Amtrak,  USA

San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak

This winter, I work at a ski resort in the Tahoe area in California, and I don’t have a car to get around. Without a car, it makes it very hard to get to get around, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. A question that I asked my self is there a reliable way to go round trip from South Lake Tahoe to San Fransisco? I recently found out that there was a way to go round trip from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak only! By car, on average, it takes about 3 to 4 hours to go from San Fransisco to Lake Tahoe. Through Amtrak, it takes 2 Thruway Connecting Bus and the Capitol Corridor train, making the whole journey about 5 hours and 30 minutes. The journey starts at 7am sharp, and drops you off at South Lake Tahoe at 12:30pm. This journey is possible to Amtrak’s Thruway system, which guarantees connections to Amtrak trains. The partnership with El Dorado Transit connecting Sacramento to South Lake started July 2021. Although it is a long travel time, the transfers are smooth and the views are pretty.

What I really like about this method of getting from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak is the connivence of the pick up and drop off locations. The Amtrak journey starts right in the center of San Fransisco, in front of the salesforce center to 2 stops in South Lake Tahoe. The South Y transit center and Stateline Transit Center, which is right next to Heavenly village and Heavenly Ski Resort. Without too much effort, you end up being right next to the busiest part of South Lake Tahoe! They do this trip once a day, and the one way cost goes from around $60 to $80. My total cost of the one way travel from San Fransisco to South Lake Tahoe was $61. This trip is always going to be Flex Fares, which makes these tickets fully refundable without any change or cancellation fees before departure, and reservations can be easily modified.

Segment 1 of 3: Thruway Connecting Bus – San Francisco to Emeryville

During my quick stay in San Fransisco, I stayed at budget hostels that cost under $30 each night. 1 night at the Amsterdam Hostel San Francisco and 2 nights at Music City Hotel – Home of the San Francisco Music Hall of Fame. Both of these locations are in the center of the city and are close to the Amtrak bus meet-up spot, 401 mission. The Amsterdam Hostel San Francisco hostel’s front desk counter is 24/7 which made it super easy to check out at 6:30am to get to my bus at 7am.

San Francisco to Emeryville thruway connecting bus route 99 401 mission stop
San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak
San Francisco to Emeryville thruway connecting bus route 99 401 mission stop

I traveled from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak in January 2024 and is up to date with the information I got during that trip. The meet-up stop for all San Francisco to Emeryville thruway connecting bus route 99 is at 401 Mission. It used to be in front of Chase Bank at 555 Mission St, but since January 1st, 2024, it has changed to right in front of the Salesforce Gondola at 401 Mission Street San Francisco. San Francisco to Emeryville thruway connecting bus route 99 has 11 connections to Emeryville per day on weekdays and weekends. If you get there already and the bus isn’t there yet, there is a sign to confirm that you are at the right stop.

San Francisco to Emeryville thruway connecting bus information
San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak
San Francisco to Emeryville thruway connecting bus information

My Thruway bus departure was at 7am and I got to 401 Mission at around 6:45am. Amtrak recommends to get to the bus stop 30 minutes before departure, and it did seem like everyone was already there by the time I arrived. If you arrive too early, you can visit the Salesforce Park that opens at 6am, and is located right in front of the bus stop. It is a 5.4-acre rooftop public park that also has vending machines and a public bathroom.

Interior of Amtrak thruway bus
Interior of Amtrak thruway bus

At exactly 7 am, the bus departed from 401 mission heading to Emeryville Station. The bus ride goes right across the Bay Bridge, which I personally think is a more beautiful ride than the Golden Gate Bridge. Since Emeryville is the closest station to the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, it became the primary connection point between Amtrak trains and Amtrak Thruway bus service in the Bay Area. It was so beautiful having the view of the busy city waking up from the long night on the left, while on the right, seeing the sunrise. There are other public transportation methods to get to Emeryville like the public bus and the BART train system, but the connecting thruway bus is great since it is a stress-free, guaranteed connection. This connecting bus will cost an extra $6 for your trip.

view from the left side of downtown San Francisco from  Bay Bridge
View from the left side of the Bay Bridge of downtown San Francisco
Sunrise view from the right side of Bay Bridge
Sunrise view from the right side of Bay Bridge

Amtrak says the connecting bus takes about 30 minutes, but realistically, the bus ride took about 20 minutes and we arrived at Emeryville at 7:17am. It even gave me enough time to get Subways which was located right across Emeryville station before getting on the Capitol Corridor at 7:35am.

Segment 2 of 3: Capitol Corridor – Emeryville to Sacramento

The Emeryville train station is served by the California Zephyr, Capitol Corridor, Coast Starlight, and San Joaquins. The train station was smaller than I expected with just one side platform and one island platform. Three other tracks are only used by freight trains.

Amtrak Emeryville Station
Amtrak Emeryville Station

The Capitol Corridor was scheduled for 7:35am and was scheduled to get to Sacramento in about 1 hour and 40 minutes. The actual train was about 5 minutes late and came at around 7:40am. The ticket is an unreserved coach seat, which means that any open seat is up for grabs. The layout in the cars are really nice and there are some seats that are in a dining table set up with a large table. This makes eating or using a laptop on the train so easy since there is free wifi on the Capitol Corridor. This part of the trip was $29 which makes it the most expensive part of the total trip cost of $61.

Interior of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor
Interior of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor

The Capitol Corridor is an intercity rail service connecting the most economically vibrant urban centers in Northern California from Auburn/Sacramento to Silicon Valley, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. It has a cafe cart, wifi, and outlets on board. The full Capitol Corridor cafe menu can be looked at here. In the cafe carts, you can get a variety of things from breakfast menus, snacks, candies, fresh meals like hot dogs and hamburgers and beverages.

Cafe cart of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor
Cafe cart of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor

As of October 2022, the Capitol Corridor run as follows:

  • Auburn – San Jose: 1 round trip daily
  • Sacramento – San Jose: 6 round trips on weekdays, 7 round trips on weekends
  • Sacramento – Oakland Jack London Square: 6 round trips on weekdays, 4 round trips on weekends

The full schedule can be found here.

Amtrak Capitol Corridor at Sacramento Valley Station San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak
Amtrak Capitol Corridor at Sacramento Valley Station

The ride from Emeryville to Sacramento takes about an hour and fifty minutes with making stops at Berkeley, Richmond, Martinez, Suisun-Fairfield, Fairfield-Vacaville, Davis, and then Sacramento. The train journey is all outdoors and runs along the coast of the bay on the left. You can even see the San Francisco skyline across the bay up to Richmond Station.

San Francisco skyline across the bay from Oakland
San Francisco skyline across the bay from Oakland

The ride was smooth and pleasant, and the 1 hour and 50 minutes flew by quickly as I was enjoying the scenery outside. During the ride, I noticed that a lot of the guests who get on the Capitol Corridor are students due to the high concentrations of college towns on the route, like Berkeley and Davis.

Interior of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor
Interior of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor

At 9:20am, about 1 and 40 minutes later, we arrived at the Sacramento Valley Station. The walk from the tracks to the main station area and the connecting buses took about 5 minutes. Just follow the signs and people, and you will get to the main station back entrance.

Arrival area at Sacramento Valley Station
Arrival area at Sacramento Valley Station

Segment 3 of 3: Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe

This is the last segment of San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak and is also the longest part of the trip with the bus Journey from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe being 2 hours and a half. At the Sacramento Valley Station, you can find bathrooms and a small restaurant. I recommend to use the bathroom here since there are no bathroom on the bus, and the bathroom at the rest stop in Placerville isn’t in the best condition. The stops on this thruway bus route is Sacramento, Cameron Park, Placerville, South Y transit Center and Stateline Transit Center, which ultimately gets to South Lake Tahoe at around 12:30pm.

Sacramento Valley Station
Sacramento Valley Station

Passengers who wish to travel between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe without an amtrak train connection can also hop onto this bus with exact cash to pay a one-way bus fare of $26. No reservations are needed; however, seating is on an as-available basis, and priority is given to customers who have purchased their tickets in advance.

Inside of Sacramento Valley Station
Inside of Sacramento Valley Station

The transfer from the Capitol Corridor to the thruway bus to Tahoe is usually about a 50 minute connection time. I arrived to the platform at around 9:25am for the bus that departs at 10am, and by the time I arrived, the El Dorado bus was already stationed on the platform. The partnership with El Dorado Transit connecting Sacramento to South Lake started July 2021. Sometimes when there is a heavy storm in the area, the connecting bus from Sacremtnto and South Lake Tahoe/Reno can get canceled. You can check road conditions/closures before traveling and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CapitolCorridor.

Sacramento Connecting bus area San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak
Sacramento Connecting bus area

Instead of waiting inside the Sacramento Valley Station, I waited by a bench by the bus since I had some luggage and didn’t feel like moving back and forth. At around 9:45am, the bus driver came and started up the bus, and let us begin to put luggage in, and boarding started.

Amtrak Thurway bus Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak
Amtrak Thurway bus Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe

There is free onboard wifi, but I couldn’t seem to find any outlets. The seats are comfortable and have lots of room to move in. The bus had maybe a total of 10 passengers.

Amtrak Thruway bus interior el dorado transit
Thruway bus interior El Dorado transit

At around 11am, we got our first and only rest stop, Placerville Station. Here, the driver lets us get off to stretch our legs and mainly, to use the bathroom. The bus driver will stop for as long as needed for everyone to use the bathroom no matter how long it takes.

Placerville station California San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak
Placerville Station

When I was there, only one out of the two bathrooms was operating which made the wait for the bathroom a long one. The bathroom was surprisingly clean considering it’s a public bathroom in a town, but I would try to empty my bladder at Sacramento next time.

Placerville Station bathroom
Placerville Station bathroom

After that quick stop at Sacramento, we got back onto Highway 50, which is one of the longest highways in the US, connecting from California to Maryland for about 3,011 miles! From Placerville, it is about an hour and a half to arrive at South Lake Tahoe.

Highway 50 from Placerville
Highway 50 from Placerville

About 30 minutes past Placerville, we entered the Sierra Nevada, and I started to see the first sight of snow. Soon after that, the scenery around drastically changed to only snow and mountains for miles and miles beyond. I think the views on the right side of the bus are prettier than the left.

Sierra Nevada highway 50 in the Winter San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak
Sierra Nevada highway 50 in the Winter

Once we got close to South Lake Tahoe, you could start to see Lake Tahoe off in the distance from the mountains!

Lake Tahoe seen from highway 50 sierra nevada
Lake Tahoe seen from Highway 50 in the Sierra Nevada

Finally after five and a half hours from a 7am start in San Fransisco, we made it back to South Lake Tahoe at 12:30pm. I got off at South Y Transit Center, the first out of two stops that the bus stops in South Lake Tahoe. For passengers who want to go to the main and busy area of South Lake Tahoe, it is best to get off at Stateline Transit Center. Right next to Stateline Transit Center, is Heavenly Village and Heavenly Ski Resort. The area is a fun resort town and a great place to wander and explore! If you get tired of the heavenly village area, you can take public transportation around town, which is free!

South Y Transit Center, South Lake Tahoe San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak
South Y Transit Center, South Lake Tahoe

Although the trip from San Francisco to South Lake Tahoe on Amtrak is a long one, it was an easy and enjoyable ride. It is nice to know that whenever I want to get from San Fransisco to South Lake Tahoe, and back, there is a reliable way. This method is really great for anyone who wants to do a ski trip or a getaway without a car! If you are interested in more Amtrak posts, check out my Cross Country Amtrak | Solo traveling from California to New York blog post!


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Email me at pennylesstravels@gmail.com for consultations or if you any questions about planning your Amtrak trip!

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Email: pennylesstravels@gmail.com

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