7 NorCal winter road trips for non-skiers
There's basically only one place anyone who lives in SF goes during the winter, and that's Tahoe. Which is because Tahoe is amazing. And because everyone skis or snowboards. Except, apparently, you. And hey: we're not judging. Especially since it's probably your parents' fault for not forcing you into loving what is one of the most ridiculously expensive sports in the entire world that often results in serious injuries. Wait. Maybe you're actually onto something?
ANYWAY, you don't ski or snowboard, but that doesn't mean you don't still like to have fun and get out of town once in a while, even though it's winter, right? And you deserve happiness just as much as your friend who spent $850 on a season pass and another $2,000 on a ski lease. Maybe even MORE so. Which is why you should get your butt in the car and head to one of these sweet vacation spots where you definitely, absolutely do not have to ski. But you definitely, absolutely will have a ton of fun and eat a lot of good food and drink a lot of good drinks.
Yosemite National Park
Distance from SF: 200 miles; 3.5-hour drive
Why you want to go there this winter: Yosemite is hands-down one of the world’s best parks and it’s seriously right in our backyard. If you enjoy gushing waterfalls that freeze at night (seriously), an abundance of wildlife (the bears in Yosemite don’t hibernate), hiking, snowshoeing, ice skating, and snow tubing, you’ll love Yosemite. Or you can go there in Jan/Feb, curl up by a fireplace, play a bunch of board games, eat everything at Yosemite’s Chef's Holidays, and never, ever leave The Ahwahnee.
Distance from SF: 275 miles; 4-hour drive
Why you want to go there this winter: First, this is a potentially active volcano which makes it destination-worthy in and of itself. Second, it's the fifth tallest peak in California, which fine, maybe isn't as impressive. But, it’s crazy cool to look at it, because it’s not connected to any other mountains, so it’s just like: woah. Also, you can dog sled there, or go hang out in McCloud -- an adorable old mill town where you can hit up the candy store before you square dance. What?! Also, there's a nanobrewery/pizzeria called Siskiyou Brew Works. So just go there (after the candy store, in case that wasn't clear).
Distance from SF: 47 miles; 1-hour drive
Why you want to go there this winter: Just ‘cause the vines are dormant doesn’t mean the wine isn’t still flowing. Even better, since it’s the off-season, there will be way fewer tourists, which means you’ll have a much better chance of talking to the winemakers and snagging a table at any number of Napa’s best restaurants (Redd, Morimoto Napa, The French Laundry...). Also, hotel prices won't be astronomical (try to get one with a fireplace because: winter! And wine!). Lastly, while there aren’t grapes on the vines, Napa is really Instagrammable from January-March, thanks to the bright yellow mustard flowers that blanket the valley floor. #humblebrag
Distance from SF: 153 miles; 2.5-hour drive
Why you want to go there this winter: Sure, you could go to Big Sur in the summer when everyone else does and it becomes an RV parking lot, OR you could go there in the winter, the season in which it’s actually best to visit. Migrating whales, elephant seals, and monarch butterflies are EVERYWHERE (if they can travel THOUSANDS of miles, you can definitely drive for 150), and if you’re lucky, you’ll also catch a glimpse of sea otters and California condors, both of which have nearly gone extinct.
The best part is that you can see all of these things AND still somehow do nothing at all. And by nothing at all, we mean eat good food and drink plenty of beer and wine. Grab a steak at Nepenthe (open since 1949) and beers at the Big Sur Taphouse.
Indian Springs, Calistoga
Distance from SF: 74 miles; 1.5-hour drive
Why you want to go there this winter: What’s the one thing you hate about winter? Besides that football ends? Being cold. You know what isn’t cold? Hot springs. The mineral pools at Indian Springs are heated by four thermal geysers depending on the season, which means the Olympic-size pool will be 102 degrees in winter (there’s a smaller, adults-only pool as well). They also have a spa where you can get massages and mud baths.
Then, when you’re sick of relaxing (?!?), head into town for lunch at Buster’s Southern BBQ, a fancy (Michelin-Starred, yo) dinner at Solbar, and probably also drinks at Susie’s, Napa Valley’s oldest bar.
South Lake Tahoe
Distance from SF: 188 miles; 3-hour drive
Why you want to go there this winter: Okay, we get it. You DON'T ski. But that’s the glory of South Lake. You don’t need to ski because you can spend all day (and night) in the casinos. There’s also ice skating at Heavenly Village, lake cruises, snowmobiling, year-round fishing, helicopter rides, and last but definitely not least: dog sledding. Also, you know: probably just gambling.
Distance from SF: 487 miles; 7.5-hour drive (or 1.5-hour flight!)
Why you want to go there this winter: Because it's not 120 degrees there in the winter? And sure, you probably have to get on a plane, but if you want legit sunshine you're gonna have to leave Northern California. Book a few nights at new-ish boutique hotel Sparrows Lodge (bonus: it actually looks like a Tahoe cabin! Double bonus: the hot tub stays open 24/7!!!!), do drinks at Bar (ask them if you can check out the incredible croquet court out back), other drinks at Amigo Room inside the Ace (where you can hot tub even if you're not staying there), BBQ at also-new Smoke Tree, and more drinks at brand-new Bootlegger Tiki.
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Daisy Barringer is Thrillist's SF Editor and, though she won't be doing any of these things because she does snowboard, she has to say that the candy and beer situation in McCloud is pretty tempting. Follow her into winter on Twitter @daisy.