16 Perfect Road Trips When You Need to Get Out of San Francisco
For the next time you get shouldered by some unaware tourist staring into an iPhone and think to yourself, "Damn, I could really use an amazing getaway within driving distance of SF right about now," we present this extensive and detailed guide. All of these road trips are under a six-hour drive, with most being around three hours (perfect for a day trip or a relaxing weekend away).
These trips are also exceptionally beautiful and, as a limited one-time bonus, most are under the radar. We know the last thing you want to do is drive a few hours and then run into everyone you've ever met as soon as you get out of the car (looking at you, Tahoe).
Distance from SF: 46 miles; a one-hour drive
Pescadero is the NorCal version of spending a day by the seaside, which means all of the beauty of the ocean, but with a side of wind and cooler temps. Like most destinations around these parts, the most popular activities are geared towards the outdoors. Butano State Park has 40 miles of hiking trails amongst the redwoods and you can also camp there -- although when it comes to camping in Pescadero, a Costanoa Lodge tent bungalow is the place to stay. It’s like camping if camping were at an eco adventure resort that has maid service, electric lights, an outdoor hot tub, a restaurant, and a spa.
Other than hiking or hanging at the beach, you’ll want to check out Harley Farms, which has more than 200 alpine goats, as well as llamas and critically acclaimed cheeses. At some point, hit up Duarte’s Tavern, a family-run business that’s been around since 1894 and is the social hub of the one-traffic-light town. Order the insanely creamy artichoke soup and a piece of their famous olallieberry pie. And no matter what, do not go home without getting the renowned artichoke garlic herb country-style bread from Arcangeli Grocery Co. (Norm’s). If there’s a loaf that’s fresh out of the oven (and chances are there will be), stop what you’re doing and eat as much of it as you can on the spot. Then be sure to grab a second one for later.
Don’t leave without: Checking out the 115-foot Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which has been guiding ships since 1872 and is one of the tallest in the country. This one’s easy to cross off your list since it’s falling apart and they don’t let you go inside.
Distance from SF: 227 miles; a 3 1/2-hour drive
If you’re looking for a mellow vacation, head to this beach town that’s less than 5 square miles and known for its consistent beginner waves and good food. If you want to take advantage of the former, but don’t have the gear, you can rent everything you need -- including a wetsuit, surfboard, or SUP -- at Cayucos Surf Co. But if catching waves isn’t your thing, walking along the pristine white beach, and to the end of the 953-foot fishing pier, is a great alternative (especially if you get out during sunset).
Regarding the latter (read: good food), the popular Grill at the Cass House is known for using locally sourced ingredients in its Italian-inspired dishes, and the upstairs deck at Schooners Wharf is the perfect place to enjoy a bowl of spicy cioppino and deep-fried calamari sticks. If you can, plan your trip between December and March, which is the peak season to see the elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas rookery, and no matter what time of year you’re there, you’ll want to take in the stunning views along the easily navigated bluffs in Estero Bluffs State Park.
Hearst Castle is right up the road in San Simeon, and since you’re so close, you should take a tour through the mansion (the indoor pool is insane), if only to forget about your tiny, expensive SF apartment for a day. On the drive there, keep an eye out for the zebras that wander the fields along the highway. If you’re looking for a drink with a side of local culture, head to the Old Cayucos Tavern & Cardroom, a divey cowboy bar that was built in 1906 and has live music in the front and poker in the rear every weekend.
Don’t leave without: Getting a breakfast burrito or street tacos from the Cayucos Gas & Mini Mart (yes, it’s a gas station, but it’s also home to seriously amazing Mexican food), and freshly baked sea salt-topped cookies from the Brown Butter Cookie Company.
Distance from SF: 30 miles; a one-hour drive
Bolinas is a tiny unincorporated beach community in Marin County that is so loved and protected by the locals, they kept tearing down all of the road signs leading to town until county officials put a measure on the ballot so that voters could say they didn’t want signs... ever again. Depending on the waves, Bolinas can be a great spot for beginner surfers, and 2 Mile Surf Shop, which is “522 steps away from the beach,” can set you up with everything you need. If getting into the water just yards away from where great whites are often spotted isn’t something that excites you, hang out on the expansive beach (with your dog if you have one), or do the 13-mile round-trip hike to Alamere Falls, one of two tidefalls (a waterfall that flows directly into the ocean) in California. If the weather’s nice, plan to stop at Bass Lake, one of the best swimming holes in Northern California that also has a sweet rope swing.
As far as where to get some R&R, you could stay at Stinson Beach just down the road, but if you have a sense of adventure, embrace the Bolinas vibe and get a room at The Grand Hotel, a funky old beach house which was never supposed to even be a hotel (the owner just found a sign and put it up on his house and eventually gave in when people started asking for rooms). If “reasonably clean” and a total lack of frills makes you nervous though, then a hotel or Airbnb at Stinson is a safer bet.
Don’t leave without: Stopping at Smiley's Schooner Saloon for a drink. It’s been around for over 160 years, making it one of the oldest bars in California (and one of the only bars in Bolinas). There you’ll find a pool table, darts, and the town's only check-cashing facility.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Distance from SF: 236 miles; a 3 1/2-hour drive
Fun fact: Mount Lassen is the largest lava dome on earth and was thought to be extinct until 1914 when it exploded without warning. More fun facts: It’s also relatively easy to climb and definitely most likely will not explode while you’re doing so. But even though Mount Lassen is the shining star of this mini Yellowstone right in our backyard, it’s just one of many places to explore, including a very easy 1 1/2-mile hike around Manzanita Lake where you can also stop by the Manzanita Lake Camper Store and rent a kayak or SUP.
Subway Cave, an underground lava tube (literally a giant tube formed by lava), is also a must. It’s one of the largest, most accessible lava tubes in the world, but it’s still pitch dark, so you’ll need a flashlight or headlamp, and the floors are very jagged, so you’ll also need sturdy shoes. It also gets chilly in there -- bring a jacket. After Subway Cave (it doesn’t take too long), head to Burney Falls, a 129-foot waterfall that many think is the most beautiful one in all of California. Teddy “Wild Waterfall” Roosevelt called it the eighth wonder of the world. The falls are super easy to get to, so after you get all of your pics, follow the trail a few miles to Lake Britton where you can swim and eat the picnic that you packed.
There’s tons of camping in the park, but if pitching a tent isn’t in your skill set, get a room at Drakesbad Guest Ranch. You’ll still feel like you’re roughing it since none of the accommodations have electricity, but you won’t be too overwhelmed as there are also bathrooms and daily housekeeping. Oh, and a hot spring pool, horseback riding to cool locations, and massages.
Don’t leave without: Going to hell -- Bumpass Hell. It's the largest hydrothermal area in the park, with boiling pools and plopping mud pots. It's also home to the Big Boiler, a roaring steam vent.
Distance from SF: 123 miles; a 2 ½ hour drive
Rarely does the journey surpass the destination. Especially when that destination happens to be Carmel-by-the-Sea, one of the most charming small towns on planet earth, a sweeping splay of cliffside beaches fit for cinematic legend, and… an actual cinematic legend: longtime resident Clint Eastwood once owned iconic watering hole Hog's Breath Inn, and he actually served as the city's mayor in the late 80s. The quirky seaside village feels distinctly European -- you’ll find nary a chain restaurant, and there are no street addresses.
But the scenic route down to Carmel on Highway 1 -- debatably the most gorgeous road in our fair country -- might actually upstage Clint's stomping grounds. Roll your windows down. Smell the clean salt air. Savor the drive and leave plenty of time to pull over and take in the misty view. Opt for a ride that’s both ridiculously fun and kind to the earth like, say, the Chevy Bolt EV (there are plenty of charging stations along the way, worry not). Before you reach Carmel, stop over in Salinas, John Steinbeck country, with a trip to his childhood home (now a museum). If it’s heavy-duty R&R you require, the expansive Bernadus Lodge & Spa is tucked away in the Carmel Valley, where you’ll wine and dine on ingredients sourced from the property’s gorgeous gardens.
Don't leave without: Even if you couldn't tell a five-iron from a life size cutout of Phil Mickelson (hint: one has hair), a stop at nearby Pebble Beach is a must, if only to cruise through the bafflingly scenic 17-Mile-Drive. It snakes through the world-class golf course, winding down beachside roads that provide picturesque backdrops that certainly need no filters.
San Luis Obispo, California
Distance from SF: 231 miles; a 3 1/2-hour drive
SLO is the happiest city in America, and you like happiness. The first place you’ll find it is at the Madonna Inn -- get a room here. It has 110 themed rooms (Love Nest, Golfer’s Room, and Rock Bottom are just three to choose from), world-famous cakes, and, in case that didn’t convince you, a urinal that activates a waterfall when you break a beam of light with your pee. The second place to find joy is in the awesome craft breweries, and since you surely don’t want to drive to all of them, there’s a “pub on wheels” called the Hop On Beer Tour that will take you to the best ones.
If drinking copious amounts of booze and activating waterfalls with your urine isn’t quite doing it for you, the other places you’ll find happiness in SLO are on the beaches, the hiking trails, and in the restaurants. Hang out on the sand with a good book or take a kayak or SUP tour to the historic Point San Luis Lighthouse. You could also check out Bishop's Peak -- the most popular hike in SLO, and only a 1 1/2-hour hike to the top (depending on if you do it before or after you visit all of those breweries). As far as bites go, the halibut tacos and the shrimp tacos at Papi’s Grill are some of the best seafood tacos you’ll ever put in your mouth.
Don’t leave without: Unwinding at the Sycamore Resort Hot Springs & Spa. You can rent a naturally heated, open-air mineral spring hot tub or the private waterfall lagoon. And if that doesn’t do the job, there’s also a spa where you can get massages, facials, and other body treatments.
Distance from SF: 126 miles; a 2 1/2-hour drive
Gualala (pronounced “wha-la-la”) is a chill coastal town in Mendocino where people really go to do not a whole hell of a lot. Pack a picnic and float in a kayak down the Gualala River (the weather is oddly sunny there despite its location), take a leisurely whale-watching hike along the oceanfront bluffs of Gualala Point Regional Park, and see the century-old trees with stunted growth in the pygmy forest in Salt Point State Park.
Once you’ve gotten all of the “do-ing” out of your system, head to your temporary home at Sea Ranch Lodge where you can stay in a room with ocean views, a cozy fireplace, and a private patio with a hot tub. The lodge also has a spa, a casual full-service bar, a great restaurant, and 50 miles of hiking trails.
Don’t leave without: Grabbing lunch or dinner at Bones Roadhouse, "a BBQ restaurant with Brews & Blues" and kick-ass views of the ocean.
Distance from SF: 122 miles; a 2 1/2-hour drive
You’re going to Williams for one reason and one reason only: hot springs. Wilbur Hot Springs Resort is the ideal location for getting totally blissed out, an expression you’ll actually be using without a hint of irony by the end of your weekend. The bathing area has natural, mineral hot springs with three different temperatures, a dry sauna, a cold pool, and a multi-tiered redwood deck where you can lounge… naked, if you wish. There’s also yoga, massages in a creek-side cabin, and everything else you’d expect of a retreat located in an 1,800-acre nature preserve. It's BYO food and booze, which means, yes, you’ll be cooking dinner next to the people you just saw butt naked an hour ago.
Don’t leave without: Walking to the Fountain of Life geyser on the property at some point. It’s unique for two reasons: 1) There are only 1,100 known geyers on the planet and half of those are in Yellowstone, and 2) it’s not steam-driven. What it is driven by is complicated, so just ask someone there who knows. It “erupts” every 45 minutes so with just a little patience, you’ll be sure to see water shooting into the air. Isn’t nature marvelous?
Distance from SF: 182 miles; a three-hour drive
Leggett is best known for the big ass tree you can drive through (AMERICA!), but it’s also a place where you can relive some of your best memories from summer camp. The way to do that is to stay at the Big Bend Lodge, a 1940s "resort" on the Eel River. The lodge has private beaches, a deep swimming hole, volleyball, horseshoes, basketball, pingpong, and a big campfire that everyone gathers around at night.
You’ll stay in a cabin with a full kitchen, a picnic table, and a grill (oh yes, you’re cooking your own food at this lodge). You’ll likely just want to hang on the property, but if you get antsy, it’s a short drive to Smithe Redwoods State Natural Reserve, which has fishing and swimming, as well as a 60-foot waterfall. Confusion Hill, a gravity house with optical contradictions, is also a quick drive and, of course, you have to pay five bucks to drive through the Drive-Thru Tree at some point.
Don’t leave without: Going to The Peg House, a popular stop for truckers and tourists. Grab a seriously delicious burger and listen to some live music.
Distance from SF: 57 miles; a 1 1/2-hour drive
This tiny Napa Valley town is the perfect way to experience the charm that is Napa, but without the annoying crowds and tourists. Plus, there’s really good food (Bouchon, Ad Hoc, Redd Wood), so you won’t even care that The French Laundry is out of your budget. While you’re there, soar above Napa Valley in a hot air balloon with Napa Valley Balloons ‘cause -- fun fact alert! -- ballooning is not only statistically the safest form of flight, it’s also the most amazing way to take in panoramic views of the valley and vineyards. Scared of heights? Suck it up and do it for the ’Gram.
Sip wine, swing in a hammock, and play bocce ball poolside at the Tuscan-style Napa Valley Lodge where you’ll be staying. It’s relatively affordable, within walking distance to everything, and has a legit continental breakfast with complimentary champagne. You can’t go to wine country and not go wine tasting, so at some point, hop on a bike and ride the 6-mile bike trail that stretches from Napa to Yountville and do some wine tasting at Laird Family Estate, Silenus, and Domaine Chandon. Too lazy to bike? Get an electric bike and let it do the hard work for you.
Don’t leave without: Stopping at Pancha’s, a true dive bar where the patrons are local, the drinks are strong, and somehow smoking is still allowed. Just bring cash ’cause this watering hole sure as hell does not accept your Visa.
Distance from SF: 217 miles; a 3 1/2-hour drive
NOTE: The Carr Fire burned 229,651 acres in and around Redding in the summer of 2018, making it one of the most destructive fires in California’s history. Though certain places like Whiskeytown National Recreation Area will be rebuilding for a while (39,000 of its 42,000 acres were burned), there are still a lot of fun things to see and do, and the city could use visitors now more than ever.
Redding gets overlooked as a NorCal road trip destination and that’s dumb. It has waterfalls, ghost towns, and crazy cool caverns that are almost as old as dinosaurs. There will be no do go chasing waterfalls jokes here, but that is what you should do when you get to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (sadly, it’s BYO whiskey). Take the “Whiskeytown Waterfall Challenge,” which requires you to do all four waterfall hikes in one day. Or do one waterfall hike and then spend the day swimming in and lounging by the lake. (Pro tip: You can also camp there.)
Unfortunately, as of September 2018, only the visitor center, East Beach, the Shasta Divide Nature Trail, and Whiskey Creek boat launch and picnic area are open in Whiskeytown. This is good news if you want to swim, kayak, or paddleboard. If you’re set on seeing a waterfall, Hatchett Falls and Lion Slide Falls are just a short drive away and, unlike the ones in Whiskeytown, at these falls, you can jump off of cliffs and lounge in swimming holes.
If you prefer walking into cliffs rather than jumping off of them, Lake Shasta Caverns are also worth a visit. You’ll take a catamaran cruise across the lake and then a bus ride 800 feet up the mountain to see the caverns that are almost 200 million years old and home to massive rooms full of stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and flowstone. Before you go, get breakfast or lunch at The CookHouse at Bay Bridge. It’s less than 15 minutes away and the views of the lake are amazing. Keep the “meal with a view” vibe going and eat dinner at View 202, a more upscale restaurant (especially for Redding) with views of the Sacramento River. Ask for a seat on the heated patio and get there before the sun goes down.
Want more of a water fix? There are a ton of places on Lake Shasta to rent fishing boats, ski boats, kayaks, and more, as well as a bunch of places to pull over and enjoy a picnic. If you want a 360 degree of everything Shasta, hike the Chemise Peak Trail, a relatively easy hike with rewarding views.
For a little bit of history, head to Shasta State Historic Park, a ghost town that was once a booming mining town during the Gold Rush and is now full of crumbling brick buildings and a courthouse museum that has been restored to its original appearance, including the courtroom, jail, and gallows. Just don’t rely on Google Maps to get you there; the park is on Highway 299 on the way to/from Whiskeytown. Please note: Much of this area is closed until further notice due to the Carr Fire, so be sure to check the website before going.
Don’t leave without: Exploring Turtle Bay Exploration Park. There’s a forestry and wildlife center with bobcats, pythons, and vultures, 200 acres of gardens, and one of the largest working sundials in the world.
Virginia City, Nevada
Distance from SF: 244 miles; a 4 1/2-hour drive
This legendary mining town is cheesy, charming, colorful, and actually didn’t spring up as a boomtown until 10 years after the gold rush when the Comstock Lode -- the first major discovery of silver ore in the US -- was made public in 1859. Today, it’s pretty much a tourist destination (trap?), but one worth putting on your bucket list (especially if you go in September to watch the Camel & Ostrich Races).
Grab a stool at any of the numerous Old West saloons lining the covered wooden sidewalks. There used to be 115 saloons for the 25,000 residents at the city’s peak population (in the 1870s); now there are about 15 within walking distance of each other. The Bonanza Saloon has a “100-mile view” overlooking the valley, Mark Twain hung out at the (now) haunted Gold Hill Saloon, and the Delta Saloon, home to the famous Suicide Table, is probably the oldest watering hole in Virginia City (1865).
After a drink or two, it’s all aboard the scenic V&T Railroad for a quick 4-mile train ride that includes a fully narrated tour to Gold Hill where the Comstock Era gold strikes began. After, go deep underground during a (cash only) tour of the Chollar Mine where miners carted out some $17 million in gold and silver. For those looking to learn even more about the history of Virginia City, the tourism commission website has different itineraries for places to check out on a self-guided walking tour.
Don’t leave without: Doing these two things: 1) stopping at one of the many old fashioned candy shops for fresh fudge or an ice cream cone. No need to look them up on a map. The smell will guide you. And 2) taking an “Old Time” photo at any of the stores in this “one street” town. When in a kitschy Gold Rush town, right?
Nevada City, California
Distance from SF: 155 miles; a 2 1/2-hour drive
Nevada City is a taste of what it might have been like in the Wild West, but with far fewer gun fights. It was once the most important mining town in CA, and today, many of the 19th-century downtown buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Since there is so much history there, you need to see some of it. A must-do is the Empire Mine, the site of the oldest, largest, and richest gold mine in California. Pack a picnic and pour one out for the 44 mules who spent their lives deep in the mines, pulling ore cars and never seeing the light of day. The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Rail Museum is a real mouthful, but also a cool place to learn about Nevada City’s transportation history and, the real reason you’re going, to take a train ride. And not one of those boring-ass kid train rides, but an actual 35-minute trip on a railbus that parallels a portion of the original route of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Once you get all of the learning out of the way, head to one of the nearby swimming holes. The one under the Old Highway 49 Bridge is popular for good reason, and there’s a solid chance you’ll get to see someone (illegally) do a backflip off of the bridge while you’re there. On your way back into town, stop at The Willo, a roadhouse where you can cook your own steak on the grill in the dining room (they’ll also cook it for you if you want, but c’mon). Even if you’re not hungry, grab a beer at the bar and talk to the locals who might even buy you a round. Maybe.
Drinks are also a must at The National Hotel, the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Rockies that looks pretty much the same now as it did then. Take your cocktail upstairs to the veranda that overlooks town because that’s the cool thing to do. Dinner’s either at Friar Tuck’s, a fondue restaurant with a Sherwood Forest theme or Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co. where you can get quality, wood-fired pizzas and house-brewed beer. As far as where you’ll be resting your head at night, there are hotels in town, but the Inn Town Campground, which is just a short walk from downtown, is a more adventurous option. You can pitch your own tent there or, the better choice, get a glamping tent with real beds, fresh towels, a gas fire pit, and electricity.
Don’t leave without: Stopping at Treats for a scoop (or two) of the handmade mint chip ice cream.
Distance from SF: 190 miles; four-hour drive
Downieville is a mountain bike mecca, but you don’t have to love the sport to justify a trip to this Gold Rush town (though it certainly helps). If you’re there to cover some terrain, stop by Downieville Outfitters to rent a bike or just chat with the folks who work there about which trails to hit. For those who prefer not to chance flipping over a bike’s handlebars and breaking their face, there are are tons of hidden lakes all around Downieville. Stop into the local wine bar or pub (the only two drinking establishments in town) to get a local’s advice about where to go. If fishing and canoeing are your thing, Packer Lake Lodge can hook you up. Terrible pun intended.
The hike to Love’s Falls should also be on everyone’s Downieville itinerary. It’s short, super easy, and ends with a waterfall -- what more could you want from a day hike?
Don’t leave without: Seeing the historic gallows that were built in 1885. It’s a bit macabre and it was only used once, but the fact it’s still standing is impressive.
San Juan Bautista, California
Distance from SF: 97 miles; a two-hour drive
So there’s not a ton to do in San Juan Bautista. But if you’re into California history, this quaint place is a must-visit in order to see Old Mission San Juan Bautista. This historic Spanish mission (founded in 1797) is what this agricultural town was named after, so you should absolutely take the $4 self-guided tour. The other big thing to do is shop, especially if you’re antiquing. And since shopping is exhausting, take a load off at Jardines afterwards, a Mexican restaurant with a romantic garden patio and several kinds of margaritas by the pitcher. If the margaritas don’t do it for you, head to Mom and Pop’s Saloon, a biker-friendly dive bar with no frills and great music.
Don’t leave without: Seeing the sea otters at Elkhorn Slough. Rent a kayak and paddle near harbor seals, baby otters, and all sorts of other wildlife and birds.
Patrick's Point State Park, California
Distance from SF: 300 miles; a 5 1/2-hour drive
It’s a long drive to this tiny state park, but the redwood trees, wild flower-covered meadows, and staggering shoreline make it all worth it. And you should be into camping. Pitching a tent in the spruce forest at Patrick’s Point for a couple of nights is pretty much a requirement. For the late-night crowd, Moonstone Beach is a picturesque place to catch the sunset and relax (go there during low tide to find the hidden caves). After you’ve worked up an appetite, Moonstone Grill is the place to go for craft cocktails, broiled oysters, and molten chocolate lava cake.
Don’t leave without: Checking out the tide pools at Palmer’s Point (go at low tide to see ochre sea stars, giant green Pacific anemone, nudibranchs, and more) and roll through Sumêg Village, a reconstructed Yurok village, where you’ll see traditional family houses, a sweathouse, changing houses, a redwood canoe, and a native plant garden.
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