14 Top-Rated Day Trips from San Francisco
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. So many fantastic destinations are within easy reach north, south, and east of San Francisco, from 30-minute rides 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. Plan your excursions from the city with this list of the top-rated day trips from San Francisco:
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." A magnificent corner of the High Sierra mountains,Yosemite Valley boasts scenery so sublime that it is a wonder to imagine 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 a world unto itself, with marvelous surprises like 1,000-foot waterfalls, crystalline lakes, flower-blanketed meadows, and old-growth sequoia forests. This unspoiled wilderness is home to more than 250 bird species, black bears, coyotes, chipmunks, endangered bighorn sheep, and other wildlife.
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 birdwatching, 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, 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. Otherwise for a one-day visit, it's a good idea to take an organized excursion, such as a Yosemite National Park full-day trip that includes transportation to and from San Francisco.
2 Seaside Charm in Carmel and Monterey
Monterey and Carmel can claim to have the best of both worlds: old-world European style along with Northern California's rugged coastal beauty. 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. 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 top destination is the Monterey 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. Along the way 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, and continues on to Carmel via the 17-Mile Drive.
3 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. A fun activity for families with kids is the Roaring Camp Railroad. This old-fashioned steam train takes passengers on an exciting ride through redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
4 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.
5 University Town of Berkeley
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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6 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, 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 a Muir Woods, Giant Redwoods, and Sausalito Half-Day Trip that departs from San Francisco.
7 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.
8 Stinson Beach and Dipsea Trail Hike
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 since this portion of the route is 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, and 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. Sometimes the ocean has dangerous rip currents and usually is too cold for swimming except on the warmest days of the year. 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. Note that 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 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.
9 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-style manor house, registered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has a 54,000-square-foot interior decorated with fine paintings and antiques. Mr. William Bowers Bourn II, owner of Empire Gold Mine in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, built the Filoli residence between 1915 and 1917. Surrounded by green rolling hills, the pristine 654-acre estate looks out onto Crystal Springs Reservoir. Mr. Bourn chose this location because the lake reminded him of Muckross, the estate in Ireland that he purchased for his daughter as a wedding gift. 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 visiting Filoli is taking a walk through the ravishing 16-acre English-Renaissance Formal Garden, landscaped with perfectly manicured hedges, terraces, decorative pools, fountains, and an extensive rose garden. The garden's pleasant pathways and parterres invite visitors to admire the ever-changing collection of seasonal plants and flowers, from pastel-tinted tulips in early spring to rare varieties of roses in summer and richly hued 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. Within the Filoli Nature Preserve is a trail system of twenty-two hiking paths that are only accessible to visitors on docent-led hikes, but visitors may take self-guided hikes on the Nature Preserve's one-mile loop Estate Trail. Throughout the year, Filoli hosts special events, such as art exhibits, afternoon tea, summertime jazz concerts, an annual flower show, the Autumn Festival in September, and holiday festivities from mid-November through December.
Address: 86 Canada Road, Woodside
10 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. For a bit of culture in the great outdoors, the Mountain Theater opens for performances on weekends in May and June. Another fun thing to do on warm summer days is have lunch at 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
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
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 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.
13 Trione-Annadel State Park in Sonoma County
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 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.
14 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.