During a recent trip to South Lake Tahoe for the 2023 ZorkFest conference, I decided to test out two different ways to reach the city. There is no commercial airline service directly to Lake Tahoe, with the closest airport being in Reno, Nevada — about an hour by car or, in my case, wheelchair accessible shuttle service through the South Tahoe Airporter bus company. That service was efficient enough and likely my preferred mode, however to mix things up I decided to return home from San Francisco International Airport — approximately 200 miles and a 3.5 hour car journey from Lake Tahoe.

Screenshot of Google Maps public transportation route from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco Airport.

Private wheelchair accessible transportation from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco would have been cost prohibitive, so I sought out a more affordable public transportation solution. I plugged the route into Google Maps and it delivered a feasible option that would require an Amtrak ticket and a ride on the Bay Area’s metro system, known as BART. The cost breakdown was as follows:

  • Amtrak ticket from South Lake Tahoe to Richmond, CA — $45.90
  • BART public transit fare from Richmond, CA to San Francisco International Airport — $11.35
Screenshot of Amtrak itinerary and fare from South Lake Tahoe to Richmond, California.

Amtrak Thruway Bus Service

There is no Amtrak rail service directly to Lake Tahoe, however the company contracts a feeder bus route known as Amtrak Thruway — the bus service is designed to extend Amtrak’s network to travelers living in or visiting smaller destinations that would otherwise be cut off from America’s railway. This was my first time using Amtrak’s Thruway service, which serves many cities around the country.

On the day of my trip, I made my way to the Thruway bus stop which was conveniently located only a few blocks from my Lake Tahoe hotel. I arrived about 30 minutes before scheduled departure and it was good that I did — the motor coach operator said that he wasn’t familiar with the process for using the wheelchair lift. He called his “tech support” team, but I ultimately coached him on deploying the wheelchair lift properly.

Amtrak Thruway bus with wheelchair lift extended.

Space for wheelchairs is created by pushing several rows of standard seating forward — it’s the same process used on the wheelchair accessible Greyhound buses that I have reviewed before. The seats had already been prepared before I arrived and the driver quickly secured my wheelchair using the four provided Q’Straint straps.

We soon departed and, about 100 yards into our journey, the seats directly in front of me slid backwards — I reacted quickly and saved my knees from being crushed. The seat hadn’t been locked into place, and it is to that row of seats that the wheelchair securement mechanism attaches. I learned a lesson — always ask bus drivers to check and double check that the seats are secured… and supervise that testing! After the seats were properly secured (I heard a loud “click” as the lock fell into place), we set off again and the remainder of the ride proved uneventful, just as it should be!

The journey from South Lake Tahoe to Sacramento Valley (where I would transfer to an Amtrak train) was a picturesque one — many passengers, myself included, captured photos of the beautiful California landscapes. The bus ride lasted about 3 hours, with several stops en route. Passengers were allowed to get off the bus and use the bathroom at the Placerville Station Transfer Station, about 90 minutes into the ride. The stop was short — about 15 minutes, so I did not ask to disembark.

Amtrak Capitol Corridor Train from Sacramento Valley to Richmond, California

We arrived to the Sacramento Valley station about 20 minutes early, giving my a layover of roughly 40 minutes. This allowed me to use the bathroom and grab a soda from the machine. There was a small cafe in the station, but I had lunch before starting the journey.

Exterior facade of the Sacramento Valley Train Station terminal building.

The walk from the station terminal to the rail platform across the street takes about 5 minutes, so be sure to allow enough time.

Train conductor deploying wheelchair lift onto station platform.

Seeing me on the platform, the Amtrak conductor led me to the forward car, which had fewer passengers. She deployed a wheelchair lift from the train which handled the weight of me and my heavy power wheelchair well. I had never ridden Amtrak in California before (only local commuter rail and subway trains), so I was surprised to find a built-in wheelchair lift — the other train I’ve seen with one was on the wheelchair accessible SJ train from Copenhagen, Denmark to Stockholm, Sweden.

Once inside, I found a large space to park my wheelchair next to the window. There was a table in front of the wheelchair space, and a standard seat opposite. Had I been traveling with a friend, they could have sat directly across from me.

Much like the bus ride, my eyes were glued to the window, which offer magnificent views of California which became increasingly mesmerizing as we approached the Bay Area.

The train ride lasted about 90 minutes, stopping in Davis, Fairfield-Vacaville, Suisin/Fairfield and Martinez before arriving in Richmond. I got off in Richmond because it was the first connection to the BART system, however the Capitol Corridor train continued on to destinations including Berkeley, Oakland, Santa Clara and San Jose (its terminus).

BART Metro Service from Richmond, CA to San Francisco International Airport

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, provides wheelchair accessible transportation to San Francisco, Oakland and the surrounding area. The system has 5 lines and is fairly easy to ride — one of the most accessible local rail networks in the United States.

Map showing the BART system lines and stations.

At Richmond, I transferred from the Amtrak train to BART’s red line train headed in the direction of Millbrae, with the San Francisco Airport station being the second to last stop. My BART journey was a long one — I rode the red line for almost its entire length, a trip of about 70 minutes. Dreading the long flight back home to Boston, I definitely considered hopping off the train as it passed through downtown San Francisco!

Final Thoughts

Wheelchair users needing to travel between Northern California and Lake Tahoe will find this route to be both accessible and affordable. I love experiencing new routes and modes of transportation and, despite the long journey of almost 7 hours in total, I really enjoyed it! I would consider doing it again if traveling to the Bay Area specifically, but if I’m just trying to catch a flight, Reno is the smart and obvious choice since it’s only an hour’s drive from Lake Tahoe.

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