Perfect Winter Road Trips for When You Need to Escape San Francisco
From wine country escapes to serene mountain towns.
Winter in San Francisco isn’t usually so bad, but you may have noticed that thus far, this one has been a little less fun, dry, and warm than most, so if you’re itching to get out of town, we get it. That’s why we put together this list of spots that are all perfect for a winter getaway, even if it’s a little rainy, snowy, and chilly when you get there. Whether you want to sip wine at a fancy restaurant, soak in geothermal mineral pools, hike through snow-covered fields in a national park, bundle up and kayak with seals and otters, or just spend three days straight in a huge soaking tub while listening to vinyl on the record player and the crackling of a fire, there’s something for you on this list. What isn’t on this list is Tahoe because if you love to ski or snowboard, you don’t need us to tell you to take advantage of the record snowfall in the Sierras. Wherever you go, booster up, mask up, buckle up, and have fun!
Distance from SF: 145 miles; three-and-a-half-hour drive
All of the tourists flock to Yosemite in the summer, but those in-the-know head to the famed National Park in the winter when the crowds disappear, the wildlife comes out to play, and everything feels even more magical, which seems impossible but is absolutely true. There are a few great reasons to make Groveland, a historic Gold Rush town, your home base for your visit, the biggest of which is that you can stay at Rush Creek Lodge, Yosemite’s first new lodge in over 25 years, which has everything you could possibly need. 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 (ping-pong, s’mores by the firepits, hammocks, cornhole, fitness classes); and guided trips to the park. Rush Creek Lodge is also very close to Hetch Hetchy Valley, a lesser-visited part of Yosemite (that happens to look like a miniature version), but a place everyone should go, not just to see the dam that creates the source of SF’s amazingly clean water, but because there are cool hikes with gorgeous waterfalls.
If you prefer slightly more rustic accommodations, the Evergreen Lodge, which just celebrated its 100th birthday, 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, while you’ll have to use cross-country skis to get there in the winter, Tuolomne Meadows.
Distance from SF: 75 miles; one-and-a-half-hour drive
If you’re not obsessed with crowds, lines, and sunburns, but you do love wine country, then you’ll love visiting Napa in the winter when you can get all of the things you love—amazing wine, gourmet food, and gorgeous scenery—but with fewer tourists, more relaxed vibes, and often a significantly lower price point. Calistoga is an especially amazing winter wine country getaway because you can get all of that stuff and 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: 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.
Distance from SF: 125 miles, two-and-a-half 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. Currently, the park is open for day use, and luckily, the visitors’ centers and campgrounds are also open. However, shuttle services within the park are closed.
No hotels are located in the park, 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 Cocuyos, 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
Distance from SF: 68 miles; two-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.
Distance from SF: 68 miles; one-hour and 15-minute 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.
Distance from SF: 50 miles; one-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
Distance from SF: 231 miles; three-and-a-half 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 Brewing, Central 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
Distance from SF: 46 miles; one-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.
Distance from SF: 77 miles; one and a half-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. The winery recently introduced a new 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.
Margot Seeto is a Bay Area freelance writer and a contributor for Thrillist.