6 great road trips from San Francisco

May 20, 2020

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There is, of course, a lot to do in San Francisco, but there are also incredible destinations just a drive away from the City by the Bay.

If you’re looking for a charming, scenic small town, there’s Monterey. For active adventure, Big Sur or Lake Tahoe may be calling you. If you’re an oenophile, you can enjoy an overnight in Napa or Mendocino with wine tastings, luxury spa treatments and scenic railways.

If you’d rather spend a low-key summer weekend sunning on the beach and boardwalk, try Santa Cruz.

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Each destination is distinctive — and totally doable as a long weekend getaway.

Santa Cruz

The Santa Cruz boardwalk. (Photo by Jordan Siemens/Getty Images)
The Santa Cruz boardwalk. (Photo by Jordan Siemens/Getty Images)

Driving time from San Francisco: 90 minutes

Start a weekend in Santa Cruz on the boardwalk, perfumed by buttery popcorn and sticky-sweet cotton candy. Get your thrills on the classic rides, from coasters to the log flume, or tackle some serious ocean swells. You can bring your heart rate back to normal on the serene, protected beaches of the Capitola neighborhood. A happy medium? Cowell Beach, which has gentler waves and is great for neophyte surfers.

During a weekend in Santa Cruz, carve out time to visit Natural Bridges State Park. There are typically sea lions and otters off the coast and during low tide starfish and sea urchins can be spotted in tide pools. Trek along the bluffs on West Cliff Drive to Natural Bridges for unmatched views.

Related: Fun family activities in Santa Cruz

Where to stay: The Dream Inn is comfortable, stylish and centrally located on Cowell Beach. Every room has a private balcony facing the ocean. It’s all surf style and the staff is very helpful. Santa Cruz has no shortage of points hotels, either. For Marriott loyalists, there’s the Hotel Paradox, a Category 6 Autograph Collection hotel. Off-peak dates start at 40,000 points a night, though PointSavers dates can drop as low as 35,000 points (so you could use a 35,000-point free-night certificate that comes with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card).

Don’t miss: The Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Built in 1924, it’s one of the finest wooden roller coasters in the world. It’s smoother than Brooklyn’s Cyclone and peaks at 55 miles per hour.

Mendocino

Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve in Mendocino county. (Photo by GaryKavanagh/Getty Images)
Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve in Mendocino County. (Photo by GaryKavanagh/Getty Images)

Driving time from San Francisco: Three hours

Mendocino County, north of Sonoma County and just a few hours from San Francisco, is home to one of the country’s most underappreciated wine regions — wineries and vineyards freckle the landscape. Between sips of Pinot Noir, travelers can explore the precipitous shoreline with its miles of coastal trails and beaches. En route from San Francisco, you’ll drive through towering redwood forests. See the redwoods up close at Navarro River Redwoods State Park or at Hendy Woods State Park, 945 acres of ancient groves.

Related: Mendocino activities for the whole family

Where to stay: Small, boutique properties will be your best bet if you want to bed down in Mendocino. The Brewery Gulch Inn, constructed from reclaimed redwood, presides over a spectacular promontory overlooking the ocean. Rooms have oversized picture windows and gas fireplaces for cool evenings. Rates start around $385 per night. To commune with nature, there’s Mendocino Grove, a glamping retreat with safari-style tents on 37 acres.

Don’t miss: The Skunk Train, an activity the whole family will love, runs through the redwoods from nearby Fort Bragg on the scenic seven-mile Pudding Creek Express loop.

Big Sur

Big Sur, California. (Photo by Alan Majchrowicz/Getty Images)
Big Sur. (Photo by Alan Majchrowicz/Getty Images)

Driving time from San Francisco: Three hours

A long weekend in Big Sur is ideal if you like being outdoors. You can picnic on Pfeiffer Beach. Or lounge on Sand Dollar Beach, where you can surf and excavate jade from the rocks along the beach. For surfing, bring a wet suit; the water can be chilly. And though redwood enthusiasts are often directed north of San Francisco, some of the oldest and largest redwoods reside in Limekiln State Park. There are two trails at Limekiln — neither is longer than a mile — and one leads to a dramatic 100-foot waterfall. Another must-stop is the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a library and bookstore devoted to the late author and also a local cultural hub.

Where to stay: When Hyatt acquired Two Roads Hospitality group in 2018, it opened up tons of new possibilities for those with World of Hyatt (or Chase Ultimate Rewards) points. One of the best properties to join the World of Hyatt program was Ventana Big Sur, an Alila resort. Located off the Pacific Coast Highway, the property has an ultra-luxurious California cabin aesthetic, with Pacific views and an infinity-edge hot tub. Rooms start at $500, or 30,000 points per night.

Don’t miss: Hiking in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with mindblowing views of California’s central coast from the top of Manuel Peak.

Monterey

Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Photo by Denny Soetiono/EyeEm/Getty Images)
Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Photo by Denny Soetiono/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Driving time from San Francisco: Two hours

A cute California town dotted with eclectic shops, seafood restaurants and dive bars, Monterey is a fun getaway. Check out the Monterey Museum of Art, which features early California artworks from when Monterey was a gritty factory town. Later, order an adobada burrito from the hole-in-the-wall Baldemiro’s Taco Shop nearby. No trip here would be complete without an afternoon spent at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the finest in the country. Not only is there a fascinating array of sea life on display, but there are plenty of interactive opportunities too. Guests can even dive into the bay with instructors until early September.

Related: Maximizing hotel points on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip

Where to stay: The Mission Ranch Hotel is a town away in picturesque Carmel, but who cares? The hotel was preserved and restored by Clint Eastwood, and the views of Point Lobos and Carmel Beach are spectacular. This hotel is especially good for a romantic weekend for two.

Don’t miss: A paddle around the bay in a kayak, which can be rented at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Don’t be surprised if you encounter a herd of seals.

Napa

Napa, California. (Photo by Emily Kent Photography/Getty Images)
Napa. (Photo by Emily Kent Photography/Getty Images)

Distance from San Francisco: One hour (if you leave San Francisco really early)

There are many different ways to enjoy a trip to Napa, but most revolve around the contents of a wine glass. Permits are required to serve food during tastings, so most wineries offer little more than a wafer. Round Pond Estate, however, is a great exception for those who want to eat and drink. The spa scene in Napa is just as noteworthy as the vineyards. You can soak in a pool of warm mud or try something less sticky, like a soothing salt bath. Either way, it’s a relaxing way to spend a long summer weekend, particularly when you chase the experience with yet another glass of wine. Nightlife is on the subdued side in Napa, but Blue Note Napa is a lively jazz club that delivers stiff drinks (if you need them).

Related: Where to find family-friendly wineries in Napa

Where to stay: There are many excellent places to stay if you want to overnight in Napa. Rancho Caymus Inn is close to some fine wineries. The Senza Hotel is one of the most luxurious places to bed down, with heated bathroom floors and a nightly wine and cheese hour. Napa has several great points hotels, too, like the Andaz Napa, which is available for 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night (or $220) on select dates this summer.

Review: Las Alcobas in Napa Valley, California

Don’t miss: An excursion on the Napa Wine Train, a three-hour ride with a gourmet meal and your choice from a wine list of 40 bottles. Imbibe while savoring views of the towns of Napa, Yount and Rutherford.

Lake Tahoe

Sand Harbor State Park in Lake Tahoe. (Photo by www.35mmNegative.com/Getty Images)
Sand Harbor State Park, Lake Tahoe. (Photo by www.35mmNegative.com/Getty Images)

Driving time from San Francisco: 3.5 hours

Even when the driving time stretches closer to four hours, travelers will be amply rewarded for their patience with the sight of the vast, impossibly blue waters of Lake Tahoe. Framed by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is a popular destination for winter and early spring ski trips, as well as summer kayaking adventures and rewarding day hikes. Check out Sand Harbor State Park, on the northeast corner of the lake, which connects to the new Tahoe East Shore Trail. The trail offers more than a dozen viewpoints.

Where to stay: If you’ve packed your skis and snow pants, Sugar Bowl is the closest major Tahoe-area ski resort from San Francisco. Year-round, the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe is a great place to redeem your Marriott points (from 70,000 points per night). It offers ski-in, ski-out access to the Northstar California ski area, plus direct access to Lake Tahoe. The property’s contemporary mountain aesthetic is accented by gas fireplaces and marble bathrooms.

Don’t miss: Emerald Bay State Park, 12 miles north of South Lake Tahoe, with incredible views of the lake. This is where you’ll find the famous Inspiration Point overlook from which you can see an array of waterfalls and Vikingsholm, a castle-like estate dating back to the late 1920s.

Feature photo by Andrew Wille/Getty Images.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman. 

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