Napa Valley is such a popular getaway that its main artery, CA-29, is often bumper to bumper. If you are going north on a weekday, Napa County's #29 and #10 buses provide a less aggravating trip on the same road.
Weekdays to / from WOAK [C]
To/from downtown Calistoga via del Norte BART, VINE #29 and #10: If you catch the #29 followed by the #10 express during early morning or late afternoon rush hours, this journey takes around two hours and 25 minutes. Between 9AM and 4PM, add an hour.
There are frequent buses. All routes reach Napa around an hour before Calistoga. Earliest departure: 5:29AM. Last return: around 4:30PM. The #29 costs $5.50, a bargain considering how many miles you'll cross. The 10X is $3.00, but you can get a free transfer going northbound.
Updated April 2019: There is no longer a direct #29 bus all the way from El Cerrito to Calistoga. The alternative is to transfer from the #29 to the #10 express at Soscal Transit Center or at Redwood Park & Ride. Post Auto recommends taking the trip at commute rush hours (as explained above) and transferring at the Park & Ride (because there are snacks nearby -- if you want to visit downtown Napa on your layover, though, transfer at Soscal).
Weekends to / from WOAK [C]
To/from downtown Calistoga via del Norte BART, Soltrans #80, VINE #11 and #10: The journey takes around two and a half hours, plus layover times. There are frequent buses. Earliest departure: 6:00AM Saturday, 8:10AM Sunday. Last return: 4:05PM on Saturday, or 3:50PM on Sunday.
For an introduction to this blog, check The Glove Compartment.
The VINE-29 departs around twelve times per day from the El Cerrito Del Norte BART station, and arrives in Napa an hour later. From there, the #10 bus goes up the valley to Calistoga in about 80 minutes, or closer to an hour for the #10 express. If you can avoid long layovers -- or use them to drink wine -- the VINE buses can get you to any town along the Napa river only 30 minutes slower than a direct trip in a car. At $5-$7 for 80 miles of travel, this is the best transportation bargain in the Bay Area. What's more, the VINE drivers are friendly and helpful.
An alternative route from El Cerrito Del Norte – which you will have to consider on Saturdays and Sundays, as the VINE-29 is a weekday service – requires taking the (frequent) Soltrans I-80 Express north to the Vallejo Transit Center, and meeting the VINE-11 there. Or better yet, descend the stairs from the Transit Center to the waterfront and meet the VINE-11 across from the ferry terminal, at the start of its trip north. The VINE-11 makes several residential swtichbacks in Vallejo and American Canyon before joining the northward Napa tourist route on CA-29.
Note that, if you are leaving from San Francisco, you can instead meet this bus by taking the SF-Vallejo ferry. An hour long cruise through the north bay with a drink in your hand is a shortcut to a vacation state of mind, although it is slower and more expensive than BART on the physical plane.
Finally, Amtrak operates a thruway bus to Napa (en route to Santa Rosa and Arcata) from the Martinez train station, which is in turn connected to most east bay and south bay cities via the Capitol Corridor. This is a costlier trip than the county buses, but it may be a faster one at certain times of day, particularly on weekends.
All of these routes take you to the Soscal Transit Center. If Napa itself is your destination, you have arrived near the downtown; there are several shuttles from here to centrifugal destinations in the City of Napa. You can walk west across CA-29 to the riverfront Cabernet and goat cheese district, or, if you just want a meal without the table service, head NE to the Oxbow Public Market, which is cheaper and more flexible, but still fancy. Even closer are the county fairgrounds, which may be hosting an event when you arrive, and behind their midway and tilt-a-whirl, the historic Tulocay Cemetery.
From here, transfer to VINE #10 Express to ride further north.
The regular #10 is a little slower than the #10X because it drops off shoppers at the row of big box stores on the way out of Napa. Use this delay to assess your feelings about CVS, Target and Denny's, because it's a farewell; from here North, most of the businesses are local. And pricey? Although these towns cater to wine connoisseurs, they are also farm crossroads that serve Sunday dinner to long-term, less moneyed customers. It's easy to spot the most expensive taverns, wine shops, and art galleries – I've never opened my wallet in the latter two kinds of establishment, but I appreciate that the money one might spend there means livelihood for a local grower or artist. If you look closer, though, you will also see old fashioned diners and a few fast-food joints (like the historic A&W in St Helena) that have been there for decades; the occasional honky tonk (like Susie's in Calistoga); good, affordable taquerias, and local grocery stores, whose wine and deli sections should be seen as the Napa valley restaurant do it yourself center. These venues are uniformly down to earth and friendly, in my experience.
The #10 bus runs through these towns every hour until 9pm or so, enabling a jump-on, jump-off Wine Country tour if you cultivate a bus rider's vigilance plus fatalism with respect to the clock. The aforementioned #10X makes fewer stops in the same route. The #10 also stops near, or passes within a short bike ride of, dozens of spots for wine tasting, an activity for which I can offer no guidance -- except to say that, if I were going from place to place tasting alcohol, I would feel freer to swallow it if someone else drove. This must be the theory behind the Wine Train, a boutique railroad between Napa and Calistoga, which includes wine, meals, and winery tours in its $200-$300 ticket price.
The first major bus stop after Napa is a detour through the Yountville Veteran's Home, a beautiful sanctuary next to a golf course that one wishes – at least judging by its exterior – were the end of the rainbow for every United States veteran. These grounds are also home to the Napa County Museum, which offers some history exhibits and an often strong presentation of contemporary art. It's a short walk from there into Yountville, which is the most posh of the north Napa towns, although, again, the local grocery store offers an affordable lunch, and the walk from the Veteran's Home through the relaxed, subtly hued and landscaped downtown, where you can catch another #10 bus, is easy on the eyes. There's more shopping, with a lower price floor for food and accommodations, in the next town, St. Helena, which is also home to my favorite bookstore on this route. The bus also stops at the wine crossroads of Rutherford and Oakville. The valley narrows, and its volcanic walls rise up on either side of the highway, sometimes wreathed in fog if it's a wet day.
On several extended stays at the end of the VINE route, in Calistoga, I've been struck by the lack of demarcation between Hispanic and Anglo spaces in the downtown. I usually stay on one of the residential streets, and I shop at the CalMart grocery store, from which perspective the town seems Latin and Anglo door by door, rather than section by section. To be sure, one often encounters Hispanic people in service roles here – but one can also see Spanish-speaking Californians managing the fancy restaurants and spas, or visiting them as customers, or operating the vineyards. One sign (literally) of the slightly different and welcome balance I feel here is the menu at Vine Espresso (now closed -- April 2019). How many indy espresso bars in the bay area are as eager to embrace diversity in language?
Another thing I like about Calistoga is how lush it is. The 13-odd hot springs (I most often visit Golden Haven, for their all-day hot pool access) and the Napa river itself are watering a forest with a town inside it.
It's a pleasant town to walk in, and it's close to State Parks to the south (Bothe, which rents cabins and yurts, and the impressive Grist Mill, which is nearer to St. Helena), and north (Robert Louis Stevenson, with its network of hiking trails; the trailhead at the bottom of this map is on the north edge of town). Besides walking and biking, you can also travel around this area using VINE's all-access, on-demand Calistoga shuttle. Thanks, VINE, for making this easy!