California

7 Awesome Weekend Road Trips from San Francisco, California

by Lorna Ryan
Updated September 24, 2021

Best Weekend Road Trips from San Francisco, California
Photo: Nick Fox / Shutterstock

San Francisco has so much to offer both in town and outside the city. But the surrounding Northern California area has a lot on offer — and travelers in SF are well-placed to reach most of it.

With a quick drive, you can be along the coastline, watching waves animatedly crash against the beaten, rugged coast. You can also go off-the-grid, hiking in the wilderness or walking under giant redwood trees in Muir Woods. San Francisco is a wonderful place to explore, but the surrounding adventures are too exciting to miss. While you’ll find seven epic road trips from San Francisco below, it’s hardly a complete list — but these should fill your first few weekends out of town.

The road trips below lead to places as varied as coastal beach towns, luxurious wine tasting valleys, and rustic mountain getaways. Each road trip from San Francisco can be completed as an overnight, though you probably want to spend at least two in most places. And all of these drives (with the exception of the east shore of Lake Tahoe) are in California — it’s crazy how much the state has to do!

1. Napa and Sonoma Counties

Napa and Sonoma County
Photo: Lukasz Szwaj / Shutterstock

One of the most popular weekend road trips from San Francisco is a trip to Napa or Sonoma counties for wine tasting and relaxation in the country. While the Napa Valley is the most wildly know wine-producing region in the area, Sonoma is equally as beautiful and more laid back (and a bit cheaper). They’re near each other, so it is easy to cover them in the same trip. Expect delicious wine, rolling hills of vineyards, generally sunny weather, and good gourmet picnic options to accompany your vino.

It’s wise to book at least a few winery tastings in advance. Sonoma and Napa are best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, so plan to visit no more than three wineries a day to allow time for exploring the vineyards and relaxing in the outdoor spaces. Be sure to make sure at least one of them sells food, as not all do (and you should certainly eat something!)

Most wineries allow you to roam freely through the vineyards. Good high-end options include Domaine Carneros, Chateau Montelena Winery, and Castello di Amorosa, which is an actual recreated European castle. Other good options include Trefethen, Robert Mondavi and Pineridge. There are more than 400 wineries in the Napa A.V.A. (the term for a designated wine-producing region) and most of the wines are very good. However, tastings can be pricey — $20 would be considered quite cheap.

While Napa and Sonoma are amazing places for visiting world-class wineries, it’s not actually all there is to do. Sonoma Plaza is a beautiful place to grab lunch or dinner and explore the little shops, and the nearby Fairmont Sonoma Inn is a beautiful hotel with geo-thermal fed mineral pools, farm-to-table dining, complimentary wine tasting, and beautiful rooms with fireplaces, jacuzzis, and four-poster beds.

Sunday evening return traffic to San Francisco is always quite busy, so plan for a longer journey back if driving back then. Traffic can easily add an hour or more to the drive time.

Camping: Though Napa is generally pretty luxurious, you have a surprisingly good number of camping options nearby. Bothe-Napa Valley State Park has tent sites, RV sites, cabin rentals, and even amenities like a swimming pool. Skyline Wilderness Park has its own disc golf course, and you can glamp on a vineyard in Sonoma at Shelterwood.

Lodging: Napa and Sonoma are loaded with lodging options! You can sleep in a historic mill in downtown Napa and the Elm House Inn is a cute budget-friendly lodge within walking distance to downtown.

  • Distance from San Francisco: 48 miles (53 to Sonoma)
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour, 10 mins

2. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe
Photo: Shutterstock

Lake Tahoe is a popular escape for Bay Area residents. In spring and fall, it’s the go-to road trip from San Francisco for anyone who wants to camp, hike, mountain bike, backpack, or otherwise enjoy the Sierra Nevada. In winter and spring, it’s all about skiing, with more than a dozen ski resorts around the lake.

Lake Tahoe is split between California and Nevada. Most of it is on the California side, but the towns of Incline Village (north shore) and Stateline (south shore) are both in Nevada, so stay in one of those two places if you want to hit the casinos.

In general, South Lake Tahoe is better for people who want nightlife, restaurants, and entertainment, whereas north lake is better for access to outdoor recreation and smaller towns. South Lake Tahoe is generally more affordable and offers more lodging and dining options than the towns on the north shore. It takes about an hour to drive from the north shore to the south shore — it’s a big lake.

Lake Tahoe has some beautiful lodges and homes for rent on Airbnb, though be aware that there’s a very anti-Airbnb sentiment around the lake (as Airbnb homes are displacing locals). But if there’s a big group traveling, renting a big home with a jacuzzi or pool is a great option — you’ll find plenty of high-end home options.

When in Lake Tahoe, a hike around Emerald Bay is a must. The water is so blue and the hikes have incredible views of the lake. Try hiking in the morning before hitting the beach in the afternoon. If you’re on the Nevada side, you’ll want to visit Sand Harbor State Park, where you can kayak, swim, and jump off boulders. You can rent kayaks and boats at nearly every major beach.

A side note: The highway from north Lake Tahoe to San Francisco (I80) passes over Donner Summit and is subject to heavy snow in the winter. Chain control is common in the winter, which means you’ll need snow tires and 4WD, or chains on your tires. That, combined with traffic, can make the normally three-hour drive take – no joke – seven or eight hours. If you’re visiting in the winter, strongly consider avoiding making the drive to the lake on Friday afternoons and/or back to the city on Sunday evenings.

Camping: Tahoe is a camping paradise. If you want to backpack, make sure you have a permit and know the campfire regulations (they’re probably not allowed). Otherwise, stunning campsites include Fallen Leaf Campground, Emerald Bay Campground, Eagle Point Campground, DL Bliss State Park, and Donner Memorial State Park — yes, where the Donner Party tragedy happened!

Lodging: Tahoe is hugely popular with tourists and there are hundreds of lodging options. You could stay at luxurious resorts like Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, Edgewood, or the Ritz Carlton, or keep it more low-key at places like BaseCamp. Especially around the north shore, you’ll find a few vintage hotels and lakeside resorts that are pretty fun, including the Franciscan Lake Lodge in Tahoe Vista.

  • Distance from San Francisco: 228 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 3 hours, 15 mins (to north Lake Tahoe)

3. Monterey

road trips from San Francisco
Photo: Darryl Brooks / Shutterstock

Monterey is a cute coastal town on California’s rugged central coast. There are a couple of ways to road trip there from San Francisco, including driving down Highway 1, which has some of the most picturesque views in the country. It adds a little extra time to the trip, which makes it more about the journey and less about the destination. Check the maps before you leave as the highway can occasionally close from storm or mudslide damage.

17 Mile Drive is close to Monterey and one of the most scenic drives on the West Coast. It passes famous sights, including the Cypress Point Lookout, The Lone Cypress, and Pebble Beach.

In Monterey, a trip to Cannery Row is a must. Cannery Row is a buzzing strip of gift shops, seafood restaurants, and bars in converted factories. It has a beautiful view and is worth taking a few minutes to wander through. And you’ll probably want to stop by Cannery Row’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, an award-winning aquarium with everything from otters to sharks. There’s also a fabulous jellyfish exhibit.

Camping: There aren’t too many campgrounds in Monterey, but you don’t have to go too far outside the city to find one. Consider pitching your tent at the Monterey Bay or Moss Landing KOAs, though you’ll also find lots of caping further south at the parks around Big Sur.

Lodging: Monterey has plenty of options with a lot of variety, from lux beachside resorts to more low key motels a few miles away from downtown. Every booking website should have tons of options, but good places to start are the Monterey Tides, Days Inn Fisherman’s Wharf, The Hotel Pacific, or the Monterey Plaza Hotel.

  • Distance from San Francisco: 118 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 2 hours

4. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea
Photo: Robert Mullan / Shutterstock

Just about 10 minutes beyond Monterey is another beautiful coastal town called Carmel-by-the-Sea. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming artist community turned into an elegant, downright adorable small town. The quaint cottages and galleries are reminiscent of Europe, and the downtown streets are dotted in artisan galleries, tasting rooms, cute coffee shops, and fantastic restaurants. It’s best to have no plan – just spend a couple of hours roaming through town.

If you like the beach (and dogs!) head to Carmel Beach, a haven for leash-less pups frolicking in the surf. In fact, Carmel is exceedingly dog-friendly, so don’t be surprised if you belly up to a restaurant bar only to find a labradoodle sitting next to you. You could also spend the day driving down to Big Sur; amazing hiking awaits at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

To finish the day, enjoy a delightful Mediterranean meal at Dametra Cafe or the highly regarded Seventh and Dolores. Follow it up with a lazy brunch at the Stationaery, or grab some coffee to go and take a morning walk on the beach.

Camping: There aren’t too many campgrounds in Monterey, but you don’t have to go too far outside the city to find one. Consider pitching your tent at the Monterey Bay or Moss Landing KOAs, though you’ll also find lots of caping further south at the parks around Big Sur.

Lodging: Monterey has plenty of options with a lot of variety, from lux beachside resorts to more low key motels a few miles away from downtown. Every booking website should have tons of options, but good places to start are the Monterey Tides, Days Inn Fisherman’s Wharf, The Hotel Pacific, or the Monterey Plaza Hotel.

  • Distance from San Francisco: 116 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 2 hours, 5 mins

5. Vichy Springs, Ukiah

road trips from San Francisco
Photo: vichysprings.com

If you’ve got sore leg muscles from exploring the city’s many hills, perhaps the best weekend road trip from San Francisco for you is one that goes to a hot bed of hot springs. California has many natural hot springs, typically heated by subterranean volcanic activity. The naturally hot water is said to have natural healing properties. While that’s sort of an iffy claim, sometimes the composition of the water can be good for your skin. And it sure feels good on sore legs!

Resorts developed around some of these natural hot springs, offering lodging and sometimes fine dining steps from the pools. The town of Ukiah has many of these resorts, as well as lovely hiking and trail systems. Vichy Springs is one of the best hot springs resorts in Ukiah, with cottages, unlimited access to the hot springs, a spa, and on-site trails to waterfalls and secluded woods. But if you don’t want to stay there, you can still book a day visit and enjoy the water.

Clearlake  is a drive away from Vichy Springs and is a great spot for swimming and hiking in warmer weather. Ukiah isn’t exactly lively town, so come here if you want a relaxing, wellness-focused weekend.

Camping: Ukiah is a small town but there are several campgrounds in the vicinity (and plenty of forest land you can camp on). Check out the Bushay Recreation Area or the Mayacmas Campground. You can also camp closer to Mendocino if you want to check out both areas over the course of a long weekend. There are a few cute glamping resorts closer to the coast, like Mendocino Grove.

Lodging: If you don’t want to stay at Vichy Springs, your options will be mostly budget hotels in the tow of Ukiah – it’s one of the more affordable weekend road trips from San Francisco. The Comfort Inn, Quality Inn, and Super 8 are all fairly affordable options that leave plenty of extra dough to pay for your park fees (and a few local microbrews).

  • Distance from San Francisco: 118 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 2 hours, 10 mins

6. Russian River

Russian River
Photo: Shutterstock

Russian River is a quick two-hour drive from San Francisco and is a hybrid of Napa Valley and Lake Tahoe. It’s perfect for travelers who want to spend afternoons relaxing by the water or going for a 10-mile hike. There are also tons of wineries in the area, and the river is safe for swimming. Taking a leisurely float down the river is a popular weekend pastime.

In the Russian River area (in Guerneville) is the Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve, one of the best redwood forests near San Francisco. It’s an excellent spot for a hike. The drive to Guerneville is through a beautiful, shaded forest and is worth the trip, especially since there are plenty of restaurants in Guerneville (along with the popular Johnson’s Beach).

Like Lake Tahoe, Russian River can get crowded and the beaches and banks can be full of campers and families. But also like Tahoe, spring and fall are quieter and not as hot, and generally better times to visit if you want more peace and quiet.

Camping: This is a great place to spring for a glamping experience — The AutoCamp Russian River is epic. Otherwise, just search for a park near where you want to go as camping is allowed almost everywhere.

Lodging: If kids are not your thing, book a room at the adults-only Boon Hotel. And the Fairville Suites is probably your cheapest area option.

  • Distance from San Francisco: 115 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 2 hours

7. East Bay

East Bay
Photo: Shutterstock

Not so keen on a long drive for your weekend road trip from San Francisco? Just head to the East Bay, where you’ll feel removed from the city (and the city fog). Once you drive over the Bay Bridge, it’s like a whole new world. The East Bay is always hotter than San Francisco, so it makes the perfect escape for a weekend getaway.

You can make it a day trip, but it can be fun to spend the night, especially if you head up to Berkeley, where there are tons of cute Airbnbs. The weather is almost always fantastic around the East Bay, so it’s safe to plan on several outdoor activities, like visiting the University of California Botanical Garden. Make sure to get a reservation in advance to roam the garden’s 34 beautiful acres. The meandering footpaths go by landscapes inspired by everywhere from Central America to Asia.

Near the Botanical Garden is the 7-mile Strawberry Canyon Fire Trail, which has spectacular views. The uphill is at the beginning of the trail and then the trail is mostly flat, so if you make it through the first section, you’ll probably make it the rest of the way. You could also hike Mount Diablo, if you’re feeling like breaking a sweat.

Where to Stay:

Camping: If you like camping, you’re in luck. You wouldn’t think there’d be so many camping opportunities near SF, but you have plenty of options. You can camp in various East Bay regional parks or pitch your tent on Angel Island. You might want to stay within Mount Diablo State Park if you’re planning to do any hikes in that area.

Lodging: You can stay anywhere in Oakland or Berkeley and get around fairly easily. The Berkeley City Club has a lux, vintage feel in the heart of Berkeley, and the Claremont Club is a luxurious hotel perfect for a romantic couples’ weekend. If you just want a no-frills place to rest your head, there’s the ol’ Roadway Inn. It’s on the outskirts of Berkeley so it’s easy to get into the woods, even during heavy traffic.

  • Distance from San Francisco: 18 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 25 minutes

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