Photographing the steam train that is scheduled to arrive in San Diego from Los Angeles on Sunday, September 21st, 2008 is going to involve a lot of waiting, followed by about 30 seconds of frantic shutter clicking. So, it’s important to be waiting in the right place.
Yesterday, I visited some potential locations. My ideal photo would be one with the train in the foreground, the ocean in the background, and maybe a palm tree or two. I want to create a photo that says “San Diego” or, at least, “Southern California.” Failing this, I would also consider a good action photo of the train crossing a trestle or some interesting geography. I’m probably going to be photographing the train as it heads into town around noon rather than on it’s way out in the evening, so I was looking for the best light at that time of day.
With these types of photos in mind, I spent about four hours-and 4 gallons of gas-checking out these locations:
- Soledad Lagoon
- North Beach Parking Lot
- Bluffs overlooking Torrey Pines
- Seagrove Park
- Solana Beach Depot
- San Elijo Lagoon
- Batiquitos Lagoon
The snapshots shown here are not meant to be portfolio-quality, but only to show you an overview of the locations. These were all taken with a Nikon 18-70mm lens on a Nikon D300 with a 1.6x crop factor. In most of the locations, a longer lens would be a better choice for the actual steam train photos.
Soledad Lagoon is located near Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego. I parked on the west side of Carmel Valley Road near Via Aprila where there was plenty of free parking even on a Sunday morning. To the west was the lagoon and, to the east right across the street, is a Roberto’s Taco Shop.
From this location, you can set up on the dirt shoulder along the road and photograph the train as it crosses a wooden trestle bridge over the lagoon. For your background, you’ll see mostly empty sky and the tops of RV’s and trailers parked along the distant beach. If you catch the train on the trestle, it should block the RV’s.
You could walk down the 10-foot embankment to get level with the water. From this angle, the tops of the RV’s won’t be visible, but you will see some of them through the trestle. You’ll also be standing in a spot that’s marked “Area Closed.” Another sign a few feet away mentions that “Violators will be cited.” The entire lagoon is off-limits. So, I’m not sure it would be worth the risk.
The light at this spot would be good in the morning. The included photo was created at 11:42 a.m. This location would be good for those who don’t have a long telephoto lens, since the vegetation and water make a nice foreground.
The parking lot for the North Beach section of Torrey Pines State Beach is about a block from the Soledad Lagoon location, so it’s an easy walk and will save you from paying $8 for parking.
On the way into the lot, before you get to the toll booth, look to the north and you’ll see the arches of the Torrey Pines Bridge. With a long lens, you may be able to make an interesting photo of the train coming under the bridge.
From the North Beach parking lot, you’ll be able to shoot the train as it passes overhead on the tracks which rest on top of a 20-foot high embankment. If the
train comes through around noon, the light from this angle should be pretty good. With the right lens, you’ll get nothing but train and sky and, maybe, a bit of gravel. The houses off in the distance will be blocked by the train.
On the south side of the lot, you can photograph the trestle bridge. This would probably be a better location to photograph the train on the return trip since the light will be better and the train would be coming at you instead of moving away. With a long lens using a wide aperture, you can blur out the clutter in the background. The lot is open until 7 p.m., but I think this only applies to cars. It doesn’t look like they have any way of keeping pedestrians out.
Torrey Pines Bluffs
Less than a mile away, where Carmel Valley Road intersects with Torrey Pines Road, are the bluffs overlooking Torrey Pines State Beach. It costs $1.50 per hour to park here-even on Sundays-but this means that there is usually space available.
From this location, you’ll be photographing the train some 50-feet below you. To the south, the background includes the Torrey Pines Bridge and beaches, but the lighting is difficult if you want to include the bridge in your picture. It is shaded on this side while the tracks are much more brightly lit.
A better photo might be to the west and northwest. Where you can get a bit of the bluffs and the ocean in your frame. Or hike down to the tracks and position yourself along the wide dirt trail right next to the tracks with the bluffs as you background. This is a popular trail, so you may get some joggers in your picture as well.
Seagrove Park in Del Mar is located at the west end of 15th street, not far from the Del Mar Library. The first thing you’ll notice about this park is that it’s nearly impossible to find a parking place. There is free street parking all around, but on Sunday afternoon every space was taken. The only space I could find was in front of the post office where several 20-minute-limit spaces were available. This was just enough time to explore the area. To photograph the train here, though, you’ll need to arrive very early to stake out a spot.
The park offers a lot of photographic possibilities. Standing on the low bluffs, you can look down on the tracks which are, in places, no more than 20-feet away and about 10-feet below. The ocean makes a nice backdrop here.
A bit farther north along Coast Blvd., the track crosses the street near the Del Mar Surf station, a two-story brick Amtrak depot. Standing near the crossing and pointing your camera north towards the station might result in a nice “citified” photograph.
You can also walk down to the tracks and stand on the wide dirt path. Facing north, you should be able to photograph the train as it moves along the gentle curve of the tracks and get the bluffs and a bit of distant ocean in the background. I think this is private railroad property-there are signs to that effect on the other side of the tracks-but I saw plenty of people walking there. You can either walk down a short and steep trail from the bluff or enter from the railroad street crossing where the path is flat and level.
San Elijo Lagoon
San Elijo Lagoon is located in Cardiff by the Sea near the intersection of Manchester Avenue and San Elijo Drive. On the north side of the lagoon’s so-called “West Basin,” there is short nature trail. Because the visitor’s center is under construction, there is very little parking here. You’ll have to park on the dirt shoulder of the road a bit east of the visitor’s center along Manchester and hike back a quarter-mile or so.
Just behind the visitor’s center site, there is a viewing deck overlooking the lagoon with a trestle railroad bridge to the distant west. Behind the bridge is a large, ugly concrete office building. Fortunately, the building is low enough that a train passing by blocks the building completely. From here, you can either photograph with a wide angle lens to get the water of the lagoon in the foreground, or use a long lens to get a nice side-view of the train with some palm trees in the background.
A couple of locations that I scouted turned out not to be as good as I had envisioned.
The Solana Beach Amtrak Depot is a beautiful building where the tracks pass under three bridges. Unfortunately, the bridges are all constructed with tall mesh screens that have openings too small to fit a camera lens through. So, you’d be shooting through the mesh: not a good choice. You could walk down to the tracks, but I believe only ticketed passengers are supposed to be down there. The walls of the sunken undercrossing would make a clean but uninteresting background.
On google maps, it looks like there is a spot at Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad where you’d be able to see a trestle bridge to the west. I walked over a mile along the lagoon train and never saw it. It was the last location I scouted, so maybe if I’d gone farther I would have found it, but I was losing steam at this point and decided to turn back.
I hope this helps you figure out where to go, or not to go, for your 30-second chance at a steam-train photograph on September 21st. I’ll be at one of these locations, but I’m still debating which one. Maybe I’ll see you there. Let me know how you do by leaving a comment below. Have fun.