The Pacific Surfliner – A Not-so-hidden Gem along SoCal’s Coast

Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, if you can pull your eyes away from the ocean, you might spy rickety looking train tracks. I’ve never given them much thought, assuming they’re just holdovers from a train-heavy past. I’d never actually seen a train on them, perhaps because I’m usually staring fixedly at the ocean – or arguing with the passenger who’s reminding me to keep my eyes on the damn road.

Cars and train tracks crisscross, so sometimes you have to look at them, other times you get a front row seat.

On a recent trip to California I unexpectedly found myself without my co-pilot, and was sort of dreading driving from Los Angeles to San Diego without someone to, well, help me drive. So I looked for alternate transport, and discovered those train tracks are still very much in operation. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train travels up and down the rails parallel the PCH from Los Angeles to San Diego, thirteen times each way every day.

I might never drive that stretch again, because the train trip is so awesome. The Surfliner coasts along and you never have to fight traffic, fight with your navigator about bad directions, or fight with the rental car counter about a one-way drop fee. You just board the train, cozy up on the right side of the double-decker train (right side, if you’re going south; left side when you’re traveling north), and ask the very friendly attendants to keep the red wine coming. 

From Los Angeles Union Station (a 30-40 minute trip from the airport, only $9.75 if you take the LAX FlyAway shuttle which runs every half hour and picks up passengers at the arrivals level of each terminal – look for blue LAX FlyAway signs), I traveled southwards for a cool two hours and forty minutes to end up at San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot. The first 30 minutes or so of the ride are pretty grim, but it’s the same old industrial areas and gritty highway underpasses you see from the car – made slightly more attractive, since you’re not worried about making a wrong turn or the speed limit.

The train stops at Anaheim and Santa Ana, neither of which appear very scenic from the tracks. Although if I were heading to Disney, I’d happily skip the traffic, board the train and take an Uber or the local rail system to the park.

San Juan Capistrano comes after Santa Ana, and that’s when I really took a deep breath and felt the SoCal cool loosen up my shoulders a bit. San Juan Capistrano’s train station is in a charming little old town with general stores and funky coffee shops. On Saturday they had a picturesque farmers market and Christmas event, and if I hadn’t been on a deadline I’d have happily gotten out to stretch my legs and pick up a slice of wood-fired pizza.

From San Juan Capistrano onward, all you see is ocean. I planned on doing some writing, but found myself staring out the window. The surf is always mesmerizing, but I think it’s fun to see how people enjoy the beach. I passed by dozens of big groups of surf schools, families setting up bonfires, hordes of enthusiastic dogs chasing the waves and frisbees, and more than a handful of teenage couples huddling close against the wind. You whip by just fast enough to see a snippet of people’s lives, and imagining their stories kept me entertained as the train chugged along.

Not glamorous, but glorious leg room.

Too soon, you arrive at San Diego Old Town. If you’re staying North of downtown, get out here. If you’re staying downtown, keep traveling to Santa Fe Depot. Like the train itself, the station is a blast from the past, a little grungy, a little rundown. But the art deco elements peek out from behind layers of dust and grime, and if you squint, you feel like you might just be in a movie, “Naïve star arrives on the West Coast for first time, awed by massive arched ceilings and San Diego’s endless summer.”

I upgraded to business class each way, which was a $16 indulgence to cover all the beverages I wanted and a dry-goods snackpack. The food offerings on the Surfliner are as bleak as the fare along the Northeast Corridor, so rather than debate which sad sandwich to buy in the Café Car, the business class snack pack makes your unhappy decisions for you. A bag of cookies, a handful of crackers, a teeny, malodorous bag of beef jerky and some trail mix – you won’t write home about it, but you won’t go hungry. The business class cars are slightly newer on some trains than the economy cars, but the economy cars are perfectly roomy and have the same luxuries. The biggest difference is you’re guaranteed a seat in business, which was worth it to me since I really wanted to sit oceanside.

Skip the rental car, try the train. In a city like San Diego, it’s easy to get around without a car. I scooted all around downtown, and took an Uber to Sunset Cliffs and over to Coronado. While there’s little that beats the open road with your favorite traveling buddy, when you’re flying solo, there’s little that can top a traffic-free, red-wine-fueled train trip.

Wish I’d stayed up for the sunset on my Northbound trip, but the leg room was too comfortable!

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Alicia Amling View All →

Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.

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