New York to LA by train

Sophia Cheng / 17 min read / Digital Nomad Days
25 March 2016
Long read: An Amtrak journey across the States

Ever since I travelled from Denver to New York by train and Greyhound back in 2009 I knew I wanted to come back and complete the journey fully: no cheating and keeping my feet more firmly on the ground. That opportunity has materialised itself 7 years later. 

What follows is a collection of journal entries & flow of consciousness throughout the trip in chronological order, broken up by stop. I’ve thrown in links to interesting places we visited along the way and there’s more practical information at the end for those looking to do something similar. O and a Spotify playlist!

Some logistics ahead of time

There are a few different routes you can take to get to the west coast on Amtrak; the fastest is via Chicago and onto San Francisco via the Californian Zephyr through Denver. The second is to LA through Kansas City and Santa Fe. If you want to incorporate the south then you need to take a more extended route. From New York south on the Number 9 Crescent train to New Orleans and from there west on the Sunset Limited to LA. The bedrooms are slim pickings on the Amtrak trains and come with a heavy price tag, so with time on our side we decided to take a more relaxed approach to the journey taking 12 days stopping at Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston and Tucson on route. Our longest leg is 27 hours, all in standard coach seats.

Sneak preview – 1 second everyday

Heading South

First leg: New York to Atlanta

  • 18 hours / $118 coach seat / leaves daily at 2:15pm

I stocked up on a hearty brunch before heading to Penn Station which put me in good stead for the 18 hour journey to Atlanta. The glamour of Manhattan fades quickly and you get a sense of just how industrial the east coast is. There’s a rhythmic pattern repeated, buildings creep higher reaching a crescendo with the downtown skyscraper skylines before falling away again and completing the cycle all over again with Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. By the time you leave Capitol Hill it’s dark and you settle into your seats and put your camera away.

I am easily lulled to sleep by the train’s motion, with plenty of width and legroom not to mention reclining back and leg rest it’s easy to get comfortable. It’s not a superfast train and the stops are frequent. I probably woke up hourly, adopted a new position and drifted off again. Around 6am I woke up and realising dawn was starting to break decided it was the right moment to play stirring country music noting how relevant country music’s obsession with transportation is at this particular moment!

“Nothing can kill your blues like a thousand miles. It doesn’t matter where it’s going, I’m just here to ride the train.” Tasmanian bluegrass band, Mountain Heart​

I also felt the urge to put pen to paper in my Moleskine and reflect on the miles covered. Dawn was beautiful and it was clear the landscape had transformed overnight, gone was much of the urban wasteland replaced instead by rolling hills and green trees. Shafts of light through the trees hit my page like strobe lighting. Wider streets, more space, less brick. Trailer parks and plantation Greek revival architecture. At 8.30am we pulled into Atlanta.

First stop:Atlanta

  • 1 day / Hotel – limited reasonable options in Atlanta – $171

Goodbye winter, hello Georgia!

Disheveled but too early to check in we hiked it across town to The Flying Biscuit, a passing tip from Vincent who we met on the bus. Soul music busking accompanied our wait to this popular Sunday breakfast joint and I was reminded why I don’t like grits. The rest of the food and the coffee was great!

Atlanta is not only home to Coca Cola but also Martin Luther King and a trip to the Center for Civil and Human Rights is well worth it. My rusty A-level history started to return but their interactive diner sit-in experience will be something that never leaves me. Hearing the 360 degree verbal threats while you keep you’re hands on the bar was a very powerful experience. This is not a museum looking back but the center also provides a platform to explore the wider Human Rights issues including how our over-consumption leads to human rights abuses in the food and products we take for granted. I was proud to be a Fairphone owner at that moment.

We squeezed in a trip to the Aquarium to satisfy our childish needs, steering clear of the dolphin show and also learned about the local wildlife in America’s south swamp lands. An upgrade in a generic hotel added to a good night’s sleep before another early start.

Second leg: Atlanta to New Orleans

  • 12 hours / $62 coach seat / leaves daily at 8:38am

The Crescent moved slowly to start with. We passed rivers, trees, small towns and plenty of countryside on what was a beautiful sunny day. Treating ourselves to lunch in the restaurant cart to an oversized green salad and a refreshing iced tea. The decor is very 80s. The train stopped as we waited for a long freight train to pass us. The first of many such occasions. Deeper south we passed old cars and buildings that had seen better days, pick up trucks and trailer parks. Good intentions for working fell by the wayside as soaked up the scenery and drifted off to sleep. By nightfall we were in New Orleans.

Second stop: New Orleans

  • 5 nights / plenty of options here, hotels, guesthouses and Airbnbs, we went with the latter, quite expensive we thought – $560

It felt good to settle in some place for a few days and we stayed in Bywater area, a short cycle ride away from the French Quarter. The first thing you notice is the change in humidity. And the heat. My new pixie haircut struggled with the transition. My feet adopted a slow-paced shuffle.

We explored the city at a leisurely pace, taking time in the morning to catch up on life admin and some work emails. St Coffee on St Claude was a regular pitstop. Lee essentially was our tour advisor, we’d debate what to do each day in his company over a cup of coffee and an absurdly large apple fritter. We ate po’boys at the french market, tried praline, had beignets with our coffee in the city park, cycled up to the Mississippi, waited in line for 90 minutes to get into Preservation Hall (well worth it, a bucket list experience; it’s like Wilton’s Music Hall in miniature), stopped frequently to listen to the excellent busking bands, avoided Bourbon St as we weren’t looking to lose our virginity or put up with the cacophony of competing sounds, we got comfortable on Frenchman St, danced to jazz in The Spotted Cat, listened to bluegrass a few doors down, lunched on Magazine St and avoided buying anything, ate gumbo, walked around the Garden District, took in the plantation architecture, got pissed on one hurricane at the dimly lit Blacksmith’s Bar and experienced a taste of Mardi Gras with beads being hurled at us for the pre St Patricks Day parade.

Nearly everyone we met in NOLA was very friendly. At the Flora Gallery Coffee Shop, we offered relationship advice to two guys reversing out of a parking space, he told us to find him on Instagram. That was a first for me! Waiting in line at Preservation Hall discussing the merits or not of Trump, debating where folks would emigrate to if he gets in. Learnt about the political system from one Uber driver and the vegetarian carnage expected during the Irish parade. They hurl potatoes, cabbages and carrots – our driver said he collects the veg and makes a mighty fine stew out of it!

By Thursday a storm was threatening, you could feel it in the air. Humidity at 100% and whipping warm wind. The sky was grey with an electric quality in the air. They pylons were buzzing too. There was a sense of foreboding. Sat by the Mississippi we tried to learn more about Hurricane Katrina; 80% of the city was flooded, over a 1000 people died.

“City’s moving like a ghost town, there’s a storm moving in, he’s heading back from somewhere he never should have been. And the thunder rolls and the thunder rolls.”
Garth Brooks

The storm broke in the early hours of Friday morning, heavy rain, deafening thunder and lighting that turned the sky a dark blue. Our trip to Whitney plantation was cancelled, schools and universities were closed. Quick reactions in a city that has not fully recovered. Looking at the trends in climate change, category 5 hurricanes will become more frequent. Much of Louisiana is below or at sea level. By Saturday morning we were itching to head west.

Heading West

Third leg: New Orleans to Houston

  • 8 hours / $43 coach seat / leaves 3x a week at 9am

Early Saturday we boarded the number 1 Sunset Limited to Houston. This is one of the oldest train routes in the USA. Older in design and style, the Sunset Limited is nearly as comfortable as the Crescent. It’s selling point is the observation deck carriage with high windows and plenty of light.

We passed swamp and bayou land. Lush greens, new trees breaking the waters surface and eerily creeping skyward. It seemed hostile and uninviting. You can spot old decaying boats and old lookout posts dotted across the landscape. We went past more trailer parks, some shabbier than others. It seems like there is quite a lot of poverty in the area. Sometimes rusty trailers but fancy cars. We passed a dilapidated church, my mind jumped to True Detective and gave me the hebbie jeebies. Flooding from the earlier storm has been extensive and the air is still humid. Cars driving along spray water from their tyres, dark ominous clouds, brown rivers that have burst their banks. Flat expanses of soggy fields. The train pulled into Houston an hour early, the most underwhelming of train stations. We weren’t sure we’d arrived since the place but sure enough there was a small Amtrak building.

Third stop: Houston

  • 2 days / Airbnb – $150

We received a warm welcome from our Airbnb hosts and stayed just off Washington Ave. We didn’t venture out, ordered pizza and watched When the Levees Broke, realising how ignorant we were when Katrina struck and the aftermath. Meeting a friend of a friend, Lorenzo, the next morning meant we had our own personal guide and driver in Houston – which was helpful because the city is so vast and spread out you need your own transport or lots of Uber coupons. We had tex-mex, actual tex-mex, not the kind that you find in a Sainsburys prepacked wrap. This thought tickled me no end. An unassuming place with great food, hot salsa and coffee laced with cinnamon.

We visited the Rothko Chapel (more on Rothko here) before heading to the Johnson Space Center. We saw space shuttles, the old gemini rockets, astronaut clothing, the different space programmes, the ISS and a little about the Orion mission to Mars. Scott Kelly who has just spent a year in space came back 4″ taller! We went on a tour to see the old mission control used from the 1960s – 90s, sat in the VIP viewing seats. Jamie had sat in the Queen’s chair (he’s not a royalist). The only computer in the building at the time of the Apollo missions was one on the ground floor, taking up the entire space and no more powerful than a pocket calculator. We had to keep our voice down as ISS mission control was below. That night we watched The Martian.

“Houston, we have a problem.”
Jim Lovell/Tom Hanks, Apollo 13

The following day we cycled down Buffalo Bayou, a newly renovated park between two main roads. It was good to stretch the legs but boy was it hot. We luckily found a great restaurant, The Kitchen, and enjoyed a cracking breakfast. We racked up 15km and made it to Memorial Park (where cars are still prioritised over pedestrians) before relenting in the sun. There’s a lot of Houston we didn’t see. Downtown, Midtown, the museums, Chinatown. We weren’t expecting much in Houston but really enjoyed ourselves.

Fourth leg: Houston to Tucson

  • 27 hours / $102 coach seat / leaves 3x a week at 6.55pm

This was the big one, an epic journey. We’re still not sure exactly how long because of the various time zones and learning that Arizona doesn’t do ‘summer time’.

The train was an hour late coming in so it was dark by the time we boarded. This leg has been the busiest we’ve seen it. In fact our carriage has been full most of the journey. As newly seasoned train goers we bought plenty of snacks to keep us going, filling 2 water bottles to avoid the over chlorinated drinking water on board.

A restless night ensued, Jamie and I have worked out a number of sleeping arrangement combinations and we move through them during the night. Awake at 4am I turned to my old favourite, Tracy Chapman to lull me back to sleep. Hidden under blankets from Peru and Indonesia my mind drifts in and out of consciousness, over sleeping led to some crazy dreams.

When the sun started to rise behind us I felt my energy levels creep up again. And boy had the landscape changed. Flat, brown, yellow, barren. Spurred on by daylight I sat in the observation deck absorbed by rousing tunes that put me in great spirits. My oolong tea from Malaysia is in London underground themed Tuppaware and has been quite a conversation starter on a number of occasions. I started talking to an older couple sat next to me. They were Amtrak veterans, they’ve been on pretty much every route available except for the Crescent line. We exchanged train travel stories and they’ve given me some great ideas for future trips across North America.

I took the opportunity to jump off the train when we stopped at Alpine, Texas. It’s a much dryer heat out here. We’d been on the road for 13 hours and we we’re still in the same state! Houses were few and far between and you could spot the odd ranch. Out here, ranches often exceed 200 000 acres. I saw two deer slip past us from the windows and birds of prey soaring high above.

During lunch in the dining cart we met our first Trump supporter. ‘He’ll tackle all those humans coming in.’ When asked about whether he’d be able to fix any of the other problems in America the response was, ‘What other problems?’ We tussled with staying open minded and stuck with asking questions like how congress works, ‘so even if a lunatic did become president the balance of powers mean we couldn’t turn into a dictatorship’. Thank goodness, now I can sleep safely.

Our new Trump friend decided to sit in front of us and pointed out ‘the wall’ as we passed through El Paso. Police cars lined the patrol and the train station is heavily watched should daring ones jump on a freight train into the interior. Cuidad Juarez on the other side of the border is 4x the size of its American counterpart, El Paso.

The train has drifted away from the Mexican boarder and we’re following freeways West. We’ve been on the train for 23 hours and I think we’ve only just hit Arizona. The Florida mountains were beautiful and you can tell we’re entering wild west territory. Horses, cows, cacti, and canyons. Wooden fronted buildings, freight trains and pecan plantations. Everything is really spread out here. We’ve also crossed the continental divide, from here all the rivers flow West out to the Pacific. It’s mining territory too here and originally chirichua apache. We’re trying to race the sun as it sinks lower in the sky to the west ahead of us.

After an hour delay we finally made it to Tucson.

Fourth stop: Tucson

  • 2 days / Airbnb – $140

Another warm Airbnb welcome added to a beautiful stay in Tucson. We adopted the laid back desert vibe of the city very quickly. We explored the city on bikes, walking down 4th Avenue stopping in at bookshops and thrift stores, we heard Native American drumming at a community centre. There’s a real hippy vibe to the place. There’s been a spat of recent investment which is bringing more people and new brands. We spent the next day with our hosts and fellow guests watching the chickens, cats, rabbits and tortoises in the garden. Feeling homely, worlds away from England.

We stopped for a pint at the beautiful station restaurant with Dylan, ex-marine corp and his friend. I was disappointed that our train was on time, sad to leave Tucson and wary of LA.

Fifth leg: Tucson to LA

  • 8 hours / $37 coach seat / leaves 3x a week at 7.35pm

There wasn’t much to see as we continued west at nightfall. Left with just our thoughts, I reflected back on the epic journey we had been on. How different the scenery changes how big this place is. How all the effort had gone into planning this trip and I didn’t really know what LA would have in store for us. The train pulled in over an hour early. 4 am, an ungodly hour. An underwhelming welcome into LA, I’m not sure I was expecting fanfare, I guess not that many people take the full route we have. Bleary eyed we made our way to the Metro to Culver City and onto Santa Monica. Our friend picked us up and took us straight to the beach at 7am. We stood, sand beneath our toes at our most westerly point looking out to sea. We had made it.

In Summary

  • 3372 miles
  • 4 stops
  • 73 hours on board over 12 days
  • 3 time zones crossed
  • $399 each for train tickets booked a month in advanced as mult-iticket option
  • $1021 on accommodation for 10 nights, 2 nights spent on the train

Tools for researching your trip

Resources / recommended viewing or watching to theme your trip

Any recommendations?

Tips for the train

  • pack the snacks, unlike Asian trains most stations are not selling any treats at the stops, the cafe cart has a limited selection. We did hear they were selling burritos at the El Paso stop though!
  • go back in time and treat yourself to a meal in the restaurant cart – don’t make the mistake we did, the restaurant cart is the one after the cafe cart!
  • get comfy, take loose clothing with you, pack socks. We’ve brought a blanket and a turtle-shaped pillow.
  • grab an eye mask if you can find one, the lights are fairly bright even during the night
  • bring tea – hot water is free so stock up on your teas and just top up
  • take your water bottle, there is a dispenser on every carriage. Unfortunately it is Amtrak’s policy to use only their single-use cups for hot beverages so your reusable cups are not welcome on this trip – we did see some relaxation of this as we headed west.
  • take a seat at the back of the carriage for overnight trains, passengers behind use your seat back to hoist themselves out of their seat definitely interrupts your sleep
  • take ear plugs and headphones, people drift off to sleep at different times and with mobile signal being readily available you’re likely to overhear lots of people telling their loved ones that they’re ‘on the train’ again and again.

And of course music. Different cities, different landscapes called for different music. Hiphop in Atlanta, jazz in New Orleans, country songs about trains and more! I pulled together a Spotify playlist here: 

Avatar photo Sophia Cheng With a decade of communications experience across the for profit and nonprofit sectors, agency and in-house, Sophia has made a habit of making ‘the hard stuff’ more accessible. Since 2018, she has reorientated her life around the climate crisis. She has forged her decade of communications experience into offering workshops, mentoring, blogging, and more, on the biggest issues of our time. View all posts
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