Climb on for panoramic views and a blast of nostalgia
Founded in 1971 to provide intercity passenger train service across the country, Amtrak serves 46 of the 50 states and three Canadian provinces on 21,000 miles (34,000 km) of track. Passengers enjoy themselves in the lounge car, above; the Pacific Surfliner crosses the Gaviota railroad trestle above Gaviota Creek in Santa Barbara County, above right. Can you hear that whistle blow? Historic, romantic, immortalized in legend and song, a train journey goes beyond mere transportation—it’s an experience, one that recalls the Golden Age of travel. With the historic completion of the first transcontinental rail line in 1876, travelers could suddenly reach the 31st state from the East Coast in a seemingly magical four days—a journey that previously took many perilous weeks, even months, to complete. California’s fame and fortune were built on those long lines of track, some would say, and Californians still love their trains—not just for nostalgic reasons. There’s no better way to view the state’s magnificently diverse landscapes, from breathtaking coastal bluffs lapped by Pacific surf to redwood forests, vast shimmering deserts, alpine lakes and towering mountain peaks.
Whether you prefer to sip fine Napa wines in a luxuriously restored Pullman car, ride the rails Old West-style (complete with train robbery reenactment) or take the whole family along for a BBQ and campfire sing-along, you’re sure to find at least one train ride that shakes your caboose.
The gold standard of California rail trips is arguably Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. Before crossing the border into Oregon, northbound passengers experience the full spectrum of California’s greatest hits. Whether you board at Los Angeles’ Union Station or Oakland’s Jack London Square, you’ll pass snow-capped peaks, gorgeous forests and shimmering shorelines. The full trip, from Los Angeles to Seattle (or reverse), takes 35 hours.
But accolades for the “most beautiful train trip in North America” are lavished on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, a 51-hour adventure linking the Bay Area with Chicago. The daily departure boards in Emeryville (right across the bay from San Francisco) and crosses two mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevada to Reno, and the Rockies to Denver—with unparalleled vistas. You can also disembark at Truckee to explore Lake Tahoe, a stress-and-traffic-free alternative to crawling over the summit in your own vehicle. If you’re drawn to a desert crossing, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief connects LA with Chicago via the Mojave. The Sunset Limited/texas Eagle—amtrak’s most southern route—joins LA with New Orleans and Chicago via Tucson, San Antonio and Houston.
Three other popular California train routes are operated by Amtrak, all of which offer free Wi-fi service. The Capital Corridor, beloved by business commuters, runs from San Jose to Auburn (via Sacramento), crossing the state’s agricultural Central Valley. The much more scenic Pacific Surfliner, a six-hour run that skirts the Pacific, joins San Luis Obispo and San Diego (via Santa Barbara and Los Angeles). Travelers can arrange trips to Yosemite via the San Joaquins line to Fresno or Merced, where a waiting bus will ferry them to the national park. The San Joaquins trains run between either the San Francisco Bay Area or Sacramento and Fresno/bakersfield.
Until 1930, tourists visiting Mt. Tamalpais—the Bay Area’s signature 2,574-foot peak—could board the Mt. Tamalpais & Muir Woods Railway: “The Crookedest Railroad in the World.” Though, sadly, that line was dismantled, there are still plenty of unusual steam-and-theme excursions available to the 21st-century traveler. These include Mendocino’s irresistible Skunk Train. Starting at the coastal town of Fort Bragg, the Skunk navigates some 30 bridges, trestles and tunnels on its 40-mile journey between Fort Bragg and Willits. Following an old redwood lumber delivery route, it’s said to be one of the “Ten most scenic train rides” in North America.
Book your tickets early for the popular Napa Valley Wine Train, with three-hour round trips in “meticulously restored rail cars” between Napa and St. Helena in California’s wine country. Enjoy a la carte or gourmet dining, depending on your class of ticket. Lunch trains run daily, with winery tours available. For their frequent dinner train schedule and popular special events, please visit the website (see sidebar).
Departing from Woodland, the familyrun, family-friendly Sacramento Rivertrain rolls leisurely through Yolo County on twoto three-hour themed trips. In addition to offering wine, beer, food and live music on some routes, there are several specialty rides, including Great Train Robberies, Beer Trains and Murder Mysteries. Another option is the Sierra Dinner Train, which runs on one of several rail lines built in the late 19th century to link the Gold Country with the Central Valley. Today, the excursion “provides visitors an opportunity to travel on the historic Sierra Railroad while enjoying a delicious meal, beautiful countryside and a wide range of entertainment.” Passengers board in Oakdale, 90 miles east of San Francisco (70 miles south of Sacramento). Both the Sacramento River and Sierra lines also offer Zombie Train experiences: “One part passenger train, one part zombie killing machine.” Just sayin’.
A variety of shorter train rides lace through the California landscape, recreating (more or less) a taste of what travel was like for settlers of the 1800s. Santa Cruz’s popular Roaring Camp Railroad offers a Beach Train from Felton to the Santa Cruz shore, or a steam train into the Bear Mountain redwood forests. With several trips daily plus a regular “Moonlight Special,” which includes a BBQ and campfire sing-along, the narrow-gauge Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad recalls the days when logs harvested in the Sierras were delivered to the fastgrowing settlements in the Central Valley.
Speaking of super-short train rides, a perennial favorite is the Redwood Valley Railway in Tilden Park, Berkeley, which is open on weekends year-round. The 12-minute ride— with hand-built steam locomotives pulling open-bed flatcars—chugs through rustic tunnels and around wooded curves, with (season permitting) panoramic views of San Francisco Bay. Tickets are $3, a five-ride ticket only $12, and children under two ride free. It’s a real family experience—even dogs are welcome!
THE NAPA VALLEY WINE TRAIN south of Yountville, right; Indian Springs Resort & Spa, Calistoga, opposite.