Pacific Union’s 12 Favorite Bay Area Day Trips
If you live in the Bay Area, you probably already know that you can jump in your car in the morning and feel like you are a world away by the afternoon. And if you plan to move here, you will very quickly realize how many amazing things there are to see and do right in your own backyard.
From beaches to boardwalks to lakes to overlooks, we’ve collected some of our staff’s favorite Bay Area day-trip getaways. For consistency, we are assuming that all of these trips begin in San Francisco and that each one is no more than a two-hour drive each way. A gentle reminder that Bay Area traffic varies greatly by the time of day and the day of the week, so make sure to check your digital maps for travel times before you depart!
Heading South From San Francisco
Half Moon Bay
Twenty-eight miles south of San Francisco on Highway 1 you will find the charming San Mateo County community of Half Moon Bay. There, the Half Moon Bay Coastside Trail runs along the Pacific Ocean for more than four-and-a-half miles and makes for a lovely walking, jogging, or biking adventure.
While in Half Moon Bay, visit one of the many beautiful beaches, wineries, or the famed pumpkin farms. If you take a trip in October, check the dates for the very popular Art & Pumpkin Festival. Before you leave town, treat yourself to an amazing meal or a relaxing spa treatment at the Ritz-Carlton. Visit TripAdvisor for a look at more activities and attractions in the area.
Drive down Highway 1 for 47 miles, and there’s Pescadero, which is actually a few miles inland. A farming and ranching community, it is also a well-known weekend destination because of its beaches and outdoor activities. Duarte’s Tavern is a recommended stop for Olallieberry pie and margaritas.
Down the coast an additional seven miles is the Pigeon Point Light Station, home to one of the tallest lighthouses in America. And drive another seven miles and you’ll find Año Nuevo State Park, which features a Marine Education Center. Up to 10,000 elephant seals breed and give birth every year at the park’s Natural Preserve, and they molt along the beaches from April to August.
We could go on and on and on about Santa Cruz, as it’s one of the ultimate Northern California getaway spots, located about 75 miles south of San Francisco.
First and foremost there’s the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, voted Best Seaside Park in 2016. From the famed Giant Dipper rollercoaster to miniature golf to summer concerts, the Boardwalk has been operating since 1907.
Natural Bridges State Beach is a fantastic 65-acre state park known for stellar bird, butterfly, and seal watching. Take a boat tour while in town for some excellent whale watching. Downtown Santa Cruz features vintage stores and laid-back restaurants. Keep in mind that Santa Cruz is the ultimate surfer town, as the sport was introduced in the U.S. there. Head over to Visit California for resources and additional information about the city.
Still have some time on your hands? Check out Big Basin Redwoods State Park 25 miles northwest of Santa Cruz. There you will find 80 miles of trails and roads, waterfalls, and wildlife. There are campgrounds throughout the park.
Travel + Leisure magazine named Monterey No. 6 on its list of “America’s Favorite Beach Towns” in 2016. Approximately 115 miles south of San Francisco, Monterey is probably best known for its aquarium that was founded in 1984. The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to “inspire conservation of the ocean,” and this is reflected in its exhibits, programs, tours, and activities. Whale watching, hiking, cycling, kayaking and scuba diving — you can do it all in Monterey.
Seven miles south of Monterey you’ll find scenic Point Lobos State National Reserve. Top activities here involve hiking the trails and nature and wildlife viewing — but try to get there early, as it is a popular spot and the parking lots can fill up. Visit TripAdvisor to see more things to do while in the Monterey area.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, or Carmel, is a quaint little town offering up wonderful restaurants, art galleries, wine-tasting rooms, boutique shops, and fantastic outdoor activities. Approximately 120 miles south of San Francisco, Carmel is a neighbor of Monterey. The official Carmel travel site calls it, “An amazing European-style village nestled above a picturesque white-sand beach where everything is within walking distance from your charming hotel or inn,” and we think that wraps it up nicely. Carmel has been rated the No. 1 Dog Friendly Town in America, so don’t leave your furry friend behind for this one!
Pebble Beach is just south of Monterey and is known for its resorts and golf. Staff recommendations include the spa at The Lodge at Pebble Beach, artichoke soup at the Tap Room, and cocktails at The Lodge lobby bar overlooking Carmel Bay.
Heading North From San Francisco
Stinson Beach is just less than 25 miles north of San Francisco in western Marin County, and because of its proximity to the city, it is a popular day-trip destination for locals and tourists alike. You’ll find all of your typical beach activities here: surfing, kayaking, wind surfing, fishing (with permits), hiking, and picnicking.
The Golden Gate National Recreational Area website suggests following the trailheads “for beautiful hikes that lead into Mount Tamalpais State Park,” where you can see the Farallon Islands, the Marin County hills, San Francisco Bay, the East Bay, and Mount Diablo from its 2,571-foot peak. On the way home, (check in advance to find out if it’s open to the public) consider taking a hike to local favorite (and something of a secret) the Tourist Club, a German beer garden tucked away down a low-key trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park.
Point Reyes Station/Inverness/Marshall/Tomales Bay
Approximately 45 to 50 miles north of San Francisco you will find the small Marin County towns of Point Reyes Station, Inverness, and Marshall — all located on Tomales Bay and adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore and Tomales Bay State Park. We could go on all day about this entire area, as it is filled to the brim with outdoor activities: hiking, beach going, whale-watching, seal-watching, and even lighthouse-watching.
In Point Reyes Station, visitors will find a cozy town with restaurants and shopping. Cowgirl Creamy is a popular destination for fresh, locally made cheese. And in Inverness, you will find a small public marina and the Inverness Yacht Club. Make sure to drive through the Tule Elk Reserve to witness amazing views, and to visit McClures Beach at the end of the road.
In nearby Marshall, you’ll find the ever-popular Hog Island Oyster Co., where you can shuck your own oysters. Be certain to make reservations, and note that there is no Wi-Fi or cell-phone service. TripAdvisor offers a nice list of activities to check out while in the area.
Bodega Bay is approximately 70 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County and may be best known as being a shooting location for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds.” “Stroll around this one-block town, and you’ll spot some of the buildings used in the movie,” states SonomaCounty.com, “including the famous Potter schoolhouse and the St. Teresa of Avila Church.”
Whale-watching is a popular attraction here, as a mile up the road is the Sonoma Coast State Park, which offers easy accessible high viewing points. A few miles south of Bodega Bay you will find Bodega Head Beach, a rugged stretch of coastline with a small, sandy beach and a hiking trail network that loops around the headlands. TripAdvisor offers a nice list of Things to Do in Bodega Bay.
Approximately 75 miles north of San Francisco is the town of Guerneville, also often referred to as just “the Russian River” because of the river that runs through it. Guerneville is known for its many river-related activities and is a popular recreation spot for city dwellers. Beach activities, hiking, camping, wineries … there is no lack of things to do in the area.
The well-known Korbel Champagne cellars are only minutes away, and within 20 minutes, you’ll find another 50 wineries. The Austin Creek State Recreation Area is five miles north of Guerneville, so if you plan to stick around the area for a night or two, you may want to check out the campsite availability.
A visit to Lake Berryessa, approximately 80 miles northeast of San Francisco in Napa County, is a great little getaway. It is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in California. There are day-use facilities, or you can stay for a weekend at one of the 133 lakeside campsites. Boating, jet skiing, picnicking, swimming, and hiking are options, and you can even rent a houseboat. The water temperature can reach up to 75 degrees in the summer.
Heading East From San Francisco
Mount Diablo is approximately 40 miles northeast of San Francisco and 16 miles east of Walnut Creek in Contra Costa County. Mount Diablo State Park offers a Summit Visitor Center, an observation deck, an overlook, bike and hiking trails, picnic areas, and campsites. According to the website, “All in all, you can see over 8,539 square miles and parts of 40 of California’s 58 counties from the Summit of Mount Diablo.” The view is usually best the day after a winter storm.
Mainly known as a bedroom community approximately 45 miles southeast of San Francisco, Alameda County’s Livermore is home to over 40 world-class wineries, and it is slowly becoming known as a destination for vinophiles that may not have the time to travel to Napa or Sonoma. There is also a large outlet mall in Livermore if you have a little extra time. TripAdvisor has more ideas about what to do when in the area.
We hope you have a great time exploring the Bay Area, and of course, these are only a few starting points. Remember to double-check the hours and accessibility of all destinations before you hit the road. And remember to bring sunscreen and a jacket — you will probably need both.