With a coastline over 1,000 miles long north to south, California is an enormous and geographically diverse state, well known for scenic road trips. But consider exploring the state in a different way to remove the stress of potential gridlock in car traffic and gain a novel perspective: by train.
The state’s railroad offerings include historic journeys through redwood forests, luxurious wine trains, and Amtrak routes along the vibrant Pacific coastline and beyond. Here are five of the most scenic train rides to take in California.
1. Pacific Surfliner
- Where: San Diego to San Luis Obispo
Amtrak’s iconic Pacific Surfliner offers a 351-mile trip through San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties, with stretches of the route abutting the Pacific coastline in Southern California.
Head from San Diego through Anaheim (a useful port of call for Disneyland), then up through L.A.’s historic and lively downtown environment. Next is Santa Barbara—the so-called American Riviera for its coastal views, fine wines, and film festivals. The end of the line to the north is San Luis Obispo, known for outdoor activities, farm-to-table dining, and world-class wineries.
How to do it
- Book a trip: pacificsurfliner.com
The Pacific Surfliner route offers five daily round-trip services between Santa Barbara and San Diego, and 13 between San Diego and Los Angeles. Prices start at $16 for a single leg of the journey. Many stations are within walking distance of key attractions; various transit providers also offer free bus connections to Pacific Surfliner passengers.
Extend the trip with a longer stay in downtown Los Angeles, which has abundant hotel options, including the historic Hotel Figueroa, one of the city’s oldest; it opened nearly a century ago as lodging for professional women travelers, a rarity for the era. The Spanish adobe-style building has 268 rooms and suites and offers a lively, creative scene with top-notch food and drink outlets.
2. Coast Starlight
- Where: San Diego to Seattle
Up for a long haul on Amtrak? Take the famous Coast Starlight all the way through California (with the possibility of continuing to Oregon and Washington). The entire 35-hour route goes from Los Angeles to Seattle with views of snow-peaked mountains, green forests and valleys, and stretches of the Pacific Ocean, too. It’s widely considered one of the most beautiful train trips in the country.
How to do it
- Book a trip: amtrak.com/coast-starlight-train
Travel the entire route, and the Coast Starlight will be a starting cost of about $100 to $150, or closer to $200 for a business-class seat. There’s also the option to sleep aboard, with the cost of a roomette about $700, or a family room about $1,300—which includes meals, water, and coffee.
3. Napa Valley Wine Train
- Where: Napa Valley
Visiting California’s wineries in Napa can be a nuisance and potential hazard by car. Instead, hop aboard the private Napa Valley Wine train, a 36-mile winetasting loop with wine and artisanal food cooked to order on board.
The train includes vintage Pullman rail cars restored with mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass partitions, and posh armchair seating that evokes the glamorous rail travel of the Gilded Age.
How to do it
- Book a trip: winetrain.com
Choose from three- or six-hour daytime journeys or a two-hour dinner ride. The new “Tasting on the Rails” trip launches in May, with tickets starting at $395. The experience will include a three-hour journey aboard the 1915 Pullman Lounge car, complete with an observation platform exclusive to guests of this experience, as well as a seven-course meal and seven wine pairings from the valley.
The wine train is located in downtown Napa, which is only a 15-minute walk from the Andaz Napa. The Hyatt property offers 141 guest rooms, with hardwood hickory floors and midcentury furnishings. The hotel bar, the Mercantile Terrace, has a bar menu and firepits with a convivial atmosphere.
4. Skunk Train
- Where: Mendocino
This train goes back to the 1880s, when it ran along the Fort Bragg Railroad to make transporting lumber easier in Northern California’s Mendocino County. That was the genesis of what is now commonly known as the Skunk Train (for the pungent fumes it once emitted). Now, it offers dreamy rides through the majestic redwoods with a heavy dose of nostalgia; the views have remained largely unchanged since its original days.
How to do it
- Book a trip: skunktrain.com
The train offers an array of trips starting at $50. The seven-mile round-trip Pudding Express departs from the Fort Bragg depot and runs along the estuary of the same name, where blue herons, ospreys, egrets, and more wildlife all make their homes.
Or spend a unique day on the tracks by railbike: These are nearly silent, electric-powered two-person railbikes that breeze along the serene track. Prices start at $265 per bike.
5. River Fox Train
- Where: Sacramento
Originally built in 1911 by Northern Electric Co., the River Fox Train now offers an opportunity for visitors to explore the Sacramento River along a 10-mile stretch of track through Yolo County’s countryside. Theme rides range from beer and wine experiences to murder mystery trips to holiday excursions. Think riverfront views and ivy-draped woodlands. And like its sister Skunk Train in Mendocino County, this track also offers the whimsical railbike experience.
How to do it
- Book a trip: riverfoxtrain.com
Prices for the train start at $59 for adults and $29 for kids. Railbikes start at $109, which covers two riders midweek. The train boards in West Sacramento. Make a trip of it with a stay at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, with curated political art throughout and architecture from George Selland, the first state architect of California.