The 5 Best Road Trips from San Francisco
Start the car and drive
Wave-beaten bluffs. Pristine emerald lakes. Rolling vineyards. Northern California has no shortage of eye candy within driving distance. And, hey, who doesn’t love a good road trip? (Cue Thelma & Louise.) Here, our picks for the best getaways within four hours of your San Francisco home base.
Best for Scenic Coastline
The route: Wind your way down Highway 1 for 140 miles (about three hours) to the tiny seaside town of Big Sur. The trip is worth it for the ride alone, where you’ll soak up views of rugged bluffs and ocean as far as the eye can see. Just make sure the driver keeps her eyes on the narrow road. (Whoa, steep drop-offs…)
Where to eat: Reward yourselves with dinner at Big Sur Bakery, an unassuming converted ranch house serving up wood-fired fare (think buffalo mozzarella pizza and local white sea bass with fennel butter) that you’ll be talking about long after dessert (fresh strawberry-rhubarb crumble, in case you were wondering).
Where to stay: Reserve a luxury cliffside yurt at Treebones Resort to sleep off your meal before heading home.
Best for Fresh Mountain Air
The route: Clocking in at a little under four hours from SF, the south shore of Lake Tahoe (take Interstate 80-E to Interstate 50-E) is the place to visit during Indian summer, when the fresh alpine air is still warm.
What to do: Try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding on Emerald Bay. Then get in on the town’s craft-beer culture with a stop at Stateline Brewery for a pint or two of their Acclimator IPA.
Where to stay: Book a room at the newly expanded Basecamp Hotel and continue the local-ale theme with a stop at a lively beer garden. Through October, Basecamp is offering a Bikes & Beers package that includes rentals and comped brews during your stay.
Best for Wine Tasting
The route: Skip the crowds in Napa and Sonoma for a more authentic wine-tasting experience farther afield. From the stretches of Inspiration Highway to the scenic back-road vibe of Highway 128 through Anderson Valley, you’ll get the same rolling vines and superb vino (Pinot Noir is the specialty here) minus the tourists.
Where to stay: You’ll want to settle in for the night after a long day of wine tasting, and we recommend shacking up at the funky Boonville Hotel.
Best for California History
The route: Honor the state’s origins by making a trip to the heart of California’s Gold Country. Head 143 miles northeast of the city (about two and a half hours) to the sleepy town of Grass Valley.
What to do: Visit the Empire Mine State Historic Park for a glimpse back in time to the largest, richest gold mine in the state. While you’re there, walk the grounds of Bourne Cottage, an opulent estate modeled after the castles of 19th-century England.
Where to stay: For choice accommodations, drive south down Highway 49--leaving time for stops at antiques shops along the way--and spend the night at Eden Vale Inn, a posh seven-room bed-and-breakfast in Placerville.
Best for Spelunking and Spires
The route: At just over two hours south of the city off of Highway 101, Pinnacles is California’s newest national park. It’s an adventurer’s paradise with miles of trails leading to cliffs, crags and caves formed by an ancient volcano.
What to do: Start by squeezing through the narrow clefts of the park’s talus caves with a flashlight or head lamp leading the way. Then hike the High Peaks Trail (where you’ll gain 1,400 feet in elevation) for views down to the expansive grasslands and rock monoliths below. Look upward and you just may spot a California condor soaring above.
Where to stay: If you’re the rugged type, pitch a tent at one of the park’s 134 campsites, or spend the night in a former horse stable at Bar SZ Ranch.