Oakland road trip: 5 great day or weekend destinations to visit

Sep 2, 2020

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Editor’s note: Please check with every facility when planning your trip. Some may have limited hours or even be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Although I was born in San Francisco, I spent part of my childhood and every summer through college in the city on the other side of the Bay: Oakland. I always felt the city — with its own sports teams, international airport, vibrant dining scene and plenty of tourist attractions — was always in the shadow of San Francisco.

If you choose to visit Oakland, also know there are some great side trips you can take to create the perfect vacation-within-a-vacation. Below are five places to consider — from parks to beaches — for your next road trip from Oakland.

Related: 10 tips for anyone taking a road trip right now

In This Post

Yosemite National Park

YOSEMITE VALLEY, CA - OCTOBER 06: The boardwalk at Yosemite's Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is viewed on October 6, 2019, in Yosemite Valley, California. With the arrival of fall, the tens of thousands of monthly visitors begins to drop off but the usual traffic congestion and on-going road construction projects continue to provide challenges for getting around in the Park. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
The boardwalk at Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Distance from Oakland: 3 hours, 4 minutes

First created as a park in 1864, Yosemite — at 1,200 square miles — is famous for its waterfalls, but there’s also deep valleys, grand meadows and a vast wilderness area. I was in elementary school when I first went to Yosemite. I was in complete awe of Mariposa Grove, home to the Giant Sequoia trees. But there is so much to see and do, it can be overwhelming at times.

Related: A beginner’s guide to visiting Yosemite National Park

You must make a reservation in order to enter the park, and it costs $35 for a seven-day pass for cars, trucks and RVs that seat 15 or fewer passengers. Reservations are only available via recreation.gov, with 80% being available about one month in advance and 20% being available two days in advance, so make your plans well in advance. Finally, watch out for bears and do not feed them.

What to do: If you’re a rock climber, check out El Capitan, which is more than 3,000 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley. Enjoy the park’s myriad waterfalls, including Yosemite, Sentinel, Ribbon and Horsetail. Gaze at the rock formations created more than 3,000 years ago, including the world-famous Half Dome, a symbol of Yosemite. Or explore Yosemite’s wilderness, which makes up 95% of the park.

Where to stay: If camping isn’t your thing, book a stay at the following: The Ahwahnee, Yosemite’s only luxury hotel; the Yosemite Valley Lodge, located near the base of Yosemite Falls; or the Wawona Hotel, a Victorian-style lodge located near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Yosemite has 10 campgrounds that can accommodate RVs and trailers. Electrical, water and sewer hookups are not available. Plus the park has 13 campgrounds; they fill up quickly, so plan accordingly, since some are reservable while others operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

What to eat and drink: For a fine dining experience, have dinner at the Ahwahnee Dining Room or have cocktails at the Ahwahnee Bar. Degnan’s Bakery sells sandwiches, salads, pizza, coffee and breakfast. Meadow Grill serves
burgers, chicken and fish sandwiches, salads, and veggie options all in a COVID-friendly outdoor space. Pick up food and supplies at the Village Store.

Related: 9 things to know about visiting a national park right now

Whitewater Rafting on the American River

(Photo by Steve Holderfield/Shutterstock)
One of the rapids along the American River. (Photo by Steve Holderfield/Shutterstock)

Distance from Oakland: 2 hours, 2 minutes

The American River, located in El Dorado County, California, is on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada east of the state capital of Sacramento. The river’s famous South Fork is a Class III river and is known for offering some of the best whitewater rafting in the state. There are trips available for beginners and advanced whitewater rafters. It’s also close to Sutter’s Mill, site of 1948’s California gold rush.

What to do: It’s all about the whitewater rafting here. Beginners can learn by taking a half-day trip on the Lower Middle Fork. Those with more experience can try out the Chili Bar on the upper South Fork or the Gorge on the lower South Fork. Advanced whitewater rafters go for the Tunnel Chute in the Middle Fork or the North Fork. If the river isn’t your thing, visit the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park or take a drive along historic Highway 49, also known as the Golden Chain Highway, which winds from Loyalton to Oakhurst, which is south of Yosemite National Park.

Where to stay: If you want chain hotels, the Best Western Placerville Inn and Courtyard by Marriott in Folsom are among your options. No rooms are the same at the Historic Cary House Hotel in Placerville on the town’s historic Main Street. The Coloma Country Inn Bed & Breakfast in Coloma is centrally located in Gold Discovery State Historic Park that offers a touch of luxury after your river adventures. For those who embrace the rustic, the Camp Lotus campground, located on the bank of the South Fork American River, offers more than 30 campsites, six cabins, a riverside teepee and 10 RV hookup spots. There’s also hot showers, a store and river access.

What to eat and drink: If you want a more relaxed meal, check out Marco’s Pizza, which features Roman style pizza, beer on tap and local wines. For breakfast, the Sierra Rizing Bakery serves coffee, pastries, and a breakfast menu.

Related: When you gotta go: Your guide to public bathrooms during your summer road trip

Sonoma County

SANTA ROSA, CA - AUGUST 3: The entrance to Sonoma-Cutrer Winery is viewed on August 3, 2017, near Santa Rosa, California. Following a record winter rainfall on the North Coast, eliminating a five-year drought, the grape growing season enters a "quiet" summer period and is shaping up to be a normal harvest and above-average crop, good news for this popular Northern California Wine Country tourist destination. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
The entrance to the Sonoma-Cutrer Winery, a popular destination in Sonoma Wine Country. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Distance from Oakland: 55 minutes

Napa Valley takes all the attention when it comes to wineries, but nearby Sonoma is not to be missed. Sonoma Wine Country has more than 500 wineries, including popular ones including sparkling winemaker Gloria Ferrer, Sebastiani Vineyards and Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards (their Chardonnays are my personal favorite). If you’re not into wines, there’s still plenty to do.

What to do: There are wine tours galore. You can take a bike ride through the valley, get a view of Sonoma’s wineries from a hot air balloon, play a round at one of the many golf courses, including Foxtail Golf Club, check out the art at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and take a canoe ride down the Russian River.

Where to stay: The Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country is an elegant property with 253 guest rooms with a pool, a grapevine covered arbor, a 10-foot crystal fire pit and enjoy the manicured floral gardens. Sonoma Hotel On The Plaza is in a historic 1880 building that was remodeled in 1999. Wine and breakfast is included in the room rate. Inn at the Tides has rustic yet elegant guest lodges, award-winning restaurants and breathtaking views.

What to eat and drink: If you want to taste the best of Healdsburg in the county, Savor Healdsburg Food Tours offers a three-hour culinary walking tour with six gourmet tastings that show why the town is a top wine and foodie destination. Mac’s Deli is an old school Jewish deli that opened in Santa Rosa in 1952. Go for the brisket, matzo ball soup and fresh rye bread. Taste of the Himalayas isn’t what you’d expect in the middle of Sonoma wine country, but this casual eatery serves Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian dishes.

Related: Are we there yet? 6 ways the classic road trip has changed — and stayed the same

Bass Lake

An aerial view of Bass Lake. (Photo by hafakot/Shutterstock)

Distance from Oakland: 3 hours, 18 minutes

Bass Lake is owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Company and its waters are used for recreation, to generate electricity and irrigate farmland in the Central Valley. At five miles long, the lake is one of the best spots in the state for boating, camping, fishing and hiking.

What to do: Bass Lake is a great spot for water skiing, wakeboarding, wave runners, kayaking and pedal boating, with rental gear available. There are also coves for swimming and sailing. You can rent or bring your own fishing gear and fish for bass, rainbow trout, Kokanee salmon, and more — but note that California fishing licenses are required for ages 16 and above. You can explore dozens of trails that lead into the Sierra National Forest. Or take a challenging five-mile hike to and from Goat Mountain Fire Lookout.

Where to stay: The Pines Resort is the only lakefront resort in the Yosemite area. It offers two-story cabins, lakefront suites, large cabins and rental homes that come with fully stocked kitchens, living rooms and private patios. For campers, the Bass Lake Complex is made up of seven campgrounds. If you want that old-school summer camp feel, stay at The Forks, which offers one, two and three-bedroom modern cabins near the lake, most with lake views.

What to eat and drink: Enjoy upscale farm-to-table dining and great lake views at Ducey’s on the Lake, part of the Pines Resort. Beer lovers will enjoy Southgate Brewing Company, which serves craft beers and classic pub food. Get your barbecue fix at SmokeHouse 41, where you can enjoy pulled pork, tri-tip, ribs and sausage that’s smoked for up to 14 hours.

Big Sur

View of the McWay Cove with falls of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park at Highway 1 near the Carmel-by-the-Sea on the Big Sur coast in California, USA, 27 August 2013. Photo: Alexandra Schuler | usage worldwide (Photo by Alexandra Schuler/picture alliance via Getty Images)
A view of the McWay Cove with falls of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park at Highway 1 on the Big Sur coast. (Photo by Alexandra Schuler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Distance from Oakland: 2 hours, 28 minutes

Big Sur is located on a 90-mile stretch of California coastline on the famous Highway 1, located between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle. Sights you see along the way include parks, California condors, migrating whales or sea otters floating among dense beds of kelp in the Pacific Ocean.

What to do: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is known for the iconic image of tree-topped rocks jutting above a golden beach next to crashing surf. Take an easy hike to view the 80-foot McWay Falls. The Henry Miller Memorial Library promotes the works of the author. It hosts events including concerts, lectures and book signings, plus you can enjoy a cup of coffee while perusing the museum’s books. Or just relax at Pfeiffer Beach, which requires driving along a two-mile stretch of narrow and windy road. After parking, take a short walk down to the beach, which features Keyhole Rock, a favorite spot to take sunset photos.

Where to stay: There are plenty of campgrounds in the area, including Big Sur Campground, Fernwood Resort, Riverside Campground, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. If you crave more comfort, splurge on The region’s beauty also makes it a magnet for exclusive, splurge-worthy hotels like the 39-room, cliff-hugging Post Ranch Inn, perched on the cliffs of Big Sur 1,200 feet above the Pacific Ocean. The inn features several pools, a spa and places to see nature at its best. Lucia Lodge offers 10 cabins with no televisions or telephones to allow you to unplug. They all have a queen-sized bed, bathrooms with showers and sitting spaces with views of the ocean.  

What to eat and drink: The Wine Spectator Grand-Award winning Sierra Mar restaurant, located at the Post Ranch Inn, offers an upscale menu that changes every day, served with ocean views. Enjoy more casual dining at the family-owned Big Sur Deli & General Store, that serves sandwiches, burritos, tamales, calzones, salads and more. You can also enjoy a nice selection of micro-brews and wines.

Related: 6 great road trips from San Francisco

Bottom line

There’s still time to get in a late summer-early fall day or weekend trip to these spots that are a convenient drive from Oakland and San Francisco. All five places have plenty to do for both kids and adults. And the good news is that most of these places are perfect places to enjoy nature in a socially distant way.

Related: Opening America: State-by-state guide to coronavirus reopening

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