Cruising the Central Coast be the Pacific Surfliner and Coast Starlight
Amtrak’s historic railway offers an alternative to Highway 101
Story and photos By Katherine McMahon
Concerned about rising gas prices and wasting time sitting in traffic? There is an alternative way to explore the Central Coast: Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and Coast Starlight!
Long before U.S. Route 101 was commissioned as a highway in 1926, the region was connected to the rest of California by the Southern Pacific railway. When the road through the Gaviota Pass was still just a narrow dirt track, Southern Pacific had established a train route from Los Angeles through Ventura and Santa Barbara, to San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, and beyond. That route still exists and has been operated by Amtrak since the 1970s. These days, you can hop on the train in L.A. and in just a few hours be on the Central Coast, walking on a quiet beach or exploring the vibrant downtown areas of wine country.
Amtrak currently runs five trains a day each way between Los Angeles and the Central Coast. One in each direction is the Coast Starlight. It leaves L.A. each morning, reaching Santa Barbara by midday and San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles in the afternoon before continuing to northern California and beyond. On the way south, it stops in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo in the afternoon, Santa Barbara at dinner time, and L.A. at night. The other four trains are the Pacific Surfliner, which stop more frequently. Two of them in each direction — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — go all the way to San Luis Obispo. The other two (one in the late morning and one in the evening) only go as far as Santa Barbara.
For the first hour after leaving Los Angeles Union Station, the trains run through less aesthetic parts of Glendale, Burbank, the San Fernando Valley, and Simi Valley, then through orchards and fields of Moorpark, Camarillo, and Oxnard. This part of the route parallels the Metrolink train and the ridership can include commuters; thus, in many ways, it still feels connected to Los Angeles. But the feeling changes as it approaches the Ventura station, and the Pacific Ocean comes into view.
The Ventura train station is not much to look at — just a little rain shelter next to a parking lot. But in reality, it’s just steps from the beach and Downtown Ventura. Long ago, the train station was more connected to downtown Ventura, but the 101 freeway is now a barrier in between. But walk back a block to Figueroa Street and turn left under the underpass, and in five minutes you can be strolling along Main Street with its many boutiques and restaurants. Some of my favorite restaurants on the Central Coast are here: Rumfish y Vino, with its relaxed patio and Belizean menu; Immigrant Son Caffé, which features authentic Italian dishes; Rocks and Drams, with its elevated cocktails and Asian fusion cuisine; and Winchesters Grill and Saloon, whose storied burgers I told you about in the Summer 2022 issue.
The parking lot by the train station is connected to the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which hosts the annual Ventura County Fair as well as concerts, swap meets, and myriad other events. Years ago, I would take my kids on the train in August from Simi Valley to Ventura for a day trip to the county fair and the beach, without having to worry about traffic and parking. On the other side of the parking lot from the train station is Surfers Point Beach, one of the region’s premier surfing spots, along with the Ventura Promenade, which connects San Buenaventura State Beach to the Ojai Valley Bike Trail. You can actually bring your bike on the Amtrak and ride from the beach to Ojai.
The beach at Ventura is just a preview of what is to come on the rail journey north. After the train crosses the Ventura River and passes through Emma Wood State Beach, it hugs the coastline for the next 100 miles. Since Amtrak’s doing the driving, you can gaze out the window (make sure you sit on the left!) and see surfers and sunbathers — and, if you are lucky, dolphins.
The Pacific Surfliner briefly stops in the laid-back beach town of Carpinteria, while the Coast Starlight hustles straight through to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara has a feel that is all at once luxurious and relaxed. A century ago, it made a name for itself as a destination for the well-to-do, who would take the train and spend the winter there to enjoy the health benefits of coastal breezes. You can still step off the train, breathe in the ocean air and immediately feel more at ease, away from the madness of the megalopolis.
The Santa Barbara station is just two blocks from the beach and is close to The Funk Zone, a vibrant district of eateries, wineries and breweries, hotels, art studios, antique stores, and a fun children’s science museum. In the heart of the Funk Zone, two blocks east of the train station, lies The Lark Santa Barbara. The restaurant gets its name from the Southern Pacific overnight luxury train that ran from San Francisco to Los Angeles from the 1940s through the 1960s. It is an eye-catching restaurant with a seasonal menu that celebrates the Central Coast with simply fantastic food. Just around the corner is the aesthetic Dart Coffee Co., with its own hidden oasis garden that they say has been there since the 1920s. Also nearby is Mony’s Tacos, which serves the best street tacos in Santa Barbara with unique salsas like pistachio and peanut. And across the street from the train station is McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, frequently cited as one of the Central Coast’s finest ice cream shops for over 70 years! You may have to wait in a long line, but it’s worth it!
A short walk south brings you to Cabrillo Boulevard and the bike bath that runs for almost 5 miles along the waterfront. You can rent pedal surrey bikes to ride beneath the tall palm trees or just take a break and sit on the sand. Because of the south-facing coast, the surf is gentle in Santa Barbara adding to the chill vibe.
There are more than two dozen hotels in this area, providing a diversity of style, amenities, and price along the beach to make your stay complete. I’ve stayed frequently at the Santa Barbara Inn, about a mile down the beach, with the amazing Convivo Restaurant and Bar on the ground floor. Here you can watch the sunset, the sailboats, and the distant islands while dining on inventive local cuisine like beet salad with burrata, butternut squash, crispy Brussels sprouts and apple, or charcoal grilled avocado, ponzu, pomegranate, and radicchio. A little further is the recently renovated Mar Monte Hotel, built in 1931 to attract the elite of L.A. It still has some of its original architectural elements, though the rooms, pool deck, and restaurant have been updated. Behind it is the original Motel 6. Founded here in 1962, it still offers a more budget conscious alternative, and with partial views of the ocean.
If, instead of stopping in Santa Barbara, you ride one of the trains that keeps going, you are in for a treat: a scenic journey you can’t see by car. When the 101 turns away from the ocean at Gaviota Pass, the train continues to follow the coastline around Point Conception. Once it leaves the highway behind, you feel like the train has taken you someplace special — because it has! The journey skirts remote cliffs overlooking miles of secluded beaches with the western end of the Santa Ynez mountains towering on the other side. There is a glimpse of civilization as the train races over a trestle bridge at Jalama Beach County Park. Then, you’ll move on to more remote coastline around Purisima Point in front of Vandenburg Air Force Base. At Surf Beach station near Lompoc, you can literally step off the train and onto the sand. From there, the train turns inland, though the Grover Beach stop is a five-minute walk over the dunes to the waves. It crosses under the 101 near Pismo Beach without stopping and turns further into the hills, winding its way through Price Canyon. After zipping by vineyards in Edna Valley, the train pulls into San Luis Obispo station.
This station is on the east side of the city and is surrounded by a few amenities, but the real draw is that the station is just a half-mile from downtown. San Luis Obispo is a bustling college town that also feels grown-up; it’s lively, but not congested. Downtown has a surprisingly elevated food scene. Within just a few blocks are numerous restaurants of all types, coffee shops, boutiques, juice bars, wine tasting rooms, and hotels. Kreuzberg California combines the hipness of a European cafe with the chill vibe of the Central Coast, and makes my favorite Mexican mocha. Dine on the outdoor patio at Luna Red which serves inspired tapas like bacon-wrapped dates and coconut shrimp tacos. Flour House makes award-winning pizza worth the train ride by itself. And there is so much more within just a few blocks.
Downtown San Luis Obispo also features other attractions. There is an art museum, a historic mission, and the strange landmark of Bubblegum Alley. For decades, gum has been left stuck to the wall until the 15-foot high, 70-foot long alley has become coated in it, and is now an odd tourist attraction. On Thursday nights, several blocks of downtown are closed to accommodate the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market featuring local produce, crafts, and live music. To stay for a night, there are several hotels downtown. My favorite is the Granada Hotel & Bistro, located in a 100-year-old building right in the heart of downtown with a sophistication unexpected for a small town.
For the Coast Starlight train to continue on to Paso Robles, it must get over the West Cuesta Ridge, which rises more than 1,000 feet above San Luis Obispo. The California 101 Highway climbs the Cuesta Grade, but the train follows a longer path, first heading a few miles west before curving up the hillside and turning back across the face of the ridge, revealing expansive views back toward San Luis Obispo. Turning once more, the train climbs the Cuesta Grade on the opposite side from the 101 before entering a tunnel near the top of the pass. After passing through Santa Margarita, Atascadero, and Templeton without stopping (though it once did), the train arrives in Paso Robles.
The current Paso Robles station building was built in 1997 but the original 1886 station building still stands next to the tracks, reborn to accommodate wineries and restaurants. At the north end of the building is Cypher, a woman-owned winery where you can taste exceptional wines and browse a line of olive oils, vinegars, infused sea salts, seasonings, and wine jellies. Junction, a new restaurant at the south end of the old station, serves delicious South American-inspired tapas like empanadas and canelones. Across the street from the train station is Vivant Fine Cheese shop, a delight for cheese lovers. In addition, the Paso train station is just three blocks from the heart of downtown with many more restaurants, wine tasting, shopping, and hotels (see Downtown Paso, page 113).
For less than the gas it might cost you to take the same journey, you can experience the amazing beauty of the Central Coast and enjoy the great downtowns of the region. The journey itself is so memorable, it’s no wonder this train route is known as one of the most beautiful in the United States.
Follow more of my adventures at vineyardsandvoyages.com or on Instagram at @vineyardsandvoyages.