Amtrak scenery doesn't get better than this

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, September 19, 2009

Someone gave my wife a book called 1,001 Things You Must Do Before You Die. Come to think of it, maybe I gave it to her. But that’s too many things to do. I’d be lucky to finish ten of them. So I will make it easy for all of you. Here is the one thing to do before you sign in at the Big Celestial Roundhouse: Experience Amtrak between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, Cal. When you’ve done it once, you’ll want to do so another 1,001 times.

I’ve spent all of today, almost 14 hours, riding up and down Amtrak’s California Pacific Ocean coastline, from Solano Beach, just north of San Diego, to Tangair, 45 miles south of San Luis Obispo. All of the ocean views are beautiful. But none compares to what I saw for those 55 minutes, from Tangair south to Gaviota. (Gaviota is 32 miles north of Santa Barbara.) I doubt that the view has changed much since Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight first passed by here 72 years ago. That’s because almost the entire way from Tangair to Gaviota remains undeveloped. Four-lane Highway 101 is somewhere to the east. I saw exactly one house those 41 miles (plus one small trailer community). There are no crowded beaches because there are no roads to reach the beaches—no people at all, really. There’s just you inside the train, the unspoiled coastline and that vast ocean. For my money, this is the most precious 55 minutes you can spend on an Amtrak train.

Amtrak runs three trains each way a day along this natural wonder. The best way to see it is from the Sightseer Lounge of the bilevel Coast Starlight. Two state-supported Pacific Surfliner round trips are alternatives. I took Surfliner 798, which originates in San Luis Obispo at 2 p.m. and terminates in Los Angeles. I don’t recommend this train or its northbound counterpart, train 799, which leaves LA at 7:30 a.m. They are assigned small-windowed, rough-riding Amfleet equipment whose window condition is abominable. But even that couldn’t spoil my enjoyment. The other Surfliner round trip (trains 774 and 775) gets bilevel Amtrak California cars, whose windows are bigger (and in my experience, better made).

From my notebook: The short vegetation along the shore at this time of year is eye-catching—a mixture of pink, orange and many shades of green. Surf, the first siding south of Tangair, lives up to its name. Breakers the height of Mack trucks pounded the beach as we passed. The surfers I saw at 7 o’clock this morning at Solana Beach would kill for waves like these. If you look at a map of California, you’ll see the place where the land juts out. That’s Point Conception (top photo), and today I could see it from almost 15 miles away. Amazing, the vastness of this coastline from the window of a train.

Over and above everything else about passing this little patch of our earth is the serenity this experience brings. As I said, what you are seeing (aside from the oil-drilling platforms in the distance) is timeless. The next time I do this, I’m bringing a bottle of red wine with me. From Tangair to Gaviota, I don’t think there’s a problem I have that this peaceful setting couldn’t resolve. –Fred W. Frailey

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