Bay Area, Trains

Sonoma County to San Francisco via SMART and Golden Gate Transit

I thought I’d give a quick how-to get from Sonoma County to San Francisco using the SMART train along with Golden Gate Transit or Golden Gate Ferry. I do this trip every so often and find that it is the most pleasant way to travel this route. The total trip time usually takes about 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours depending on the start/end point and transfer times.

First you need to get a Clipper Card. This is by far the easiest – and usually cheapest – way to pay your fare on all Bay Area transit agencies. Clippers are sold in machines at each SMART station. You can find more Clipper vendors on their website.

Use your Clipper Card to tag on before boarding the SMART train, and then tag off after you exit the train.

When you get to the SMART platform, be sure to “tag on” with your Clipper at one of the terminals. This begins your trip. Once you get to your destination or transfer stop, you “tag off” using your Clipper at the same type of terminal. This way you only get charged the correct fare for the distance of your trip.

The interior of a SMART train. There are tables, a bathroom, wifi, power outlets, and a snack bar.

The transfer point between SMART and Golden Gate Transit is San Rafael Transit Center. At this station, you cross the street and find the platform for your connecting bus. The 101 bus is my most common connection to San Francisco since it travels nonstop between San Rafael and the City. Unfortunately, this bus only comes hourly except during peak times. You can use bus 70 as an alternate, but it makes more stops along the way.

San Rafael Transit Center from the SMART station

On each Golden Gate Transit bus there is a Clipper Card terminal similar to the one on the SMART platforms. When connecting from SMART onto the bus you receive a discounted transfer – but only if you use your Clipper Card. Cash fares are also more expensive, so pay using a Clipper Card if at all possible!

Clipper Terminal in Golden Gate Transit bus. Tag on when you get on, tag off when you get off!

There is usually a sign in the bus to let you know the next stop and announcements along the way. If you want to get off at the next bus stop, be sure to press the “request stop” button. When no one requests a stop, the driver will usually skip it and you’ll have to get off at the next stop.

If you would prefer to take the Golden Gate Ferry, you need to take a free, 10 minute bus between San Rafael and Larkspur Ferry Terminal. This bus – Route 31 – only connects to some ferry departure times. Check the schedule ahead of time since ferry service itself can be sporadic, and there are even fewer 31 buses. You can pay for the ferry service with your Clipper Card.

Ferry Connection Bus #31 at San Rafael Transit Center

Luckily there are people to help you at just about every step along the way. Bus drivers, conductors, and ferry workers all can help if you’re ever unsure. Keep in mind many of them have never done the Golden Gate Transit/SMART transfers, so take their connection advice with a grain of salt.

Golden Gate Ferry connects Larkspur and the San Francisco Ferry Building. It’s a quick, free shuttle between the ferry and San Rafael Transit Center.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • My total cost with an adult fare from downtown Santa Rosa to downtown San Francisco via bus is about $15. The ferry is a little more. Senior and youth fares are discounted. The overall fare is distanced based, so it could be more or less for your trip.
  • SMART has room for baggage, but Golden Gate Transit buses are very strict about bags that cannot fit on your lap or in the (very small) overhead bin.
  • Never put your bag on an empty seat on the train or bus. It’s rude.
  • SMART, Golden Gate Transit buses, and Golden Gate Ferries all let you bring bikes with you for free. However, the buses can only hold 2 or 3 bikes.
  • Know what connection you want to make ahead of time instead of trying to figure it out along the way. This will save you so much time! Yes, you need to cross reference between SMART’s website and the Golden Gate Transit/Ferry websites to compare schedules and pretty much figure out your own connection times.
  • Snacks, beverages, and alcohol are available on SMART and Golden Gate Ferry. The Ferry snack bar is cash only, but cards are accepted on SMART.
  • Don’t forget to “tag on” at the beginning of your trip and “tag off” at the end of your trip on both SMART and Golden Gate Transit buses! It’s easy to forget to “tag off” and then you’re charged the maximum fare. It’s an expensive mistake.
  • After reading all of this, you might be hesitant. Don’t be! It’s a fun trip with great scenery. Once you figure out the Clipper system and connection points, you’ll have no trouble.
SMART Snack Bar

Do you have any tips for first time riders? Leave your comment below!

Helpful Links:

Clipper Card Information (SMART schedules and fares) (bus schedules and fares) (ferry schedules and fares)

One Comment

  1. Tricia

    Thanks for the helpful tips on how to ride SMART and Golden Gate Transit. I plan on taking a venture from Sonoma County to San Francisco soon and this definitely seems like the way to go!


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