Avoid the traffic and take Amtrak from SF to Tahoe (2023)


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Avoid the traffic and take Amtrak from SF to Tahoe (14)

In planning a recent weekend trip to Tahoe, I realized I had a ride there but no ride back to the Bay Area, and I panicked.

Avoid the traffic and take Amtrak from SF to Tahoe (15)

San Fransisco to Tahoe

(Video) Lake Tahoe Travel Guide 2023: TOP Things To Do and Places To EAT!



I don’t own a car, so I’m no stranger to using the likes of Getaround and Gig Car Share for quick trips. But a bit of research into Tahoe rental car options yielded sky high prices and limited options.

Maybe I’d fly? But then, I thought, I’d have to rope my friend into driving me 45 minutes from King’s Beach to the airport in Reno. Plus, tickets weren’t cheap.

So I landed on another, less imposing, less costly option: I decided to take Amtrak from Truckee to Oakland’s Jack London Square. I pictured myself relaxing with a cup of tea and a book while picturesque mountain views zipped by. It all sounded very European. Yes, of course — I would take the train.

The price is right

If there’s one clear selling point for taking Amtrak between the Bay Area and Tahoe, it’s this: It’s pretty darn cheap — at least right now. One-way tickets are between $49 and $61, which is significantly more stomachable than the $200 or more I would have spent on a rental car or on an inconvenient flight from Reno to Oakland.

Eager to save a buck after an expensive, action-packed, post-vaccinesummer, the price made Amtrak a no-brainer.

The time commitment

Once you’ve decided to take Amtrak, you have two options:

The California Zephyr travels from Truckee to Emeryville in 6 hours and 33 minutes, though it’s reasonable to assume the exact time varies beyond what that to-the-minute time suggests.

The second option is what’s called a “mixed service,” which starts as a three-hour bus ride from Truckee to Sacramento, then transfers to the Capitol Corridor route, a commuter service with stops in Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland and more all the way to San Jose. To get to my Jack London Square destination, that train ride would take just over five hours, a not insignificant time savings.

For those traveling to San Francisco via Amtrak, there’s a connecting bus from the Emeryville station to the city, which adds another 30 to 45 minutes to your trip’s length.

(Video) Commute Challenge: Here's the fastest way from Bay Area to Lake Tahoe

While the Zephyr is known for being incredibly picturesque, I opted for the shorter, mixed service option. I was impatient to get home, it was $10 cheaper, and it would also drop me off right in Oakland instead of Emeryville.

The morning of my trip, I checked Google Maps to see how Amtrak compared to driving. At 8:30 a.m. on a Monday, Google estimated it would take 2 hours and 53 minutes, not including stops, to drive from Truckee to Oakland. My train journey would take nearly twice as long. Good thing I brought a book.

The journey begins

When I asked my friend to drive me from Kings Beach to the Truckee Amtrak station at 8 a.m., she groaned out loud. But that’s the thing about Amtrak — there’s not a lot of flexibility in what time you leave. My ride was at 8:25 a.m. sharp (or 9:30 a.m. if I opted for the Zephyr) or I was out of luck. There was only one train (or bus) daily.

At the station, there was only one other person who seemed to be waiting for the bus, a young woman close to my age who asked whether she was in the right place. The bus pulled up on time, the driver scanned the QR code ticket on my phone, and seconds after I found my seat, we were off. It was effortless.

The bus experience

I’ll admit it: I didn’t have high expectations for the bus portion of my journey. But my seat was comfy enough, the medium-full bus was completely quiet, the AC was just right, and catching a final glimpse of the peaceful tree-lined lake lulled me right to sleep, exhausted after a night of sharing a room with a snorer. The ability to catch up on sleep instead of white-knuckling it in interstate traffic for three hours — that’s one point for you, Amtrak.

When I woke up, we were in Colfax, where I was dismayed to learn we would stay for 25 entire minutes. But I used the lengthy stop to find a public restroom, allowing me to avoid whatever mysteries the on-bus bathroom held (I did not care to find out), and to scarf down a slice of leftover pizza I’d stashed in my backpack and to glug some orange juice I bought at a nearby liquor store.

At first, I thought it’d be nice to just wait outside for a bit and take a break from wearing a mask for five hours straight. (Amtrak passengers are required to wear a mask, although it was definitely not enforced on my bus — the bus driver himself wasn’t wearing one.) But it was so hot in the foothills I quickly retreated to the air-conditioned comfort of the bus.

Once we got back on the road, the stops started to feel tedious, the bus began to fill up, and strangers chatting with each other kept me from falling back asleep. I’d forgotten to pack headphones, but at least I could entertain myself by eavesdropping — the two passengers in front of me talked about the pros and cons of taking Amtrak; a woman behind me poured her heart out to a stranger about her plans to move across the country.

Avoid the traffic and take Amtrak from SF to Tahoe (16)

Train time

Pulling into the Sacramento Valley Station, I noticed the bus driver’s missing mask had magically appeared on his face. I had 20 minutes until my train was scheduled to leave, so I ordered a sandwich inside the beautiful, recently renovated station.

This was the part I was excited about, when my fantasy of relaxing serenely with a book while whizzing by train through a majestic landscape would finally come true.

And it did. This portion of my journey was only about an hour and a half long, and it zoomed right by. I had a whole table to myself on the top level of the double-decker train, the perfect vantage point to admire the views. I found a new appreciation for the Sacramento skyline as we glided over the Sacramento River, and took a break from reading to take in the water views over the Benicia-Martinez Bridge.

Everyone — passengers and train crew alike — were good about masking on the train, too.

In the cafe car, the menu was available via scanned QR code, with a decent selection of meals and snacks. I was glad, though, that I’d opted to buy a freshly made sandwich in Sacramento rather than taking my chances with a likely microwaved bean burrito. Instead, I ordered a tea and shuffled back to my seat.

The train had both electrical outlets and Wi-Fi (whereas the bus lacked Wi-Fi) and plenty of room to spread out. I could have worked if I’d been so inclined, but I settled into my book instead. In no time, we were in Oakland.

For the unhurried traveler, Amtrak is the way to go

Compared to the stressful trip on the way to Tahoe, when I drove with my friend and had to make an impromptu stop at the Honda of Davis, Amtrak was a breeze. I didn’t have to worry about traffic, car troubles, gas or keeping my eyes on the road. I could sleep and read and eat to my heart’s content.

(Video) Amtrak California Zephyr Mistakes

However, the traffic wasn’t particularly bad on the day of my trip, so driving would definitely have been faster (but considering how notoriously bad Tahoe traffic is these days, that’s certainly not always the case). That said, our drive up, which included the aforementioned Honda of Davis excursion and a stop at Ikeda’s in Auburn for fruit and marionberry pie, was only an hour shorter.

The bus transfer, while not awful, wasn’t especially pleasant, so next time, I might try the California Zephyr with its famously breathtaking views.

While public transportation in Truckee is not ideal, if you have a way of getting around once there, taking the scenic and leisurely Amtrak is worth the time. Just make sure to bring a book.

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Can you take Amtrak to Lake Tahoe? ›

Lake Tahoe does not have an Amtrak train station, but there are a few different options for combining a train trip with a car rental, rideshare service or bus in order to reach the lake.

Can you take a train from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe? ›

Trip Summary

There are 2 daily trains from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe. Traveling by train from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe usually takes around 5 hours and 31 minutes, but the fastest Amtrak train can make the trip in 5 hours and 20 minutes.

How do I get from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe without a car? ›

The only option is to take a Greyhound bus trip from San Francisco to Truckee, which is about a six-hour ride. Greyhound is an excellent, budget-friendly choice if you don't mind relying on public transportation to get around Lake Tahoe (which can be time-consuming and limits your flexibility).

What's the easiest way to get to Lake Tahoe? ›

Reno-Tahoe International Airport is the closest commercial airport (just a 45 minute drive) to North Lake Tahoe offering 23 non-stop flights serviced by 9 airlines, with convenient connections from virtually any city in the US and abroad.

What is the best month to go to Lake Tahoe? ›

The best times to visit Lake Tahoe are from March to May and from September to November, but the area welcomes visitors throughout the year thanks to the wide variety of attractions and activities.

How do I get to Tahoe without a car? ›

Greyhound, AMTRAK and Megabus also offer bus transit to Lake Tahoe from a number of cities. Surf Air is a membership-based airline that charges a monthly fee of $1,950 for unlimited flights to 12 California destination, including Truckee. Truckee-based Mountain Lion Aircraft also offers on-demand charter service.

How long is the train ride from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco? ›

Trip Summary

There is one daily train from South Lake Tahoe to San Francisco. Traveling by train from South Lake Tahoe to San Francisco usually takes around 6 hours, but the fastest Amtrak train can make the trip in 5 hours and 35 minutes.

How do I get from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe? ›

To reach it, drive east from San Francisco to Walnut Creek. From Walnut Creek, follow CA Highway 4 all the way to the lake, going through Concord, Antioch, and the Sacramento River Delta. Continue through Stockton, Angels Camp, and Murphys, then transfer to CA Highway 89 North through Markleeville.

How many days are enough for Lake Tahoe? ›

Lake Tahoe can be visited in 2 days if you are running out of time, or you can spend 4 days in Lake Tahoe, ideally. However, I will recommend spending at least 3 days in Lake Tahoe to enjoy the best of this place.

Do you need a car in South Lake Tahoe? ›

By car: If you're staying in South Lake Tahoe (or Stateline, which is what the town is called on the Nevada side,) you can probably get around without a car. There are plenty of taxis and ride shares, and many bars and restaurants are within walking distance of hotels.

Which is better South or North Lake Tahoe? ›

Overall, South Lake Tahoe is the ideal destination for those seeking vibrant nightlife and social scene, while North Lake Tahoe is better suited for families or travelers who want to have a relaxing getaway with some exciting activities nearby!

Is it safe to drive to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco? ›

The bulk of the drive is as safe any any other freeway driving in California. Once you get into the mountains, you will have to choose one of two mountain passes for getting to Lake Tahoe. Donner Summit is the pass going to Truckee (North Shore). It's a 4 lane, well maintained freeway.

Where do you stop on way to Tahoe? ›

Headed to Lake Tahoe for a weekend escape? Don't let the drive—and inevitable traffic—get you down.
  • Boa Vista Orchards, Placerville.
  • Jelly Belly Candy Company, Fairfield.
  • Lake Natoma, Folsom.
  • Yankee Jim's Bridge, Colfax.
  • Cafeteria 15L, Sacramento.
  • U.C. Davis Arboretum, Davis.
  • Boeger Winery, Placerville.
7 Jun 2021

Is there a shuttle from SF to Tahoe? ›


Unlike same-day ski buses, Tahoe Convoy travels eastbound on Friday night and returns westbound on Sunday night (or Monday night, during 3-day weekends). Tahoe Convoy caters to visitors with overnight accommodations.

How long does it take to drive completely around Lake Tahoe? ›

Driving around Lake Tahoe is a 72-mile drive and will take you about three hours to complete without any stops, but scenic drives are better when you take your time and stop to take in the views, so read up on the most beautiful stops around Lake Tahoe, and don't forget to snap a few pictures.

Is there public transportation to Tahoe? ›

Tahoe Transportation District operates the South Lake Tahoe area coordinated transit system including South Shore fixed-route service, commuter service connecting the area with Carson City and the Carson Valley, and paratransit service.

What is the busiest time in Lake Tahoe? ›

The busiest time for crowds is during the summer. If you're planning on visiting some of Tahoe's most popular sites like Emerald Bay on a weekend between June and August, you'll need to arrive very early in the morning to get a parking spot. Expect all hotels, restaurants, and beaches to be packed.

What is the busiest season in Lake Tahoe? ›

High Seasons: June to August and December to March

Whether you're packing your swimsuit, bikes and kayaks -- or snowshoes, skis and parkas, Tahoe's beaches and slopes offer up summer and winter fun. Since crowds and prices jump during these months, we recommend planning and booking 3-6 months in advance.

What month has the most snow in Lake Tahoe? ›

The month with the most snow in South Lake Tahoe is February, with an average snowfall of 13.7 inches. The snowless period of the year lasts for 5.1 months, from May 11 to October 15. The least snow falls around July 30, with an average total accumulation of 0.0 inches.

Is Uber in Lake Tahoe? ›

Thousands of riders request rides with Uber every day. You can use your vehicle to get paid to drive in South Lake Tahoe while getting riders where they need to go.

Is the drive around Lake Tahoe worth it? ›

As you can see from this diverse list of beaches, historical sites, hiking spots and chillax locations that there is so much to do while driving around Lake Tahoe. It's so worth it to drive the full loop and take in all of the dramatic views from all four compass points of the lake. Enjoy the drive.

Can you sleep in your car in Tahoe? ›

Re: Winter camping in Tahoe

You can sleep in your vehicle, but expect the police to stop by. They will just check to make sure you are ok, sometimes people don't realize how cold it can get and die or hypothermia or something, but sleeping there is ok.

Can you hop on and off the California Zephyr? ›

Yes you can, but your tickets should be reserved and ordered as "multiple stop" type ticket so you're scheduled to get off, stay a day or two or more, and then reboard to your final destination.

Is Amtrak California Zephyr worth it? ›

The California Zephyr is regarded as the best Amtrak Route in the United States and is totally worth the money to ride. If you are going to ride, make sure you are on the prettiest section of the route which is from Denver to Emeryville.

Which side of the California Zephyr should I sit on? ›

The best side of the California Zephyr to be on is the south side of the train. If you are heading west that is the left side in the direction of travel and if you are heading east it is the right side in the direction of travel.

Is South Lake Tahoe worth visiting? ›

Lake Tahoe is well known for its great ski slopes, but Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe is both great to visit in summer and in winter. For a breathtaking view of South Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area, you can take the scenic gondola ride from Heavenly village to the top of Heavenly mountain.

Is North or South Lake Tahoe better in summer? ›

Since there is so much to do in South Lake Tahoe on or near the water, this area can be the best part of Lake Tahoe to visit in the summer (think long sandy beaches, fantastic hiking trails, and water sports).

What is the closest city in California to Lake Tahoe? ›

Nearby Towns
  • Truckee, CA.
  • South Lake Tahoe, CA.
  • Incline Village, NV.
  • Kings Beach, CA.
  • Carnelian Bay, CA.
  • Squaw Valley, CA.
  • Zephyr Cove, NV.
  • Tahoe Vista, CA.

When should you not visit Lake Tahoe? ›

avoid the Summer months and holidays. On weekends, visitors and their cars - namely on Highway 89, near to Tahoe City, and on U.S. 50 near to South Lake Tahoe - congest all the main roads, facilities and beaches and other travel references (in these summer months, weekdays are better though also busy).

Can you get around Lake Tahoe without a car? ›

Walk, Bike, or Scoot your Way Around Town

We have over 50 miles of walking and biking paths around the lake. We even plow some of them in the winter for year-round access! If you're looking for something a little speedier, you can rent a bike or get in on the seasonal scooter-share action through Lime!

How long is the walk around Lake Tahoe? ›

The Tahoe Rim Trail is 171 miles around Lake Tahoe in California and takes 10-14 days to complete.

Which part of Lake Tahoe has the best view? ›

We're convinced that Nevada's Sand Harbor State Park is home to the best view around Lake Tahoe. It's like Indonesia meets alpine lake meets heaven on earth. There's massive boulders dotting the shoreline, crystal clear water and tons of nooks and crannies to explore.

How do you get around South Lake Tahoe without a car? ›

Bus. Both North Tahoe and South Tahoe have easily accessible public transportation. There's even a public transit hub located in the downtown corridor next to Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel and Heavenly Village. The public busses have different connecting routes that can take you to most places you want to go.

Why is Tahoe so popular? ›

Lake Tahoe is incredibly popular, attracting 15 million people every year! It's no secret why; this stunning area is home to an array of San-Francisco-inspired boutiques, numerous dining options, and cozy travel accommodations. Most strikingly, Lake Tahoe is known for its breathtaking views and connection to nature.

What is the best town around Lake Tahoe? ›

The best areas in Lake Tahoe are South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe City, Incline Village, Truckee, Tahoe Vista, and finally Carson City. No matter what you hope to get out of your trip, you will enjoy a memorable trip in any of these areas.

Is Lake Tahoe a party town? ›

Undoubtedly, nightlife in South Lake Tahoe is one of the many highlights of this bustling resort destination in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As well as the nearby ski resorts, beaches, and hiking trails you'll also find casinos, theaters, and nightclubs to keep you entertained in the evening.

What's better Mammoth or Lake Tahoe? ›

While Mammoth is smaller, a lot of features and amenities are packed into one conveniently accessible location. Lake Tahoe offers an assortment of impressive shopping and dining opportunities and activity hotspots. If you prefer access to similar amenities in a cozier setting, Mammoth is worthy of your attention.

Where is the rich part of Tahoe? ›

Rated as one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States, Incline Village is widely considered one of the best places to live in Lake Tahoe.

Do any celebrities live in Lake Tahoe? ›

Musicians young and not so young call Tahoe home, finding the clear melted snow cradled in mountains inspiring enough to put down their own roots. Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Cher, Liza Minelli, Alanis Morissette, Mike Love and James Hetfield are just a few of those musicians.

Where do the Kardashians stay in Lake Tahoe? ›

The property is called the Gunbarrel Lodge, according to Tahoe South Vacation Rentals, and features nine bedrooms with king beds; four bedrooms with two queen beds; and four bedrooms with queen beds. It was seen in detail for the finale of the longtime E!

Is it safe to drive to Tahoe right now? ›

NO TRAFFIC RESTRICTIONS ARE REPORTED FOR THIS AREA. This highway information is the latest reported as of Wednesday, November 23rd, 2022 at 08:25 PM.

Is driving to Tahoe hard? ›

The Drive is Easy and Scenic. Regardless of where you're driving from it's easy to find a route on a major highway to Lake Tahoe and the last hour(s) of the journey are incredibly scenic mountain vistas.

Where should I stop between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe? ›

The top stops along the way from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe (with short detours) are Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Cable Car Museum, and PIER 39. Other popular stops include Old Sacramento, Fisherman's Wharf, and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.

Does the train go to Tahoe? ›

Experience the magic of classic rail travel behind a real steam engine as you take in the exclusive sights, sounds and emotions our classic train has offers on this spectacular outing to Taihape.

Is there a train from LA to Lake Tahoe? ›

Trip Summary

There is one daily train from Los Angeles to South Lake Tahoe. Traveling by train from Los Angeles to South Lake Tahoe usually takes around 14 hours and 13 minutes, but the fastest Amtrak train can make the trip in 11 hours and 20 minutes.

Is there public transportation to Lake Tahoe? ›

Tahoe Transportation District operates the South Lake Tahoe area coordinated transit system including South Shore fixed-route service, commuter service connecting the area with Carson City and the Carson Valley, and paratransit service.

Can you get around South Lake Tahoe without a car? ›

Both North Tahoe and South Tahoe have easily accessible public transportation. There's even a public transit hub located in the downtown corridor next to Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel and Heavenly Village. The public busses have different connecting routes that can take you to most places you want to go.

Is there a bus from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe? ›

The number of buses from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe can differ depending on the day of the week. On average, there are 3 on this route.

Is it better to stay in South or North Lake Tahoe? ›

Overall, South Lake Tahoe is the ideal destination for those seeking vibrant nightlife and social scene, while North Lake Tahoe is better suited for families or travelers who want to have a relaxing getaway with some exciting activities nearby!

Can you do day trip to Tahoe? ›

If you happen to be in the Reno Nevada area, then a day trip to Lake Tahoe is a must. Within a short drive you will find some amazing scenic routes, views over Lake Tahoe, and some great places to stop for lunch.


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