West Coast Train Travel

When we planned our trip to North America we wanted to minimise our plane travel between destinations to allow us to see as much of the country as we could. As part of this we planned to travel from Vancouver to San Francisco by train, with stop-overs along the way to break up the otherwise very long journey.

The Amtrak Cascades leaves Vancouver for Seattle (and beyond) either very early in the morning or in the early evening. We opted for the early morning as the trip along that part of the coast is reputed to be quite spectacular. Unfortunately, we remain in total ignorance, as, despite arriving  promptly, we never made the journey. Amtrak maintained their reputation for unreliability and cancelled our train because the engine had a flat battery. We spent several hours in the cold early morning  twiddling our thumbs before eventually being loaded on to coaches for our shortened  trip to Seattle via the extremely boring main highway -with not a coast within cooee.

DSCN4412After three days exploring Seattle we boarded the Coast Starlight for the next leg of the journey southwards.  We spent a lovely day on the train in the sightseer lounge car listening to the National Parks “Trails and Rails” volunteers who provided interesting anecdotes on the natural and cultural history of the areas we travelled through.

Our next stop over was to be an overnighter in Klamath Falls to break up the night time train ride. We were due in around 9pm but Amtrak struck again and a faulty engine meant we didn’t arrive until midnight – not a problem for the motel though as they appeared used to the vagaries of the train service. Upon waking the next day we cancelled our intended walking tour of the area as the skies had opened up during the night and looked like remaining that way for the next week. Klamath Falls in hindsight was a mistake for a very wet overnighter.

Back to the station the next night at 9pm for an overnight trip to Sacramento, California’s capital – surprisingly this time the train was on time. We opted for the less expensive seat option as the cost of a sleeper (bed only – no bathroom) was ridiculous. However, this wasn’t really a problem as the seats had plenty of legroom and reclined like a first class airline seat. I managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep before we arrived in Sacramento in the early morning – earlier than expected.

We speDSCN4471nt two days in Sacramento then off on our fairly short last leg of the journey to San Francisco.  This part of the trip involved a short, two hour train ride to Emeryville, on the Oakland side of the Bay, then a coach trip in to San Francisco, across the Bay Bridge.

Despite the delays and unbelievable, unreliability of the Amtrak service we really enjoyed the time we spent on the trains. The trains were comfortable, the trip was interesting and after all, we were hardly in a hurry. Disappointing though that we didn’t  get to do the Cascades coastal trip and despite receiving a compensatory voucher from Amtrak it will always be something we missed. Still there is always next time.



Vancouver was my first Canadian city and still my favourite. After our first few months in the USA it was nice to take a break from the intensity and craziness, that I was rapidly associating with the States. I find Canadians, particularly on the west coast, much more chilled in their outlook on life. As we found in Vancouver, they also understand the cafe culture much better than their southern neighbours; a welcome break from bland coffee in soulless coffee chains.

DSCN3511As the city of Vancouver is built on a small peninsular,  there is easy access  to large areas of attractive and vibrant waterfront.   At the northern tip is Stanley Park, which has many interesting walking tracks and also houses attractions such as the Aquarium. We spent some time, over a number of days, walking though the park and around the perimeter. We also enjoyed taking the small local ferries across False Creek to Granville Island and up the creek before wending our way back along the waterfront to the city centre.

DSCN3619Within the city itself we spent some time in the historic and cosmopolitan Gastown area, with leafy streets full of character and the old steam clock, which has chimes that mimic Big Ben’s.  Here we also found one of our favourite coffee shops, Smart Mouth, on Water Street, which lured us back several times. We also spent a day enjoying nearby Chinatown and the wonderful Chinese Gardens.

Outside Vancouver we spent a few days on Vancouver Island, which, for us, was slightly disappointing as, although we drove through some really delightful scenery, the concept of rest areas or somewhere to pull over and admire the scenery was just about non-existent. In common with the USA, there does not seem to be a focus on destination rather than journey, which was disappointing but it didn’t diminish the beauty of the area.  We also spent a bit of time in the mountains to the north of Vancouver. The drive to Whistler in particular was breathtakingly stunning, with craggy mountains dropping steeply into deep blue waterways.

We really enjoyed our month in Vancouver. It is a lovely city – one of my North American favourites. I would love to go back not only to explore more of the surrounding wilderness but also to wander it’s city streets and waterfront again.DSCN3893