Transit to Trails: How to Hike Without A Car

Skip the drive and enjoy the journey with accessible public transit to trails. 

Myth: You need a car to access nature. Fact: There’s great public transit to trails all over the United States—no driving required. 

Whether you don’t own a car, share one with a family member, or prefer not to drive, there are plenty of reasons to seek out public transportation options to national parks, state parks, and other public lands near your home. Will it be faster than driving? Probably not. But it’s a great way to explore, spare the environment, and add a social dimension to your adventure experience. 

In this guide, we’ll share a few examples, go over ways to find public transit options, provide gear suggestions, and share a few backup plans in case you can’t find the buses or trains you need. 

Transit to Trails in Some of America’s Biggest Cities 

While America’s public transit system won’t get you everywhere, there are a number of trails you can access from big cities without ever needing a car. Here are just a few examples: 

  1. Denver: Get to Front Range trailheads using a combination of light rail and buses (or the city’s Snowstang winter ski shuttle).
  2. New York City: Link subway and bus rides to trailheads in New Hampshire’s incredible White Mountains, or take a train or bus to the much closer Harriman State Park.
  3. Los Angeles: City buses go to Will Rogers State Historic Park, as well as a few other nearby parks and trail systems north and east of the city. 
  4. Seattle: Hike in the gorgeous Tiger Mountain State Forest or Cougar Mountain Regional Wildlife Park by catching a bus downtown. 
  5. Pittsburgh: Buses run from the city center to Pittsburgh’s expansive North Park. There are also a number of HealthyRide bike-share stations around the city for easier access to numerous smaller parks. 

How to Find Public Transit Options

For researching public transportation to national parks or other green areas, start online of course. The transit website Rome 2 Rio is a great way to find buses and trains, particularly for more far-flung adventures. Most national parks also have a directions and transit page on their websites, another good resource for travel information. 

Google Maps can be another great way to find public transportation to national parks, as well as smaller parks in or near urban centers. Simply plug in your start and end locations, and hit the “public transit” option. Keep in mind that transit information may not be available for all destinations. If you don’t have your heart set on a place, try plugging in a few different trailheads and seeing which ones have information available. If you do have a park in mind and can’t find what you need, call that park’s visitor center to ask about transit options. 

Getting Around National Parks without a Car 

While many U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands lack transit services, most national parks offer plenty of internal transit to trails. Yosemite National Park, for example, brings in visitors via YARTS buses, which pick up in Sonora, Fresno, Merced, and Mammoth Lakes. Within the park borders, a network of shuttles makes it easy to get virtually anywhere. Even if you have a car, using shuttles is often the best way to get around in crowded parks like Yosemite in the high season.    

To find shuttle options, go to the National Park Service website for the park of your choice and navigate to the Directions and Transportation page (usually under the “Plan Your Visit” section of the menu). If you can’t find the information you need, call the visitor center to learn more. 

Visitors exit and enter the Zion Canyon Shuttle System Photo: NPS

How to Pack for Public Transit Adventures 

When you add public transit into the adventure mix, your gear needs will change accordingly. Here are a few things we recommend: 

  • Comfortable footwear. You’ll likely be pounding pavement between bus and train stops, so look for footwear with plenty of underfoot cushion, in addition to sufficient traction and durability for more rugged trails. 
  • A good backpack. A great transit-to-trails backpack has easily-accessible pockets where you can stash bus passes, cash, and essentials like sunscreen or a water bottle. With day packs, look for an option with at least a webbing hipbelt to help take some of the weight off your shoulders while you’re hiking. 
  • Extra layers. Whether or not you expect bad conditions, always pack a rain shell and warm layers in case the weather turns.  
  • Food and water. Some transit stations, visitor centers, and parks sell food and have water refill stations. Some don’t. Bring everything you need to sustain yourself for a full day out. 
  • Phone charger and battery pack: Smartphones are incredible resources for finding bus schedules, paying for fares, and tracking down rideshares, bike-share stations, and other transit options. Make sure you’ve got a backup charge. 
  • A headlamp. Public transit can take a while. This is, of course, part of the adventure, but it’s best to be prepared to be out late just in case. Bring a good headlamp to help you find your way back to the trailhead, bus stop, and ultimately, home. 

When Local Public Transit Doesn’t Cut It

There are tons of trailheads, national parks, and green spaces in the U.S. that are accessible via public transit. However, transit to trails is easier in some cities than others. If you don’t have a transit option for your area, consider these strategies.  

Rent a Car 

Renting a car can seem like an expensive option—until you pack it with friends. Some rental companies offer single-day rentals for as low as $50 for a five-seater vehicle. Split that five ways, and you’re looking at $10 each for a full day in nature.  

Ride-share or Join a Car Share  

Use a ride-sharing app like Lyft or Uber (additional carpooling apps are available in some cities and regions). If you find yourself needing a car often, consider joining a local car share, which gives you regular access to a vehicle at the fraction of the cost of owning. If you need to request a ride for the return trip via an app, just make sure there’s cell service at the trailhead.   

Find a Community Group or Club 

Most big cities have community groups, hiking clubs, climbing clubs, or bird-watching clubs that facilitate group outings. Joining one can be a great way to make friends—and take advantage of carpooling opportunities. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.