Amtrak Pacific Surfliner: Train Travel With Stops and Starts

From San Diego to San Luis Obispo, this Amtrak route is the most beautiful in the United States

Santa-Fe-Depot
San Diego's Santa Fe Depot train station. (flickr)
Amtrak-Pacific-Surfliner
Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, southbound near Oceanside. (flickr)

Some of the most beautiful mobile views in the United States exist outside the windows of trains on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner route. There are two things a passenger should do to ensure the very best scenery during a trip: Sit upstairs on the top deck, and pick a seat on the west side of the tracks.

Why the west side? Much of the 350-mile route—which runs from San Diego in the south to San Luis Obispo at the north end—hugs the Pacific Ocean coastline. The water-side view often includes people enjoying beach outings, surfers riding waves and even dolphins frolicking in the surf.

The Pacific Surfliner carries roughly 3 million passengers a year, is Amtrak’s third-busiest service and the top people-moving route outside the country’s Northeast Corridor. Note: I’m a past frequent rider on the Northeast Corridor—Baltimore to New York City—and I never gazed out the window at frolicking dolphins on that route.

Proximity to the Pacific Ocean by the Pacific Surfliner is a blessing but is also cursed with one unique problem: cliff collapses. On August 22, 2018, a 50-foot-wide section of sandstone gave way between the track and the Del Mar beach below. The situation isn’t dire; but neither should it be ignored.

The 27 stops along the Pacific Surfliner route include four primary destinations: San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Including stoppage time—and pending delays, which are more frequent than the Northeast Corridor—it takes about eight hours and 15 minutes to make the entire run.

Know that Wi-Fi is available and there is a café car that serves food and beverages, including alcohol. There’s also a business class that guarantees seating and includes some free food and drinks. With that knowledge, and a train ticket in hand, here are some highlights from Pacific Surfliner train trips (from south to north) that I’ve booked over the past decade:

Solana Beach

If you’re heading to the Del Mar Racetrack for a day of betting the ponies, whether you’re coming from the north or the south you can disembark at the Solana Beach station.

Opening Day at Del Mar is a big deal that attracts 40,000-plus (over-dressed) people. Accordingly, street traffic on Interstate-5 is horrendous that day, so Amtrak is a good alternative. On days when there are races or concerts, bus service is in operation between the Solana Beach station and the race track.

San Juan Capistrano

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Amtrak’s San Juan Capistrano station stop. (flickr)

A few years ago, I took a date on a train ride from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano. We had a delicious and romantic meal at the Sundried Tomato American Bistro, just a few blocks from the train station.

Near catastrophe occurred after dinner when we got back to the station. We stood on the wrong side of the track where the doors of the southbound train were opening. So, it came and went without us.

My date was gorgeously unperturbed. “Hmm, I guess we’ll have to wait for the next train over there at the Five Vines Wine Bar,” she said.

I nodded, and decided that this was the woman I would marry. I did.

Anaheim

I’m a Baltimore-born boy and a big baseball fan. Twice a year, my hometown Orioles travel to Anaheim to play the Los Angeles Angels. The Amtrak station stop in Anaheim is just outside the parking lot for Angel Stadium.

Angels-Stadium-Anaheim
Angels Stadium in Anaheim.

For a 7 p.m. evening game, there’s generally a train that arrives an hour prior to the first pitch. Trains also normally depart with a half hour of the final pitch—though you’ll probably have to take off before the last out if a game goes into extra innings.

On my last trip to the ballpark via train, my buddy and I got to see future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols poke his 2,999th career hit. And it was rain poncho night. Score! Unfortunately, the Angels destroyed my weak-hitting Orioles.

Santa Ana

A recent invitation to see the sights in Huntington Beach included a train ticket that stopped in Santa Ana. It’s about 18 miles from HB, and not the ideal way to get to Surf City USA. However, if you’re heading this way and you find yourself locked into train travel, do visit the Pacific Hideaway bar inside the Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach and strike up a conversation with lead bartender Casey Lyons. Or, read my story about doing just that.

Los Angeles

L.A.’s Union Station is grand and attractive, and it’s a great gateway to much of what the city has to offer in the downtown area. But learn from my mistake. Union Station is not proximal to the beach areas. A decade ago, I took the train to L.A. on the way to my final destination in Santa Monica. The cab far—yes this was before ride shares—was obscene.

Santa Barbara

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Santa Barbara train station. (flickr)

Unlike Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is a perfect destination for using Amtrak. The station is small; the Mission Revival architectural is Instagram-worthy. The stop is right at the base of State Street, with the beach on the west side of the tracks and the bulk of Santa Barbara’s eateries and other offerings just footsteps—or an electric bus ride—away.

Grover Beach

Between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo lies the less-traveled areas of Central California. It’s been years since a visit, but I’ll always fondly remember a rejuvenating trip to the serene Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach, just south of Pismo Beach.

A far cry from L.A.’s Union Station, and correspondingly smaller than San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot and even Santa Barbara’s quaint station, there’s the Grover Beach stop. It’s little more than an open-air platform. When I was there, it was manned by one volunteer holding a walkie-talkie.

“Train will be here in three minutes,” he told me after taking his ear away from the walkie-talkie. Darned if he wasn’t exactly on the mark. J&J