC and Seattle, the lowlands of the Skagit River Valley feature acres upon acres of farmlands. Many things are grown here, though the valley is mostly known for tulips, culminating in an annual festival held every April. Besides bulbs, the Skagit Valley has abundant water. The Skagit River runs right through it, and Puget Sound is nearby. And don’t forget about picture perfect views of the nearby mountains. A beautiful backdrop no matter which way you look! Plus, the valley is on the way to the San Juan Islands, a destination for fun and weddings.

While primarily rural, urban services can be found in Mount Vernon (the largest town), Burlington, and Sedro-Wooley. Plus, there’s charming small towns like Bow, Edison, Conway, and La Conner. Good food can be found in the towns, and there are several breweries like La Conner Brewing, Bastion Brewing, Skagit River Brewing, North Sound Brewing, and 192 Brewing. Services like photography, videography, and wedding planning can come from the area or from the Portland or Seattle metros, as it’s common in the Pacific Northwest for wedding professionals to travel to destination weddings. This means it should be easy for you to find all the services you need for your Skagit Valley wedding or event.

gazebo in garden under large willow tree
The gazebo at Grand Willow Inn, Mount Vernon

Therefore it’s no surprise that the Skagit Valley is a good destination for a wedding. There are ample opportunities for weddings on farms.

Here are some ideas for a Skagit Valley wedding location:

If you live in the Northwest, getting to the Skagit Valley is easy. It’s about a hour drive via I-5 from Seattle, two (depending on border crossing) from Vancouver, BC, and four from Portland. Better yet, leave the driving to Amtrak! The Cascades service stops in downtown Mt. Vernon. It offers two daily round trips from Seattle and Vancouver BC and one daily round trip from Portland. (You can also use Amtrak to connect to SeaTac International Airport via Link Light Rail. This will bring you from the airport terminal to King Street Station in Seattle.)

barn with chairs in front, set up for a wedding
Saltbox Barn on Fir Island, from their website.

So if you are thinking of a nice unique wedding that features lovely farms and stunning backdrops, consider a Skagit Valley wedding!