12 Top-Rated Day Trips from San Francisco
San Francisco is surrounded by spectacular natural scenery, from the picturesque San Francisco Bay to the dramatic Pacific Ocean. This beautiful area of Northern California offers fantastic day trip destinations just a one- or two-hour drive north, south, and east of San Francisco. Sun worshippers can head south to the fun-loving town of Santa Cruz for a day at the famous Beach Boardwalk. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the hiking trails in Marin County at Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, and Mount Tamalpais. More wonderful natures sites lie south of the city in the country town of Half Moon Bay and at Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. For those seeking culture, the university town of Berkeley offers award-winning theater, gourmet restaurants, and a lively collegiate atmosphere. To enjoy an afternoon of seaside relaxation, take the ferry to Sausalito and soak up stunning views of San Francisco from this charming town that resembles a Mediterranean fishing village.
1 Santa Cruz and the Beach Boardwalk
With its endless summer of carefree sunny days, Santa Cruz is a beach-town playground on the beautiful Monterey Bay, 73 miles south of San Francisco (allow about one hour 30 minutes to two hours for the drive). This fun-loving seaside destination is most famous for its Beach Boardwalk, a historic amusement park right by the beach. Santa Cruz has a balmy climate and is a great place for relaxation and outdoor activities. Visitors can head to Main Beach for sunbathing, swimming, building sandcastles, bodyboarding, paddle-boarding, and beach volleyball. More remote beaches like Sunset State Beach and Natural Bridges Beach offer peace and serenity. Cowell Beach and Manresa Beach are popular for surfing. Other top attractions include the Santa Cruz Mission; the downtown area for shopping and dining; and the Fishing Pier for spotting sea lions, fishing, or enjoying a seafood meal. The Roaring Camp Railroad takes passengers on an old-fashioned steam train ride through the Santa Cruz mountains.
2 Sausalito: Marinas & Scenic Walks
Take a scenic ferry ride from San Francisco's ferry building to the lovely 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 scenery that 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 waterfront dining. The town's quaint, pastel-painted, Victorian-era buildings are filled with interesting boutiques, art galleries, ice cream shops, cafés, and restaurants. Another highlight is the bayside path with views of the yacht-filled marinas and San Francisco skyline.
This celebrated university town is an interesting day trip destination. Wander around the majestic campus, perched on a hilltop with views of the bay. The idyllic 178-acre campus is set in a lush, wooded hillside shaded by redwood trees. Adding to the serenity is the babbling Strawberry Creek. Impressive classical-style buildings house the university's classrooms, libraries, and research centers. Be sure to visit Sather Tower and ascend to the top for amazing views of San Francisco Bay. Tourists can also pretend to be an undergrad at Bancroft Library or check out the bustling Sproul Plaza to get a sense of student life. To see where students hang out off-campus, head to Telegraph Avenue. This legendary street reveals the legacy of Berkeley's Bohemian counterculture. Poke around the bookshops or stop for an affordable meal. Berkeley is also well known for its culture, theater, and foodie scene. Visitors can watch a Pulitzer-Prize-winning show and then have a memorable meal at one of the excellent restaurants in the Gourmet Ghetto. Other top attractions include the Botanical Garden; the expansive Tilden Park, with its lake, small working farm, golf course, steam train ride, and Merry-Go-Round; and the Lawrence Hall of Science.
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4 Muir Woods Hiking Trails and Muir Beach
Escape to nature within a short drive of San Francisco at Muir Woods National Monument. This federally protected forest lies 16 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County. 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 will be delighted by the shady trails that meander through fern-fringed creek banks and canopies of redwood trees. The landscape also features fragrant bay laurels and seasonal wildflowers. Muir Woods has a well-groomed three-mile loop trail as well as smaller loop walks.
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, a hotel that resembles a 16th-century cottage in England's Cornwall region. To refuel with a hearty meal before taking the hike back to Muir Woods, stop at the Pelican Inn restaurant for a lunch of authentic English country cuisine. Specialties include Beef Wellington and Shepard's Pie.
5 Half Moon Bay's Countryside & Beaches
Get away to a rural retreat in the rolling farmlands by the Pacific Ocean. The small town of Half Moon Bay is 30 miles south of San Francisco. Although it's close to the city, Half Moon Bay has a 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 birdwatching. The historic downtown of Half Moon Bay has many unique locally owned shops and excellent restaurants, which make a day trip even more enjoyable. 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.
6 Stinson Beach and Dipsea Trail Hike
Stinson Beach is another popular day trip destination north of San Francisco in Marin County, especially on a sunny day. This picture-perfect beach community lies six miles north of Muir Beach and is accessible by a winding two-lane road that hugs the coastline and traverses the Steep Ravine Canyon. This extremely challenging drive includes hairpin turns, but it rewards with sensational vistas of the Pacific Ocean. In summertime traffic, it can take 45 minutes to drive the short distance. However, it's worth taking the difficult drive to get to Stinson Beach. Sheltered by the hillside, this small, protected sandy beach is ideal for hiking and picnicking. On warm days, many visitors sunbathe at Stinson Beach, but the water is too cold for swimming. Surfers ride the waves wearing wetsuits.
For those who appreciate invigorating outdoor activity and inspiring seaside scenery, the Dipsea Trail is a wonderful all-day hike with spectacular views. The seven-mile trail begins at Muir Woods National Monument, traverses the forest and Redwood Creek, and then descends 2,300 feet down the Steep Ravine to Stinson Beach. The trail includes steep steps that are challenging, but the journey rewards hikers with breathtaking ocean vistas. To complete the 14-mile round-trip hike requires a rigorous uphill hike back up to Muir Woods. 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.
7 Filoli Estate
Nestled in the rolling hills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Filoli Estate is a hidden gem 30 miles south of San Francisco. Filoli is one of the few remaining estates of the early 20th century and is registered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The elegant Georgian-style country house has a 36,000-square-foot interior decorated with 17th-century and 18th-century British antiques. Surrounding the mansion is a 16-acre Formal Garden landscaped in the English Renaissance style with perfectly manicured hedges, decorative pools, fountains, and an amazing variety of roses. The highlight of a visit to Filoli is spending time wandering through the delightful garden.
The estate also has an orchard with heirloom fruit trees and a 528-acre nature preserve comprised of forests, redwood stands, a pond, and grasslands. Within the Filoli Nature Preserve, a trail system offers twenty-two hiking paths that are accessible to visitors on docent-led hikes. Throughout the year, Filoli hosts special events such as art exhibits, afternoon tea, jazz concerts, farm-to-table dinners, the Autumn Festival in September, and a nine days of Holiday Traditions festivities in December.
Address: 86 Canada Road, Woodside
8 Mount Tamalpais
A popular hiking area, 18 miles north of Sausalito, Mount Tamalpais State Park boasts 50 miles of trails with incredible views. Hikers walk through serene redwood groves and peaceful oak woodlands. Those seeking a challenge may climb to the summit at 2,571 feet for breathtaking panoramas. On a clear day, it's possible to see all the way to the Farallon Islands, 25 miles out in the Pacific Ocean, as well as San Francisco and the bay and the cities of Berkeley and Oakland in the East Bay.
9 Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve
About 14 miles south of Half Moon Bay, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve is a wonderful place for nature walks and birdwatching. The 243-acre Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve is an expansive 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. The Pescadero Marsh is also home to endangered species such as the California red-legged frog, San Francisco garter snake, and coho salmon. Explore the natural preserve by following the Sequoia Audubon Trail, a 2.5-mile round-trip hike that is a delight for birdwatchers. 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 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, two rocky beaches, tide pools, and areas for fishing. Facilities include picnic tables for an alfresco lunch. Or instead, visitors can dine at Duarte's restaurant, a Pescadero institution.
10 Angel Island
Travelers can escape to a remote unpopulated island just across the bay from San Francisco. Angel Island is a State Park, accessible by taking a one-hour ferry ride from the Ferry Building or a 30-minute ferry ride from Pier 41 in San Francisco and then hopping on another ferry in Tiburon that takes 12 minutes to arrive on Angel Island. The Angel Island State Park opens at 8am and closes at sunset daily. A serene place of natural beauty, Angel Island has more than 13 miles of scenic hiking trails, ranging from moderate to advanced, as well as eight 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 offers stunning panoramic views of San Francisco and the bay, the Marin Headlands, and Mount Tamalpais. The island's amenities include a visitor center, an outdoor café near the dock, and picnic tables around the shore. Campsites are also available.
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 at the waterfront restaurants with 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.
11 Annadel Park, Sonoma County
Explore the beautiful landscape of Annadel Park, 60 miles north of San Francisco (about a one-hour-30-minute drive) in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County. The park features several miles of trails for hiking or mountain biking around the gorgeous Lake Ilsanjo and through fields of vibrant wildflowers. The best time to see the most wildflowers is in April and May, but some flowers can be seen from January until September. Fishing in the lake is allowed with a license. A convenient site to visit, the park has restroom facilities, drinking fountains, and picnic areas.
12 Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve
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 Huckleberry Self-Guided Nature Path is a 1.7-mile loop hiking trail that traverses mostly shaded terrain, including a bay forest. (Stay on the upper trail for a more moderate walk.) Visitors are allowed to pick berries from huckleberry plants along the trail.