Great ticket to ride: Amtrak from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara

The trip on Pacific Surfliner offers spendid coastal views and occasional whale sightings

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comMay 4, 2014 

We were headed back to San Luis Obispo, somewhere between Gaviota and Lompoc, when my wife and daughter simultaneously blurted, “WHALE!”

While it’s always a charge to see giant mammals surface, this sighting was particularly serendipitous because it occurred as we were traveling on a train.

For all the romance and splendor Amtrak’s famous Pacific Surfliner promises, whale watching is not in the Amtrak brochure. And, really, it doesn’t need to be. Because, whale or no whale, the trip from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara lives up to its billing as one of the most scenic rides you’ll ever take on any mode of transportation.

Roughly 20 years ago, I took the Amtrak round-trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, and what surprised me then was how much of the country is undeveloped. While those stretches of land had a lonesome, otherworldly feel, it was nice to see so much open space. When I took the Surfliner last month, I discovered that, thankfully, much of the coast of Central California is also much like it was when the Chumash Indians were the primary residents.

According to Amtrak, there’s been a bit of a rail renaissance in recent years, and California has played a large part in that. In the fall, Amtrak announced that California had carried a record 3.9 million passengers on its Pacific Surfliner and San Joaquin rail lines the previous 12 months. Over the past decade, ridership on the Surfliner — the second-busiest rail corridor in the nation — and the San Joaquin increased by one million passengers as ticket revenues soared from $44 million to $102 million.

The Surfliner, which Caltrans began funding in 1976, begins in San Luis Obispo to the north and extends to San Diego — an 8 ½-hour trip. But most riders will say that the most scenic stretch — with grand views of the Pacific — occurs between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara ($35 one way).

While my round-trip from Chicago to LA was a solo effort, this time I had company — my wife, Candi, and 10-year-old daughter, Sunny. As excited as Sunny was the night before, we knew getting up for a 6:35 a.m. boarding would be a challenge. This was, after all, the first train trip she would remember, and there’s so much lore about train travel.

From movies like “The Polar Express” to novels like “Murder on the Orient Express” to songs like “Me and Bobby McGee,” train travel is steeped in our culture, yet with the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, we seldom let someone else do the driving for us.

While ridership numbers are up, there was still ample seating as we boarded our train at the Spanish-style depot built in San Luis Obispo more than 70 years ago. The seating was comfortable, with electrical outlets if you need to charge your electronics. A snack car offers sandwiches, chips, beverages and tabled seating.

Close to 100 years ago, celebrities would arrive at the old depot here en route to the Hearst Castle. In 2014, however, most passengers appeared to be college students getting a head start on spring break. And they appeared to be repeat customers, given that some of them slept or read through the journey.

The early portion of the ride consisted of mostly agricultural fields and rolling hills, which were pleasant enough. But the real trip begins around Lompoc, when the train turns toward the coastline. At Surf Beach, one of the earliest stretches of water we’d see, the train slowed, allowing us to see a sign warning of repeated shark attacks. That was a haunting reference to two fatal attacks that occurred there between October 2010 and October 2012.

On a more pleasant note, you’re close enough here to see marine wildlife, and it probably won’t be sharks. We saw several dolphins, sea lions and otters during our trip.

In this area, you’ll also see the SpaceX launch facility at the Vandenberg Air Force Base. If humans are ever sent to Mars, there’s a good chance they’ll launch from here since that is one of the rocket-launching company’s stated goals.

About 15 minutes from Lompoc, the heavy wall of fog lifted, revealing a still-gray horizon. Meanwhile, the train seemed to get even closer to the beach — so close that at times it almost looked more like we were looking out the windows of a boat.

The road to Jalama State Beach by car is a long and winding snake that seems to take an eternity. But the train rolls right past the campground, revealing newly built cabins and a popular surf break.

Surfers will marvel at the number of seemingly hidden point breaks they’ll see during this trip. Amtrak notes that you can actually load your surfboard on the train, but I do see a feasibility problem with that: If you have no car, where do you put your stuff while you’re in the water?

There’s one other challenge: The train back to San Luis Obispo doesn’t leave until 5:40. So you’d better be able to kill a day in Santa Barbara — which might not be easy with lots of young children.

The Santa Barbara Zoo ($15 adults, $10 children) is a good place to knock off some time, and that was our first destination. From the train station in Santa Barbara, we walked a hundred yards or so to a shuttle bus stop, which offers rides to the zoo for 50 cents. The shuttle also offers rides to downtown.

From the zoo, we visited the Allan Herschell Carrousel, built in 1916. (Rides are $2 per person.) Then we walked around Stearns Wharf for a while. But that was mostly filler. The highlight of this trip was the Surfliner.

Going back, there was much more sun. And because of the time of year, it was light enough to see the entire ocean stretch on the way home. Lucky for us because that’s when we spotted our big fish.

Riding the Surfliner might not come with the drama of your favorite train-related movie scenes, but I can’t think of any Hollywood moment that beats sitting on a train with your family while watching a whale.

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