The distance between La Jolla and Orange County is about an hour that can be a traffic nightmare depending on the time of day and whether or not it’s beach weather. I was invited to participate in an Instagram promotion by Amtrak using the hashtag #Amtrakgram so decided our journey would start in Solana Beach (near where I drop my dog off for camp) and end in San Juan Capistrano, just an hour away.

Why San Juan Capistrano?

Within a short walk is quite a bit to do in just a few hours’ time and plenty of quaint cafes to grab a bit to eat. Simply put—it’s just a peaceful area, especially on a weekday. Things to do in San Juan Capistrano include:

Zoomars: It’s a petting zoo that takes animal bonding to an entirely new level. It’s clean, the animals are under vet supervision and you buy baskets of vegetables to feed llamas, rabbits, guinea pigs, and goats. There are pigs and ponies too, but they are not to be fed. Even I enjoy it.

Train from san diego to orange county

Cute cafes within steps of the train station: The WiFi obsessed can walk a few minutes to a Starbucks while others can dine on casual eats al fresco. There’s a Ruby’s Diner on the next block, the Hummingbird Cafe has good sandwiches and there are other choices in the charming Los Rios district—the oldest neighborhood in California.

Trinket shopping:  It goes without saying that there are random souvenir shops all over the place and even inside the mission.

Mission San Juan Capistrano: Go for the gorgeous gardens and a little bit of history. Adult admission is $9 and includes a free audio tour. An hour or two at most is all you need. It’s right around the corner from the train station and maybe 3 minutes by foot.

Train from oc to san diego

Beaches: You’d need to take a taxi, but Dana Point is about 10-15 minutes away for whale watching and more. Try Monarch Beach Resort if you’re looking for a hotel.

A One-Day Itinerary With Kids

From San Diego, take a train (schedules vary by the day a little) to arrive San Juan Capistrano at 10 a.m. Walk to Zoomars and feed the animals for an hour or so. Walk through the Los Rios district (it’s only a few blocks long) and then have lunch at a cafe. Recharge and spend an hour at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Browse a few shops on your way back to the train station. This really could all be done in time for you to catch a 2 p.m. train home without feeling rushed.

Why Amtrak?

The train ride could not be easier with free WiFi and seats that are far more spacious than any airplane and most cars. From Solana Beach, it takes about 55 minutes to arrive in San Juan Capistrano.

Train from orange county to san diego

We normally sit in business class on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner (seen above). It’s my automatic default. If traveling through Los Angeles, you even get a little bottle of wine and snacks, though there is always coffee, apple juice and muffins up for grabs. It’s usually quieter, too. While the legroom, WiFi and plugs in coach class are the same, I prefer to upgrade on long journeys. The cost of a coach class ticket to San Juan Capistrano for one adult and one child is $25.50 in total (each way), with an extra $10 per person each way for business class.

The Train Is Easier Than Driving

There’s no traffic, no need to focus, and this:

San Diego to orange county

My advice is to sit on the coastal side of the train for truly scenic ocean views. People on the beach still wave to the train as it passes by, which I also loved to do as a kid. The journey between San Diego and Orange County is incredibly pretty and the train is just a much easier way to go provided you don’t need too much transportation once you arrive in OC.

Disclaimer: Long story short, because I chose my journey last-minute our tickets weren’t ready for pick-up at the station. I bought our outgoing journey on the way up and Amtrak provided me a ticket home though they meant to supply tickets both ways! My bad.

Love San Diego? Check out the Top Things to do in Downtown San Diego!

A day trip up to Orange County from San Diego on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner is way easier than driving.

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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  1. We were just talking about things to do with the kids. This is totally manageable! Love it. Thanks, Katie.

    1. Your boys would love Zoomars! Every time I take the train to OC, I wonder why I don’t do it more often. You just don’t have the knotted shoulders you get when driving, even just for an hour each way. Plus, you can work on the train!

  2. We did this exact trip one day last year. The kids absolutely loved it, especially our little train lover. The sandwiches really are good at the Hummingbird Cafe and the hummingbirds flying about by the feeders are beautiful. The kids loved Zoomars too. We went on a day when there was a market and people dressed in period costumes, it was such a great day trip. It’s so handy having everything right there as soon as you step off the train.