Riding the Coast Starlight: part two

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Adrian rides the rails with Amtrak. Read about his rail journey – arguably the best way to cover America’s huge distances – exclusively on CD-Traveller

Continued from yesterday…

Northern California

As we leave, there are gum trees lining the line. I don’t know what I expected but it certainly wasn’t something as Australian as a gum tree. The coast fades away to be replaced by trees and the scenery, on the other side, becomes more mountainous in the distance.  But it just as quickly returns with yet more oil platforms in the still waters. We get to Refugio State Beach. What is a state beach, as opposed to any other beach? Something else to find out, when I get a chance.  We don’t stop, just continue through and meet the ocean again. But on the other side the landscape becomes briefly English like with close-cropped, grass hills that are rounded and matured. In a snatch of an eye they’re gone to be replaced by the more familiar craggy ones but this time, only this time, they are closer to the train. The novelty of having the ocean so close to the train has worn off. No one is taking photographs any more. You can have too much of a good thing! Nor is the scenery attracting them. Reading and sleeping occupy their minds now. And yet we are only three hours into the journey.

A surprising announcement.  Well surprising for me because I don’t remember reading about this. For sleeping car passengers only (they’re the posh ones who have berths) there is a wine tasting about to start. Not only wine but cheese and crackers to go with it.  What an innovation!  I’m guessing they will be Californian wines but what a great way to sample, knowing full well that you don’t have to drive. I’ll suggest to East Coast and ScotRail when I return, that they might try whisky tastings on the run to Aberdeen and Inverness.  Perhaps a cider tasting on First Great Western’s Hereford or Somerset services?  I suppose wine tastings from England’s largest vineyard, Denbies, on the commuter service from Dorking to Waterloo is a bit fanciful!

I’ve just passed a hawk perched on a tree stump not 20 feet from the train. Of course by the time a camera was grabbed, it was too late.  I’ve been seeing the usual things like crows but a stationary hawk and one where the markings could be clearly seen, is a trip bonus. Except that within a few minutes I’ve seen four. But what sort?  I didn’t bring my Boys Own Book of Birds with me either! The others were not so close but all perched on wooden poles that are in the fields. Now my eyes must be deceiving me because I swear that last post had an owl perched on it. Given that there are no trees at the moment, only scrub and bushes, maybe these posts are all they have to await their prey.


We’ve travelled some 50 miles since I saw the first oil platform in the ocean. They have dotted the waters all the time that we have been seeing the coast. At any one time, I can see four or five. On the other side, the landscape has turned quite red due to those red- coloured succulents that have colonised the rocks and what passes for soil. There’s no habitation here. Just mile after mile of scrub, a narrow road, telegraph poles and the odd silo or windowless building. We pass through Surf Beach and there are people, but still no houses. There is a surf at last and walkers on the beach, but no surfers that I can see. So why have we stopped? Not at the station but just beyond it?  A railway line breaks away from us and heads in a straight direction to nowhere. It just goes on and on. But there are still no houses. Where did those people at Surf Beach come from?

We have come inland so fields and hills are all we see. Sometimes there are even houses. Just as I think it’s becoming similar, there is a field with two nodding donkeys working to extract water from the depths and bring it to the surface. And then, more of them. California is in the middle of a drought and some of the rivers seem smaller or just trickles from the ones we’ve seen so far.  Eventually we leave that eerie landscape and come into the plains again. More farming land but irrigation pipes are either to be seen or their previous use are.

Just before we reach San Luis Obispo, I see the first Californian vineyard of the trip. But this one extends for field, after field. In manicured fields they stretch for more than the eye can see.  The locals here major on the initials of the area. S L and O. The slo life says a hoarding, encouraging us to visit the family owned vineyards that dominate around here. And this is just five hours by train or just over 200 miles from Los Angeles.

By now its dark and I have no idea what the landscape looks like. Sometimes there are lights; more often than not, none at all. Big cities like San Jose, Oakland and Sacramento (the capital of the state) come and go in the night, all just a flurry of lit buildings. Even in summer when the light will last longer you won’t see some of these. By first light we are in the northernmost parts of California. We stop in a small place called Dunsmuir where foot thick snow has been cleared from the platform and the roads. We climb slowly towards Mount Shasta, never quite close enough to see it close up. Down below, the river seems a long way down. In the snow there are no footprints, just the occasional animal track. One mountain is covered with snow, the next has little. We discuss why in the dining car, but none of us know. After just half an hour the snow disappears, the ground changes to sandy again with scrub underneath the conifers.   Earlier I wrote that few were going all the way to Seattle. The dining car tells me otherwise as people discuss the beauty of the scenery they have seen. I have yet to meet anyone who has made the trip before. Is this one of those once in a lifetime trips?

Klamath Falls from the train

But coming up is one of the big sights of the trip, the Klamath Falls, which also means we have left California after nearly 20 hours of train travel and arrived in Oregon. The town is much like any other, except that it has part perched on the side of nearby hillsides. It is only when you leave and gaze out on the left hand side that you this giant expanse of water and ice. There are reed beds, looking bedraggled in the height of winter but come the spring they will burst with wildlife planning a new year’s brood.  A heron flying in landed upright and began to walk across the ice. The railway line follows the contours of the lake. And on the opposite side there are jagged, snow-covered peaks to remind you that winter can be harsh in this part of Oregon. We’re 17 miles away from Klamath Falls now and the lake is only just coming to an end. Back to flat, agricultural land but surely this must flood from time-to-time?

Climbing again, there is more snow on the ground. It’s been a mild winter I’ve been told, and this snow has been on the ground for a few weeks. It is surprising how much of the countryside we have gone through, is only accessible by train. There’s no sign of a human or a house in this forest that we are going through now. There are signs of logging but that must have been before the snows came. As we start another descent, there’s flat land but, from the train, it looks like a frozen lake surrounded by the ever present spruce trees. It must be farmland because there’s a snow encrusted plough!

Oregon snow

They’re used to snow here. Alongside the rails where the points are changed and other places, there are brooms and the occasional shovel placed in a plastic tube ready for employees to use in case some hand clearing is needed. About an hour after we have left Chemult, we pass another lake on the right before travelling a winding trail with just a ledge between hill and valley floor for the trackbed. There’s no room for putting a second track down.  Down through our second tunnel of the morning on a glorious sharp day with the sun reflecting of the snow, makes the trip seem even more of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Is it as good in summer I wonder?

Another couple of tunnels further on, the ledge we travel on becomes even narrower. After the fourth tunnel, the views get even better as we gaze across a valley to the forest below and mountains in the distance. Tunnel number five in this section is the longest and there is only a brief view as we enter number six. If you had to pick just one section of this journey to do, the Klamath Falls to Eugene is the one – but be prepared to dash from one side of the carriage to the other.  I’ve now lost count of the tunnels as we wind past a landslip or three, that makes me hope they have checked the line. A peculiar concrete roofed tunnel with an open side allows us a view while presumably protecting us from any loose movements of snow or stone. The snow recedes the further down we go. There are dead trees around, some have been cleared leaving open spaces. The trees help prevent avalanches and rockfall, so I presume there is a policy of replanting. You couldn’t even clamber down some of the slopes I can see next to our railway line. It’s just a sheer drop protected only by conifers. Suddenly there is no more snow. It’s only on the distant mountains we have run rings around.  Now we have hills on both sides and we’re in the gully. My final destination is in site. The land flattens as we enter the Willamette Valley and Eugene beckons.

Oregon grandeur

Amtrak reckons this is one of their most scenic journeys. I, for one, wouldn’t disagree.

all images were taken through the train window so apologies for the stilted quality.

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