The best train trips from Los Angeles

Amtrak Coast StarlightPhotograph: Courtesy Amtrak

The best train trips from Los Angeles

All aboard these scenic train trips up and down the coast from L.A.

Michael JulianoWritten by Michael JulianoTuesday August 8 2023FacebookTwitterPinterestEmailWhatsAppAdvertising

When it comes to wanderlust, it’s tough to compete with the call of the open road in Southern California. But road trips aren’t your only option: If you’re willing to put in a little bit of extra time and planning, there are a few train trips from Los Angeles that are even more spectacular than their car-based counterparts.

As with standout automobile excursions, we think the journey is just as key as the destination when it comes to train trips. So the routes we’ve selected below all feature pretty stunning coastal scenery, as well as worthwhile cities waiting for you at the end. They also all rely on Amtrak, and we’ve started each itinerary at Union Station in DTLA (though we’ve noted when additional departure stations are available, as well).

We’ll admit, though, that Southern California’s train trip options are relatively limited—at least using our pretty particular criteria. Just because you can take a train somewhere doesn’t mean you should: A route that only runs at night, takes hours more than a car ride and costs more than a flight isn’t really something we can recommend. Therefore, we’ve limited our picks below to the very best of the best—and outlined why a couple of notable destinations didn’t make the cut.

Also, there are a number of nearby cities reachable by Metrolink (Ventura, Oxnard, Claremont, Orange, San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente and Solana Beach) that we consider commutes more than proper trips; while they may offer an afternoon diversion and a change of pace, you haven’t really left the L.A. megalopolis. We think they’re still worth exploring, though, which is why we’ve covered many of them in our day trips guide.

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Santa BarbaraPhotograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

Santa Barbara

2hrs 40mins from Union Station

You’ll hug the Central Coast on the final quarter of this easy Pacific Surfliner trip to arguably California’s most scenic coastal city. Once in Santa Barbara, you’ll be let off only a couple blocks from the beach and Stearns Wharf, and even closer to the southern end of State Street, the city’s Spanish-Colonial shopping district. For slightly farther destinations, you can take advantage of bike rentals, bus connections and Zipcar spots, all right at the station.

The Amtrak station also puts you right next to the Funk Zone, a dense cluster of winery tasting rooms best tackled when you don’t have to worry about driving home (you can sample all 24 of them for $200, though you probably shouldn’t in a single day).

Both directions of the Pacific Surfliner schedule offer morning, afternoon and evening trains, though there’s a slightly larger gap in deparatures between the latter two.

Round-trip Amtrak fare from $62; alternative departures available from Glendale, Burbank, Van Nuys and Northridge

San DiegoPhotograph: Shutterstock

San Diego

3hrs from Union Station

If there’s one “seriously, don’t bother with a car” nearby trip, it’s this one: You can reach San Diego and many of its closer beachfront neighbors in notably less time than driving sometimes, with about 10 departures a day and no need to worry about the persistent traffic getting past Camp Pendleton or the parking prices in San Diego. 

The train follows the 5 for much of the way with one scenic advantage: Once you pass San Juan Capistrano, you’ll travel right on the beach for much of the journey, or at most mere blocks from it (until you reach Torrey Pines, when it heads back inland). If you’re looking for a beachy pit stop along the way, scope out the sand in Oceanside or Solana Beach.

On the San Diego end, you can opt to get off in Old Town, steps from the state’s first European settlement, or—more likely—at Santa Fe Depot, situated right along the Embarcadero. From there, it’s a quick trolley ride ($2.50, day pass $6) to Little Italy, Petco Park and the Gaslamp Quarter or a short bus ride to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, or you can walk across the street to Broadway Pier and take the ferry to beachy Coronado ($8 each way).

Round-trip Amtrak fare $72; three alternative departures available per day from Glendale, Burbank, Van Nuys and Northridge

A quick note: Amid 2023’s very wet winter and spring, a pair of landslides limited rail service through Orange County for a number of weeks—so let this be a reminder to check the train status before you make any plans.

AdvertisingSan Luis ObispoPhotograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Ken Ohyama

San Luis Obispo

5hrs 30mins from Union Station

The Central Coast city of San Luis Obispo is the farthest destination where we think taking the train is still a competitively practical option. Yes, it’ll take you about an hour and a half longer than driving, but that comes with a pretty remarkable perk: an ocean-hugging ride along the Gaviota Coast, a 76-mile-long undeveloped stretch of rugged shores just past Santa Barbara that’s otherwise largely inaccessible by car.

When you pull into SLO, the train will drop you off just outside of town, about a half-mile walk (or a few-minute bus ride) from the utterly charming tree-lined Higuera Street. Though you could easily spend all of your time there hopping between the farmers’ market and brewpubs, you can use SLO Transit ($1.50) to venture off the main drag and to spots like the Bishop Peak trailhead and the delightfully kitsch Madonna Inn.

The Coast Starlight is the quickest (and cheapest, if you book it early) option, though it only has one morning departure per day from Union Station, Burbank and Van Nuys. The Pacific Surfliner takes an extra 20 minutes or so from DTLA but—in addition to the stops above—includes two departures a day from Glendale and Northridge. Both lines take the same amount of time on the way back.

Round-trip Amtrak fare from $68; three alternative departures available per day from Burbank and Van Nuys, two from Glendale and Northridge

What about San Francisco? Palm Springs? Or the Grand Canyon?Photograph: Shutterstock

What about San Francisco? Palm Springs? Or the Grand Canyon?

We’ll cut right to it: There’s no train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Amtrak offers a mash-up of train and bus combinations to get there, but they’re simply not worth your time or money. You could take a train directly to Oakland, but it’s an 11-and-a-half-hour ride that’s mostly boring past SLO and, well, see above about time and money. We’d say the same of the eight-hour FlixBus ride, which often isn’t any cheaper than the hour-and-a-half flight. Eventually, California’s high-speed rail project will provide a one-seat link between the two cities that’s under three hours, but that’s—optimistically—another decade or more away. 

Palm Springs also doesn’t quite make sense by train. The two-and-a-half-hour trip actually sounds pretty tempting—until you notice that it only runs three days a week and will drop you off just after midnight at a station surrounded by desert sand that’s about five miles north of downtown. Plus, you’re probably going to want a car anyway to explore the sprawling, often-scorching city. 

Similarly, the Grand Canyon would earn a spot on our list if not for the timing. There’s only one Southwest Chief train that runs to the nearby city of Flagstaff each day, and given that the 10-hour-plus trip (with an extra hour on the way back) is an overnight route, there’s not much to see along the way. If you don’t want to take the desert drive, consider an hour-and-a-half flight to Flagstaff and then a scenic train ride from neighboring Williams to Grand Canyon Village.

And as for even farther flung destinations? Though the stretches near Mount Shasta and Upper Klamath Lake are scenic, the 34-hour trip to Seattle isn’t nearly exciting enough to tackle by train. And the 43-hour journey to Chicago? Those are two days much better spent in Chicago.

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