Perfect Northern California Road Trips for When You Need to Escape

Get in the car—Northern California's beauty is calling.

While San Francisco has plenty to do, from eating at amazing restaurants, imbibing at fabulous bars, exploring a wealth of cultural capital, or even finding a peaceful corner to appreciate everything that makes this city so great, sometimes a change of scenery is necessary. And that’s when you know it’s time for a road trip. Luckily, this is Northern California, and we’ve got it all. Charming mountain town? Check. Rugged national parks? Check. Coastal oases? Check. You get it. Whether you’re looking to sip wine, knock back a few beers, bike down a mountain, hike along an oceanside bluff, soar through the sky in a hot air balloon, spend the day relaxing in a spa, or enjoy the beauty that is this extraordinary state, you’re sure to find it on this list of some of our best weekend getaways from San Francisco.

Best Weekend Getaways from San Francisco: Bodega Bay California
Bodega Bay | Flickr/Ruthie Bitton

Distance from SF: 1 hour and 30 minutes
These tiny towns along the Sonoma Coast encapsulate NorCal’s chill vibes with seaside serenity and seafood. This particular road trip lends itself to nonstop eating and drinking, but if you want to get in a bit of exercise first, you can take a kayaking tour or hike the coastal bluffs. After your outdoor adventure, head directly to lunch at The Marshall Store. Get oysters, the daily special, and a gigantic chocolate chip cookie. 

If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 avian horror film The Birds, head to Bodega Bay to see sites that Hitchcock’s crew either filmed at or replicated for the movie set, including The Potter Schoolhouse and The Tides Wharf & Restaurant at The Inn at the Tides. The latter is a real eatery from the movie where you can scarf down seafood and snap as many photos as you like. Turns out Bodega Bay is great for bird-watching in real life, too, so get ready to see tons of pelicans, herons, and hawks.

Where to stay: It doesn’t get better or cuter than Dillon Beach Resort, a historic dog-friendly property with stylish, comfy, and well-appointed Tiny Homes overlooking the ocean with gigantic picture windows so you don’t miss a second of the fantastic view. This is the perfect spot for a cozy, romantic getaway, but some cabins sleep up to six and are great for families. The cabins and cottages have everything you need to cook a meal yourself, but you’ll want to enjoy at least one meal at the on-site restaurant, Coastal Kitchen, a seasonally-driven restaurant inspired by “farm and sea” that serves lunch and dinner. There’s also a sizeable and well-curated general store with fancy snacks, beer, wine, surf gear, picnic supplies, and adorable gifts and souvenirs. You also get access to a mile of private beach with fire pits, perfect for a relaxing day or evening.

Distance from SF: 3 hours and 30 minutes
If you love Yosemite Valley, check out the lesser-visited Hetch Hetchy Valley and Wapama Falls. These were John Muir’s favorite parts of the park, and they look like miniature versions 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.

Rent a Jeep from Miller’s Off-Road Adventures for an up close and personal look at the pristine Stanislaus National Forest outside the park with a bumpy but guided tour. Afterward, grab a drink at the Iron Door Saloon, “the longest continually operating saloon in all of California.” A few places make this claim, but we’re happy to support them all, one drink at a time. Speaking of drinking, Around the Horn Brewing Company is another great stop for plenty of locally brewed beer.

Where to stay: Hetch Hetchy isn’t the only reason to make this historic Gold Rush town your home base. A stay at Rush Creek Lodge, Yosemite’s first new lodge in over 25 years, is another. There are several dining options, including a lively tavern and a general store where you can get snacks, gear, and souvenirs. There’s also a huge pool that’s heated year-round, two hot tubs (including an adult’s only one), the best spa in Yosemite, and more activities. 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 building the dam, it has been transformed into a resort, 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.

Best Weekend Getaways From San Francisco: Hotel Healdsburg
Hotel Healdsburg | Photo courtesy of Hotel Healdsburg

Distance from SF: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Healdsburg is nestled among three of Sonoma County’s best-known wine-growing regions, including Dry Creek, Alexander, and Russian River valleys, guaranteeing a great spread of wine tasting. Start your trip with lunch at either Jordan Winery, where you can experience vineyard tours followed by wine tastings, or Bricoleur Vineyards, an idyllic, off-the-beaten-path winery where you can enjoy all kinds of tastings and the 40-acre park-like estate.

Once in town, it’s all about eating and drinking, which you’ll want to do at Bravas Bar de Tapas on the patio with a pitcher of sangria; or Barndiva, which has two gardens where you can enjoy farm-fresh American fare and creative cocktails; or The Matheson, a multi-level eating and drinking mecca from chef and owner Dustin Valette that rolls a restaurant, sushi kitchen, wine lounge, and rooftop cocktail lounge into one epic experience with a pour-it-yourself wine wall. Valette Healdsburg is also worth a visit.

Where to stay: Hotel Healdsburg in the town square has a tranquil and sizable garden pool area, stylish rooms, and spa, but if you’re looking for something slightly more budget-friendly, h2hotel is an excellent option. If you want an exceptional experience and don’t mind being a short drive outside of town, book a room at the sibling-owned Farmhouse Inn. It’s a splurge, but once you see the charming property and indulgent details, including soaking tubs, steam showers, and a relaxing swimming pool surrounded by lush greenery, you’ll forget all about your credit card bill. 

Distance from SF: 5 hours
While Mammoth is best known as a ski destination, it’s perfect for visiting during every season because it’s the perfect playground for anyone who likes to get outside and enjoy the pristine mountain air. There are miles of mountain biking trails, but if you’re worried your legs might be unable to make it, don’t stress. You can rent E-bikes from Black Tie Adventure Rentals, which offers the perfect way to explore Mammoth’s fantastic bike trails. Why hike to one lake when you can bike to a bunch of lakes, all connected by trails? Mammoth also has horseback riding, boating, fishing, and rock climbing, so the opportunities for adventure have no end.

Where to stay: Outbound Mammoth is in the heart of downtown, so you’re close to everything. The resort was recently renovated and has rooms for all sizes and budgets, including fireplace suites, cabins, and chalets. Plus, there’s a sauna, steam room, and an outdoor pool and hot tub. It’s dog-friendly, too. Just book a room with the “Best in Show” package, and your pup will be greeted with treats and a Pendleton dog bed to use during the stay. It’s also home to Bar Sierra, an indoor-outdoor bar and restaurant with barbecue, regional brews, and an arcade full of free games. If you fancy yourself an oenophile, check out the Lobby Wine Bar, curated by Chip Ermish, an advanced sommelier. You’ll find some exceptional bottles from Greece, Lebanon, Syria, and other unexpected places there. Outbound Mammoth

Best Weekend Getaways from San Francisco: Pudding Creek Express
Pudding Creek Express | Photo courtesy of Skunk Train

Distance from SF: 3 hours
Mendocino is 3,800 square miles of redwood forests, beaches, hiking trails, restaurants, wineries, and breweries. Stop at Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, where you can play disc golf, listen to live music, and find plenty of options that aren’t IPAs (as well as plenty that are). North Coast Brewing Co, about an hour away in Fort Bragg, best known for its Old Rasputin Russian imperial stout, is also a fun stop, and they have a full menu so you can make a meal out of it. Mendocino is home to cool-climate pinots and chardonnay, and Roederer Estate in Philo is a must not just because of the excellent sparkling wine but because the picnic tables are the perfect place to enjoy views and the sandwich you picked up from nearby Lemon’s Market. Be sure to also stop at Philo Apple Farm’s self-service Farm Stand for apple juice, apple cider (hard and not), jams, jellies, chutneys, fresh apples and pears, and more.

While you are there, a ride on the famous Skunk Train is a must. Yes, it’s a little touristy, but things become touristy because they are fun. If you’re staying along the coast, you’ll hop on the Pudding Creek Express in Fort Bragg, a scenic 7-mile roundtrip journey that takes you through ancient redwoods. Looking for a little more excitement? The Skunk Train also has two-person electric railbikes. You pedal, but the track does all the steering so that you can take in the quiet nature, wooden trestle bridges, and more.

Where to stay: If you’re lucky, you can snag a room in one of the cottages at the aforementioned Philo Apple Farm, which sits among the apple trees. If a cottage in an apple orchard isn’t your dream place to spend a night or three, book a room at Little River Inn, where you’ll eat the best Swedish pancakes of your life. If you want something slightly fancier, The Madrones is an Italian-style enclave with gorgeous accommodations, tasting rooms, a fabulous restaurant, and a cannabis apothecary.

Distance from SF: 1 hour
Wine tasting in Napa is a must, and right now, one of our favorites is the Mathew Bruno Rutherford Estate, a charming tasting room located in a 19th-century historic house, once known as “the finest house in all of Rutherford,” where you can enjoy amazing Cabarnet (among other wines) on the wraparound porch or by the bocce courts. But the trick to a successful Napa getaway is not to cram too many tastings into your day, lest you become so exhausted that you fall asleep before dinner. Mix it up with an early morning hot air balloon ride above the vineyards with Napa Valley Balloons. You can even add a personalized wine tasting for after you land. Request the tasting at the Hill Family Estate, a hidden gem and one of the balloon launch sites. If heights aren’t your thing, book a leisurely excursion on the Napa Valley Wine Train, which has a range of experiences.

Where to stay: Napa has an abundance of swanky hotels and charming B&Bs, but our go-to is The Meritage Resort and Spa, just a few miles from downtown Napa. Staying at the Meritage makes your vacation feel like a vacation because while running around to a million different wineries is fun and all, so is getting spa treatments in an underground cave and enjoying drinks at the adults-only pool (there’s a family-friendly one). The Meritage also has several quality restaurants on-sitea sports bar with bowling, a gourmet grocery for wine and snack emergencies, and multiple tasting rooms. 

Best Weekend Getaways from San Francisco: Deer Creek Tribute Trail
Deer Creek Tribute Trail | Photo courtesy of Nevada City Chamber of Commerce

Distance from SF: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Despite its name, Nevada City is actually in California at the foothills of the Sierras. Once the state’s most important mining town, it still has all of that gold country charm today. Give yourself one day and a night sitting at the bar and eating tacos at the Crazy Horse Saloon & Grill, and you’ll definitely have new friends to wave hello to on Day Two. Grab a wood-fired pizza and a beer for lunch at Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co., and you’ll meet even more. The other can’t-miss spots to eat and drink are the Sherwood Forest-themed Friar Tuck’s Restaurant and Bar, but only if you’re fond of fondue, and Treats for a cone of mint chip ice cream.

Take in the sights with a stroll across the Angkula Seo Suspension Bridge on the Deer Creek Tribute Trail and visit Empire Mines State Historic Park, home to one of California’s oldest, deepest, and richest gold mines. While you’re in that part of town, stop by Grass Valley Pastis Co. to get authentic Cornish pastries just like the miners used to eat for lunch. They’re enormous, delicious, and so satisfying. Oh, and be sure to go to The Orchard at Apple Lane in Auburn on your way home for fresh apples, cider, and the best hand pies you’ll ever eat. 

Where to stay: The best place to stay in the area is the recently-renovated National Exchange Hotel, a Victorian hotel built in the 1850s and one of the longest continually operating hotels in the West. The hotel has quite a history, and the remodel has restored its glamor and grandeur without sacrificing any of its endearing quirks. Every room is different, but they all mix contemporary luxury with opulent touches and historical artifacts. A self-guided tour of the hotel will reveal a mirror with a haunted face looking back at you, a chaise used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, historic photographs, and more. There’s even a room (209) that was previously walled off and discovered during the recent renovations. Be sure to grab a drink at The National Bar, a historic tavern with modern cocktails, and a meal at Lola, the hotel restaurant inspired by Lola Montez, an Irish dancer who managed to become famous as a Spanish dancer and courtesan.

If Nevada City is a one-horse town, Grass Valley is more of a stagecoach situation, so if you prefer your Gold Rush town with a little more hustle and bustle, reserve a room at the nearby Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley. Initially constructed in 1852, the Holbrooke has also recently received a stylish makeover. Whereas the National Exchange exudes glamor and femininity through rich, dark wallpaper and lots of velvet, the Holbrooke has a more masculine aesthetic with taxidermy and leather. Though no two rooms are alike, they are all comfortable and charming. Even if you don’t stay there, a drink in the upstairs bar followed by another at the downstairs Iron Door speakeasy is necessary. Oh, and not to bury the lede, but both hotels are dog-friendly, which means you can bring your furry pal along for the adventure.

Distance from SF: 3 hours and 30 minutes
San Luis Obispo has a mild climate, tons of open space to explore, and an adorable, walkable, and very dog-friendly downtown. As you explore, you’re guaranteed to see some of the 100 pieces of public art, including sculptures, murals, mosaics, and more, and a quick pop into the free SLO Museum of Art is also a good idea. There are also many great bars and restaurants, but a few favorites include Nate’s on Marsh, a charming LGBT-owned Italian-American restaurant with excellent cocktails and a rigatoni bolognese. Mistura, a lively Peruvian restaurant focused on sustainability and gorgeous food, with Breda, a gourmet chocolate shop inside the restaurant, where you’ll find chocolates that are almost too beautiful to eat, is also worth a stop. If you like to earn your gluttonous meals, start your day with the Valencia Peak hike, which offers stunning ocean views and doubles as a great workout.

As for beer and cocktails, SLO has a fantastic craft brewery scene, with standouts like Oak and Otter BrewingCentral Coast Brewing, and Liquid Gravity Brewing, all of which offer stomach-lining, beer-friendly food such as bready pretzels and fried chicken sandwiches. You can also taste your way through dozens of local wines on tap at Region, a dog-friendly wine bar in the heart of downtown. If you want to visit an actual vineyard, Chamisal Vineyards and its sister winery, Malene, are an excellent option. For a well-made cocktail, visit Krobar Craft Distillery, where you can take a tour or settle in for a drink, live music, and food—and stop by Central Coast Brewing since they’re in the same shared space. Want one more before you call it a night? Walk to the cozy cocktail lounge Nightcap.

Where to stay: Hotel San Luis Obispo is in the heart of downtown, perfect if you want to park your car and not see it again until you depart. The hotel is sleek and modern, with bright, airy rooms and incredibly comfortable beds, and has everything you could need, including a rooftop bar with amazing mountain views and bocce; Ox + Anchor, an upscale steakhouse where indulgence knows no limits; Piadina, a more casual restaurant since every meal can’t be ribeye and loaded baked potatoes; and a lobby bar with a fireplace and comfy seating. There’s also a pool, hot tub, full-service spa, local art throughout, and—most importantly—it’s entirely dog-friendly. 

Best Weekend Getaways from San Francisco: Natural Bridges State Beach
Natural Bridges State Beach | Photo courtesy of California Department of Parks and Recreation

Distance from SF: 1 hour and 30 minutes
First, visiting the last remaining natural bridge at Natural Bridges State Beach is essential because there used to be three naturally occurring arches, but erosion from winds and waves caused two of them to fall. The middle arch is the last one remaining and is also in danger of collapsing, so don’t put this one off. If waterfalls are your vibe, you’ll find four year-round at Berry Creek Falls at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the oldest state park in California. For more outdoor adventure, take a surf lesson with Club Ed, an excellent surf school run by Ed Guzman, a legendary big wave surfer whose grandmother was the first woman to perform a headstand on a surfboard. If he’s there, ask to see his photos. 

Once you’ve tuckered yourself out, it’s time to ride a historic wooden rollercoaster. After all, if you don’t go to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, can you call yourself a tourist? Go on the Giant Dipper, play carnival games, and if you are there in the summer, catch free music on the beach on Friday nights at 6:30 and 8:30 pm. After, take a stroll along the Wharf, where you’ll find lots of dining and shopping, and, if you’re okay with a short car drive, check out The Mystery Spot, a “gravitational anomaly” with iconic bumper stickers. Finally, reward yourself with made-from-scratch ice cream at The Penny Ice Creamery.

Where to stay: The Dream Inn is the only beachfront hotel in Santa Cruz and is within walking distance of the Boardwalk, the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, and several local surf spots. It’s also home to the Jack O’Neill Restaurant & Lounge, named after the legendary surfer who lived in Santa Cruz from 1959 until he died a few years ago, where you’ll find fresh seafood, gorgeous water views, and live music. The rooms are very retro-chic, and they all have water views. Plus, there’s an outdoor pool and hot tub overlooking the beach with a bar that serves some pretty great margaritas. There are also Gazelle e-bikes, which are the perfect way to explore the area via the bike path along the coast. And, depending on what time of year you visit, you can usually get either your third or fourth night for free and who doesn’t like a little free?

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Daisy Barringer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer with over 15 years of professional experience as a copywriter and editorial journalist. Her areas of expertise include hamburgers, road trips, the 49ers, and anything and everything NorCal. She grew up in San Francisco and has a BFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington, the latter of which she commonly refers to as “the time she spent three years at creative writing summer camp.” Follow her on Instagram @daisysf, where you’re guaranteed cute pics of her 160-pound Saint Bernard named Monkey.