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The Best Beach Road Trips From San Francisco

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Pacific Coast Highway
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There’s nothing better than packing up the car and heading to the beach... Even if in Northern California that means packing up the car with puffy jackets, hats, gloves, wool socks, and lots of blankets. Sure, our beaches aren’t always sunny and warm with water in which you can frolic, but they’re still pretty kick ass, especially these ones, all of which have gorgeous views, beautiful sunsets -- and a few other incredible surprises you won’t want to miss.

Half Moon Bay

Distance from SF: 30 miles; 45 minute drive
Why: Steep cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, small town charm, and adorable marine life.
Three things to do while you’re there:
1. If it’s in the budget, splurge and stay at the Ritz-Carlton, which sits right on a bluff overlooking the ocean and has one of the most beautiful golf courses in the Bay Area. If a stay there just isn’t in the cards, make a plan to pop by and sip wine on The Ocean Terrace next to a fire pit while watching the sunset.
2. Get back in the saddle. Sea Horse Ranch offers guided beach and trail rides for all levels of horseback riders. A two-hour ride on the bluffs above the ocean and the beach costs under a hundred bucks and is totally worth every penny.
3. Go sea kayaking. Half Moon Bay Kayak Co. rents kayaks, stand up paddle boards, and bikes, but you’ll want to go with the kayak, as it’s the perfect way to explore Pillar Point Harbor and hang out with the friendly seals who live around here. It’s $25 an hour to rent and two hours is plenty. After you’re finished, walk to Sam’s Chowder House where you can get a tasty lobster roll while taking in the view.

Bodega Bay

Distance from SF: 70 miles; 1.5 hour drive
Why: The coastline is stunning, the food is good, and it’s kind of romantic, if you’re into that. Also, it’s where Hitchcock shot The Birds, which is probably what we should have lead with.
Three things to do while you’re there:
1. Paddle around Bodega Bay. We swear we’re not going to suggest you kayak at every town on this list, but in many cases, it really is the best way to really see the water and marine life. Bodega Bay Kayak will hook you up with everything you need. It’s less than $50 for a four hour trip.
2. Go on a hike. There are tons of hikes with great views of the cliffs and waters -- maybe even a whale if you’re lucky. Bodega Head is excellent for lazy hikers who just want some good Instagram pics, as it’s almost completely flat, while Pomo Canyon Trail to Shell Beach is a moderate hike that offers a little bit of everything, and will take you a little while; it’s almost 7 miles round-trip.
3. Sip a flight of wine at Gourmet au Bay, which is right on the water and has a cozy deck with awesome views, which is exactly what you need after all that kayaking and hiking.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Distance from SF: 320 miles; 5.5 hour drive
Why: Yeah, it’s a bit of a drive, but it’s worth it to see the coastal redwoods, wild sandy beaches, and huge open meadows where herds of elk hang out.
Three things to do while you’re there:
1. Camp at either Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, which is next to the sand dunes by the beach, or at Elk Prairie Campground, where you can sleep under redwoods and next to a meadow where the elk roam free. And then definitely have tent sex.
2. Hike through Fern Canyon, the 30ft walls of which are totally covered in ancient ferns that can be traced back 325 million years... this is also where Steven Spielberg filmed The Lost World: Jurassic Park. You should probably be more impressed by the former, but we won’t tell on you if you’re really just stoked on the latter.
3. Ride horses through the redwoods. Redwood Trails Horse Rides will guide you through the majestic old-growth redwoods for $45 an hour, or $300 for an all-day experience.

Stinson Beach

Distance from SF: 25 miles; 1 hour drive
Why: This gorgeous coastal town is totally walkable, but also a close drive to some other fun stuff to see and do.
Three things to do while you’re there:
1. Stay at the Steep Ravine Cabins, a group of wooden structures from the 1940s that are right on a cliff overlooking Stinson Beach. They don’t, um, offer running water, however. Eh, who needs to bathe on vacation, anyway?
2. Soak in the Steep Ravine hot springs. You’ll want to go at low tide, and be prepared for a pretty serious hike (the name exists for a reason, people). After, soak your body in this wild hot spring that’s popular with locals. This will also help make up for the lack of bathing.
3. Enjoy lunch outside at the Parkside Café and check out the cioppino and local music at the Sand Dollar later in the day.

Big Sur

Distance from SF: 145 miles; 3 hour drive
Why: It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the entire world -- it really doesn’t get better than this.
Three things to do while you’re there:
1. Sink your toes in the purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach, one of the best “secrets” along the California coastline.
2. Take photos of McWay Falls, a waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park that cascades directly onto the beach. And keep an eye out for California Condors.
3. Make reservations for the prix fixe lunch at the Post Ranch Inn (where you should also stay, if you’re a bazillionaire) and stock up on tasty sweet treats at the Big Sur Bakery.

Fort Bragg

Distance from SF: 170 miles; 3.5 hour drive
Why: Great views of the ocean, super-friendly people, and lots of really good beer.
Three things to do while you’re there:
1. Find a designated driver and hit up all of these amazing spots to drink in Mendocino, or skip the car and get cocktails at BarBelow (located inside the Union Lumber Company Store), then North Coast Brewing Company, both of which are right in town.
2. Have a picnic at Glass Beach, a former city trash dump site that magically (or, you know, because of science and stuff) produces beautiful sea glass. You’ll be tempted to take some home, but you won’t do it, because it’s illegal and ruins the beach for the next people. Right?
3. Ride the Skunk Train, a 131-year-old train that will take you over 40 miles of railroad through the redwoods and over thirty trestle bridges. All aboard!


Distance from SF: 130 miles; 2 hour drive
Why: White sand beaches, a European vibe, shops and art galleries, really good restaurants, and the fact that Clint Eastwood was once the mayor.
Three things to do while you’re there:
1. Drink cocktails at Mission Ranch. You may see Clint Eastwood (he’s the owner), but even if you don’t, the 22-acre ranch has amazing views of the Point Lobos, Carmel River State Beach, and the Pacific Ocean. Plus, you can watch sheep graze while you sip. Double plus, there’s a piano bar. Basically, you’re never going to want to leave.
2. Bike the 17-mile drive; it’s a lot shorter than you think. Promise. You can even rent bikes from Adventures by the Sea for $30 a day. Pack a picnic to enjoy along the way.
3. Go wine tasting in Carmel Valley Village. It’s about 11 miles outside of Carmel, but there are lots of good tasting rooms like Bernardus, Georis Winery, and Mercy Vineyards.

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer. Her favorite thing to do in life is go on road trips. Tell her where she should go next on Twitter @daisy