There are so many Bay Area weekend getaways to choose from that it’s easy to experience choice overload when you’re trying to decide where to go on your next weekend adventure.
Once you’re done exploring San Francisco, it’s time to cast your eye further afield to the charming towns, gorgeous National and State Parks, wine regions, coastal vistas, and outdoor getaways that California has to offer.
Best Bay Area weekend getaways
Heading on a Bay Area road trip is also a great way to fit in some safer travel in 2021, since flying isn’t the best option during the current pandemic.
Traveling in your own car (or a sanitized rental), gives you the power to decide where you stop and when. You can bring your own food to cook, sanitize your room when you arrive, and spend your time exploring the beautiful outdoor spots that California has to offer.
Remember to wear a mask to keep yourself and others safe, follow local guidelines, and social distance on your trip.
How to plan a weekend getaway (tips)
The best way to pack in as much relaxing (or adventuring) time as possible on your next weekend getaway, is to make it a long weekend!
Take Friday or Monday off (or whichever days adjoin your weekend schedule) and use it as driving time. That way you get two full days at your destination, and don’t feel like you’re rushing.
If an extra day off isn’t an option, and there aren’t any long weekends on the horizon, think about leaving after work on Friday night. This means you wake up on Saturday at your destination, ready to roll!
Try to keep driving time under six hours, so that you’re not spending most of your down time in the car trying to get to or from your destination.
Northern California is perfect for this, because there are so many options to choose from – there’s coastal adventures, mountain getaways, deserts to explore, snow-covered wonderlands, forest escapes, and beaches to laze on.
Don’t expect to be able to see and do everything at your destination. Think of these trips as “tasters” more than “full meals”. Pick a few things to see and do before you leave, and book anything you’re really keen to do in advance so you’re not disappointed when you arrive.
North Bay Area weekend getaways
When most people think about planning a trip north of San Francisco, wine-tasting comes to mind. While there is some internationally lauded wine makers in this region, there’s so much more to it than that.
You’ll find towering coastal redwood forests, beautiful stretches of coastline, waterfalls to discover, national parks to explore, and towns and cities to fall in love with.
Napa Valley & Sonoma, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 53 miles.
Welcome to the beating heart of California’s wine country. Despite wildfires ravaging the region in recent years, and social distancing rules put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic, Napa and Sonoma remain a world renowned wine making region.
But it’s not just about the wine (of course). Napa and Sonoma are situated about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge, amid rolling hills and beautiful landscapes. Drink in the environment from a paddle board tour along the Napa River.
You can walk or bike all or part of the 47-mile Napa Valley Vine Trail that stretches from the Vallejo ferry, all the way to Calistoga.
If you’re less keen on exercise but still want to drink in the views, why not try a hot air balloon ride above Napa Valley? Companies like Balloons Above the Valley, Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Rides, and Napa Valley Balloons, Inc.
I highly recommend a visit to Oxbow Public Market to sample some of the delicious cheese, chocolate, seafood, and pastries on offer. We also took a food tour that started here and got to taste everything from bread, to cheese, and charcuterie.
Looking for a little more adventure? Try Sonoma Canopy Tours, where you’re guided through multiple zip lines, sky bridges, and rappels on either the “classic” or “challenger” course.
If you have children in tow, head to Connolly Ranch to see a working ranch and learn about farm animals, or visit the castle-themed Playground Fantastico.
For wine-centric Napa and Sonoma, check out our relaxed guide to Napa winetasting.
Nevada City, Nevada
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 147 miles.
With a population of just over 3,000 people, Nevada City is a small town with enough historic buildings and natural beauty that it became a prime movie and television filming location. The 2006 Hallmark movie The Christmas Card was filmed here, as well as 2105’s The Answer, and the 1979 TV movie The Incredible Journey of Doctor Meg.
Of course it has it’s own film festival, held over four days each August, and featuring local and international films. But there are other great festivals that are worth visiting for. In July, there’s the Nevada City Storytelling Festival, where locals gather in an amphitheater to listen to national and regional storytellers. Don’t miss the Summer Nights Festival – an outdoor festival featuring art, music, classic cars, music, and food – also held in July.
The downtown historic district centers on Broad Street, where you can find lots of clothing boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries. Visit during the warmer months to go for a swim in the South Yuba River. The water is going to be cold no matter when you take a dip. If you’re looking for views, go for a hike on the Cascade Canal Trail, to look down at Nevada City from a hillside.
And of course there’s gold mining history in Nevada City! Visit the Empire Mine State Historic Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and was one of the oldest and richest gold mines in California. More than 5.8 million ounces of gold have been pulled from the ground here.
Mendocino & Fort Bragg, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 155 miles.
We visited Mendocino and Fort Bragg as part of our honeymoon road trip and I’ve had it on my bucket list for a return visit ever since. The coastal communities are known for their stunning beaches and parklands.
Start with a trip to Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, spread across 47-acres of cliffside property, and filled with sculptures, beautiful blooms, cacti, and even a veggie patch! While you’re there, have lunch at Rhody’s Garden Cafe. Our delicious grilled cheese came with olives and a flower garnish.
Visit the famous Glass Beach to see the result of years of dumped rubbish in the area. Coloured glass has been smashed and worn smooth by the waves and now litters the beach creating a tourist attraction. Take a walk from here over to Pudding Creek Beach and wander over an Old Train Trestle to the white sand beach.
Head to the Anderson Valley along Highway 128 for wine tasting year round, or seasonal produce from local farms. There are 31 wineries along the 75-mile stretch of “wine road”. But if you’re not so keen on wine, you can always stop at Hendy Woods State Park to hike the Hendy Woods Grand Tour Loop (4.5 miles).
There are plenty of other gorgeous hikes to try here, like the ecological staircase at Jughandle State Natural Reserve, and the Fern Canyon trail in Russian Gulch State Park (don’t miss the waterfall).
You can also peddle Fort Bragg under your own steam on a railbike. The railbikes do allow for a level of electric assistance (that you can choose) if you’re worried about getting too tired. It’s a different way to experience the coastal redwoods in the area.
For more awesome things to do in Fort Bragg & Mendocino see our guide to the area.
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 173 miles.
One of my first weekend camping trips in California was at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, about a 3.5 hour drive north-east from San Francisco, depending on traffic.
The park works to preserve California’s largest hydraulic mining site, which is not far from Nevada City – the home of one of the richest gold mines. What sets Malakoff Diggins apart is the ecologically damaging hydraulic mining practices used here.
Miners would use huge hydraulic hoses to separate gold from pebbles, rocks, and mud. This method obviously led to a lot of erosion and you can hike the Diggins Loop (2.6 miles), which allows you to walk past the huge cliffs carved by the miners. You can get views of the mines from above on the 3-mile Rim Trail, or if you’re a glutton for punishment try the 3.2 mile out-and-back Humbug Creek Trail just be ready for a 1000ft elevation change.
My favourite part of visiting Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park was seeing the old goldrush town of North Bloomfield. It was known as Humbug City at one point, and many original 1800s structures are still standing in some form or another today. You can step inside the drugstore, saloon, and see inside the Wells Fargo building, the hotel, and homes in the town.
Read more about Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park here.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Distance from Market street, San Francisco: 247 miles.
If you’re looking for a national park with a real variety of natural wonders, Lassen Volcanic National Park hits the bullseye.
The park is home to clear mountain lakes, a number of volcanoes, bubbling mud pits, wildflower meadows, and the “Devastated Area” filled with lava formations from the last eruption. Just to be up front, you will be visiting a park with a volcano that is considered “active”.
Lassen Peak last erupted more than 150 times between 1914 and 1917. US Geological Survey scientists monitor the volcano to predict possible eruptions and have classified Lassen as a “very high threat”. In case you were wondering, Mount Shasta, which is about 150 miles away from Lassen Peak, is deemed to be a higher threat of erupting.
But enough dramatics. The 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway is the main road through the park and driving it will give you glimpses of dense forests, views of Lake Almanor from a ridge, a peek at hydrothermal areas, and gorgeous views from scenic lookouts.
Check out the sulfur mine at the park’s southwest entrance Sulphur Works. Here you’ll find mud pots and fumaroles (steam vents), and you’ll be standing in the middle of ancient volcano Mount Tehama, that used to soar 11,000 feet into the sky.
You can also see the largest hydrothermal area in the park by hiking the 3-mile Bumpass Hell Trail. The trail has been “renovated” to be wider and smoother, although you’ll be descending about 300-feet on this hike. Once you get into the hydrothermal basin, the trail turns into a boardwalk to keep you safe from the steaming ground below.
If you want to see what the aftermath of a volcanic eruption looks like, head to the Devastated Area Interpretive Trail and find pink and grey lava rocks. Or take your family on the Mill Creek Falls Trail to see the highest waterfall in the park. Head to Manzanita Lake to swim, go for a boat ride, or do some fishing.
Distance from Market street, San Francisco: 264 miles.
If you’re looking for a Bay Area weekend getaway with your whole family (kids included), Redding is an excellent choice. Yes, it’s about 3.5 hours drive from San Francisco, so pack the tablet with movies to keep the young ones occupied on the way.
There are heaps of great things to do in Redding with your family.
Start with a walk across a fully functioning sundial to cross the Sacramento River. The Sundial Bridge soars 217 feet into the sky and the bridge section is made of glass panels. Spend the rest of the day right here at the 300-acre Turtle Bay Exploration Park that includes a museum, arboretum, botanic gardens, and a wildlife center.
Note: The museum and indoor facilities at Turtle Bay Exploration Park are closed during California’s “Regional Stay Home” order.
If you’re a cycling family, the Sacramento River Trail is an asphalt surface trail that obviously follows the river. Be warned that walkers, skaters, and dogs on leashes use this popular path as well. Waterparks are high on every kid’s summer list, and Redding delivers at the aptly named Waterworks Park.
You might as well give them a look into caves formed by lava at the Lava Beds National Monument. There are more than 800 caves at the site and it was a sacred site to Native Americans, who created art on the cave walls. It’s also a relatively short drive to Mount Shasta National Park from Redding.
It’s also worth the drive over to see Burney Falls from Redding.
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, California
Distance from Market street, San Francisco: 351 miles.
If you have the opportunity to visit McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, take it! Even if you just visit on the way home from Redding, this is an unmissable park.
Why? Because of the namesake falls. They’re very easy to get to and your jaw will be on the floor just trying to take in their beauty. The best time to visit Burney Falls are in the shoulder seasons of early spring and late autumn if you don’t have a reserved camping spot.
The park is extremely popular between April and October, and is monitored closely by park staff, who shut the gates once capacity is reached.
The main centerpiece here are the 129ft waterfalls that start as underground springs that feed into Burney Creek, and cascade over the rocks and eventually flow into Lake Britton. Spend some time at Lake Britton swimming (if you can handle 42°F water), or explore it from the warmth of a boat or kayak. You can also fish in a portion of the lake.
There’s a great General Store in this park because it is a stop along the Pacific Crest Trail, so you’re likely to come across a few thru-hikers if you visit during the busy season. The Visitor’s Center also has some interesting exhibits and information about the park.
Redwood National & State Parks, California
Distance from Market street, San Francisco: 349 miles.
I almost feel bad suggesting a six hour drive to Redwood National and State Parks, but then I remembered that it’s further to Los Angeles from San Francisco and we’ve done that weekend drive a few times. So buckle up for this adventure through California’s coastal redwoods.
By the way, if you want to plan a California giant redwood road trip, we’ve got you covered too.
So, why Redwood National and State Parks? They’re a cluster of forests, beaches, and prairies that stretch down (or up) 30 miles of the northern California coast. They’re made up of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park.
The parks have five visitor’s centers, but if you want the full experience with lots of exhibits, a book shop, and a beach across the street, head to Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center just outside Orick.
Drive to the little village of Klamath and see where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean from the Klamath River Overlook. It’s also a great place to spot migrating whales over the winter and early spring months.
Stop in at the Trees of Mystery in Klamath for a redwoods-inspired theme park of sorts. You’ll be greeted by a giant Paul Bunyan statue at the entrance before heading inside to take a gondola ride into the canopy of the forest, and see wood-carved sculptures.
Drive the 10-mile Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and try to spot the Roosevelt elk wandering through the woods.
Visit Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park to see some of the oldest living trees in the world. If you’re only up for a short hike, try the Stout Grove loop that shows some gorgeous towering redwoods.
Have you seen pictures of cars driving through redwood trees before? This is where you can do the same. Visit the Klamath Tour-Thru tree or Shrine Drive-Through tree for that experience.
East Bay Area weekend getaways
It’s time to head over the Bay Bridge, or the San Mateo Bridge (does it feel like the longest bridge in the world to anyone else?), or maybe the Dumbarton Bridge. The point is, we’re going east.
This is where you’ll find some truly breathtaking National Parks and Forests, along with some great towns to visit.
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 132 miles.
We’re starting with one of my favourite eastern towns – Sonora. It’s a great historic town in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. We’ve visited twice in the past couple of years, and have put together a more in-depth round up of things to do in Sonora for you.
It was founded by miners from Sonora in Mexico, back in 1848, and was a gold rush town known as “Queen of the Southern Mines” in its heyday. Now it offers small town charm, a historic downtown area, and plenty of entertainment options.
Start in downtown Sonora where S Washington street and it’s surrounds, bursts with numerous antique shopping options, the old fashioned candy store housed in an old bank vault, and Legends Books, Antiques, & Soda Fountain. Legends transformed underground tunnels and mine shafts below into a surprisingly cozy spot to peruse it’s stock of books. Once you’ve picked up a book, why not start reading upstairs at the mahogany and brass bar of the soda fountain?
There’s plenty more to see in Sonora’s downtown area, including the Sonora Opera Hall (built in 1885 from the remains of a burnt-out flour mill), the historic City Hotel, the Veterans Memorial Hall and Military Museum, and the Sonora Chinatown Memorial that commemorates those who came to Sonora and were contracted to work for free to pay off their passage to the US.
Immerse yourself in the gold rush era, by heading a few miles north to the ghost town of Columbia. The town features for blocks of gold rush buildings including a school, blacksmith, bank, candy stores, saloons, and even a tiny jail.
For a taste of literary history, you can pay a visit to Mark Twain’s. Twain stayed here in December 1864, and wrote the short story that would make famous – “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.
If you’re into watersports or hiking, you’ll want to stop in at Tuttletown Recreation Area on New Melones Lake. Here you can water ski, jet ski, sail, kayak, and go horseback riding. And steam train (or movie) lovers should not miss Railtown 1897, where you can ride vintage steam trains and diesel engines.
There are plenty of great places to eat (and drink) in Sonora, including The Standard Pour, Sonora Brewing Co., DIamondback Grill, and Sonora Thai Cuisine.
Yosemite National Park, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 167 miles.
There’s no disputing that Yosemite National Park is the jewel in California’s crown. And when it’s just 3.5 hours drive from San Francisco, you’re almost obligated to visit the world renowned park more than once.
Note: Yosemite National Park is open for day use (between 8AM-5PM) and campgrounds/lodging are closed during California’s “Regional Stay Home” order.
Yosemite has been drawing crowds for hundreds of years, especially since Ansel Adams’ black and white photograph of Half Dome gained critical acclaim in 1927. The park is huge, with more than 748,500-acres worth of rugged terrain, mountains, and wilderness.
The most famous and flocked-to section can be found in Yosemite Valley, where you can see the towering behemoths of Half Dome and El Capitan, and waterfalls like Bridal Veil and Yosemite falls. You cannot miss a drive on Glacier Road for stunning aerial views of the valley below.
Less crowded areas like Tioga Road are great for scenic views and hiking trails away from the throng of tourists who flock to Yosemite Valley. Get a more in-depth look at spending Two days in Yosemite National Park in our guide, or find out where to stay and get booking tips here.
Lake Tahoe, California & Nevada
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 188 miles.
Lake Tahoe is one of the escapes of choice for San Franciscans, no matter the time of year. In the winter, snow bunnies head over to the lake to take advantage of the skiing and snowboarding, and in the summer months it’s all about spending time at the lake.
We visited in the Fall, and got the best of both worlds. For a full rundown of things to do in Lake Tahoe in Fall, see our in-depth post. Here’s a quick round up of our favourites.
We’ve stayed in South and North lake, but the former is probably our favourite, and where you’ll find the most things to do. Don’t miss Emerald Bay on the California side of the lake, for the gorgeous views, Viking Castle, and amazing hikes. You can read all about the best hikes in Lake Tahoe right here.
You did read that correctly, Viking Castle. Vikingsholm is on the shore of the lake and was built in the early 1900s as a Scandanavian-inspired summer home.
There are so many adventurous activities to try in Lake Tahoe, like parasailing, horse riding, hot air balloon rides, jet skiing, kayaking, white water rafting, and paddle boarding.
You can rent bikes and really fill your lungs with the fresh mountain air, watch the sun rise or set over the lake, or go shopping downtown.
Reno, Nevada (2 hours 29 mins, 218 miles)
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 218 miles.
The problem with writing these over-arching posts is that I get caught up in my memories of visiting these awesome places and end up writing half a novel about them. I’m going to try and keep things a little more concise from here on out.
But it’ll be difficult because Reno is known as “the biggest little city in the world”. What began as a gold and silver mining town in the late 1800s has developed into a thriving city with the likes of tech giants such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Tesla.
The Truckee River runs through the center of Reno and is a great spot for kayaking, tubing, or just use it as a backdrop for a picnic if you’re not keen on splashing around. You can also walk along the banks on the Riverwalk. Visit the world’s tallest artificial rock-climbing wall at the Whitney Peak Hotel and climb the 164-foot exterior wall. It’s graded for both beginners and experienced climbers.
If you’re into street art, downtown Reno is covered with more than 40 murals by local and international artists. You can either check out your favourites from Art Spot Reno’s map, or go on one of their public art tours on the first Thursday of the month.
Craft brews are an essential part of the fabric of Reno, so it’s not surprising that there are lots of brewing companies to choose from. Try the Great Basin Brewing Company (one of the area’s original breweries), The Depot for beers and spirits, and Pigeon Head for German-style beers.
If you plan to visit in autumn months, don’t miss the Great Reno Balloon Race in early September, which is known as the world’s largest hot air balloon event.
Kings Canyon National Park, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 238 miles.
Kings Canyon National Park is known for being the home of the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees in the world. If you’ve been to Yosemite National Park, you might recognize that the terrain in Kings Canyon is similar to that in Yosemite Valley.
Father of National Parks John Muir once said that Kings Canyon was a rival to Yosemite, so if you aren’t keen on jostling with the crowds at Yosemite, Kings Canyon is the place to be!
Apart from the towering sequoia trees, Kings Canyon has the deepest canyon in the United States (yes, even deeper than the Grand Canyon). Originally carved by glaciers, and the Kings River, the canyon is 8200 feet deep.
You’ll find Cedar Grove at the bottom of Kings Canyon. From here you can view North Dome and Grand Sentinel that rise to staggering heights above the canyon floor. This is a great spot to go hiking and spend time enjoying the scenic viewpoints.
Kings Canyon National Park is also home to the General Grant Tree, which has been dubbed The Nation’s Christmas Tree. It is the largest giant sequoia within the General Grant Grove in the park and the second largest tree in the world. It is 267 feet tall and nearly 29 feet wide.
Head to Zumwalt Meadow to walk the 1.5 mile, flat trail in the spring to see wildflowers and marvel at the high granite walls.
Sequoia National Park, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 279 miles.
The twin to Kings Canyon National Park, is Sequoia National Park. Not only is it home to the largest tree in the world, but it also boasts the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney.
Visit the General Sherman Tree, which is estimated to be 2,100-years-old and towers at 275 tall. The trunk of the tree is 100 feet wide, to give you an idea of the immense nature of it. But it is surrounded by a “giant forest”, so it can seem to be in-scale with the trees around it.
During the summer, head to the Giant Forest Museum to learn more about these huge trees, and the differences between them and giant redwood trees that grow along the California coastline. You can also visit the marble cavern of Crystal Cave on a guided tour.
In the winter months you can go skiing and snow shoeing in the Giant Forest and Grant Grove.
If you’re thinking about hiking the 22 mile Mount Whitney trail, check out our post on the best hikes in Northern California to find out more.
South Bay Area weekend getaways
One of the most popular (longer) road trips from San Francisco is to Los Angeles. It makes for a beautiful drive down the Pacific Coast, if you don’t mind it taking a little longer than the inland route.
So it makes sense that there are also a lot of great weekend getaways to the south of San Francisco. Sometimes you just don’t want to drive the seven hours to Los Angeles, and need something a little closer to home.
Half Moon Bay, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 30 miles
Technically, Half Moon Bay is in the Bay Area itself, but it’s just secluded enough to have a completely different vibe to San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area. Think seaside town and you’ll have an idea of what the area is like.
And you don’t have to take an extra day off work or leave early to get there. But be warned that the single-lane Highway 92 fills with traffic very early on weekends during the warmer months.
Families will enjoy not just the beautiful beaches, but also the farms, such as Lemos Farm, which has a petting zoo complete with pigs, goats, sheep, and ponies. Older kids can take a goat yoga class, with some four-legged kids, or take a train or hay ride.
Note: Lemos Farm is currently closed during California’s “Regional Stay Home” order.
There are lots of cute bed and breakfasts to choose from, or if you’re into luxury accommodation you should take your five-star self to the Ritz-Carlton resort and spa.
If staying at the Ritz-Carlton is a little much for your wallet (I’m right there with you), you can always get a taste of luxury by booking a treatment at the spa. San Francisco Bay Area residents can get 15% off their treatment between Mondays and Thursdays. Or get a spa day pass and check out the sauna, steam rooms, soaking tub, or fitness center.
After a long week of being cooped up in an office (or home office), all I want to do on a weekend getaway is get outside. My recommendations are to take a walk or rent a bike to explore the Coastside Trail. It’s less than five miles, and gives you views of the Pacific Ocean, cliffs, and beautiful flowers that grow along the coastline.
Check out Half Moon Bay’s historic Main Street for some window shopping, or to taste the food in local cafes and restaurants like Pasta Moon and the Flying Fish Bar & Grill. Beer lovers shouldn’t miss Sacrilege Brewery + Kitchen.
Santa Cruz, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 73 miles.
If you want a “proper” California beach vacation without the hours of driving, a weekend in Santa Cruz should be at the top of your bucket list!
It checks off all the boxes:
- It has it’s own boardwalk with rides and midway games
- There’s a wharf where seals and sea lions laze
- The stretches of coastline and beaches are gorgeous
- There are great surf spots
I could keep going but that should be enough to start with. Head to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk to test your stomach on the 40 rides and attractions. You have to ride the 1924 Giant Dipper rollercoaster, and romantics won’t want to miss the 1911 Looff Carousel.
There’s a huge video game arcade to lose your kids in (or for them to lose you), and a two-storey, 18-hole mini golf course, laser tag, and a bowling alley.
Note: Rides, midway games, arcades, laser tag, bowling, and miniature golf are closed during California’s “Regional Stay Home” order.
If all of that is a little too much for you, spend the day at the Main Beach, in front of the boardwalk. Bring a volleyball to take advantage of the 16 courts, or just laze on the lifeguard-patrolled beach. You can also learn to surf with one of four schools that operate on the beach.
The nearby Santa Cruz Wharf features shops and restaurants, but the main drawcards are the sea lions that have their very own platforms under the wharf. If you’re lucky, you might also see migrating whales and dolphins, and a few playful sea otters on your visit.
Head to Natural Bridges State Beach to see the thousands of Monarch Butterflies that flock to the area during the colder months, and to take a hike.
For more great things to do on a weekend in Santa Cruz, check out our guide.
Monterey & Carmel, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 118 miles
One of our very favourite Bay Area getaways would have to be Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea. We’ve been a couple of times now, including on our honeymoon, and love the laidback small town atmosphere. What more could you want from a weekend escape?
There’s a full rundown of our favourite things to do on a weekend in Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, but here are the highlights.
It’s a popular spot with San Francisco locals, so expect hotel and bed and breakfast prices to reflect that. We stayed at The Hideaway in Carmel and loved the beautifully appointed rooms (with a fireplace), the wine and cheese evenings, and delicious breakfasts.
Stroll down Cannery Row – a haunt of novelist John Steinbeck – and the location of sardine canning factories, during the heyday of the area’s fishing industry. While you’re there, head into the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium and get educated on ocean conservation through the (almost) 200 exhibits, made up of 80,000 animals and plants.
Note: The Monterey Bay Aquarium is closed during the pandemic.
Jump in the car and trip along 17-mile Drive (worth the entry fee), and see one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world. Complete with Cypress trees, pebble beaches, and whale watching areas.
Or enjoy a quiet afternoon shopping at the European-style stores in Carmel’s downtown area. Stop in at some cellar doors along the way, or enjoy a meal at one of the many restaurants that dot the area.
Pinnacles National Park, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 123 miles.
Pinnacles National Park isn’t one of those in-your-face, heralded-from-the-rooftops parks like Yosemite, but it definitely deserves to be.
The 26,000-acre park features amazing red rock formations, that were the result of multiple volcano eruptions about 23 million years ago. It’s geography makes it the perfect spot for rock climbing and scenic hiking.
The relatively remote area means there are just a few accommodation options close to the park, like the Inn at the Pinnacles and the Valley Harvest Inn. My recommendation would be to reserve a spot in the campground, accessed from the east side of the park, which also offers spots for RVs. There are even coin-operated showers!
Bird watchers might want to visit to catch a glimpse of the California Condor, which is one of the rarest birds in North America. Condors love the park because they have a penchant for making their nests on rocky towers and cliffs.
Visit in spring to catch the beautiful blooming wildflowers, which draw nature enthusiasts from all over California. You can find out more about when and where to find wildflowers in Pinnacles National Park, in our guide to Northern California wildflowers.
There are lots of great hikes within Pinnacles National Park, that vary in length and difficulty.
- High Peaks to Bear Gulch Loop, 6.7 miles, strenuous
- Condor Gulch Trail, 3.4 miles out-and-back, strenuous
- Moses Spring to Rim Trail Loop, 2.2 miles, moderate
- Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop, 5.3 miles round trip, strenuous
Get more information on visiting Pinnacles National Park from our guide.
Big Sur, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 143 miles.
Big Sur is the stretch of scenic coastline between Carmel-by-the-Sea in the north and San Simeon to the south, along Highway 1. There are numerous camp grounds within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to stay in while you explore the area.
Note: Campgrounds and the Nature Center are closed during California’s “Regional Stay Home” order, however day use parking lots, trails, and toilets remain open.
We’ve all seen numerous pictures of Bixby Bridge, which I first heard of in the Death Cab for Cutie song back in 2008 and never realised was a real place in California that I could visit. It is one of the most photographed bridges in the state, and even though there are quite a few pull-outs on it’s north side that allow you to stop for a photo opportunity, they can get very crowded.
Head to Pfieffer Beach to catch a glimpse of Keyhole Rock, a popular rock formation about a mile south of the northern entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Turn at Sycamore Canyon Road and prepare yourself for a winding drive on a narrow road to get there. This road is too narrow for RVs and trailers.
Visit at low tide to see tide pools, and at sunset to watch the sun peep through keyhole rock as it disappears over the horizon. Head to the north end of the beach to see the purple sand that occurs because of the manganese garnet rocks found in the coastal cliffs, but be warned you may run into some nude sun tanners.
Spend a day hiking through Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The more popular trails include the Ewoldsen Trail, which takes you to McWay Falls, and Pfeiffer Falls Trail, which you can read more about in our round up of the best hikes in Northern California.
Cambria & San Simeon, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 206 miles
On the other side of Big Sur, you’ll find the towns of San Simeon and Cambria. There are a few great reasons to visit Cambria, but the main drawcard for many is neighboring San Simeon’s sprawling Hearst Castle, which you can visit on a guided tour.
Built for publishing mandate William Randolph Hearst in the first half of the 20th century, the castle has 165 ornately decorated rooms, and the 127 acre property boasts gardens, three guest bungalows, and two pools. Driving past the property on Highway 1, you might need to pull over to see the zebra – the descendants of Hearst’s one-time onsite zoo.
Note: Hearst Castle is closed during California’s “Regional Stay Home” order.
Visit the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery between December and March for the best chances of seeing the seals in their natural habitat. Stay on the wooden walkways and keep your pets off the beach so the seals don’t feel threatened.
Back in Cambria, there are plenty of beautiful walks and hikes to choose from. The Moonstone Beach boardwalk trail is an easy stroll on the flat boardwalk that follows the coastline, where wildflowers bloom in the spring. Try Fiscalini Ranch Preserve’s Bluff Trail for another beautiful easy walk with gorgeous views.
The town’s main street has great antique shopping opportunities, some delicious restaurants to choose from, and art galleries to admire. During October, you’ll find the annual Cambria Scarecrow Festival in full swing, with many entries lining Main Street for everyone to admire.
During the warmer months you can go kayaking off San Simeon Cove, and wine lovers can drive the stretch of Highway 46 between Cambria and Paso Robles for beautiful views and winetasting at the local vineyards. Find more things to do in Cambria in our round up.
San Luis Obispo, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 231 miles.
Even though San Luis Obispo is commonly referred to as “SLO”, it’s anything but. There are plenty of adventurous activities to get your adrenaline pumping here.
From off-roading, to outdoor rock climbing at the Seven Sisters, and numerous kayaking and boat adventures, there’s something for everyone.
If you’re interested in a bit of kitsch charm though, you need to stop (or stay) at the Madonna Inn. The Inn was built in 1958 by Alex and Phyllis Madonna, and includes 109 theme-decorated rooms with names like “Floral Fantasy” and “Yosemite Rock”. You can visit for dinner in the equally eccentrically-decorated restaurant, or stop at the bakery for a sweet treat.
Speaking of kitsch, there’s also Bubblegum Alley, where people began storing their used bubblegum back in the 1950s for some unknown reason.
Aside from the weird and wonderful above (not in that order), there’s also historic landmarks like the Mission San Luis Obispo De Tolosa, and The Monday Club, which was designed by California’s first licensed female architect and is on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Head to the downtown district for great shopping, and the farmers’ market. There’s the Leaning Pine Arboretum on the Cal Poly University campus, and the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, if you want to surround yourself with nature,
While you’re here, you should also take a little side trip to Pismo Beach!
Santa Barbara, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 325 miles.
If you’re this close to Los Angeles, why not drive the extra 61 miles to Los Angeles? Because Santa Barbara is an awesome spot for a weekend getaway!
It’s easy to traverse because lots of the popular Santa Barbara attractions are so close together. There are also a smorgasbord of festivals on offer here. Visit in February for delicious (and cheaper) meals during restaurant week, wine lovers shouldn’t miss World of Pinot Noir during March when the wares of vintners from across the world are highlighted.
There’s also the International Orchid Show in March, or visit in April for the International Film Festival and the Polo season. Yes, you read that right, polo. That royal sport with horses and bowler hats. There are plenty more festivals to choose from, see more here.
The California coast is dotted with missions that were started by Spanish explorers in the late 18th century, as a way to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. Santa Barbara is home to the “Queen of the Missions” – Mission Santa Barbara. Take a self-guided or guided tour of the facility which includes a church with a Roman temple façade, museum, and La Huerta Historical Garden.
You might recognize Stearns Wharf from Santa Barbara vacation snaps. When it was built back in 1872 it was the longest pier standing in deep water between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Apart from the picturesque views out to sea and of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the pier is great for shopping and restaurants.
Visit the Santa Barbara Courthouse, which was rebuilt in the Spanish Colonial Revival style after an earthquake in 1925, and includes a mural room that tells the story of Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Zoo spans 30 acres and is a great place to bring kids to see the lions, meerkats, penguins, and snow leopards.
Beach lovers are spoiled in Santa Barbara, there are so many to choose from. East and West beaches are very popular as they stretch from Stearns Wharf, but you can also head to the sheltered Leadbetter Beach or Arroyo Burro County Beach Park. Looking for more amazing California beaches? Here are 25+ of our favourites.
Los Angeles, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 381 miles.
One of the most popular road trips from San Francisco ends right here in Los Angeles. You might think that I’m stretching the friendship by including this in a post about Bay Area weekend getaways, but we’ve done this road trip on the Memorial Day weekend a few years running and it was perfect.
We like to leave on the Friday night after work so that we arrive in LA around midnight, and wake up ready to tackle the city on Saturday morning and have two full days in Los Angeles before driving home on Monday.
I know that you don’t need any convincing that there’s so much to do in Los Angeles. Start at Griffith Observatory to take in views of the city and surrounding hills from above. But be warned it’s extremely popular and almost impossible to find a parking spot (I say this from bitter experience).
If you’re not satisfied with this view of the Hollywood Sign, you can always visit it up close and personal at Lake Hollywood Park and get a hike in while you’re at it. Don’t miss Barnsdall Art Park, which hosts international exhibits and also gives views of LA from the top of Olive Hill.
Note: LA Parks and Barnsdall Art Park are closed during California’s “Regional Stay Home” order.
Visit the Desert, Rose, and Japanese gardens at The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, or peruse the fresh produce and local delicacies at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. While you’re there, head to the famous Santa Monica Pier and try some carnival rides and games, or laze on the beach.
Need more ideas? Try our 2 days in Los Angeles itinerary.
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 407 miles.
When I was a kid living in Australia, a trip to Disneyland was the stuff of dreams. The best we had was Australia’s Wonderland (I’m not going to lie, it was pretty good as an 8-year-old), but that wouldn’t hold a candle to Walt Disney’s theme park.
Note: Disneyland is closed during California’s “Regional Stay Home” order.
My tip would be to visit for two days and spend one at Disneyland Park and the other at Disney California Adventure Park.
Even in two days you won’t be able to check out every parade, ride, or experience within Disneyland, but you can give it a red hot go! We arrived at 10am and didn’t leave until midnight, that’s how much fun we had at Disneyland.
Palm Springs, California
Distance from Market Street, San Francisco: 492 miles.
I can almost see the bewildered look on your face, that I’m suggesting Palm Springs as a weekend getaway from the Bay Area. Yes, this is quite a drive from San Francisco (about 8 hours without accounting for traffic), but you can always fly there in under 2 hours.
Palm Springs is known for it’s proximity to Coachella Valley, where the famed annual music festival is held most years. But the Sonoran Desert town is also a hub for relaxation with hot springs, spas, and golf courses. It’s also on the doorstep of Mt San Jacinto State Park and close to Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.
It’s also a winter escape destination for many who are looking for warm weather between November and March. So it’s no surprise that the Palm Springs high season is during the winter months.
Back to Mount San Jacinto – you don’t have to climb the 10,000 feet to the summit yourself, instead jump on the Palm Springs Ariel Tramway and glide up in style! Alright, you won’t quite get to the summit on the tramway, instead you’re dropped off 8,000ft up at the observation decks and restaurants at Mountain Station. You can hike to the top of Mount San Jacinto from here, but it’s an 11-mile round trip.
Try Moorten Botanical Gardens and Cactarium to see an array of desert plants, and maybe take one home with you from the nursery on site. Head to Desert Hot Springs to enjoy the hot and cold mineral springs in pools at local boutique hotels like Two Bunch Palms, El Morocco Inn & Spa, and The Spring Resort & Spa.
Bay Area Weekend Getaways Map
Still need a little help to visualize where all these great Bay Area weekend getaways are in relation to San Francisco? Every trip listed above is pinned for you right here!
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