Photograph by Matt Young, Getty Images
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The sun sets over Twin Lakes in Mammoth Lakes, a mountainous ski town accessible by public transportation from Los Angeles.

Photograph by Matt Young, Getty Images

How to see the wonders of the West Coast—without a car

No wheels? No problem. Escape to these beautiful natural spaces, accessible by public transportation.

As unprecedented crowds descend upon national parks and fill parking lots to capacity, it may seem that the United State’s wild spaces are becoming increasingly out of reach.

But with a little patience, intrepid travelers can use public transportation to get their dose of awe without a car—and with the additional benefit of leaving a lighter carbon footprint at local parks and nature reserves.

Starting from four cities, here’s a car-free guide to exploring the West Coast, from the breathtaking beaches of the Pacific Northwest to the wild depths of the Sierra Nevada.

From Seattle, Washington

Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park: A few hours west of the Emerald City, Lake Crescent is a hiker’s paradise tucked into the wilderness of this UNESCO-recognized national park. Stroll the trails at Barnes Point or head inland to Marymere Falls or Mount Storm King. More seasoned backpackers can tackle the Barnes Creek Trail to the Aurora Divide, which gives access to the entire park with all its diverse ecosystems and mountainous grandeur.

Plan your trip: Take the ferry to Bainbridge Island ($8.65, free upon return). Outside the terminal, link up with Clallam Transit’s Strait Shot Bus ($10) to the small town of Port Angeles. Grab lunch there at The Next Door Pub, an excellent gastropub, then stock up on trail snacks at Country Aire Market. Hop on Bus 14 ($1.50): Ask to get off at Barnes Creek to spend the night at Lake Crescent Lodge, or ride one stop further to camp at the Fairholme Campground ($20). Backcountry campers can take a separate bus service to the Visitor’s Center at Lauridsen and Race to grab the necessary permit.

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Olympic National Park’s Lake Crescent—a few hours west of Seattle—offers kayaking and canoeing.

Second Beach, La Push: Second Beach is one of the most beautiful hikes on the Olympic Peninsula. Find the trailhead in the village of La Push, part of the Quileute Indian Reservation and home to most of the tribal community. The mile-long hike winds through a lush forest of western hemlocks and Sitka spruce before opening onto a breathtaking vista of sea stacks covered in windswept pines.

Plan your trip: Take Clallam Transit’s Bus 14 ($1.50) to Forks to transfer to a short ride on Bus 15 ($1.50) which leads right to the trailhead. Dine at the River’s Edge Restaurant for impressive views of the Quillayute River flowing into the Pacific. Then head a couple miles south to camp overnight on the beach or check out the Quileute Oceanside Resort. Before visiting, be sure to familiarize yourself with the tribal council’s photo policy.

From Portland, Oregon

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach: Rising 235 feet out of from the Pacific, Haystack Rock is one of the world’s most majestic monoliths. At low tide, wander through an array of sea anemones, colorful sea stars, and sand dollars. The spot is only eighty miles west of Portland, making it an easy and rewarding day trip.

Plan your trip: From Portland’s Union Station, take the Oregon Point Bus ($36 roundtrip) to the charming town of Cannon Beach. After exploring the coastline, grab some food at Wayfarer Restaurant or a beer at Pelican Brewing before heading back into the city.

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Sunlight streams through rock formations on Second Beach near La Push.

From San Francisco, California

Muir Woods National Monument: Named after the naturalist John Muir, this monument encompasses hundreds of acres of towering redwoods in an old-growth forest. Wander close to the Visitor’s Center or venture out on several other trails around Mt. Tamalpais State Park.

Plan your trip: Take Golden Gate Transit’s Route 30 bus ($17 roundtrip) to the Bay and Bridgeway stop in Sausalito, then pick up the Muir Woods Shuttle ($3, make a reservation), which drops you off at the entrance. Eat at the Muir Woods Trading Company (try the famous Marin Melt). Feeling adventurous? Seek out the Nature Friends Tourist Club, a Bavarian lodge with spectacular views off the Redwood Trail (be sure to check the schedule to see when visitors are permitted).

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Hikers in Muir Woods National Monument can view huge redwood trees.

Big Sur: Highway 1’s crown jewel, Big Sur, is among the most celebrated destinations of the west coast. Explore the northside of this prime locale in Andrew Molera State Park, which offers a variety of wildlife and a network of trails leading to panoramic ridgetop views, ocean bluffs, and a rugged, driftwood-studded shoreline.

Plan your trip: From SFO’s International Terminal, pick up the Monterey Airbus ($52) to Monterey, then link up to Monterey-Salinas Transit Bus 22 ($3.50) to Big Sur. To reach the trails, enter off Highway 1, or hike less than half a mile from the bus stop down Andrew Molera Road and make a right at the fork. Continue a little further to stop at the Ventana Wildlife Discovery Center or the Molera Ranch House Museum before hitting the trails. Stay at any of the surrounding campgrounds or head back to Monterey’s The Stevenson, where you can have breakfast at Lou Lou’s Griddle in the Middle and check out a nearby permanent exhibition of works by Salvador Dalí.

From Los Angeles, California

Mammoth Lakes: This ski town is a choose-your-own-adventure paradise tucked into the Sierra Nevada, some 32 miles south of Yosemite National Park. Ski or snowboard Mammoth Mountain or choose from the abundance of trails leading to the Ansel Adams and John Muir Wildernesses.

Plan your trip: At L.A.’s Union Station, take the Metrolink Train ($11.50) to Lancaster and transfer to Eastern Sierra Transit ($36) directly into town, where free daily trolleys send you anywhere you’d like to go. Stock up on snacks at Sierra Sundance Whole Foods and pick up a breakfast burrito at community-minded Stellar Brew before heading out for a day of adventure. Spend the night at any of Mammoth’s numerous campgrounds, hostels, or hotels.

Point Dume, Malibu: Want to stick closer to Los Angeles? Explore Point Dume’s windswept bluffs, beautiful beaches, and incredible wildlife. The bluff trails yield magnificent views of the rugged turquoise coastline, and those willing to scramble over the rocks dotting the beach will be rewarded with the secluded Pirate’s Cove. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, pelicans, sea lions, and—from December to April—the occasional California gray whale.

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Wildflowers bloom at Point Dume State Beach, Malibu.

Plan your trip: Take LA Metro’s Expo line ($1.75) to Santa Monica to pick up LADOT Transit’s 534 bus ($2.50) out to the Pacific Coast Highway/Busch stop. From there, walk down to Zuma Beach and Westward Beach Road to reach the parking lot for Point Dume State Beach. Make sure to check out the cuisine at Sunset Restaurant along the water near Zuma, or Spruzzo Restaurant and Bar, next to the bus stop you’ll need to head back.

Writer Libby Leonard has spent the past four years traveling and living all over the U.S. Find Libby on Instagram or Twitter.
The Big Sur section of this story has been updated.