West Coast, Best Coast Starlight
When you tell an American that you have traveled across their country by train, they will hardly believe you, yet, that’s exactly what I did last year. I have taken long-distance trains across Europe a few times because it’s a great way to see new places and a more relaxing way to go on holiday. After seeing pictures of the Coast Starlight, I knew which train I had to take during my trip to the United States.
First Stop: San Francisco
San Francisco is an amazing, bustling city with so much to see. I spent 10 days there, taking in the atmosphere and rhythm of the city. I stayed in the vibrant Mission District and explored the city, eating, drinking and staying up late. As fantastic as it was, this part of my trip wasn’t very relaxing, so taking the Coast Starlight was exactly what I needed. At the station, there were no lines like at the airport, no checking-in, and no worries about bringing too much luggage. The entire process was clear and simple.
The first leg of my West Coast train trip was 17 hours long, giving me time to relax, contemplate all the great places I’d seen in the Bay Area, and plan the next stages of my trip. It was almost a meditative experience.
The absolute best part of the train is the observation car. As the train rolled on through California, I woke up early, got a coffee in the cafe, and sat in a chair facing the window. As we approached the Oregon border, the sun began to rise. As the misty sky turned red, I couldn’t believe the views. Being from a very flat country, you can imagine how excited I was to see mountains!
When we reached Cascadia State Park, the observation car experience got even better. A volunteer ranger with the National Park Service boarded the train and shared fascinating stories about our surroundings, the history of the railroad, and the towns that we passed through. It was like a live movie theater. She even gave each passenger a sunstone, Oregon’s state stone, which became my talisman for the rest of my journey. When we arrived at Portland’s Union Station later that night, I was hardly ready for the end of my Amtrak adventure.
Planning Your Trip
There are several companies that offer organized train travel, but I found booking the train directly on the Amtrak site was easiest. I spoke with several Americans who warned me it could be slow and expensive. While it’s not the fastest mode of travel, if you really want to see and experience the country, I still think it’s the best option. And expensive? I traveled all the way up the West Coast for under $100.
Taking the Coast Starlight was one of the highlights of my six-month North American trip. It has left me only wanting to add more iconic Amtrak trains to my bucket list. Next time I’ll leave the coast behind and taking the Southwest Chief across the country instead.
About the Author: Tom Haines is a geographer and editor from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. You can find him on Instagram at @tomghaines.