LA is known for a lot of things: Sunny weather. Towering palm trees. Hollywood.

And freeways.

Consequently, driving out of town for a SoCal staycation—the whole, 10-to-the-110-to-the-405 thing— is sometimes more hassle than it’s worth. Especially when you’ve got littles strapped in for the ride.

Enter Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. A 351-mile train service that runs between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, this coast-hugging train is for travelers who love a scenic road trip but don’t want to deal with the actual road. It’s basically Pacific Coast Highway, without the harrowing drive.

The 29 stations on its route include stops in Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties. At times, the double-decker train gets so close to the ocean that you’ll feel like the waves are going to crash right under its wheels. When it veers inland, it cuts through rolling hills, green-shrubbed valleys, and dense urban landscapes.

A.A. Milne once wrote, “Nowhere can I think so happily as in a train.” Wise words, especially when the alternative is battling packed freeways and deep-breathing your way through tiny wars waged from the back seat (my battle; not A.A. Milne’s). 

I guess that’s how I ended up on the 2-hour and 15-minute Amtrak ride from Anaheim to San Diego on a recent Sunday. Because the San Diego Zoo has been on my family’s bucket list. But the drive to San Diego? Not so much.

Ready to hop aboard? We’ve got the full scoop on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and where it can take you from LA.

The Experience

It was about an hour into our train ride (in kid time, that’s two games of Jenga, four pages of mazes, two snacks, and a round of Elementary-aged Truth or Dare) when the ocean first made its appearance.

The train was chugging and swaying in that lazy way that trains do. We had been rolling past the hills of Irvine and San Juan Capistrano when we rounded a corner and saw the first glisten. The kids—mine ages 9 and 12, with a 9-year-old BFF in tow—turned their faces to the windows and made audible “Ooohs” as they stared at the spectacle: The surfers riding in the waves; the people on the sand; the ocean lapping toward the shore.

Their games stopped. For a quick and glorious moment, the view was enough for them. After all, they may be born-and-raised California kids, but seeing the coastline from the second floor of a train was still something new.

It should be noted that the Pacific Surfliner was named one of the most scenic train rides by Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, and USA Today. But besides being, at times, jaw-droppingly beautiful—it passes by some of Southern California’s most picturesque coastlines—being on the train is also a natural excuse to slow down and just…be…together.

Sure, you can give your kids an iPad and let them use Amtrak’s free wifi (no judgment!), or you can take advantage of “train time.” Time to talk, play games, and let your kids find creative ways to keep themselves busy (my minis had a bonafide runway show down the aisles and no one seemed to mind).


Compared to plane travel, Amtrak seats are cavernously large (they’ve got about a foot more in legroom than most airplane seats). All seats recline and have folding trays, and some seats are arranged as four-tops—perfect for families.

Business class, which costs around $20-30 more each way, gets you seats that are even more expansive and include a pull-down footrest. It also includes unlimited free snacks and drinks—pastries, juice, and coffee in the morning; packaged snack packs and sodas/wine in the afternoon and evening.

Note: Business class isn’t a far jump from coach, but the free snacks definitely felt like a perk for our brood. Also, sitting in BC means more privacy, since it’s the last car on the train and therefore free from people crossing through to get to the cafe.

No matter where you’re sitting, be sure to check out the Cafe Car. Kids will love the adventure of walking through moving train cars (it’s kind of like teetering across those wobbling wooden playground bridges), and the cafe is fully stocked with sandwiches, snacks, and sweets. That, and there’s wine and beer.

By the way, YAY for the fact that kids can actually get up and move while you’re on the train, which beats them being strapped into car seats.

Notable Pacific Surfliner Stops

Whether you want to take your animal lovers to the San Diego Zoo or catch a boat to the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura, here are a few Pacific Surfliner stops worth checking out:

San Diego [About 3 hours by train from DTLA]
Best known for: Sprawling beaches, historic heritage sites, Sea World, the USS Midway Museum, and the San Diego Zoo.
Good to know: There are two stops in San Diego: Old Town, named for the preserved 19th-century buildings marking the oldest neighborhood in San Diego; and Santa Fe Depot, which is located in the middle of the city’s downtown. Both stops are about 15 minutes from the San Diego Zoo (a quick Uber ride!); meanwhile, Old Town is where you’ll want to stop if you’re headed to Sea World (there’s a bus just across the street that’ll take you there for $2.50).

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

Solana Beach [About 2 hrs, 15 mins by train from DTLA]
Best known for: The Del Mar racetrack, one of the premier thoroughbred horse racetracks in the U.S. (and, according to this Tinybeans article, super-fun for the kids, too!)
Good to know: Check the Del Mar Calendar for special events, and keep its “Family Fun Day” on your radar. The day includes activities for kids including rock climbing, trampolines, and pony rides (and is free with regular admission!).

Blake Bronstad/Courtesy Visit Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara [About 3 hrs by train from DTLA]
Best known for: Stearns Wharf (great place to catch a boat ride); MOXI: The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation; and the Santa Barbara Zoo.
Good to know: Bring your walking shoes! The train station is within walking distance from most of Santa Barbara’s best-known attractions (even the zoo is a 35-minute walk or a quick bus or taxi/Uber ride).

Related: The Easiest Car-Free Vacation? Santa Barbara

Ventura [About 2 hrs, 10 minutes by train from DTLA]
Best known for: World-famous surfing beaches, a bustling oceanfront promenade, and the Ventura County Fairgrounds, all of which are steps from the Amtrak station.
Good to know: Got sea legs? Ventura is also where you can catch a boat to the Channel Islands.

Related: Los Angeles’ Closest Island Getaway

San Luis Obispo [about 5 ½ hours by train from DTLA]
Best known for: Vineyards, hiking/biking, San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum, Bubblegum Alley (a 70-foot alley that’s lined with used chewing gum!)
Good to know: Visit the popular Rocket Fizz candy store to grab your gum and make your own chewed-up mark on Bubble Gum Alley’s famous walls!

Where to Catch the Pacific Surfliner from LA:

Union Station

Los Angeles has four Amtrak stations, including the historic Union Station in DTLA as well as stops in Glendale, Burbank, and Van Nuys. There’s also a station in Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Irvine, which may be closer for South Bay LA residents.

To find out more about the Pacific Surfliner, go to Tickets range in price from $30 to $130 each way, depending on the route and class. 

Photos by Melissa Heckscher except where indicated.

Editor’s note: This trip was paid for by Amtrak but the opinions expressed here are those of the writer.

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