Where to go in California without a car?
May 14, 2012 4:54 AM   Subscribe

Traveling in California for five weeks--but without a car. Where should/can I go and what cities/places should I absolutely not miss? I'll be starting in Northern California and working my way down.

I will be traveling alone with limited funds in California mostly likely from November to December.

I've been to California once before and I know that having a car makes life a lot easier to get around, but driving or renting a car is out of the question. I plan to take amtrak or any type of bus transit to get me around the state. I'm also open to craigslist rideshare since I've heard that the real scenic route if you're traveling down the state is via car, not train.

So a big problem is that I'm really interested in seeing the redwoods and various national parks and not only am I traveling in colder weather but I also have limited transportation. I've been looking into Green Tortoise Adventure Buses but does anyone have any other recommendations?

In addition to that, I need recommendations for cities! The cities I plan to see are so far: San Francisco, San Diego, and L.A and I want to add more to the list. I'm open to all sorts of places (even places that aren't cities) and if there's somewhere that very cool, I don't mind taking a really long time to get there through various transit routes to get there.
posted by bluelight to Travel & Transportation around California, CA (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Winter eh? You can pop over to Tahoe if you're keen on the winter sports.

Joshua Tree National Park: REI Adventures are supposed to be quite good.

In San Diego, you can pop over to Mexico for a bit quite easily on a bus.

The problem with the car route is that most people driving will be going down I-5 (fastest route), which is very boring as far as scenery. The train will probably be more scenic. If you're lucky, try to catch a ride share down 101, which is the route the train takes, but it's a lot longer distance-wise and not really the route most will take.
posted by nickrussell at 5:01 AM on May 14, 2012

You're better off sticking to cities if you don't have a car. I honestly don't know how the hell you'd get anywhere near the redwoods without a car, and what non-car infrastructure we have in California is there to get you from one major city hub to another.

I like Amtrak, but I'll warn you that it is perpetually late the farther you have to go. I've heard many stories about the train being up to 24 hours late on the Coast Starlight route, usually because the freight trains get the right of way compared to passengers. So don't make any adamant plans to be in a certain place by a certain date if you are doing all of your major intercity travel via train.

I can't speak to SoCal from experience other than there is a subway there and train station, but getting around San Francisco and various Bay Area cities is usually done via BART (subway-ish transport). If you are starting there you can use Amtrak and connect to BART and get around various places. (There is also the MUNI bus system in the city, but so far I have managed to avoid it.) Most people like going to Berkeley while they're in the Bay Area, so after SF, I'd probably tell you to start looking around for things you like there. You can probably get to places you'd like to see if you start looking by what's available nearer to the BART stops.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:44 AM on May 14, 2012

Amtrak between San Luis Obisbo and San Diego sticks pretty close to the coast except in LA and OC. North of SLO toward the Bay Area the rail is closer to the 101 than the coast.

I think your big challenge will be getting to places like the Northern coast and its redwoods without wheels. Which is a shame because that is some of the prettiest parts of the state.
posted by birdherder at 6:52 AM on May 14, 2012

If you go to San Luis Obisbo (and I think you should) don't miss the Madonna Inn. Stay in a room if you can, but at least get there and walk around the grounds. Check out the famous men's room. Have pink cinnamon toast.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:53 AM on May 14, 2012

@jenfullmoon and others:

Remember that Amtrak California has a multitude of very frequent routes in additoin to the once a day Coast Starlight. There's somethinglike 11 trains a day running each way between Sacramento and San Jose via San Francisco, about 6 each way from San Francisco (meryville/Oakland) to Bakersfield, and tons from from Santa Barbara to San Diego via Los Angeles. There are also a multitude of connecting buses from these three trunk lines as well. You can get up as far north as Arcata and as far south as san Diego. See the full system map here. Amtrak California's site is here.

I lived without a car in San Francisco, and went to San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Yosemite, and a whole host of other places without a car. Would be happy to suggest some itineraries and routes. Also, look into the rail pass that they have for California.

Also, you can get to Mexico very easily by taking the train to San Diego, and then hopping the light rail to San Ysidiro, where you just walk 15 feet over the border.
posted by waylaid at 8:14 AM on May 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can get to Point Reyes and Mt Tamalpais via the West Marin Stage bus, and the Marin Headlands on SF Muni (Sundays and holidays only).

Amtrak bus service goes to Yosemite - you take the San Joaquin train to Merced and bus from there. Weather may cause delays or affect accessibility of the high country bus stops if you go in winter.
posted by expialidocious at 8:39 AM on May 14, 2012

Which redwoods? There are redwoods down half the coast, and you can get to the Santa Cruz ones in Big Basin via bus to Waddell beach (you'd have to hike into the forest) from Downtown Santa Cruz via Santa Cruz Metro. Big Basin is the oldest state park in California. There are also redwoods in Oakland, easily a day trip from San Francisco via BART and AC Transit. Scroll down that page for bus route and link to transit 511, which will be really helpful for the Bay Area.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:12 PM on May 14, 2012

If you can get yourself to Visalia, you can catch the Sequoia Shuttle into the mountains.
posted by Scram at 12:06 PM on May 15, 2012

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