If you can't or won't get a rental, forget long and miserable Greyhound bus rides. With the state’s excellent Amtrak network and my fine-tuned itinerary, I swear you’ll cover just as much ground as in a car. Plus you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the scenery. In some spots, being carless is certainly possible but less efficient than having your own wheels; elsewhere, taking the train or ferry beats the pants off the congested alternative.
This trip takes in nearly everything first-timers want in a California panorama: San Francisco, LA, wine country, big trees, a wild west town, Pacific coastlines, Disneyland, Yosemite, surfer dudes, and movie stars. San Diego’s not here but it’s easy to add. Death Valley isn’t here either: there’s just no such thing as public transportation to this hot, dry, and lonely landscape. Take a bus tour if you’re determined to go.
So, with some planning and a good attitude, you can do the best two weeks in California by public transportation. If you’ve only got one week, either a) concentrate on the north by starting in Sacramento and ending in San Francisco, or b) stick to the cities, arriving in San Francisco and departing from Los Angeles. Train and bus times change so always double-check. If you decide to stray from this itinerary, use www.amtrak.com as your planner.
Day 1. Arrive in Sacramento.
Before the 1848 discovery of gold, Sacramento – along with the rest of the state – was a sleepy Mexican frontier. But when word got out of the riches nearby, the world moved in to this outfitter town. Sacramento later became the state capital and the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Despite all the history, one day in the city proper is plenty and the most interesting sights are conveniently concentrated within a few blocks of the train station. Don’t miss the best rail museum in the country, the California State Railroad Museum ($9. 10am – 5pm. 111 I Street. www.csrmf.org), or the chance to walk around a too-commercial but historic wild west town in Old Sacramento (www.oldsacramento.com). The Delta King offers atmospheric and reasonably priced rooms, along with dinner, in a paddleboat on the Sacramento River (Rooms starting at $119. 1000 Front Street. 916-444-5464. www.deltaking.com).
While it’s served by fewer direct flights, Sacramento International is a major airport and easily connects to cities throughout the country and world (the 42A bus from Sacramento Airport drops you off right in the middle of where you want to be). Additionally, Amtrak’s two most scenic trains – the California Zephyr and the Coast Starlight – offer direct rail connections from cities such as Los Angeles, Salt Lake, Vancouver, Seattle, Denver, Portland and New York via Chicago.
Day 2. Sacramento to Yosemite National Park.
Today your afternoon will be spent wedged in between giant granite monoliths and what is perhaps the single most inspiring piece of geology on earth. It’s not technically the world’s first national park but only because it was made into the world’s first state park before the national park existed. Take the free park shuttle along the valley floor for an introduction.
To get here, the only train and bus connection from Sacramento leaves at 6:40am. I promise this is the only day with a morning this early. Board the Amtrak San Joaquin line south through the farming towns of the Central Valley to Merced.
At Merced, the YARTS (Yosemite Area Rapid Transit, www.yarts.com) bus is timed with the train and waits just outside the station (station agents will point you in the right direction). Even better, the bus and your park admission are included in your train ticket. Once on board YARTS, you’ll arrive in Yosemite Valley at 11:30am. If you’ve had the foresight to book months in advance, stay in the heart of the valley at the iconic and luxurious Ahwahnee or at the bare bones budget cabins of Curry Village. (www.yosemitepark.com/Accommodations.aspx) You might also get lucky with cancelations. Even if you’re not sleeping here, reserve for dinner at the grand timber and stone Ahwahnee dining room; the bar has more moderately priced fare.
If you haven’t booked your hotel ahead of time, the YARTS bus from Merced stops at a few more lodging options on its way into the park. Consider the excellent Yosemite Bug Resort, with a restaurant, dorms, and cabins (www.yosemitebug.com), a one hour ride to Yosemite Valley. Check in, have lunch, and another YARTS bus is scheduled to come by two hours after you were dropped off. The last YARTS bus leaves the valley at around 8pm.
Day 3. Yosemite National Park.
You’ll have all day for hiking and sightseeing within the park. Use the free shuttle to take you to your trailheads. During the summer, trek up to the grandest vista in the park on the Four-Mile Trail. The easier hikes to either of the waterfalls are also spectacular. In the evening, attend a ranger talk or join a show at the Yosemite Theater (www.yosemitepark.com is also an excellent ideas generator).
Depending on the season, a variety of shuttle buses will transport you to areas of the park beyond the magnificent but crowded valley. One place the shuttles don’t go is to the Mariposa Grove, filled with Giant Sequoias, the most massive trees on earth. You’ll have to make friends or book onto a bus tour to get here. Inquire at the Visitor Center.
Day 4. Yosemite to Napa Valley.
Today is an all-day travel day and requires a couple of easy connections. It’s 6 ½ hours by public transit versus 4 hours by car. It is perhaps the least ideal part of this trip but it’s still a fairly relaxing experience. Plus, by the early evening you’ll be spoiling yourself with bucolic scenery, great food, and excellent wine.
Your YARTS bus leaves the Yosemite Valley at 9:32am and returns to the Merced Amtrak station at 12:35pm. The northbound San Joaquin departs at 1:08pm and heads toward San Francisco. If you like, you can skip Napa and book your train and bus connection directly into the big city. But read Day 5 in the next installment for me to convince you otherwise.
For Napa, detrain at Martinez at 3:16pm; your awaiting Amtrak bus connection leaves Martinez station at 3:25pm and arrives in the city of Napa at 4:05pm. The Amtrak bus leaves you at Napa’s downtown VINE transit center. You can call it quits here and book into a handful of great hotels in the historic downtown. But if you’ve still got energy, I’d hop on the frequent, hour-long 10a VINE bus to beautiful, friendly Calistoga.
Don’t think of this bus ride as one last slog until you finally come to your destination; the ride along Highway 29 is what people from all around the world cram themselves into tour buses for.
In Calistoga, check into the Calistoga Inn, with rooms from $49 to $119. (1250 Lincoln Avenue. 707-942-4101. www.calistogainn.com) For reasonably priced and wonderfully executed fare, try the FlatIron Grill for dinner (1440 Lincoln Avenue. 707-942-1220. www.flatirongrill.com).
There's more! For Days 5 through 9, click here.