How to Travel From San Francisco to Lake Tahoe By Train, Bus, Car, and Plane

Travelling on the shoreline of Lake Tahoe on a winter day; Sierra mountains covered with snow visible in the background
Andrei Stanescu / Getty Images

By far, the majority of people who go to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco drive there, and because of Tahoe's location nestled away in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it's the only way to get directly there. You can use a train, bus, or even a plane to get relatively close to Tahoe, but you'll still need additional transportation to get to the actual lakeshore.

It's about 200 miles by car from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, depending on if you're heading to North Shore or South Shore. It takes about three and a half hours to reach either side of the lake by car. The nearest train station and bus stop are in Truckee which is 25 minutes away from the North Shore, while the nearest airport is across the border in Reno, Nevada, an hour away from the lake by car.

  Time Cost Best For
Train 5 hours, 30 minutes from $55 Scenic views
Bus 7 hours from $31 Traveling on a budget
Flight 1 hour from $80 Stopping in Reno
Car 3.5 hours 195 miles (314 kilometers) Easy arrival

What Is the Cheapest Way to Get From San Francisco to Lake Tahoe?

The bus is potentially the cheapest way to get from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, but it's a long trip that requires an additional transfer. You can take the Greyhound bus to Truckee or Reno with tickets starting at $31. If your final destination is the North Shore, Truckee is a more convenient stop to get off at, while Reno is a better choice for South Shore trips. Buses depart from the Salesforce Transit Center which is in the heart of downtown San Francisco, near the Embarcadero BART station.

The journey is about six hours to Truckee and seven hours to Reno, plus an additional 30 to 60 minutes to the lake. The easiest way to get from the bus station to Tahoe is to use an app like Uber or Lyft, although this can drastically raise the price, especially if you're traveling alone. If you're heading to one of the ski resorts, they sometimes provide shuttles to pick up passengers. Check with your hotel to see what they offer before you board the bus.

What Is the Fastest Way to Get From San Francisco to Lake Tahoe?

Even though the flight is only an hour, all of the additional time to get to and from the airport, pass through security, and wait at your gate means the total travel time is actually much longer, and therefore driving is still the fastest way to get to Lake Tahoe. Using your own vehicle, you can get to either side of the lake in just over three hours—when there's no traffic. The final stretch is a winding highway through the mountains that quickly gets congested on long weekends and summer holidays or closes down completely if the weather is too harsh, so check road conditions before heading out.

If you're driving to the North Shore, you'll take I-80 across the Bay Bridge and all the way to Truckee, which is a short distance from the lakeshore. If you're heading to South Shore, take I-80 to Sacramento and then switch over to Highway 50, which will take you directly to the city of Stateline on the California/Nevada border.

Winter storms can dump massive amounts of snow on the roads leading to Lake Tahoe. Snow can sometimes start in early November and happen as late as May. If you're going to Lake Tahoe in the winter, you need to be prepared to drive in the snow, even if the sky is as bright as a midsummer day when you start out.

How Long Is the Flight?

The nearest "large" airport is in Reno, which is actually called Reno-Tahoe International Airport, and San Francisco is one of the cities with direct flights to the Biggest Little City in the World. The flight time is only an hour and tickets start at about $80 for a one-way flight, although they jump up significantly in price during winter holidays and three-day weekends.

Once you get to Reno, it's about an hour to either North Shore or South Shore. Because it's the closest airport to Tahoe, shuttles are waiting at the terminal to bring passengers to their final destinations. Many of the resorts even provide guests with complimentary transportation to and from the airport, so see if your hotel offers that amenity.

How Long Is the Train Ride?

The once-a-day Amtrak Zephyr train departs every morning from Emeryville and works its way across the country, passing through Truckee and Reno as it continues on to Chicago. The train is a bit faster than the bus, taking five and a half hours to Truckee or six and a half hours to Reno. It's also a bit more expensive, with tickets starting at $55. Just as with the bus, get off at Truckee if your final destination is North Shore and Reno if you're heading to South Shore; you'll then need to arrange additional transportation from there.

In addition to transportation from the station, you also need to get to the station, since no trains depart from San Francisco proper. The Emeryville Amtrak Station is right across the Bay next to Berkeley, and the easiest way to get there is to use a ride-sharing app like Uber or Lyft directly from San Francisco, or take BART to MacArthur Station and take a short taxi ride from there.

When Is the Best Time to Travel to Lake Tahoe?

Lake Tahoe is a year-round destination, and every season offers something unique to enjoy. It's perhaps best-known for winter sports, and ski season in Tahoe can last from November until May. In the summer, the lakeshore fills up with families and groups of friends laying out, barbequing, and swimming in the alpine water.

If you're driving, be aware that Tahoe is a very popular getaway for millions of people who live around Northern California, Nevada, and Oregon, and the highways quickly become congested during long weekends or other holidays. Go during the middle of the week to avoid traffic jams and also get the best deals on accommodations and ski packages.

What's the Most Scenic Route to Lake Tahoe?

Regardless of how you enter Lake Tahoe, it's a scenic trip with incredible sights and breathtaking views. However, there a few ways to get the most out of your journey. One way is to take the train, as the Amtrak stretch from the Bay Area to Reno is considered one of the most stunning rail routes in the entire country and well worth the extra cost as opposed to the bus.

If you're driving, there are a few different routes you can choose from depending on what you want to see and how much time you have. Most drivers use I-80 or Highway 50 to get to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco, and either of them will provide lots of excellent views. But if you're interested in maximizing the picturesqueness of your drive, try one of the more scenic options.

  • Start Off the Scenic Way: No matter what route you take after you get out of San Francisco, start off the scenic way. When you leave San Francisco, ignore your GPS or navigation for a while—it might know the shortest route, but what it doesn't know is where to find the best scenery along the way. Instead of starting on I-80 and crossing the Bay Bridge, use the no-tolls route on northbound U.S. Highway 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge, then follow CA Highway 37 across Sonoma and Napa wine country to get to I-80 near Vallejo.
  • Take a Scenic Detour From I-80: If you are traveling toward Tahoe on I-80, you can take a short detour through California Gold Country. Exit I-80 at Auburn and take CA Highway 49 through Grass Valley and Nevada City, then use CA Highway 20 to return to I-80 at Emigrant Gap.
  • Drive Highway 88 Over the Carson Pass: The scenic route that many Bay Area residents recommend most often will take an hour or two longer than driving on the main highways. To start this route, follow the directions above for getting out of San Francisco the scenic way. At Fairfield, exit I-80 onto CA Highway 12, traveling through Rio Vista. Stay on Highway 12 to CA Highway 89 and follow it over the mountains and Carson Pass, then on to Lake Tahoe.
  • Head to Highway 4 for the Most Scenic and Slowest Trip: Possibly the most scenic of all the routes to Lake Tahoe, this is also the slowest, and the roads can be narrow and steep. To reach it, drive east from San Francisco to Walnut Creek. From Walnut Creek, follow CA Highway 4 all the way to the lake, going through Concord, Antioch, and the Sacramento River Delta. Continue through Stockton, Angels Camp, and Murphys, then transfer to CA Highway 89 North through Markleeville. From there, consult your GPS or map to choose your route depending on what part of the lake you are going to.

Can I Use Public Transportation to Travel From the Airport?

If you arrive at the Reno-Tahoe Airport, you'll need to arrange your own accommodation to get to Tahoe. Taking a shuttle from the airport is the easiest way, and some resorts even provide a free shuttle for guests. If your hotel or accommodations don't come with transportation, look into North Lake Tahoe Express or South Tahoe Airporter for paid shuttle services.

What Is There to Do in Lake Tahoe?

Winter sports fans, beach lovers, nature enthusiasts, and gambling aficionados can all find something to love about Lake Tahoe, and many of the activities depend on what time of year you're visiting. Throughout winter and spring, alpine sports reign supreme, and the various ski resorts on both sides of the lake are open for skiers and snowboarders. As the weather warms up, the beaches fill with sunbathers, kayakers, and those brave enough to take a dip in the frigid water. The city of Stateline on the South Shore straddles the border of California and Nevada, and the Nevada side feels like a scaled-down version of the Las Vegas Strip with the area's best casinos, restaurants, and nightclubs.