Perfect Summer Road Trips for When You Need to Escape San Francisco

Escape the fog and head to wine country, the Central California coast, national parks, and more.

Summer in SF is notoriously not summery at all, which is something we can overlook a lot of the time, but only if we plan lots and lots of road trips to escape the city’s infamous June, July, and August fog, wind, and bone-chilling cold. Luckily, it literally only takes a short drive to find sunshine in all of its glorious forms, so even if you can’t get away for an entire weekend, a quick jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge should do the trick. But if you can get away for the weekend, these getaways will provide relaxation and respite from our unseasonably cold weather. Whether you want to sip wine, relax in a mineral pool, catch some waves, kayak with sea otters, or hike to a waterfall, there’s somewhere fun for you to explore on this list.

Tahoe City
Photo courtesy of Tahoe City Downtown Association

Distance from SF: 200 miles; 3.5-hour drive

Winter can be hectic in Tahoe, with every skier and snowboarder from across the entire West Coast heading there for fresh snow and epic runs. In the summer, however, Tahoe has something for everyone (boating, rafting, sunbathing, hiking, mountain biking, day drinking), with minimal crowds. We love Truckee in the winter, but in the summer, you want to be close to the lake, so book a hotel in Tahoe City. Sunnyside Restaurant & Lodge is a great option right on the lake, and Basecamp is a more affordable(ish) option that’s right across the street from the lake. Our personal preference is to avoid South Lake in the summer at all costs—the traffic and crowds instantly ruin any chance of relaxation; plus, if you’re itching to try your luck at the casinos, you can always head to Crystal Bay on the North Shore’s Stateline.

Obviously, the best part of Tahoe in the summer is the lake. Take advantage of the sparkling blue water by renting a speed boat or save on gas and opt for a kayak or SUP instead. If you’re not much of a water person, take in the views while enjoying a meal or drinks on the water. The deck at the aforementioned Sunnyside is always a fun time, as is Jake’s on the Lake. If you want to really lean into (and possibly fall over into) the day drinking scene, Chambers Landing and Grill is the spot. Pull up in a taxi or your boat and just know that while drinking one of the famous punches is mandatory, drinking two is borderline dangerous.

Tahoe City is also home to the mouth of the Truckee River (the Lake’s sole outlet), so make a reservation to go river rafting and be sure to leave plenty of time to hang out and have drinks and burgers on the River Ranch patio, which is conveniently exactly where your float will end.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Tahoe City.

Photo by Tracy Shaun

Distance from SF: 30 miles; 1-hour drive

The locals in this unincorporated coastal town would prefer their home not make a road trip list, but Bolinas is too quirky and adorable, and its beach too inviting to leave off. If you’ve been wanting to learn how to surf and aren’t afraid of cold water or Great Whites, Bolinas is one of the best NorCal spots to paddle out, especially in the summer when the waves are safe and beginner-friendly. Rent your wetsuit and board at 2 Mile Surf Shop (where you can also book a lesson). If you prefer your adventures to occur on land, head to the Palomarin Trailhead and set off on the 13-mile round trip hike to Alamere Falls, one of only two tide falls in California.

As far as meals go, Bolinas only has a couple of options. Eleven, a sister-owned restaurant and wine bar, is where you’ll go for natural wine and fancy pizza. Coast Cafe is ideal for a leisurely lunch (oysters, fish tacos, and carrot cake for dessert). And Smiley’s Saloon, Hotel & Kitchen, a 170-year-old bar that claims to be the oldest in California, is your evening destination for live music, strong drinks, and Mexican food. It’s also one of your two options for a hotel room for the night. (The Grand Hotel, a creaky old house-turned-antique shop, is the other, though Bolinas is now home to Airbnbs, much to the chagrin of the people who live there.)

There’s really no reason to leave Bolinas for the weekend, but if you do get antsy or want other food options, Stinson Beach is six miles away by car. There you’ll find a much more spacious, gorgeous white sand beach (which, unlike so many of our beaches is actually good for swimming, assuming you can stand the freezing cold water), the trailhead to the famous 14-mile round-trip Dipsea Trail, which has some of the best views you’ll ever get on a hike, art galleries, and a handful of restaurants including the Parkside Cafe (sit in the garden and definitely order the Oysters Au Gratin), Sand Dollar Restaurant (great for live music), and Breakers Cafe (perfect for cocktails and tacos on the patio).

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Bolinas.

Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn
Photo courtesy of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn

Distance from SF: 45 miles; 1-hour drive

It’s hard not to turn a NorCal road trip into an outdoor adventure excursion, but sometimes you just want a vacation that’s all about sunshine and relaxation. If that’s the case, look no further than the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. Okay, yes, this hotel and spa is in Sonoma, which means you can (and probably should) go wine tasting—Imagery Estate Winery, B.R. Cohn, and Hanzell Vineyards are nearby and there are a bunch of tasting rooms in downtown Sonoma. But, it’s also a hotel that you could easily never leave for the duration of your stay, assuming you’re into a spa, which, who isn’t into a spa?

But the Fairmont Sonoma is a hotel that you could easily never leave for the duration of your stay, in no small part due to the 40,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor spa that’s one of the best we’ve been to in Northern California (or anywhere, for that matter). That’s mostly because it sits on an ancient thermal mineral spring that flows from 1,100 feet below the resort into five pools that range from 92 to 102 degrees. The mineral waters are known for their healing powers, and even if you don’t buy into that, it’s simply a fact that hanging out in and by pools all day will chill you out. The spa also has a Roman-style bathhouse where you can enjoy a sauna, steam room, hot tub, and soaking pool before or after whichever treatment you’ve decided to indulge in (besides the usual massages and facials, the spa also offers tarot card readings and chakra balancing). If you’re with a group, splurge and get a cabana where you can have lunch delivered, sip on champagne, and escape from the sunshine, a thing you may actually want to do despite the fact that you’ll miss it desperately as soon as you return to SF.

Also, in case that non-stop relaxing is starting to be not-so-relaxing, you can also hit the links. A stay at the Fairmont Sonoma also gets you access to the Sonoma Golf Club, a private club that is considered to be “a genuine classic from the golden age of golf course architecture.” Other hotel perks include rooms with fireplaces, live music on the lawn, winemaker dinners, wine tastings, and multiple bar and restaurant options because sometimes the best vacation is one where you just get to stay put.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Sonoma.

Distance from SF: 145 miles; 3.5-hour drive

Summer is definitely the most hectic time to visit Yosemite Valley, but it’s still a great time to explore the least-visited part of Yosemite: Hetch Hetchy Valley and Wapama Falls (one of the least crowded falls in the park). It was one of John Muir’s favorite parts of the park and happens to look like a miniature version of the famous valley. Plus, you’ll get an up-close look at the (controversial) dam that’s the source of SF’s amazingly clean water.

Hetch Hetchy isn’t the only reason to make Groveland, a historic Gold Rush town, your home base for your visit. A stay at Rush Creek Lodge, Yosemite’s first new lodge in over 25 years, which has so much fun stuff you won’t want to leave the property, is another one. There are several dining options, including a lively tavern; a general store where you can get snacks, gear, and souvenirs; a huge pool that’s heated year-round; two hot tubs (including one that’s just for adults); the best spa you’ll find anywhere around Yosemite with warm waterfall coves, a Himalayan salt sauna, skincare and massage treatments, and more; all kinds of activities like ping-pong, s’mores by the firepits, hammocks, cornhole, and fitness classes; and guided trips to the park.

If you prefer slightly more rustic accommodations, the Evergreen Lodge, which celebrated its 100th birthday last year, is just down the road. Originally built to house the workers who were building the dam, it has been transformed into a resort (think Kellerman's Resort from Dirty Dancing only in Northern California), with cabins scattered among pine trees, a lodge, tavern, and general store, a year-round swimming pool and hot tub, live music, massage treatments, and more. Other places to visit in Yosemite that are close to Groveland and don’t get as many tourists include the Tuolumne Grove, which has two dozen mature giant sequoias, and Tuolumne Meadows.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Groveland.

Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa
Calistoga Motor Lodge and Spa

Distance from SF: 75 miles; 1.5-hour drive

We love Calistoga because you can find everything you love about Napa—amazing wine, gourmet food, and gorgeous scenery—but with fewer tourists, more relaxed vibes, and often a lower price point. Plus, you also get the option to relax and rejuvenate in the area’s famous geothermal hot springs and mud baths. Calistoga has a slew of amazing places to stay. Our faves include the Calistoga Motor Lodge & Spa, which has a traditional spa with mud baths, three mineral pools that are fed directly from hot springs, adult swim hours, and a fantastic on-site restaurant, Fleetwood, which is all about wood-fired cuisine and excellent cocktails. The recently renovated and full-of-retro-vibes Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs is also an excellent option (as is its restaurant, House of Better, which serves Southwestern fare and crazy good Green Chile Apple Pie), and you can never go wrong with Indian Springs, which has enormous pools (including one that is adults-only), a great spa, and one of the town’s most popular restaurants, Sam’s Social Club.

Other restaurants to check out include Evangeline, a cozy French bistro; Solbar, a classic, elevated wine country restaurant; Lovina, a woman-owned, casual fine dining restaurant that’s great for brunch; and Sam’s General Store, a charming coffee and sandwich shop inside of the last-standing cottage in its original location built by the legendary founder of Calistoga, Samuel Brannan.

For wine tasting, check out Tamber Bey Vineyards, part-winery, part-equestrian facility; Chateau Montelena, a historic property styled after an English Gothic castle; Theorem Vineyards, which has breathtaking views and historic buildings; and Tank Garage Winery, known for being housed in a 1930s-era gas station and serving limited-release blends.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Calistoga.

Pinnacles National Park
The Pinnacles Campground

Distance from SF: 125 miles; 2.5-hour drive

If you like being at the forefront of outdoor adventuring, then get yourself to California’s newest national park at Pinnacles, which many people still don’t know about. Pinnacles had previously been a national monument prior to getting official national park status in 2013. The park is divided into mountainous East and West areas, all connected by foot trails. The distinctive rocky spires are a result of ancient volcanic activity, as the park is located near the San Andreas fault. There are also three caves to explore, though check the status before going, as flooding, rockfalls, and sensitive Townsend’s big-eared bat populations can cause closures. Pinnacles also houses a California Condor reestablishment program, so bring your binoculars for some majestic bird-watching.

There are campgrounds in the park, but no hotels, so if you need something more than a sleeping bag and tent to snooze, check out the luxury bed-and-breakfast on a vineyard with soaking tubs and gas fireplaces at the Inn at the Pinnacles in Soledad, just a six-minute drive south of the West Pinnacles visitor station. For a hearty dinner near the Inn after a day of hiking, try Cocuyo’s, a cute family-run Mexican joint in a bright turquoise house, where sizzling shrimp fajitas and vibrant homemade salsas fill your belly with warmth. If you exit from the east side visitors entrance, The Inn Tres Pinos in San Benito County, half an hour’s drive north, offers grilled wild salmon and roast rack of lamb in a casual country ambiance.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Pinnacles National Park.

bodega bay
Flickr/Ruthie Bitton

Distance from SF: 68 miles; 2-hour drive

You’ll have a bodacious ball in Bodega Bay, and it’s not just because of the alliterative possibilities. The chill vibes of Northern California beaches never get old, and what Bodega Bay brings to the (quiet) party is serene isolation, film history, and a plethora of fresh seafood. If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s avian horror film The Birds, get on over to multiple sites that Hitchcock’s crew either filmed on location or replicated for the movie set. The Potter Schoolhouse, five miles south in Bodega, is Instagrammable from the outside only, as it has become a private residence since filming took place in 1963. However, The Tides Wharf & Restaurant, at The Inn at the Tides, is a real eatery from the movie where you can scarf down a whole local Dungeness crab or zesty cioppino and snap as many photos as you like. Turns out Bodega Bay is actually great for bird-watching in real life, too, so get ready to see tons of pelicans, herons, and hawks. (Aside from the Inn at the Tides, with its bay views and sauna, also consider staying at the Bodega Bay Lodge, which has outdoor fire pits, a bocce ball court, and complimentary beach cruiser bike rentals.)

If you’re looking for a little more action, rent a kayak from Bodega Bay Kayak to paddle around the Bay. Bodega Head is excellent for those looking for a super mellow hike, and Pomo Canyon Trail to Shell Beach is slightly more challenging at seven miles round-trip. Whichever you choose, reward yourself with a flight of wine at Gourmet au Bay, which is right on the water and has a cozy deck with awesome views.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Bodega Bay.

Hotel Healdsburg
Hotel Healdsburg

Distance from SF: 68 miles; 1.25-hour drive

This vibrant town of Sonoma is close to San Francisco, so you can spend less time in the car and more time eating and drinking some of the best things that wine country has to offer. Healdsburg is nestled amongst three of Sonoma County’s best-known wine-growing regions of Dry Creek, Alexander, and Russian River valleys, guaranteeing a great spread of wine tasting. Start your trip with lunch at a winery just outside of the town center at either Jordan Winery, where you can experience tours followed by tastings (paired with food, if desired) under the shade of oak trees (or indoors if you prefer), or Bricoleur Vineyards, an idyllic off-the-beaten-path winery where you can enjoy all kinds of tasting (including a six-course pairing menu) and enjoy the 40-acre park-like estate.

Once in town, it’s all about eating and drinking, which you’ll want to do on the Bravas Bar de Tapas patio with a pitcher of sangria; at Barndiva, which has two gardens in which to enjoy farm-fresh American fare and creative cocktails; and at Healdsburg’s hottest new dining destination, The Matheson, a multi-level eating and drinking mecca from chef/owner Dustin Valette that is a restaurant, sushi kitchen, wine lounge, and rooftop cocktail lounge all-in-one. Whichever experience you opt for, be sure to start (or finish) in the wine lounge, where you can take a self-guided tour of Sonoma wines via the pour-it-yourself wine wall. (His namesake restaurant is also very much worth a visit.)

We love staying at Hotel Healdsburg, which is right on the square, because of its tranquil and sizable garden pool area, stylish rooms, and spa, but if you’re looking for something slightly more budget-friendly, h2hotel is a great option.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Healdsburg.

Olea Hotel
Olea Hotel

Distance from SF: 50 miles; 1-hour drive

The charming village of Glen Ellen may be tiny, but it has everything one could need for a pandemic getaway, including luxurious accommodations, delicious food, wine tasting, and outdoor adventures. Regarding the former, you’ll want to book a room at the recently renovated Olea Hotel. First, the guest rooms are secluded and romantic (all of the rooms are fantastic, but get a garden cottage if you can afford the splurge). Next, there’s a pool and hot tub area that’s open 24 hours a day. And, last, but most important: Olea Hotel has one of the best breakfasts you will ever eat. The complimentary two-course gourmet breakfast changes and is delicious. The breakfast buffet reopened this past spring, so you can also add granola, yogurt, and fresh fruit to your already-filling two-course meal.

At least one dinner (if not two) must be eaten on the heated patio of the Glen Ellen Star, which is right down the road from the Olea Hotel and specializes in wood-fired dishes. It’s a lot of carbs, but you should order both the house-baked bread and a pizza. Also some vegetables (try the cauliflower with tahini, almonds, and sumac). As far as wine tasting goes, make a reservation (required) at Benziger Family Winery for the Tribute Estate Tour, a private tour of the biodynamic farm with tastings along the way, as well as a seated al fresco tasting at the end. Imagery Estate Winery, known for crafting rare wines, is also open for both indoor and outdoor tastings, and picnics on the lawn. Finally, if you’re looking to get some exercise paired with a history lesson, Jack London State Historic Park, where the writer lived, worked, and is buried, is two miles away. The museum is open again, and don’t forget to also enjoy the trails and picnic areas.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay in Glen Ellen.

Madonna Inn
Madonna Inn

Distance from SF: 231 miles; 3.5-hour drive

SLO was once named the happiest city in America, and who doesn’t need a little happiness these days? The first place you’ll find it is at the Madonna Inn where you should stay at least once in your life (so, why not now?). It has 110 themed rooms (Antique Cars, Jungle Rock, and Caveman are three of many), world-famous cakes, a pool with a bar on a stunning hilltop, and perhaps the most compelling—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, which offer tons of locally made adult beverages, from double IPAs to sour beers. Oak and Otter BrewingCentral Coast Brewing, and Liquid Gravity Brewing are just a few of them, all of which offer stomach-lining, beer-friendly food such as bready pretzels and fried chicken sandwiches.

If drinking copious amounts of beer and waterfall urinals aren’t quite your thing, the other places you’ll find happiness in SLO are on the beaches, the hiking trails, and on restaurant patios. Hang out on the sand with a good book or check out Bishop's Peak—the most popular hike in SLO, and only a hour-and-a-half hike to the top. As far as bites go, the halibut tacos and the shrimp tacos at Papi’s Grill a few miles south in Pismo Beach are some of the best seafood tacos you’ll ever put in your mouth.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay in San Luis Obispo.

Costanoa Lodge
Costanoa Lodge

Distance from SF: 46 miles; 1-hour drive

Pescadero is the NorCal version of spending a day by the seaside, which means all the beauty of the ocean, but with a side of wind and cooler temps. Like most destinations around these parts, popular activities are geared toward the outdoors. Butano State Park has 40 miles of hiking trails amongst the redwoods, though only some of the trails are open now, and the campgrounds are closed. Try a Costanoa Lodge tent bungalow or cabin for a place to stay. It’s like camping if camping were at an eco-adventure resort with 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, and offers tours; and the 115-foot Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which started guiding ships in 1872 and is one of the tallest in the country. Visitors aren’t allowed to go inside due to ongoing renovations, though. Regardless, do not go home without getting the renowned artichoke garlic herb country-style bread from Arcangeli Grocery Co. 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.
Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Pescadero.

Timber Cove Resort Sonoma Coast
Timber Cove Resort Sonoma Coast

Distance from SF: 77 miles; 1.5-hour drive

Jenner’s rugged cliffs, dramatic ocean views, and isolated beaches are so very quintessential Northern California, as will be your experience when you make your way to this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town on Highway 1. You can make this excursion as relaxing or activity-filled as you want, but no matter what you choose, you’ll definitely be communing with nature in the best way possible. Start your trip by checking in at Timber Cove, a resort hotel with rustic and retro vibes perched on a bluff above the Pacific. Slide some vinyl on the record player in your room, turn on the fireplace, and enjoy a glass of wine before heading out to explore the property or play a game of ping pong in the outdoor living room. After that, enjoy the sunset during dinner at Coast Kitchen, the hotel’s oceanfront restaurant, followed by a drink around the communal fire pit.

If you don’t just want to lounge around the whole time you’re there, Jenner is home to tons of gorgeous beaches and state parks, perfect for hiking or kayaking, as well as Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, the closest vineyard to the Pacific Ocean in California, which overlooks the ocean and is surrounded by forest. Try the wine tasting and food pairing, a menu of locally-sourced, small bites paired with four estate-grown wines, which can be served on the deck for maximum food, wine, and view enjoyment.

Airbnb options: Find a great place to stay near Jenner.

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based freelance writer who recently braved leaving the house during the pandemic for a mini-holiday in Healdsburg. 10/10. Would do again. Follow her on Instagram to see where the open road takes her next.
Margot Seeto is a Bay Area freelance writer and a contributor for Thrillist.