The best day trips from San Francisco will connect you with nature. Whether you like to hike, explore beaches, savor wine country, or see the great redwoods, the great outdoors beckons you.
The weather varies over short distances here; it can even change wildly from morning to afternoon. Californians have a name for these enclaves of atmospheric moodiness: microclimates. So, when you leave San Fran in search of adventure, wear layers, and bring a jacket you can easily put on or take or off.
Some of the best wines in the world are pressed just an hour north of San Francisco. After the recent forest fires, Napa and Sonoma could really use your support.
If you have a car, you can drive up, stopping at wineries along the way. There's nothing wrong with doing this. It's a lovely get-away from the city. Several great wineries to try that you may not find where you live are Alpha Omega, Trefethen, and Chateau St. Jean. (Most of these places require reservations.)
Here's the secret to making this a trip to remember: hire a personal driver from wine country to pick you up at your hotel in the morning, drop you off in the evening, and plan everything in between. One great option is Squire Livery. They know the area; you won't be squeezing in next to 20 other people in a tasting room. You'll get your own tailored experience at wineries you wouldn't be able to find otherwise.
Have you ever tasted wine in a cave? In a barrel room? Tasted wine from a barrel? Eaten lunch in a vineyard while tasting wines with the winemaker? These are the kind of things you can do just by choosing the right company to chauffeur you around.
It isn't cheap, but it's worth every penny.
From San Francisco, it's also just a short 30-minute drive to see the redwoods. Muir Woods National Monument is a beautiful area for hiking and taking in the grandeur of 250 foot tall trees. There are six miles of trails within the park, but they also connect to other trails in Mt. Tamalpais State Park if you crave a longer hike. You can actually walk all the way to the ocean on the Dipsea trail if you want. All trails within Muir Woods are either asphalt or boardwalk.
If you want to learn more about the park, rangers give 15-minute tree talks and guided one-hour tours. Check the schedule when you get to the park. You do need to reserve your parking spot (which you can do online) if you plan to drive. Depending on the timing of your visit, you can also take the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito and then take a shuttle to Muir Woods.
There is a $10 fee for anyone 16-years-old and older when entering the park. Beware: there's no cellphone service once you're in.
Muir Woods National Monument. Flickr / Prayitno / Thank you for (12 millions +) view
This is where you'll end up if you decide to hike to the ocean from Muir Woods. Stinson Beach is known as one of the best swimming beaches in northern California. This miles-long stretch of white sand is perfect for a walk or a run. It's also a hot spot for surfers, boogie boarders, and kayakers. You can rent from several places in town like Stinson Beach Surf and Kayak. If you've never surfed in your life, you can take a private lesson. Try Stinson Beach Surf Camps.
Stinson Beach is about 35 minutes northwest of San Francisco. The road there is narrow and winding, so it's best not to drive anything larger than a small RV.
On your way to or from the beach, stop at The Pelican Inn for a bite to eat. This charming eatery offers mostly traditional English fare - Bangers and Mash, Shepherd's Pie - but also salads, soup, and seafood.
Stinson Beach. Flickr / fritzcat
This wonderful park about an hour northwest of San Francisco is a hiker's paradise. Beautiful ocean views (if it's not foggy), Tule Elk and other wildlife, and evidence of the 1906 earthquake are all here for your perusal. You can literally see where the San Andreas Fault is! If you visit from December through May, watch for migrating gray whales from the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock points in the park.
Surrounding area, Tomales Bay, is known for its oyster farms. Be sure to budget your time at the park so you can make it to Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall. You can sit at a picnic table on the bay shucking oysters, or have a seat at the Boat Oyster Bar and have them delivered to you. But remember to make a reservation!
Point Reyes National Seashore. Flickr / Frank Schulenburg
Carmel has an adorable and very walkable downtown. Its official name is Carmel-By-The-Sea, in case you see it on a map. There are cute shops and great restaurants. It's also where you'll find one of the most popular beaches in the area.
Carmel Beach is located at the foot of Ocean Avenue. Dogs can run freely on the beach, making it popular with visitors and locals. It's also a beautiful place for a jog. You'll be able to see from Pebble Beach to Point Lobos while you're on the beach. If you're looking for something less crowded, try Carmel River State Beach. Dogs must be on a leash and you shouldn't wade in the ocean, but on a beautiful day, it's a lovely walk. You can access this beach from Scenic Road.
Just south of Carmel, you can hike, or even scuba dive, at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Many who live in the area describe this place as heaven on earth. If you plan to scuba dive, you need to be certified and be sure to make reservations. If you want to hike, try the North Shore or Cypress Grove Trails. Plan to get to the park early because parking fills up quickly. There is an admission fee to get into the park.
As mentioned above, the ocean is unpredictable, so no matter which beach you visit, take a look at California's Ocean Safety information before you go. It may seem a bit dramatic, but "sleeper waves" have caused unsuspecting visitors to drown. Strong currents can make it unsafe to even wade in the water. This isn't meant to keep you from the beaches, just keep an eye on the ocean while you're there.
Carmel and Monterey are home to two historic religious sites. San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey was founded as a Franciscan mission in 1770 and is the oldest continuously functioning church in California. Father Junipero Serra moved this mission to Carmel a year later.
The Carmel Mission (official name: The Basilica of San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission) was the second mission built in California and is beautifully restored. The mission has four museum galleries and is still home to an active parish. There is an admission fee to tour the mission.
Just behind it, is Mission Ranch, which is owned by Actor and Director Clint Eastwood. It's a perfect place to stay if you decide to make this an overnight trip, or you can enjoy dinner here before heading back to the city. The patio overlooks the sheep pasture and has views of the ocean. It's a spectacular way to end the day while enjoying a cocktail.
The nearby Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Flickr / Fred Moore 1947
This beautiful coastal town is 40 minutes south of San Francisco. If you're an early riser, you can start your day with a horseback ride on the beach. Sea Horse Ranch offers a 2-hour trail ride starting at 8 a.m. for a discounted rate.
If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, Half Moon Bay State Beach is four-miles of wide sandy flats - perfect picnic territory. You can also access the walking path on the cliffs above the beach from here. It's known as the Coastside Trail. If you want to ride bikes, rent them by the day or by the hour at Bike Works.
When you get hungry, grab a cup of chowder at Sam's Chowder House. It can be busy, especially on weekends, but they do take reservations. While chowder is in the name, they do offer other seafood selections, and there are options for those who are more turf than surf.
Before you leave, visit The Ocean Terrace at The Ritz-Carlton. It's located right on the water on the southern end of town. You can sit by a fire pit with your cocktail and watch the sunset.
Half Moon Bay. Flickr / troy_williams
This is perfect for anyone who thoroughly enjoys food, wants to know where their food comes from, and likes meeting the people who take pride in producing it. There's a tour to satisfy every taste bud including Flavors of West Marin, Cheese Lovers, and Oyster Lovers. You'll spend the day tasting and sipping, all while learning about the area's agricultural history.
The first two tours meet in Point Reyes Station, which is about an hour north of San Francisco, and each last about 5 hours. The Oyster Lovers tour meets a bit farther north and is around 3 hours in length. The groups are small - only four to seven people in each - so it will be an intimate experience. It costs around $200 per person.