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14 Top-Rated Day Trips from San Francisco

Written by Lisa Alexander
Nov 17, 2020

In an incomparable setting of rolling hills overlooking a sparkling emerald-green bay, San Francisco is close to some of California's most beautiful seaside towns and nature sites. Outside "The City" (as locals refer to San Francisco) are many fantastic destinations within easy reach, from 30-minute rides north or south along the coast to a four-hour drive to Yosemite that's definitely worth the travel time.

Sun worshippers can head south to the fun-loving town of Santa Cruz for a day at the historic Beach Boardwalk amusement park. Romantics will love the charming town of Carmel, with its storybook cottages and gorgeous sandy beach.

Outdoor enthusiasts relish Marin County's hiking trails at Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, and Mount Tamalpais. In Half Moon Bay and Pescadero, the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean and an idyllic pastoral landscape provide a relaxing escape.

For those seeking culture, the university town of Berkeley offers award-winning theater, gourmet restaurants, and a lively collegiate atmosphere. Among the most unforgettable excursions is the ferry ride from San Francisco to Sausalito, a postcard-perfect waterfront community that resembles a Mediterranean fishing village.

There are so many fabulous places to visit within easy reach of San Francisco. The only trouble is deciding where to go when you have limited time. Plan your excursions from the city with our list of the top-rated day trips from San Francisco.

1. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

The majestic beauty of Yosemite has astounded everyone, from 19th-century landscape painters to the renowned photographer Ansel Adams and naturalist John Muir, who described this incredible place "where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."

This magnificent corner of the Sierra Nevada Mountains boasts scenery so sublime that it seems impossible nature created the landscape unintentionally.

During the last Ice Age, retreating glaciers carved out granite monoliths with sheer rock walls that encircle the seven-mile-long Yosemite Valley. The awe-inspiring landscape is full of marvelous surprises: 1,000-foot waterfalls, crystalline lakes, flower-blanketed meadows, and old-growth sequoia forests. It's also home to 250 bird species, black bears, coyotes, chipmunks, and endangered bighorn sheep.

With 750 miles of nature trails in six different areas, the UNESCO-listed, 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park abounds with opportunities for outdoor activities, especially hiking the spectacular trails.

Other things to do at Yosemite include bird-watching, horseback riding, lake fishing year-round, river fishing from April through November, and skiing in the wintertime.

Those who want to camp can choose from 15 campgrounds (including two backcountry campgrounds). For rock climbers, Yosemite challenges with its epic 3,000- to nearly 5,000-foot ascents on the legendary El Capitan and Half Dome rock faces. If relaxation is more of a priority than adventure, picnicking and photography allow visitors to soak up the scenery at a slower pace.

Yosemite is nearly 200 miles from San Francisco, and getting there from the city is a long drive (about four hours each way) for a day trip. Many tourists delight in spending a few nights at one of Yosemite's top-rated campgrounds or at a cozy, rustic lodge.

If you only have one day to visit, it's a good idea to take an organized excursion. One recommended tour is the Yosemite National Park full-day trip that includes transportation to and from San Francisco, as well as a guided tour of Yosemite's top attractions.

2. Seaside Charm in Carmel and Monterey

17-Mile Drive

California's Central Coast is known for its beauty. Within easy driving distance from San Francisco, two seaside towns stand out: Carmel and Monterey. Both towns boast pristine natural surroundings and charming old-world ambience.

Nestled along the stunning Carmel Bay, the seaside village of Carmel (120 miles south of San Francisco) is one of California's most romantic getaway destinations. Carmel's beach is prized for its pillowy, fine white sand framed by windswept cypress trees.

Carmel offers plenty of things to do. The town itself is an attraction, because of its fairy-tale cottages, upscale art galleries, cute little boutiques, and fine-dining restaurants. Plus tourists can choose from a wide variety of bed-and-breakfasts and luxury hotels.

Less touristy and more urban in feel, the coastal town of Monterey (115 miles south of San Francisco) is famous for its historic Cannery Row. This waterfront fish-packing district was the inspiration for the colorful tales in John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row.

Another of the top destinations in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, especially beloved by kids, who adore seeing the incredible sea life, penguins, and otters.

Not to be missed when visiting Carmel and Monterey is the stretch of California's oceanfront Highway One between the two towns, known as the 17-Mile Drive. This 17-mile coastal route is considered one of the most beautiful drives on the West Coast.

Along the 17-Mile Drive are several glorious viewpoints and must-see nature sites, including the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Bird Rock Vista Point, and the iconic Lone Cypress tree. Also on this route are the prestigious Pebble Beach golf courses.

Since there's so much to take in, many tourists appreciate going on a guided tour. One recommendation is a full-day Monterey, Carmel, and 17-Mile Drive Day Trip from San Francisco, with stops in Monterey at the Cannery Row and the aquarium. It continues on to Carmel via the 17-Mile Drive.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Monterey: Best Areas & Hotels

3. Santa Cruz and the Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz and the Beach Boardwalk

Just 70 miles south (a two-hour drive) of San Francisco on the picturesque Monterey Bay is a balmy beach-town playground with a carefree vibe. Santa Cruz draws many visitors in summertime to its historic Beach Boardwalk amusement park.

Fronting the Beach Boardwalk is Main Beach (also known as Boardwalk Beach), a wide shoreline with shallow waters ideal for swimming, bodyboarding, and paddleboarding. The Main Beach is also a great place for sunbathing, building sandcastles, and playing beach volleyball.

More remote beaches, like Sunset State Beach and Natural Bridges Beach offer peace and serenity. Surfers head to Cowell Beach, or if they're really experienced, to Manresa Beach, which has impressive swells that only the best wave-riders can handle.

Other top attractions include the Santa Cruz Mission, built in the late 18th century by Spanish missionaries; the downtown area for shopping and eating out; and the Fishing Pier for spotting sea lions, fishing, or dining at a seafood restaurant.

For families with kids, the Roaring Camp Railroad tops the list of fun things to do. This old-fashioned steam train takes passengers on an exciting ride through redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Santa Cruz: Best Areas & Hotels

4. Sausalito: Marinas & Scenic Walks

Marina in Sausalito

The scenic ferry ride from San Francisco's ferry building is a wonderful way to arrive at the seaside town of Sausalito in Marin County. This 30-minute boat ride has been called one of the most exciting ferry rides in the world. It offers sensational views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Angel Island before arriving in the peaceful harbor of Sausalito.

Sheltered from the fog by the rolling hills of the Marin Headlands, Sausalito has pleasant sunny weather and idyllic scenery. In fact, this picturesque waterfront town resembles a fishing village along the Mediterranean Sea.

Visitors will enjoy spending a leisurely afternoon strolling the historic downtown of Sausalito, an inviting place for window shopping and al fresco dining by the marinas. The town's quaint, pastel-painted, Victorian-era buildings are filled with interesting boutiques, art galleries, ice-cream shops, cafés, and restaurants.

Another of Sausalito's highlights is the bayside path, with views of the yacht-filled marinas and San Francisco skyline. This gentle walking path is one of the best places to visit in the SF Bay Area for vistas of the bay and The City.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Sausalito

5. University Town of Berkeley

University Town of Berkeley

The campus of this celebrated university town is perched on a hilltop with views of the bay and backed by a grove of redwood trees. Adding to the serenity is the babbling Strawberry Creek.

Impressive classical-style buildings house the university's classrooms, libraries, and research centers. The emblematic Sather Tower is one of the world's tallest bell towers and affords amazing views of San Francisco Bay from its observation platform.

Tourists can get a sense of undergrad life at Bancroft Library at the heart of the campus or the bustling Sproul Plaza, where students gather to participate in protests, listen to speakers, and enjoy impromptu performances by street musicians.

To see where students hang out off-campus, head to Telegraph Avenue. This legendary street reveals the legacy of Berkeley's Bohemian counterculture. It's packed with bookshops, quirky shops, and casual eateries serving all kinds of ethnic cuisine and quick bites.

Berkeley is also well known for its culture, theater, and foodie scene. Visitors can watch a Pulitzer-Prize-winning show and then dine in the Gourmet Ghetto. This area is home to the famous Chez Panisse bistro, which specializes in local, organic farm-to-table cuisine. Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters is a leader in the country's sustainable food movement.

Other Berkeley top attractions include the Botanical Garden and the Lawrence Hall of Science. For families with kids, Tilden Park is a favorite spot. Children love the small working farm, steam train ride, and old-fashioned merry-go-round.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Berkeley

6. Muir Woods Hiking Trails and Muir Beach

Muir Woods

A short drive north (16 miles) of San Francisco is an exceptional nature site, the Muir Woods National Monument. The drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, along Highway 101 and then on winding country roads, takes about 45 minutes.

Muir Woods is one of the last remaining redwood forests in Northern California and is appreciated for its magnificent old-growth coastal redwood trees. Hikers relish the peaceful and refreshingly shaded trails that meander through fern-fringed creek banks, canopies of giant redwood trees, and groves of fragrant bay laurels.

It's possible to take another three-mile trail from Muir Woods down to the Pacific Ocean at Muir Beach. This sandy beach offers camping sites and picnic areas. Nearby is The Pelican Inn, where you can grab a hearty meal of authentic English country cuisine before taking the hike back to Muir Woods.

Due to the crowds and limited space, Muir Woods National Monument requires that visitors make a reservation in advance for paid parking or for a shuttle bus ride. Many tourists find that it's easier to leave the driving and parking to a tour guide. One recommendation is the Muir Woods and Sausalito Half-Day Tour, which departs from San Francisco.

7. Half Moon Bay's Countryside & Beaches

Half Moon Bay coastline

Nestled in the rolling farmlands by the Pacific Ocean, the small town of Half Moon Bay is an idyllic rural retreat just 30 miles south of San Francisco. Although it's close to The City, this coastal community has retained its charming country ambience. Pumpkin patches, ranches, and vegetable farms cover the hillsides that slope down to the beach.

Spectacular sandy beaches extend for miles along the Half Moon Bay coastline. Many visitors come to take nature walks along the shoreline, while surfers wearing wetsuits brave the frigid waters and powerful waves.

When the conditions are right, surfing competitions are held at Mavericks Beach. Other outdoor activities include hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and bird-watching.

The historic downtown of Half Moon Bay has many unique locally owned shops and excellent restaurants. The wide selection of cafés and eateries makes the downtown a welcome place to grab a hearty meal, after an invigorating walk on the beach, or hike along coastal bluffs.

A favorite time of year for locals to visit Half Moon Bay is in October for pumpkin picking and for the Pumpkin Festival in mid-October.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Half Moon Bay

8. Stinson Beach and Dipsea Trail Hike

Hiking trail above Stinson Beach

On sunny days, Stinson Beach is a popular day-trip destination in Marin County, 23 miles north of San Francisco (allow at least one hour by car). This dreamy beach community is just six miles north of Muir Beach, although it can take 30 to 45 minutes (in traffic) to get from Muir Beach to Stinson Beach on a winding two-lane road that hugs the coastline and traverses the Steep Ravine Canyon.

The drive requires concentration at the hairpin turns, but it rewards with striking ocean vistas. All the effort feels worth it upon catching sight of the little piece of paradise at Stinson Beach.

Protected by the hillside, the 3.5-mile-long sandy shoreline at Stinson Beach is ideal for sunbathing, jogging, windsurfing, beach volleyball, and picnicking. Swimming is possible, however not always recommended due to dangerous rip currents and frigid waters. Surfers and body boarders ride the waves wearing wetsuits.

From Memorial Day until Labor Day, lifeguards patrol the beach. (Be sure to check with lifeguards about safety before entering the water to swim.) Next to the beach is a shady area with picnic tables and barbecue grills, as well as restrooms and shower facilities.

The town has a grocery store, where visitors can purchase picnic foods. Tourists can also choose from several oceanfront cafés and restaurants that serve casual meals on sunny outdoor patios.

Tip for Travelers: During high season, it's best to begin the drive as early as possible in the morning to avoid traffic and to ensure finding a parking spot at Stinson Beach (the lot fills up quickly on weekends and during summertime.)

For coastal views, the Dipsea Trail is not to be missed. The 10-mile hiking trail begins at Muir Woods National Monument, traverses the forest and rolling hills, then descends a ravine into Stinson Beach, with breathtaking ocean and bay vistas along the way. Alternatively, hikers can start at Stinson Beach (which begins with steep steps and switchbacks) and complete a short portion of the trail.

Hiking Tips: Dress in layers and wear shoes with good traction to avoid slipping on the steps. Portions of the trail are exposed to the strong afternoon sun, so a visor and other sun protection is recommended. Watch out for poison oak that grows on the side of the trail. Bring bottled water and pack lunch for a picnic at Stinson Beach.

9. Filoli Estate

Filoli Estate

The Filoli Estate is a hidden gem 30 miles south of San Francisco, tucked away in a pastoral landscape with the densely wooded Santa Cruz Mountains as a backdrop. The elegant Georgian Revival manor house was built between 1915 and 1917 for William Bowers Bourn II, owner of Empire Gold Mine in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The 654-acre estate is registered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Within the 54,256-square-foot manor house is a noteworthy collection of fine paintings and antiques.

With a grandeur that rivals Europe's finest estates, Filoli boasts gracious architecture, lavish rooms, and splendid grounds that have made it a top choice for film sets. The house was pictured in Dynasty, Heaven Can Wait, and George of the Jungle among other movies.

A highlight of Filoli is the 16-acre Formal Garden, landscaped in the English-Renaissance style with perfectly manicured hedges, terraces, decorative pools, fountains, and a rose garden. Pleasant pathways and parterres invite visitors to wander and admire the ever-changing array of seasonal plants and flowers, from colorful tulips in early spring to vibrant chrysanthemums in autumn.

The Filoli Estate also has a 10-acre orchard with 150 heirloom fruit trees and a 528-acre nature preserve comprised of forests, redwood stands, a pond, and grasslands. The Filoli Nature Preserve includes a trail system of 22 hiking paths, only accessible on docent-led hikes, but visitors may take self-guided hikes on the Nature Preserve's one-mile loop Estate Trail.

Address: 86 Canada Road, Woodside, California

Official site: www.filoli.org

10. Mount Tamalpais

Mount Tamalpais

Just 22 miles north of San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais State Park delights nature lovers with a 60-mile network of park trails. The hiking paths meander through refreshing redwood groves and oak woodlands overlooking deep ravines, forested hillsides, and sweeping grasslands.

Those seeking a challenge may hike to the summit at 2,571 feet for breathtaking views. On a clear day, the outlook extends all the way to the Farallon Islands, 25 miles out in the Pacific Ocean, as well as to San Francisco and across the San Francisco Bay to the cities of Berkeley and Oakland.

Mountain bikers can use the multi-use trails, as well as the uphill road leading to the top of Mount Tamalpais for recreational cycling.

Mount Tamalpais is a place of exceptional natural beauty year-round. During the rainy season (October until March), gurgling creeks and rushing waterfalls add to the peaceful environment. From February until May, vibrant wildflowers blossom throughout the park. Whale-watching is possible during the migration season, from November to April.

On warm summer days, many visitors enjoy picnicking in the park's shaded picnic areas. For the views, the East Peak summit picnic area astounds with its 360-degree panoramas.

11. Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve

Pescadero State Beach

About 15 miles south of Half Moon Bay and 45 miles south of San Francisco, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve allows access to unspoiled nature and superb birdwatching. At the confluence of the Butano Creek and Pescadero Creek, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve is a 235-acre wetland with a tidal estuary and freshwater marsh.

More than 200 species of birds find refuge in the marsh, among them the great blue heron and double-crested cormorants. The Pescadero Marsh is also home to endangered species, such as the California red-legged frog, San Francisco garter snake, steelhead trout, and Coho salmon.

Hikers may explore the nature preserve by following one of the four trails. For avid birdwatchers, the Sequoia Audubon Trail, a 2.5-mile round-trip hike, is a good choice. Some visitors bring binoculars for an up-close view of egrets, ducks, herons, and other species.

To learn more about the natural environment and wildlife of the marsh, visitors can take free two-hour guided walking tours on the first Sunday of the month at 10am and the third Sunday of every month at 1pm, as long as weather permits.

Across the highway from the preserve, accessible by a pedestrian walkway, is Pescadero State Beach. This mile-long coastline has a pristine beach, sandy coves, tide pools, and areas for fishing. Facilities include picnic tables and a restroom.

About three miles from the beach, the little country town of Pescadero has a grocery store, small boutiques and a quirky locally owned café. A popular spot in town is Duarte's restaurant, a Pescadero institution famous for its artichoke soup and homemade pies.

12. Angel Island

Angel Island

Travelers can get away to a remote, unpopulated island just across the bay from San Francisco. Angel Island is a state park, accessible by taking a 30-minute ferry ride from Pier 41 in San Francisco or a 10-minute ferry ride from the town of Tiburon.

Angel Island State Park opens at 8am and closes at sunset daily. A place of serene seaside beauty, Angel Island has more than 13 miles of scenic hiking trails, ranging from moderate to advanced, as well as nine miles of cycling trails. Visitors may rent bikes once they arrive at the island.

The highest point on Angel Island is Mount Livermore at 788 feet, which rewards hikers with panoramic views of San Francisco and the bay, the Marin Headlands, and Mount Tamalpais.

The island's amenities include a visitor center, public restrooms, an outdoor café near the dock, boating slips for day use or overnight, camping sites with toilets, and several picnic areas with tables, barbecue pits, and running water.

For those who start the day early, it may be possible to also spend time in Tiburon, where the Angel Island ferry departs. (Be sure to keep track of the ferry schedule.) This charming seaside town has picturesque yacht marinas and a quaint downtown area. The lovely Main Street is lined with boutiques, cafés, and restaurants.

On the weekends, locals enjoy having brunch in Tiburon. Most of the waterfront restaurants feature sunny terraces that overlook the San Francisco Bay. If getting around by car, it's also worth visiting the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary for birdwatching and the Tiburon Ridge Trail for hiking and biking.

13. Trione-Annadel State Park in Sonoma County

Trione-Annadel State Park in Sonoma County | David Berry / photo modified

Explore the beautiful landscape of Annadel Park, 60 miles north of San Francisco (about a 1.5-hour drive) in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County. The park features several miles of trails for hiking or mountain biking around the gorgeous Lake Ilsanjo.

The park is also known for its fields of vibrant wildflowers that bloom in the springtime. The best time to see the most wildflowers is in April and May, but some flowers can be seen from January until September.

For those who enjoy fishing, Trione-Annadel State Park is one of the best places to visit in Sonoma County. Anglers can catch black bass and bluegill fish in Lake Ilsanjo. A California fishing license is required.

14. Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve

Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve | Franco Folini / photo modified

The Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve lies just 17 miles from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge in the East Bay. The drive only takes 35 minutes with no traffic, although bridge traffic can easily add an extra 20 to 30 minutes.

Native huckleberry plants thrive within the 241-acre preserve, which offers the ideal soil conditions and cool climate tempered by coastal fog. Within the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, the Interpretive Loop Trail is a 1.7-mile hiking trail that traverses mostly shaded terrain, including a bay forest.

Tips: Stay on the upper trail for a more moderate walk. Visitors are allowed to pick berries from huckleberry plants along the trail.

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