Traveling the Vanderbilt Way (Part 2)

Part 2 of 3Los Angeles and San Juan Capistrano, then to Oakland on the Coast Starlight

Story by Steve Marshall, photos by Steve Marshall, Michele Marshall and Greg Marshall  

© Steve Marshall

Inside LA Union Station

Inside Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal

Day 4 (March 31) continued

We had on our agenda for this afternoon a side trip.  So, after an excellent lunch at Traxx, the LA Union Station restaurant, we boarded Pacific Surfliner train 774 for the trip to San Juan Capristrano, about 90 minutes south of Los Angeles.  The town of San Juan Capistrano is highly recommended for an afternoon and early evening getaway.  We toured the Mission, which is a beautiful part of California history, spent some time at the ZOOMARS Petting Zoo, and checked out many of the shops.  We ended up eating dinner at Ciao Pasta, highly recommended if you enjoy Italian.  We rode back to Los Angeles on Pacific Surfliner 591 and ended up back in the city about 9:30 PM.  After a taxi ride to the Los Angeles Amtrak Coach Yard, we boarded NYC-3 to spend the night in preparation for our departure up the Coast the following morning.

Day 5 - Sand over the rails

Day 5 – Running through the sand near Ventura, California on train #14.

Day 5 (April 1)

This was a day I had anticipated for a long time.  Riding up the ocean coast on a private railcar on Train #14, the Coast Starlight, should be an incredible experience.  Despite seeing numerous photos over the years and many accounts of the route, I still was not completely prepared for actually seeing it.  To be perfectly clear, there are many places where the tracks are practically on the beach.  There was one place where the tracks are so close to the beach that the wind has blown sand completely across the tracks, covering the ties.  Simply put, I’ve really never seen anything quite like this ride.  And experiencing it from an open platform on a 70 degree day with almost unlimited visibility is hard to describe but my pictures give a pretty good idea.

Day 5 - Coast Starlight Curve

Day 5 – Just south of San Luis Obispo on train #14, the Coast Starlight.

We were joined from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo by Doug and Donna Treloar, friends who split their time between Carpinteria, California and West Yellowstone, Montana.  They enjoyed the ride immensely and pointed out many sights along the way that none of us would have known about otherwise.  This insight came from decades of living along the route there in Carpinteria.

Some of the highlights for me included the area around Ventura following the Pacific Coast Highway and the Pacific Ocean.  Another highlight is the area north of Santa Barbara where you are right beside the Ocean for nearly two hours.  A lot of this area has no road access and it is wilderness, just you and the ocean for miles and miles.  And the final highlight for me was climbing Cuesta Grade north out of San Luis Obispo.  They have had some rain so the hills are green and beautiful now.  We met an autorack train up at the top of the grade at Charro, so that was a treat.

Day 5 - Charro Curve

Day 5 – Just past the horseshoe curve up on Cuesta Grade north of San Luis Obispo on train #14, the Coast Starlight.

Once we descended Cuesta, we began seeing numerous fields of vegetables all the way up to just south of San Jose.  Somewhere near San Jose, it got dark and the next hour was spent negotiating an almost continuous city from there to Oakland.

Day 6 - Maintenance Facility Oakland from NYC 3

Day 6 – Amtrak Oakland Coach Yard at night.

After arrival at Oakland’s Jack London Square, Amtrak sent out a switch engine to meet us and remove us from the Coast Starlight and push us in to the Oakland Coach Yard, which would be the home of NYC-3 for the next three days.


Day 6-8 (April 2-4)

Since the point of this story is to talk about the railroad aspect of the trip, I won’t belabor the next three days as they involved mainly tourist things in San Francisco.  I will add a few points though.  We did a tour of Alcatraz.  We did the Night Tour, which I recommend.  It allows you to see a few places not available on the Day Tours.

The next day we took a ferry boat from San Francisco to Sausalito.  I highly recommend doing this.  We spent the majority of the rest of the day hanging out in Sausalito, then took a bus to the north approach of the Golden Gate Bridge, walked across the bridge and then actually ended up walking all the way back in to San Francisco.  This was a walk in excess of 6 miles but worth it in terms of scenery.

San Fran - Muni F-Line

Day 8 – One of the old cars running on the famous Muni “F” Line along the Embarcadero.

We did ride the Muni F-Line.  The streetcars look like they belong in a museum.  Very worthwhile.  And, finally, the Cable Cars.  We purchased three day Cable Car passes.  We rode the Cable Cars as much as we could but their utility is somewhat limited due to the crowds.  They are extremely popular.  There were times we simply could not get on because there was no room.  The worst offenders in terms of crowds were the Powell Hyde line followed by the Powell Mason line.  The California Line didn’t seem to be as crowded but there were not as many cars either so its utility as practical transportation was somewhat limited.  The Cable Car Museum is a must.  In the center is the gear works and cable system for the lines and it’s really neat.

San Fran - Cable Car Museum

Day 7 – In the Cable Car Museum which features the working cables for the modern day system in San Francisco.

San Fran - Turning Cable Car

Day 8 – One of the Cable Cars turning at the end of the line at Powell.

We rode BART several times to get down to the Mission District.  It is old and worn and not especially pleasant but its practical transportation.  My brother compared it very unfavorably to New York City’s subway.

About 10 PM, Monday, April 4, following some grocery shopping for the next four days, we went back out to Oakland Coach Yard to board NYC-3 for a next morning departure for Chicago.

Part 3 of 3 — California Zephyr to Chicago


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