Climb on for panoramic views and a blast of nostal­gia

Travel Guide to California - - CONTENTS - BY JEFF GREENWALD & LAURIE WEED

All Aboard!


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.

Am­trak Ad­ven­tures

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.

Ex­cur­sion Fa­vorites

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’.

His­toric Re­vivals

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.

Sec­ond Child­hood

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.

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