San Francisco is well-located for some of best road trips in California. We’re lucky to live near countless beautiful small towns and natural wonders, whether you’re just going for a short day trip or an extended vacation. Read on for some of our favorite road trip destinations from San Francisco.
Note that rough time estimates in the article are for car travel and destinations are ordered by distance from SF.
1. Point Reyes
Point Reyes is a relatively short drive away from San Francisco but has so much to offer when it comes to sightseeing, hiking, wildlife watching, and more outdoor activities. Consider dedicating a day to hike to Alamere Falls or otherwise stop off for pictures at the Cypress Tree Tunnel. Point Reyes is also one of the best whale watching spots in NorCal being that the peninsula extends further into whale territory than other spots on the coast. Stake out near Chimney Rock and the Point Reyes Lighthouse or grab a shuttle between viewing areas. Don’t forget to spot the elephant seals at Drakes Beach, and head to the Marshall Store on Tomales Bay for some mouthwatering fresh oysters.
Distance from SF: ∼1 hour by car
2. Napa Valley
Wine country is a major draw for anyone traveling in California, and it’s hard to beat the allure of Napa Valley. Of course most visitors go for wine tasting across the region’s 400+ wineries, which is a treat in and of itself. But you can enjoy plenty of variations on the wine tasting experience whether you want to squeeze in a bike tour, hot air balloon ride, spa day, concert, gallery visit, or shopping spree. One of the most unique destinations in Napa Valley is Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, an authentically-styled 13th century Tuscan castle where you can enjoy spectacular hand-crafted Italian-style wines. It’s also worth spending an afternoon at Oxbow Public Market, a 40,000-square-foot marketplace in downtown Napa with excellent local vendors and seating along the Napa River.
Distance from SF: ∼1 hour by car
3. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a popular destination for a day trip from San Francisco, but it can be turned into so much more than that depending on what you’re interested in. On the nature side you can go for a hike at Wilder Ranch or Nisene Marks State Park, or take to the water with surfing lessons or a kayaking trip. Go shopping in Capitola and then see if there are any cool concerts coming up at The Catalyst or spend a day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park. At the very least it’s worth paying for a ride on the Giant Dipper, a legendary wooden roller coaster that’s almost 100 years old.
Distance from SF: ∼1.5 hours by car
4. Big Sur
This breathtaking coastline is one of the most popular travel destinations in the country, boasting multiple natural wonders including McWay Falls, a rare coastal waterfall that spills directly onto the beach. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a popular spot for hiking and camping, and there are many great restaurants, art galleries, and more to enjoy in the surrounding areas. It could be argued that the most exciting part of Big Sur is the drive along the bluffs and across Bixby Bridge, because the dramatic views just keep coming. Take the Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1) down the coast for a beautiful drive from SF, leaving time for stops in Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Carmel, and more.
Distance from SF: ∼2.5 hours by car
Mendocino is a great destination for the outdoorsy among us who want the feeling of a more remote destination on the water. Mendocino County has over 90 miles of beautiful California coastline to explore, the more popular stops being Manchester State Beach, Bowling Ball Beach, and Jug Handle State Reserve. You can also spend a day hiking through the majestic sequoias of Montgomery Woods or stay overnight at a local farm. In addition to Mendocino’s scenic nature destinations, the region also boasts its share of fine wineries, breweries, and dispensaries. If you’re into craft beer be sure to take a look at the Mendocino Beer Trail.
Distance from SF: ∼3 hours by car
6. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular destinations to visit from the Bay Area, whether you’re going for a winter ski trip or a summer lake trip. One essential summer stop is Emerald Bay, a picturesque inlet with a small island in the center and the historic Vikingsholm hidden castle on the shore. Head north to spend a day at Sand Harbor or wander to nearby Donner Lake. In the winter, some of the most popular ski resorts are Heavenly, Palisades Tahoe, and Northstar.
Distance from SF: ∼3.5 hours by car
Yosemite National Park is one of the most famous nature sites in the country, if not for the natural wonder of Half Dome then simply for the powerful serenity of the High Sierra. The park is famous for its waterfalls, which often make headlines during the rare Firefall event when the setting sun reflects off the water to create an orange glow, or for the night rainbows created in the waterfall spray at just the right angle. If you want to see Half Dome, you can enjoy an up-close perspective on the Half Dome Day Hike or see glimpses of it on one of Yosemite’s many other trails. Do a deep dive on the National Park Service website for everything to know about Yosemite before you make the journey.
Distance from SF: ∼3.5 hours by car
If you’re taking a trip down Highway 1 to SoCal, San Luis Obispo or SLO is a good place to stop because it’s well-located for some great sightseeing. Take a tour of nearby Hearst Castle and say hi to the elephant seals in San Simeon before heading into town to explore an impressive selection of restaurants serving farm-fresh meals. You can get your outdoor fix at the nearby beaches and lakes and then head to Field of Light in nearby Paso Robles to see the giant LED superbloom sculpture by Bruce Munro.
Distance from SF: ∼4 hours by car
Lassen Volcanic is a 100,000+ acre national park located at the southern end of the Cascade Mountains. It’s known for steaming hydrothermal sites like the bubbling Bumpass Hell, a stinky 16-acre area open in the summer and fall months. You can also explore Lassen Peak, a craggy lava dome volcano flanked by the Devastated Area, which still bears the effects of the volcano’s 1915 eruption. The park has over 150 miles of hiking trails where you can easily view the hydrothermal areas, alpine lakes, mountain meadows, and volcanic wilderness.
*Note that some closures are still in place following the 2021 Dixie Fire.
Distance from SF: ∼4.5 hours by car
10. Mammoth Lakes
Head out to Mammoth Lakes for an unforgettable trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains at any time of year. Mammoth Mountain is a massively popular ski destination in the winter thanks to its wonderfully long snow season with fantastic views and all-level slopes. When the snow melts it gives way to lovely terrain for hiking, backpacking, biking, camping, and climbing. Leave time in your schedule for a trip to the 101-foot Rainbow Falls waterfall, so named because you an see rainbows glimmering in the waterfall spray on sunny days.
Distance from SF: ∼6 hours by car