California coast dreamin’
Campers prepare for fun in the sun at Jalama Beach, Calif., as a southbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner passes on a steel trestle in the distance. David Lustig

California Coast

California’s Central Coast offers incredible scenery to watch and photograph trains. One spot may not hold your interest for too long, but here’s a day trip trio that can easily fill out a full day: Santa Barbara, Gaviota Trestle, and Jalama Beach.

Santa Barbara is a city of almost 90,000 people about 100 miles from downtown Los Angeles. It is a favorite tourist destination with myriad restaurants, museums, and hotels. The family can walk along the Pacific Ocean, and the beautiful Mission Revival-style Amtrak station is only a few blocks inland. With five daily round trips between Santa Barbara and LA, including the Coast Starlight, the Central Coast is an easy-to-reach, family-friendly railfan destination.

Gaviota Trestle is 30 miles and minutes “up the coast,” west of Santa Barbara, and is a great place to photograph trains, the beach, and the Pacific Ocean all at once. The location is also part of Gaviota State Park, which means a day-use fee is required. (For more on day-use fees, visit While your family is picnicking or chasing seagulls, you can walk out on the pier to catch a train. To get to Gaviota Trestle from Santa Barbara, follow U.S. 101 north to Gaviota Beach Road. From there, it’s a short drive to the coast.

Drive another 31 miles and nearly an hour farther, and you will find Jalama Beach, a spot usually missed by fans. After leaving Gaviota, U.S. 101 moves inland while the railroad hugs the coast line. Go only a few miles to State Route 1, known as Cabrillo Highway. A few miles before reaching Lompoc, a nice city to stock up on provisions or find a hotel, take Jalama Road on the left. If you’re not familiar with the area, take your time driving the 14 miles to the beach. While well-maintained, the road has frequent twists and curves. By the time you start wondering who tricked you into this beautiful, but seemingly endless drive, Jalama Beach will lie before you, and all doubts will soon disappear. Be sure to try a famous “Jalama Burger” when you visit. (Jalama Beach is a Santa Barbara County Park; click here for more on park fees.)
icon_railroad_45TRAIN WATCHING
While you should see Union Pacific freight trains, four in 24 hours, expect to see Amtrak more often. (UP also operates a branch line between Surf and Lompoc on some weekdays.) The famed ex-Southern Pacific Coast Line is rich with scenery, but can be sparse with train traffic. Amtrak’s daily Coast Starlight and a number of Pacific Surfliner departures polish the rails throughout the day. There are four daily Surfliner round trips that serve Santa Barbara; two of those continue north through Gaviota and Jalama Beach to San Luis Obispo.
tracksideicon_frequencyRAILROAD FREQUENCY
Union Pacific, 161.550.
tracksideicon_famFOR YOUR FAMILY
Santa Barbara is an attraction in its own right, with beaches, wineries, shopping areas, a zoo, an art museum, and the famous Old Mission Santa Barbara.
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