Riding the Rails to Yosemite

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When I was in Germany a few years ago with my family, we went out to the Bavarian countryside to see the famous Neuschwanstein Castle and do some hiking in the area. From our hotel in downtown Munich, we made the entire trip by public transportation – first on the subway, followed by a 2-1/2 hour train ride, and finally a 15-minute bus trip from the nearby town of Fussen to the front of the castle’s ticket office. For a modest sum, it was literally door-to-door service. Pretty amazing, huh?

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Neuschwanstein Castle is located in the beautiful Bavarian countryside outside of Munich.

Back home in California, where the car is king, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone making a trip to the countryside or mountains by train, in part because the state is so big, and we simply don’t have the robust public transportation network Europe has.

This spring, I decided to prove that one of California’s most iconic road trips is possible to do without a car. On Memorial Day weekend, my family and I made our annual pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park, but while my husband and kids slogged through Bay Area traffic on a Friday afternoon, I took the Amtrak San Joaquins train and bus from Oakland’s Jack London Square straight to Curry Village, where we were staying inside the park.

Like our experience in Germany, it was door-to-door service. Total travel time was seven hours – three on the train and two and half on the bus, with a one and half hour layover in Merced. Yes, seven hours is a long time, longer than a car takes even in traffic, but it’s seven relaxing hours. And because the bus portion of the trip is beyond the usual traffic trouble spots, the seven-hour scheduled time is relatively predictable. The trip cost $37 one way, though fares vary depending on when you book. Amtrak often has deals, so it’s a good idea to check the website and make your reservation in advance.

Now, before you start calling foul that I had the benefit of other people transporting my luggage, and that this trip would never be possible without assistance, keep in mind that Curry Village provides bedding and towels for guests and has an onsite restaurant and store. There’s really no need to have much more than one piece of luggage and maybe a sleeping bag, both of which are easily stowed on the train and bus. In other words, if you’re staying at Curry Village, or at any of the nearby park hotels, it is entirely possible to leave the car at home. I’ll admit, camping is another story; if you need to transport tents, food, and all that roughin’ it stuff, having an automobile is probably not a bad idea. Ok, with that cleared up, here’s how you get to Yosemite on Amtrak!

Step One: The Train

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This is the best part because who doesn’t love a good train ride? Instead of putting your road rage threshold to the test, you can sit back and relax – seating is spacious, wi-fi is free, and there’s a café car with light meals, snacks, wine, beer, spirits, and other beverages. Your train ride will not be interrupted by unhealthy fast-food pit stops and nasty gas station bathroom breaks.

The Amtrak train line that goes to Yosemite is the San Jaoquins, with service from the Bay Area (Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Richmond, Martinez), and Sacramento to Bakersfield. You take the San Joaquin train to Merced, which is a three-hour trip, and then connect to a bus for the remainder of the journey. You can bring up to two pieces of luggage on the train along with two carry-on items, and bicycles are welcome on board.

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Step 2: The Bus

Ok, this is the part where I might lose people, but hold on because it’s much nicer than you think. When you make your reservation to Yosemite, it includes the bus portion of the trip, so the planning and ticketing are seamless, and the fare you pay is all-inclusive. The bus is a luxury motor coach operated by Yosemite Area Regional Transit (YARTS) and takes you on a scenic two-hour ride through Mariposa and El Portal. This is no city bus with plastic bucket seats; the seats are comfy, and it makes convenient stops at all the major lodgings outside and inside the park, including the Yosemite Visitor Center.

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Schedule Details*

From Oakland, there are two trips a day to Yosemite. I left Jack London Square at 1:15 p.m. and arrived (before the rest of my family, I might add!) at 8:10 p.m., just three minutes behind schedule. The earlier train leaves at 7:30 a.m. and arrives at 1:10 p.m. – only a 5-1/2 hour trip, which is somewhat competitive with the car, especially during a holiday weekend when traffic is a nightmare. And, don’t forget, you’re not driving, so the trip, even though a longer, is total relaxation!

From Sacramento, you can get to Curry Village in five hours by taking an early morning train to Merced and then connecting to the bus. Alternatively, you can take an Amtrak bus to Stockton, get on the train to Merced, and then connect with the YARTS bus for the remainder of the trip. This way takes a little longer though, and for most of the trip you’re on the bus with very little train time.

Step 3: Enjoy Yosemite!

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After the train and the bus, you’re in Yosemite – free to enjoy all this park has to offer. And, once you’re in the park, you can get around quite easily by using the park’s frequent and convenient shuttle buses, renting bicycles, or walking.

 

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*The schedule times listed here were current as of May 2015, but are subject to change.

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