The Best Train Trips From Los Angeles
Planes and cars are so commonplace for taking trips that we forget about the historical, OG mode of transportation: trains. What better way to get sweeping views of the country, and up and down the coast than to sit leisurely on a cushioned seat by the window? There are day trips to oceanside cities, and longer journeys that will take you all the way to Chicago. One of the trains is even equipped with a movie theater! Here are our favorite train trips from Los Angeles, and as always, let us know yours in the comments.
DAY AND WEEKEND TRIPS
That beautiful beach view you get going on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner to San Diego (Photo by Alba via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
One of our favorite day-trips (weekend even) is taking the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner from L.A.'s Union Station all the way down to San Diego. Without having to sit through all that 5 Freeway traffic, which can be hellish sometimes on the weekends, you get a stunning and peaceful view of the ocean as you roll down Pacific Coast Highway in about two hours. Plus each of the seats (yes, even the coach ones!) come with individual plugs so you can charge your phone while you use their free WiFi (though spotty at times) to catch up on...Facebook and stuff.
You can have two very different adventures depending on which stop you take in San Diego. There's Solana Beach, the much chiller bro of San Diegan life, and then the Sante Fe stop, which can get you into the city's much more metropolitan-meets-nightlife downtown scene. They cost about $30 to $40 a ticket each way.
The Solana Beach stop is in walking distance from a bunch of restaurants, coffee shops, bars and stores. There's SoCal fave Pizza Port, right across the street where you can grab a delicious slice of pizza (may we suggest The Carlsbad with pesto, grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and feta?) and wash that down with a pint of cold beer that they brew themselves. Walk east and you'll hit the adorable Cedros Street, that has another outstanding brewery, Culture Brewing Co.; and a homey and sustainable brunch hotspot, Claire's on Cedros, where you can get a variety of egg benedicts to chilaquiles and specials, like a haunting shrimp 'n' grits dish with chorizo. You can even get a rocking concert under your belt at the iconic Belly Up, where you can see musical acts from the likes of The Psychedelic Furs to Twin Shadow. During the summer months, you'll find lots of people visiting this Solana Beach station to make their way over to the Del Mar Races and San Diego Fair, held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which is just a short Uber ride away. Fair warning though, it gets crowded during this time and you might just want to spring for a Business-Class seat.
Santa Fe Depot station in San Diego (Photo by Prayitno via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
SD's Union Station (aka Santa Fe Depot) is a charming, historical, Spanish Colonial Revival-style station that's centrally located in the city's downtown area. The best part is that it's close by to the trolley station, which can take you to the Gaslamp Quarter for restaurants (French spot Cafe Chloe's a great place for a romantic dinner), bars (enter Prohibition bar through a lawyer's office facade, The Field Irish Pub for an Irish coffee and a boxty, and Vin De Syrah for an Alice in Wonderland-type experience), or Petco Park for a ball game. Suffice to say, you can stay pretty entertained while you're out there. —Jean Trinh
SLO from atop San Luis Mountain. (Photo by Julia Burge via Facebook )
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo (aka SLO) is a smallish, charming college town about 200 miles up the coast from Los Angeles—an approximate 5 to 5 1/2 hour journey from Union Station on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner (you'll probably want to make this a weekend getaway). It costs about $40 one way. The trip in itself is a delight; the train weaves through the jagged Old West desert of Simi Valley and the sprawling fields of Ventura County, before reaching the Pacific Ocean, where it'll stay for a large part of the rest of the trip. The train tracks are laid atop cliffs that tower above the sea, dramatically hugging the jagged coastline. Last time I was on this route, it was so clear I saw a school of dolphins.
Your first stop in SLO is less than two miles from the train station: the best restaurant in the world (this native isn't biased) is Tacos de Acapulco. Get the carne asada burrito—you won't be sorry. The train station is pretty much on the outskirts of what's considered "downtown" SLO, and a short walk to all the places you could possibly want to go to eat, drink, and amble about over the course of a weekend. For an incredible selection of local wines and an always fantastic, ever-changing catch-of-the-day, check out Big Sky Cafe—it's a great spot for breakfast, too. Cafe Roma, right across the street from the train station, has the best lasagna my dad's ever had (and the man knows lasagna). The pappardelle, pizza, and yes, more local wine, is excellent, too. If you need a break from eating, check out Boo Boo Records for music—old, new and weird. Pop into Phoenix Books next door and meander through the stacks of used books (there's even an entire section devoted to 'Smut'). After all this eating and shopping, you've damned well earned a drink. Sidecar has a ridiculous cocktail list with a solid happy hour, and the Frog and Peach Pub, while it can have a slightly college bro vibe sometimes, is a lovely spot to sip a pint on a sunny patio by the creek.
We'd be remiss not to include the infamous Madonna Inn, a decadent paradise of kitsch. If you can get a room, absolutely make it your lodgings for the weekend—you can even specifically search for and book rooms with features like rock wall showers and waterfalls. But if you come up against a cruel "No Vacancy" sign, you can still pay the inn's dining room a visit, and sit at the bakery for a slice of pink champagne cake. —Devon McReynolds
A spread at La Super-Rica (Photo by Julian Cassaday via Facebook)
The trip to Santa Barbara, also via the gorgeous scenery of Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner route, takes about 2 1/2 hours from Union Station, with one-way tickets running at about $30. You could potentially make this into a day trip, but if you want to keep things leisurely, stretch it into a weekend.
Let's cut right to the chase: if you don't eat at La Super-Rica; a favorite restaurant of Julia Child (and probably everyone who's ever been there), there's no hope for you here on this earth. Sorry. (The best part is that it's only about 1.5 miles away from the Amtrak stop.) However, there's no shortage of amazing Mexican restaurants in Santa Barbara, and Rudy's Restaurant No. 1 is another classic choice, and nearby.
Despite its cringe-inducing name, another part of town you should check out is the The Funk Zone, the "arts, business, and industrial district" directly adjacent to the Santa Barbara train station. There are dozens of galleries, restaurants, bars, and fancy coffee shops, not to mention local microbreweries, wineries, and even a craft distillery. Hot local tip: there's also gym in the Funk Zone where NBA players have been known to work out in the off-season. If you want to get physical yourself while you're in Santa Barbara, the Funk Zone is also host to a number of surf-related rentals, like Stand Up Paddle Sports. Here's a handy directory of everything included within the Funk Zone.
Speaking of the beach, there's obviously some fantastic seafood to be had in Santa Barbara. It's not hard to find upscale places to get your fish fix; there's Bouchon and of course Tydes Restaurant, located right on the beach in the Four Seasons. But if you're looking for something casual, but just as fresh and delicious, the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company located right on the pier, can't be beat when it comes to shrimp, oysters, and crab.
While laying on the beach and eating shrimp all day personally sounds like my idea of a good weekend, if you want to actually "do" something else, the Santa Barbara Zoo is an option, and has been ranked among the nation's best small zoos. —Devon McReynolds
Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon (Photo by Jean Trinh/LAist)
There's something kind of magical about taking a train to see one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. We highly recommend choo-choosing to take a long trip from L.A. to the Grand Canyon via train, which includes riding on an Amtrak and the historic Grand Canyon Railway, plus making a stop in a town along Route 66. It doesn't get more Americana than this!
You would start your trip at L.A.'s Union Station and then take a 9.5-hour ride on Amtrak's Southwest Chief train to Williams Junction in Arizona. A one-way coach seat will cost you $70. It's mostly an overnight ride so you can get some shuteye (we suggest upgrading to a roomette if you can so you can get a bed), but you might get some views of different cities if there's still light out in the early evening and early morning. And the best part is that depending on what time you go, you can grab a meal (I got a delicious steak for dinner with beer when I went) in their dining cars. If you're not a group of four, they might pair you up with strangers at the table, which can make for some fun conversations.
When you arrive at Williams Junction, you'll get shuttled over to Williams, where you can connect onto the Grand Canyon Railway. It's a gorgeous black retro train that will take to you the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on a ride that will take a little over two hours. The cheapest tickets cost around $65 round trip plus $15 to enter Grand Canyon National Park. Here you can go on hikes, have some California condor sightings, check out a cheesy but enjoyable screening about the Grand Canyon at an IMAX Theater, and go on tours. If you'd like a little more guidance, the Grand Canyon Railway website also offers packages for tours and hotel stays.
If you have some time to spare, spend half a day in Williams before you head back to L.A. There's a delightful Bearizona wild animal park where you can go on a bus tour to see bears, rams, goats and all sorts of animals in the wild. You'll also find Route 66-type restaurants that would make Guy Fieri proud, like the Grand Canyon Coffee & Cafe, where you can diner food as well as Chinese and Mexican dishes.
We suggest reserving tickets for everything ahead of time since this trip requires many different destinations. Hey, and if you'd rather someone put together this whole train trip for you, Amtrak offers this trip and then some as a package vacation deal. —Jean Trinh
(Photo by Jen Carlson/LAist)
Seattle and San Francisco
Amtrak's Coast Starlight is the gem of their fleet, and luckily, you can catch it right at Union Station. The route runs from L.A. to Seattle, or vice versa, but you can hop on and off as you please, and the sweetest sections come right after boarding on the California end. This train trip is more about the journey than the destination, as it should be. But it's also about the views and complimentary wine tastings.
After rolling inland for a bit after leaving Union Station, you'll pop out right at the coastline, and continue to ride along the waterfront on what is essentially PCH for trains. Seriously, you will practically be in the ocean:
(Photo by Jen Carlson/LAist)
While you can take shorter trips (to Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo), if you want to splurge and have some more time, we recommend heading all the way to San Francisco, and getting a roomette in the sleeper car. Even though the trip is only 11 hours, the sleeper car ticket (which ranges in price, usually anywhere from $100 to $170 one way) will get you the benefits you'll want. On top of getting your own room, which includes two seats (and when transformed: two beds) you'll have your own window. But (and this is a huge downside) they don't let you reserve which room (or which side of the car) so you may not be on the ocean side.
(Photo by Jen Carlson/LAist)
With a sleeper car ticket you'll also get access to the special dining car, where you are not forced to sit with strangers, as you are in all of Amtrak's other dining cars. It also has a bar, and better food than the other routes we've been on. With your sleeper car ticket you'll also get free meals, and complimentary wine tastings, so expect to spend a lot of time here (though you can also have meals served in your roomette). This dining car, by the way, is one of Amtrak's last remaining mid-century Parlour Cars, and there is a movie theater downstairs! Elsewhere, you'll even find an old arcade room.
(Photo by Jen Carlson/LAist)
The views on this train remain pretty spectacular all the way up to Seattle, but if you're just looking for a short trip, we really can't recommend this one enough, even if just for a few hours. —Jen Carlson
The Sunset Limited is Amtrak's Southernmost U.S. route, taking you three days a week from Union Station all the way to New Orleans with stops in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. This ride lasts about 48 hours and travels 1,995 miles, and a one-way coach ticket will cost around $300.
A lot of this route is through the vast desert, with views including the infamous Salton Sea and the Rio Grande. The train makes stops in Alpine, Texas—home of Big Bend National Park—and Tucson. There's also a longer stop in San Antonio, where you can grab some Tex-Mex and a cold beer before crossing the Sabine River and pulling into Louisiana, where your scenery becomes decidedly more swampy.
As part of Trails & Rails, a partnership with the National Park Service, you can also download and listen to podcasts that correspond with your trip, acting as a guide.
It's a long trip, though you will have access to the dining car, which serves a variety of American food—nothing particularly fancy—beverages, snacks and alcohol.
When you get off in New Orleans, you'll find yourself not too far from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and only about two miles from the French Quarter and Jackson Square, accessible via a 20 minute bus ride. —Juliet Bennett Rylah
Amtrak's Southwest Chief runs daily from Union Station in downtown L.A. to Union Station in downtown Chicago. Take everything we said about the Amtrak train to the Grand Canyon, and go further. This is a beautiful trip where you'll see those amber waves of grain, mountains, a little desert and the Mississippi River. From the train's observation car, you'll be able to see some of the more scenic legs of your journey and vendors often set up shop along the route in Albuquerque—where the train has its longest stop—to sell goods.
This trip takes over 40 hours, costing about $170 for a one-way coach ticket, with access to the dining car. Arriving in Chicago, you'll be able to see the Chicago River, and you'll be near the "L" to whisk you to your accommodations. Depending one the season, you may find yourself leaving sunny L.A. for the wintry Midwest, so pack accordingly. —Juliet Bennett Rylah