Like many homes in Northern California, the house I lived in during high school didn’t have air conditioning. Once the sun slipped below the horizon, the temperatures would drop into the 50s and Mother Nature would cool things off to get us through the next sunny summer day.
But occasionally we’d experience a heat wave, and my favorite way to cool off was to spend a day in San Francisco. With more than 200 cloudy or foggy days a year and typically in the 60s year round, you’ll likely need a sweatshirt or light jacket even in July or August.
Despite living in the Bay Area for nearly four years, and visiting frequently since, it was only recently that I ventured more than a few steps into Marin County after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. After you’ve explored San Francisco to its fullest, here’s what I recommend you see, do, and eat on a California road trip from San Francisco to Santa Rosa.
My recommendations for experiencing one of my favorite cities in America would fill a bookshelf or consume a travel site. Thankfully, my fellow travelers have provided a wealth of information in articles already published at TravelAwaits. While you could easily spend a week riding the city’s iconic cable cars, exploring its hidden gems, and eating at its best restaurants, here’s what you should do in San Francisco if your itinerary only allows you to spend one day in the City by the Bay.
Fort Point National Historic Site
Before traveling north across the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge and into Marin County, stop at Fort Point. Built around the southernmost piers of one of the world’s most famous suspension bridges, Fort Point has guarded the area since the height of the California Gold Rush and offers some of the most unique views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
March through the arched red brick walls to explore the Civil War-era fort and learn about its construction and what daily life was like for the soldiers stationed there. You’ll also discover the important role the fort served during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Although the bridge’s construction permanently extinguished the fort’s light in 1934, you can still see the Fort Point Lighthouse that began protecting ships from the treacherous waters below in 1864.
Pro Tip: If you’re a Walt Disney fan, be sure to swing by the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
Golden Gate Bridge
As one of America’s most iconic landmarks, it’s no surprise that the vermilion Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most-visited sites in San Francisco. While I recommend walking or biking the 1.7 miles across the bridge at least once in your lifetime, most visitors cross in a vehicle.
Since the collection booths were removed in 2014, the toll to cross the bridge has been collected electronically. If you are renting a car in San Francisco, ask if the vehicle has FasTrak and understand the associated fees and policies. If you are driving a personal car or a rental car without FasTrack across the Golden Gate Bridge, be sure to pay for your toll crossing online within 48 hours of traversing the bridge.
Point Bonita Lighthouse
Once you cross the bridge, follow Conzelman Road as it curves along the coast. This hilly scenic route offers some of the most beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco.
Constructed in 1855, shortly after the lighthouse on Alcatraz Island, the Point Bonita Lighthouse was the second lighthouse on the Pacific Coast and the last manned lighthouse on the California coast. Perched at the end of a sliver of land parallel to the Golden Gate Bridge, this hidden gem is only open a few hours a week. So, you’ll need to plan ahead in order to walk through the hand-dug tunnel and across the only suspension bridge in the United States leading to a lighthouse.
Because it’s been more than 150 years since a war was fought on American soil, many folks are surprised to see massive gun turrets and World War II bunkers built into the rocky hills outside of San Francisco. But as tensions rose across Europe in the 1930s, erupting into war by the end of the decade, the U.S. military constructed top-secret defenses along the nation’s coasts.
Rendered obsolete at the end of World War II with the development of long-range bombers and nuclear weapons, Battery Townsley now sits in ruins. But hiking up the Coastal Trail to see the abandoned site is a unique experience in the Marin Headlands.
The Marine Mammal Center
A short drive from the Point Bonita Lighthouse, Rodeo Beach, and Battery Townsley, The Marine Mammal Center is a state-of-the-art veterinary facility for injured, ill, or abandoned marine mammals. Committed to rescuing marine mammals, rehabilitating them, and releasing them back into the wild, the world’s largest marine mammal hospital was treating a large number of seals and sea lions suffering from toxic algae when we visited.
There is no admission fee to visit this nonprofit organization and learn more about the amazing creatures who make their homes in the water surrounding San Francisco.
While the waters surrounding San Francisco are chilly year round, I find it calming to simply spend time along the coast and listen to the soothing crashing of waves on the shore. If you find yourself at Muir Beach on an especially warm and sunny day, know that the northern edge of the beach might attract nude sunbathers catching some rays. And, if you take this California road trip in the fall, watch for thousands of migrating monarch butterflies in this area.
For gorgeous views of the Pacific Coast, Point Reyes Peninsula, and possibly a pod of whales, take a hike on the Muir Beach Overlook. As with many trails in this area, sections can be quite rugged and steep, so be sure you know your limits.
About 3 miles inland, Muir Woods National Monument is an old-growth forest of coastal redwoods named for John Muir, environmentalist and father of the national parks. Reaching more than 250 feet (about the height of a 23-story building), these majestic trees are the tallest living things on Earth.
As Europeans flooded this region during the Gold Rush, many of Northern California’s redwoods were cut down to build houses and other structures. But the owners of this 550-acre plot of land wouldn’t allow it, and they ultimately donated it to the public, where President Theodore Roosevelt then designated it a national monument.
From the relatively flat, paved Main Trail to one of several loops that diverge from it, you’re sure to find a path that fits your fitness level, interest, and itinerary when you explore Muir Woods on foot. As you walk beneath the evergreen branches of these ancient giants, watch for white-tailed deer, swarms of ladybugs, river otters, wild turkeys, and a variety of other critters that call these beautiful woods home.
After you’ve explored a lighthouse, walked along the beach, and hiked a trail or two, you’re likely to be hungry. Head north to Petaluma, where you can enjoy authentic Italian fare at Cucina Paradiso or the locally sourced seasonal offerings at Wild Goat Bistro. If you’re looking for a bite earlier in the day, stop by Sax’s Joint, a 1950s-style diner serving breakfast and lunch.
From Petaluma, it’s less than 30 minutes north to Santa Rosa, where you can drink in more gorgeous scenery, explore local vineyards, and hang out with the gang from Peanuts.
As one of the most popular wine regions in the Golden State, Napa Valley is a great destination for wine lovers. But to its northwest, Sonoma County (in which Santa Rosa is the largest city), boasts over 60,000 acres of vineyards. Offering everything from sauvignon blanc to pinot noir, here are eight popular Santa Rosa wineries to check out when you visit.
Although the cartoonist was born and raised in the Twin Cities, Santa Rosa is home to the Charles M. Schultz Museum. Stop by to see a recreation of the legendary cartoonist’s studio, view the wall he painted in his newborn daughter’s nursery in 1951, and enjoy the largest collection of original Peanuts art in the world.
From the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to beaches and old-growth redwood forests, enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of Northern California on this road trip from San Francisco to Santa Rosa.