Merced river running through Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, California

30 Best Road Trips From San Francisco

By Sasha Yanshin | Updated on 16 November 2023

If you live in San Francisco or the Bay area or if you're visiting the Fog City, you are spoilt for choice with places you can drive to. From snow-covered mountain peaks to the hottest desert on earth, from National Parks to cultural city breaks, the variety of options is truly unique.

Within easy reach of destinations across California, there are options you can go to and come back from in a day through to long road trips to neighbor states.

Featuring some of the world's finest vineyards, mountain views and unbelievable roads leading there, here is our list of the 30 best road trips from San Francisco.

If you want to see the city first, make sure you check out our guide for the 50 best things to do in San Francisco as well!

Best road trips from San Francisco

A selection of our best road trips from San Francisco. Check out our full list of 30 trips below.
Trip typeSome of our favorite road trips
Day tripsAttend a wine-tasting in the luxurious Napa Valley; or enjoy the coastal charm of Carmel-by-the-Sea
Weekend tripsExplore the natural wonders in Yosemite National Park; or take a dip in the crystal-clear waters of Lake Tahoe
Long-weekend tripsBlend in with the locals in the hip neighborhoods of Los Angeles; or marvel at the beauty of Crater Lake National Park
Longer tripsHit the tables to try your luck in Las Vegas; or admire the unique architecture in Salt Lake City

Day trips from San Francisco (under 3 hours each way)

Looking for a short getaway from San Francisco and be back within a day? Here are some of the best road trips adventures you can undertake, which are less than 3 hours' drive from the city!

1. Bolinas, CA

30 miles from San Francisco (1 hour)

When to go: Visit during the summer months to go swimming on your day out

Why you should visit: The beautiful Marin County town sits on the edge of Bolinas Bay and is surrounded by nature - Point Reyes, the Muir Woods National Monument, Samuel P Taylor State Park and Tomales Bay are all within easy reach.

Footpath down to Stinson Beach near Bolinas in Marin County, California

How to get there: Bolinas is only just outside San Francisco - the drive is only 30 miles from downtown. After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, follow Route 1 through Muir Woods and loop around the Bolinas Lagoon.

It may sound odd, but Bolinas is best known as the place that wants to be less known. There are anecdotes about the locals taking down signs for the turning to Bolinas from Highway 1 and not liking visitors.

The exclusive location and small size make Bolinas an amazing place to visit. Being so close to San Francisco, there is a risk of it getting too popular and being crowded with tourists all year round.

Don't let that put you off though. The short road trip from San Francisco to Bolinas is worth it with amazing views of the coastline and the town feels incredibly down-to-Earth despite prices for a small, dilapidated shack starting at a couple million dollars.

The Coast Cafe and the small Bolinas Museum are the two sights in town, but make sure you take a stroll to Alamere Falls. These falls are one of only a handful around the world that go straight into the sea - a unique sight that you really shouldn't miss!

Our travel tips: The hike all the way from Bolinas is about 10 miles, but you can drive and park up 2/3 of the way there instead. Even from the parking spot, allow yourself enough time to go and come back (and for a swim!)

2. Silicon Valley and San Jose, CA

50 miles from San Francisco (1 hour 20 minutes)

When to go: Perfect weather all year round

Why you should visit: Places like Menlo Park, Redwood, Palo Alto, Cupertino and Mountain View have long been associated with the world's largest technology firms.

As you drive through the area, you will see the headquarters of companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Intel and dozens of other tech giants.

Pretty buildings and palm trees in the Santana Row neighborhood in San Jose, California
Sundry Photography/

How to get there: A great short drive from San Francisco is Silicon Valley and the city of San Jose. There are three routes that run through from San Francisco to San Jose - the US-101 runs through most of the Silicon Valley locations, the CA-82 is the slower parallel route and the I-280 runs further inland with a longer but more scenic drive.

Stanford University is right in the middle of the Silicon Valley, bordering the Palo Alto and Menlo Park tech hubs. Take a stroll in the beautiful campus of this great institution and admire its architecture.

San Jose is often overlooked in favour of visiting San Francisco instead, but it's an interesting city with a lot going for it.

The technology and innovation angle continues through to San Jose - make sure you visit the Tech Interactive which is a fantastic museum about technology and science innovation.

Bonus: If you find yourself with a lot of time, you can cut back to the Pacific Coast at Pescadero and make your way back to San Francisco past Half Moon Bay and a number of classic California beaches and towns (see #3 below).

3. Pescadero, California and Half Moon Bay, CA

50 miles from San Francisco (1 hour 20 minutes)

When to go: The Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival takes place annually in October.

Why you should visit: The drive south to Pescadero along the Pacific coast is full of stunning views and offers the opportunity to see the classic California with its relaxed beach-side vibes and picturesque small towns.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the coastline in Pescadero, California
Jon Bilous/

How to get there: Highway 1 will take you all the way along the coast and this might just be one of the most scenic drives you can go on from San Francisco. The road twists and turns following the coastline and just after the half hour mark, you will come to Half Moon Bay.

Our highlights: The traditional farming and fishing community is perfect for a relaxing stroll or a picnic on Francis Beach. After your stop, Pescadero is only a further 25 minutes down the road.

Pescadero is all about nature and exploring the best of the North Californian coastline. The pace of life is slow and you can visit one of a number of state parks and preserves surrounding the town.

The relatively small Año Nuevo State Park a few miles further south is great for a hike with a fantastic view of the rugged coastline.

4. Point Reyes and Tomales Bay, CA

50 miles from San Francisco (1 hour 45 minutes)

When to go: Whenever you have a free day or weekend

Why you should visit: The Point Reyes National Seashore has some of the most picturesque hikes you'll see anywhere in the country. Steep inclines overlook dramatic rocky cliffs with the ocean waves slamming against them.

Coastline along the Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Jerry S/

How to get there: Marin County is only just across the Golden Gate Bridge and if you make it further than Muir Woods before the urge to hike kicks in, you can follow Highway 1 along the coast up to Point Reyes and the stunning Tomales Bay.

Our highlights: There is a variety of different tree types and a lot of animals including elk that you have a chance of spotting.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in 1870, sits on the edge of Point Reyes and you'll have to go down 308 steps to get to it, before having to climb back up on your way back.

The Cypress Tree Tunnel is an unbelievable stretch of road with giant trees making a covered tunnel by overlapping from either side. Unlike the orderly oaks that frame entrances to estates in Georgia and Alabama, cypress trees are taller and look wilder - a definite must-see.

5. Napa Valley, CA

70 miles from San Francisco (1 hour 30 minutes)

When to go: Weather is perfect any time of year

Why you should visit: Ask any wine lover to nape a California wine and Napa Valley is likely to be the first they will name. In the last few years, Napa Valley has become known worldwide for the wines produced here. Some of our personal favorites are Napa Valley wines!

Priest Ranch Winery tasting room in Yountville, Napa Valley, California
Leonard Zhukovsky/

How to get there: The next valley along from Sonoma (see above), Napa Valley is only just over an hour away. Following I-80 out of the city and then CA-29 will directly take you to your destination.

Our highlights: The locals love the zinfandel grape in particular with a large number of local vineyards growing it.

A relative of southern Italy's Primitivo, Zinfandel is frequently the basis for robust red wines sold around the world, although in the US it is almost exclusively made into Rose.

Make sure you make a stop in Yountville. This small unassuming town has a number of winery tasting rooms and boasts the record of the most Michelin stars per head of anywhere in the United States shared by The French Laundry and Bouchon restaurants.

Our travel tips: We'd highly recommend an overnight stop to really enjoy the food and wine pairings!

6. Sebastopol and Sonoma, CA

70 miles from San Francisco (2 hours)

When to go: Catch the most glorious weather from June to October

Why you should visit: Sonoma is one of the most famous wine areas in California and the United States.

The area is split into two separate areas - Sonoma Valley that runs parallel to its more famous Napa cousin (see #6 below) and Sonoma Coast which runs from San Pablo Bay all the way to Sea Ranch, bordering Mendocino County to the north.

Sonoma Vineyards at sunset near Sebastopol, California
Billy Carmen/

How to get there: From San Francisco, you'll need to cross over the Golden Gate Bridge and follow signs for the city of Sonoma. From there, Highway 12 will take you through Sonoma Valley where there are countless vineyards dotted around.

Our highlights: Come off the main road and enjoy some of the best wine on offer in the States.

The city of Sebastopol is technically in the Russian River wine region, although still in the Sonoma County. The city is full of apple orchards and you can explore the unique nature surrounding it - the Russian River area is the largest freshwater wetlands area in the US.

Our travel tips: You can drive to the Sonoma Valley in a day, but to really make the most of it (and its wines!) you really should find a weekend to spend up in the rolling hills. The vineyards organise wine tastings and there are some truly stunning restaurants too.

7. Sacramento, CA

90 miles from San Francisco (1 hour 30 minutes)

When to go: Great all year round, but go in September to catch the Farm-to-Fork Festival

Why you should visit: The vibrant city of Sacramento has been California's capital since 1854 and is a perfect place to visit to see a mix of history, retro chic and relaxed vibes.

Old Sacramento Bridge in Sacramento, California
Adonis Villanueva/

How to get there: Getting to Sacramento from San Francisco is easy- just follow I-80 all the way to your destination.

Our highlights: Start by visiting Old Sacramento - a district that dates back to 1848 with old buildings, wooden sidewalks and amazing small independent shops.

Other than the State Capitol, which you must visit, stop by the California State Railroad and California Automobile museums. Trains and carriages showcase the history of railroads in California with trains and carriages going back to the 1860s and the car collection ranges from early turn of the 19th century models to classic muscle cars.

As you make your way around Sacramento, make sure you grab a coffee from one of the growing number of independent coffee shops that roast their own beans.

Later on, you can catch a movie at a drive-in movie theater (yes - they still exist!) and grab a drink at one of the eclectic bars.

Bonus: If you have time, make it an overnight stop to see more of Sacramento and enjoy the nightlife.

8. San Juan Bautista, CA

100 miles from San Francisco (1 hour 40 minutes)

When to go: Great all year round

Why you should visit: A road trip to San Juan Bautista is your opportunity to dive into California's history and get a glimpse of how people lived here in the early 19th century, during the early years of colonization.

Statue in front of the Mission San Juan Bautista, California
Jeffrey M. Frank/

How to get there: As you leave San Francisco, take the I-280 to avoid Silicon Valley and San Jose traffic. At Cupertino, take Highway 85 before eventually merging into US Route 101 which will take you the rest of the way.

If you're heading further south to the Big Sur or Carmel-by-the-Sea, consider adding San Juan Bautista as a stop-off point en route.

Our highlights: The Mission San Juan Bautista is one of the oldest and best preserved in the state. Unusually, it has never shut its doors and has operated continuously as a religious mission since 1812.

On the plaza and the area immediately in front of the Mission are a few more historic buildings and mansions including a hotel - all well over 100 years old.

The look and feel of the town have hardly changed since the 1800s and it's fascinating to see what the rest of California looked like back then.

9. Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA

120 miles from San Francisco (2 hours 30 minutes)

When to go: Early fall for the best temperatures and before the rains start

Why you should visit: Carmel-by-the-Sea is a small and charming village, just south of Monterrey and a short drive south along the coast from San Francisco.

The Cottage of Sweets imports British sweets in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

How to get there: The road trip from San Francisco to Carmel-by-the-Sea will see you following US-101 all the way south to your destination.

Our highlights: As you arrive, you'll be forgiven for thinking you have somehow made it all the way to Europe. The buildings and layout of the town have strong central European vibes with cute Swiss-looking huts and unique shops and restaurants.

If you are a foodie, Carmel will be the perfect place to spend a weekend. Restaurants such as Grasing's on Mission Street will surprise you with the quality of meat and fish and there are a few wine-tasting rooms where you can sample Carmel Valley's finest produce.

The local climate and fog make local wines highly sought after around the US and further afield.

Our travel tips: Don't miss visiting Carmel Beach - the white sand is pristine and it's easy to spend an hour or two watching the waves roll in. Take care if you are going swimming or surfing - the water is cool and there are rip tides and sleeper waves that can be dangerous.

READ MORE - Road Trip from San Francisco to Carmel-by-the-Sea

10. Gualala, CA

120 miles from San Francisco (3 hours)

When to go: June to October to catch the sun

Why you should visit: Gualala is a small seaside town up the coast from San Francisco, just inside Mendocino County as you drive up Highway 1. The area is unusual in that coastal fogs that affect much of northern California don't happen here due to prevailing ocean winds.

This means that the weather is perfect for the outdoors with clear skies and sun throughout the year.

Empty wild beach at Gualala in Mendocino County, California
Osaze Cuomo/

How to get there: Get on US-101 North as you leave San Francisco and head towards the shore on the scenic CA-1. Drive through Sonoma Coast and Salt Point State Parks before you reach Gualala.

Our highlights: Things to do in Gualala include hiking, fishing and golf, but make sure you visit the Salt Point State Park Pygmy Forest. There are a number of different tree species including cypresses and redwoods that are only a few feet tall.

The soils at this elevated spot are very inhospitable for plants with high acidity and hardly any nutrients which starve the trees and prevent them from growing taller.

After seeing some of the world's tallest trees as you drive up the coast from San Francisco, it is a surreal but interesting sight to see the same trees in miniature.

You can drop into the highly regarded Gualala Arts Center to see a mixed art exhibition which is one of the best known in northern California. There is plenty in and around the small town to keep you occupied for a weekend away and even the long drive there is well worth it for the views.

Bonus: The Gualala River runs into the Pacific and you can go on a long hike or see the sand dunes in the Gualala Point Regional Park. If you're lucky and are visiting at the right time of year, you might even see migrating whales passing by.

11. Sierra Nevada and Columbia, CA

140 miles from San Francisco (2 hours 30 minutes)

When to go: May to October for warm weather - summers here don't get too hot

Why you should visit: At two and a half hours' worth of driving, Columbia could be visited in a day, although it makes far more sense to take longer and add other destinations to the east, such as Yosemite National Park or Stanislaus National Forest into a whole week off.

A traditional street in Columbia - Sierra Nevada foothills, Gold County, California
Jakub Zajic/

How to get there: Follow I-580 as you leave San Francisco and switch to I-205 past Altamont. After you leave Manteca, hop on to CA-120, which will take you all the way to Columbia, CA.

Our highlights: Columbia is a historic city that was born during the boom of the gold rush. The moment gold was discovered locally, thousands flocked to the city in the 19th century.

Today, the Columbia State Historic Park covers the downtown district of the town. The main street is reserved for pedestrians, cyclists and horse-ridden carriages and the buildings wouldn't look out of place in a Western movie.

In fact, several, including classics such as High Noon were actually filmed here.

At its peak, Columbia was the second biggest city in California and narrowly missed out on being declared the State Capital. Come and see the historic town for yourself and bring a picnic - you can find tables to sit at throughout the Historic District.

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Weekend trips from San Francisco (3-5 hours each way)

San Francisco is only a short drive to some amazing towns, landmarks and attractions that are perfect for a weekend vacation. You will find some of our top suggestions below.

12. Nevada City, CA

150 miles from San Francisco (3 hours)

When to go: June to September for the very best weather

Why you should visit: If you fancy getting out of San Francisco for a weekend full of forests, mountains and fresh air, Nevada City might be the best option that you can reasonably get to on a Friday night and come back from on Sunday evening while leaving yourself with plenty of time to relax.

Elaborate old houses in the historic downtown of Nevada City. California

How to get there: I-80 will take you all the way from San Francisco to Sacramento. Take CA-49 from Auburn to Nevada City from here.

Our highlights: The town itself is a quirky ex-mining hub that was at one point California's most prominent centre for mining gold and anything else of value found in the rocks. Originally known as Nevada, the "City" ending was added in 1864 to avoid being confused with the nearby Nevada state.

As you walk along Broad Street and the rest of the Downtown Historic District, you will see a number of classic western buildings that today house shops, proper local dives bars, a theatre and a hotel. In the background, you'll notice rolling hills covered in a lush pine forest.

Nevada City is great as a place from which to explore the Sierra Nevada and the amazing nature reserves in this part of California. Tahoe, Plumas and Eldorado National Forests are all within an hour's drive as is the town of Downieville (see further below) and the state capital - Sacramento.

Bonus: The Yuba River a few miles to the north offers plenty of hiking trails and fresh crystal-clear waters that are perfect for a swim if you can bear the cold temperatures of melting ice and spring water feeding the river from higher up.

13. Big Sur, CA

150 miles from San Francisco (3 hours)

When to go: September to November when the weather is great (and the summer fogs have departed)

Why you should visit: The Big Sur is one of the most iconic stretches of the coast in the world. The dramatic cliffs, waves beating the rocks and rugged nature have meant that movies, tv and the advertising industry come here a lot for the views.

Waves beating the rugged coastline of the Big Sur, California
Songquan Deng/

How to get there: Getting to the Big Sur from San Francisco is easy. Follow Highway 1 along the coast or join it at Santa Cruz if you take Interstate 280 to San Jose instead.

The famous coastline starts once you round Monterey Bay and pass through Carmel-on-Sea (which by the way you should stop at - see above). On the way there, you can also make a stop at the beautiful Monterey State Beach.

Our highlights: The unique landscape offers plenty of ways to relax and unwind. Take a stroll to the Point Sur Lighthouse in the Point Sur State Historic Park and see the purple sand of Pfeiffer Beach or hike through one of the many State Parks along the way.

You will see cars parked up at the side of the road every now and then - usually this means there's a scenic cove, hot springs or a waterfall that you can see. Some of them don't allow you to get too close, but it's often worth taking a look!

Further down the coastline and just before you reach Cayucos, which is further up this list, is Hearts Castle. This lush European-style mansion offers tours and a unique insight into the lives of the rich and famous from Hollywood's Golden Age.

READ MORE - Road Trip from San Francisco to Big Sur

14. Mendocino, CA

160 miles from San Francisco (3 hours 15 minutes)

When to go: Fall to avoid the tourist season, see beautiful autumn leaves and visit the Winesong festival and other events

Why you should visit: Despite its modest size, there is plenty to do in Mendocino. First, head to the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park.

Set right on the coast, you can visit the beautiful 1909 lighthouse and explore the rocky beach complete with a hike that takes you to Frolic Cove with a shipwreck from 1850.

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park, Mendocino County, California

How to get there: Mendocino is a small village in Mendocino County which will take you 3 to 4 hours to get to on US-101 (or 5 if you take the much more scenic Highway 1 option along the coast).

Our highlights: For more hikes and places you can see nature, head to the Russian Gulch or the Mendocino Headlands State Parks, both about 2 miles from Mendocino.

A little further north is Fort Bragg which is home to Glass Beach. After decades of dumping waste in the ocean during the 20th century, a lot of the glass that was thrown away got broken up and polished by the waves crashing it against rocks.

Today the beach is full of rounded pebbles made from glass which is a fascinating sight.

The waste dumping stopped in 1967 and a combination of visitors, seabirds and the sea itself have been slowly taking glass off the beach ever since with less and less glass mixing with the stones year on year.

Our travel tips: Ten miles south of Mendocino, Highway 128 heads inland from Highway 1. There are dozens of amazing vineyards, many of which you can visit and do wine tasting.

Some say the wine here is the best California has to offer, but at much more reasonable prices than the Napa and Sonoma Valleys much closer to San Francisco.

15. Yosemite National Park, CA

170 miles from San Francisco (3 hours 20 minutes)

When to go: Late May or September to avoid the crowds, but when the roads and trails are open and free from snow

Why you should visit: One of the most famous National Parks in the United States, Yosemite National Park is located close to San Francisco. You can be there in a mere 3 hours if you are lucky with the traffic.

Stoneman bridge over the perfectly still Merced River in Yosemite National Park, California
Sarah Fields Photography/

How to get there: Take I-580 and I-205 as you leave San Francisco and get on CA-120 in Manteca, which will take you all the way to the natural wonders of Yosemite National Park.

Our highlights: Yosemite can get very busy at the height of summer with a people from across the United States and beyond joining those from Northern California on their travels.

The majority of people head to Yosemite Valley with the Merced River flowing through. That's where all the standard photos of Yosemite are taken and where the famous El Capitan and Cathedral Rock mountains are located.

You will find hotels, campsites and plenty of tourist facilities around here. While you should definitely visit to see the sights for yourself and hike a trail or two, Yosemite is much much bigger than this valley and the rest of it is a lot quieter and less touristy which is a big plus in our book.

Our travel tips: There are a lot of places you can go and hike from Highway 120 with trails running off to both sides. Your best way to explore Yosemite is to pack your gear and go on a long hike over the mountains.

Some of these can take several days and you can camp in the wilderness, although you'll need to get yourself a Wilderness Permit in advance.

Make sure you get to the other side of the park and visit Mammoth Lakes on the border with Inyo National Forest and the Devils Postpile National Monument on the mountains above.

READ MORE - Road Trip from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park

16. Leggett, CA

Via Santa Rosa

180 miles from San Francisco (3 hours 20 minutes)

When to go: Great weather and not too hot through the summer months from May to September

Why you should visit: Leggett is a small town up in north California's Mendocino County that is well known as the place where some of the tallest trees in the world grow.

There are two protected forests nearby - the Smithe Redwoods State Reserve and Standish-Hickey Recreation Area are home to Coastal Redwoods which can grow for 2,000 years to reach their unbelievable heights.

The drive through Chandelier Tree in Leggett, California
Zack Frank/

How to get there: Hop onto US-101 out of San Francisco and drive through Santa Rosa. This highway will directly take you to Leggett on the coast.

Our highlights: Before you reach Leggett, you will drive through Santa Rosa, which is known for its buzzing wine and beer scenes. Make sure to stop by a winery or a brewery to sample their offerings.

Santa Rosa is especially beautiful in the spring with its lush rolling hills and wildflowers. Make sure to visit Luther Burbank's Home and Gardens and see why he was deeply in love with the flora of this area.

There is a Drive-Thru Tree Park where you can admire these trees without getting out of the car. You even get to drive through the 315 feet tall Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree which has been around for some 2,400 years.

But exploring these magnificent giants on foot is the best way to unwind and get in touch with nature. After a drive of over 3 hours from San Francisco, stretch your legs and get down to the South Fork Eel River with a waterfall to discover and picnic areas dotted around.

Our travel tips: Make sure you explore the surrounding towns - Piercy further up Highway 101 has the quirky Confusion Hill with a mountain train ride and a gravity house that can make you pretty confused with a set of optical illusions.

17. Lake Tahoe, CA

190 miles from San Francisco (3 hours 20 minutes)

When to go: July to September for a summer retreat or January to March for the ski season

Why you should visit: Lake Tahoe straddles the California - Nevada border and is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountain range which gives it one of the most unique and instantly recognizable landscapes in the world.

Lake Tahoe's picturesque blue waters are almost 100% pure (that is drinking water!) and that is why it looks so unique and pristine.

Crystal clear still waters and boulder beach of Lake Tahoe in California

How to get there: The road trip from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe takes you across the Bay Bridge into Oakland before following I-80 to Sacramento, which by the way is a great place for a stop on the way.

From there you can follow the I-80 all the way to Truckee which is a couple of miles Lake Tahoe or follow Highway 50 through the Eldorado National Forest depending on where you're headed around the lake.

Our highlights: The best thing about Lake Tahoe is that it really is great to visit all year round - the clear waters of the lake surrounded by large boulders and pine trees are perfect for a summer getaway while the surrounding mountains have some of the best ski resorts in the United States for the winter season.

The locals will often refer to North and South Lake Tahoe as two distinct areas. South Lake Tahoe is where the majority head in the summer - there are plenty of beaches, water sports and the atmosphere is more relaxed and chilled out.

North Lake Tahoe becomes more popular during the winter season with some of the best skiing on that side, although hotels and general prices are higher.

Bonus: The lake is also a great base to explore other locations - State Parks and designated wilderness areas surround the lake so you can go on hikes and explore nature with the lake sprawling below you.

Alternatively, to get away from the crowds you can take a short drive to Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests with some peaks climbing over 10,000 feet and some truly stunning scenery.

READ MORE - Road Trip from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe

18. Downieville, CA

190 miles from San Francisco (3 hours 30 minutes)

When to go: Late June to early September for the best weather

Why you should visit: Downieville and its cousin up the road Sierra City sat on the North Yuba River are all about the outdoors. You can enjoy hiking trails of all levels here as well as some more adventurous activities, if you dare!

Downieville town on the Yuba River in California's Gold Country
Hank Shiffman/

How to get there: It will take you about an hour to drive up the river from Nevada City along Highway 49. All in, the route from San Francisco is under 200 miles and you could fit it into a long weekend at a stretch.

Our highlights: For nature lovers, there is bird watching, hikes up mountains and through forests and valleys of the Tahoe National Forest. Then there's mountain biking, horse riding and even back-country off-roading for the more adventurous.

Add to that the amazing fishing for trout in the Yuba river, the opportunity to swim in the clear fresh (but cold) water and the great white water rafting you can do along the river's rapids and falls.

If you're into picnics, scaling mountain peaks and getting away from it all in nature far away from San Francisco's busy streets, Downieville is the right place to come to.

Bonus: There are some great local eateries and restaurants in the area so make sure that you sample some of their offerings and try a local wine or two.

19. Redding, CA

220 miles from San Francisco (3 hours 30 minutes)

When to go: April to June before the weather gets hot later in the summer

Why you should visit: Sitting on the Sacramento River and close to the Lassen Volcanic National Park, Redding is a perfect spot from which to explore northern California as well as having a lot of things to do in the city itself.

Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay on the Sacramento River Trail in Redding, California
Nagel Photography/

How to get there: Redding is a city in the foothills of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest a few hours' drive to the north of San Francisco. Follow I-505 and I-5 to reach your destination.

Our highlights: A few miles north of Redding is Shasta Lake - the huge man-made lake sits in 4 valleys above the Shasta Dam with the Sacramento River, the McCloud River, Squaw Creek and dozens of smaller streams all flowing in from different directions.

Here you can visit the Shasta Lake Caverns to see unique cave formations and explore small roads darting through the National Forest with waterfalls and scenic mountains along the way.

Add day trips to Whiskeytown Recreational Area and Lassen Volcanic National Park to your list for a week in Redding too!

In the city itself, you should visit the Turtle Bay Exploration Park which is a mix of museum, interactive displays and outdoor sights that will immerse you for a few hours. Be sure to check off the famous Sundial Bridge and a boat trip along the Sacramento River.

Just to the west of downtown Redding is the ghost town of Shasta. Once a busy mining community, a lot of the buildings are dilapidated after decades of abandonment.

You can take a walk through the streets to see what it once was during the California gold rush and visit a few sights including the old courthouse and jail.

20. Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA

230 miles from San Francisco (3 hours 40 minutes)

When to go: June to September while the weather is warm and access to Lassen Peak is open

Why you should visit: The Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the lesser-known and less visited National Parks in California, which is exactly why you should go. This will allow you to avoid the crowds and clock in a visit before this beautiful park gets popular!

Lassen Peak and its reflection in Manzanita Lake in the Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
H Peter Ji Photographer/

How to get there: Getting to Lassen Volcanic National Park is easy as most of the drive will take place on the interstates. I-80, I-505 and I-5 will be the main roads you will follow to reach there.

Our highlights: Sure - there are other parks you should also visit - we've got the much more famous Death Valley, Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks further down the list, but Lassen is one of the prettiest there is with no visitor crowds even during peak season.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is known for having all 4 different types of volcanoes within it with Lassen Peak stretching some 10,457 feet above sea level.

Our travel tips: There are over 150 miles of hiking trails in the park and you can climb all the way to the top of Lassen Peak, but make sure you have the right clothing and gear.

It can get bitterly cold up at the top and you will find a few feet of snow even at the height of summer - this is the snowiest place in California!

21. San Luis Obispo, CA

230 miles from San Francisco (3 hours 45 minutes)

When to go: July to October for the warmest water at the beach

Why you should visit: San Luis Obispo is known for two things - it's virtually never-ending sunshine and the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Worth visiting in its own right, San Luis Obispo and the nearby Morro Bay are popular halfway stops for those traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Morro Rock on the coastline near San Luis Obispo, California
Min C. Chiu/

How to get there: Heading south on US-101 past Paso Robles will get you directly to San Louis Obispo.

Our highlights: Just a couple of miles from the coast and sitting in a pretty valley in the foothills of Santa Lucia Mountains is the city of San Luis Obispo.

It will take 4 hours to get there, traffic permitting, so it may be a little stretch as a weekend road trip destination, but you can easily combine it into a longer trip with other stops along the coast and a visit to Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California.

The Mission is one of the oldest in California dating back to 1772 and is an amazing visit stepping a few centuries back in time. You can see inside the Mission with some rooms decorated as they were at the time when it was first founded and explore the beautiful gardens.

With the weather being amazing year-round, make sure you don't miss the areas surrounding San Luis Obispo. The Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley wine regions might not be some of the best known, but certainly worthy of trying the different grape varieties that are grown here.

Our travel tips: The 20-mile-long Bismo beach is only 15 minutes away by car and is a perfect place to relax to the sound of crashing waves and have a swim.

Alternatively, go to the tide pools of Shell Beach where you will find everything from crabs to starfish and sea lions. Bring something to wear on your feet and hire a kayak to paddle around.

READ MORE - Road Trip from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo

22. Cayucos, CA

230 miles from San Francisco (4 hours)

When to go: August to November is great to avoid the clouds that cover the coast in June and July

Why you should visit: Cayucos is one of the prettiest towns along the Californian coast and a perfect weekend getaway from San Francisco.

The Brown Butter Cookie Company shop in Cayucos, California
Iris van den Broek/

How to get there: Similar to the road trip to San Louis Obispo (#21), follow US-101 south until Paso Robles and then take CA-46 towards the shore to reach Cayucos.

Our highlights: The town dates back to the 1800s with buildings along Ocean Avenue alternating between classic wooden constructions and relaxed modern cafes and surf shops.

The pace of life in Cayucos and its neighbor Morro Bay is slow and everything revolves around the ocean. The main activities are things you can do on the water and the shops largely sell merchandise for or from the beach.

It takes 4 hours to get there from San Francisco, but we'd highly recommend spending an hour longer and taking Highway 1 that winds along the coast instead.

This is one of the most scenic drives anywhere and it would be a real shame to miss it. You'll want to go back the slow way too if you come to Cayucos along Highway 1.

Bonus: Make sure you visit Hearst Castle a few minutes up the coast from Cayucos - this giant mansion has become a California State Park and you can take a tour to see the opulence and completely over-the-top design that would host parties for Hollywood's rich and famous in the first half of the 20th century.

23. Kings Canyon National Park, CA

240 miles from San Francisco (4 hours)

When to go: Best weather is from June to August, but parks are open and great to visit all year round

Why you should visit: Majestic sight after majestic sight, Kings Canyon National Park has one of the most varied landscapes in the area. You will get to marvel at deep canyons, monolithic sequoia trees, rugged mountains and beautiful foothills in this national park.

Sun shining through giant sequoia trees in the Kings Canyon National Park in California
Hans Debruyne/

How to get there: Head east out of San Francisco on I-580 and get on to CA-99 in Manteca. Switch to CA-180 in Fresno, which will take you to Kings Canyon National Park.

Our highlights: Kings Canyon National Park and its close neighbor Sequoia National Parks are in the southern part of the Californian Sierra Nevada mountain range, a 4-hour drive from San Francisco.

These parks offer some of the most relaxing and beautiful places for hiking and unwinding with forests full of tall redwoods, picturesque mountains, valleys, lakes and rivers.

Highway 180 which runs between the two offers spectacular views but doesn't run all the way through so you will have to come back on yourself.

The sequoias that grow here are some of the tallest in the world and the majority grow between the two forks of the Kaweah River. The world's largest tree, the General Sherman Tree can be found here, but be prepared to have to wait for a picture.

Kings Canyon National Park is also a good stop on your way from San Francisco to Las Vegas or Los Angeles, breaking up both journeys nicely.

Alternatively, you could bundle in Yosemite and Death Valley National Parks to make a week-long nature exploration adventure instead.

24. Virginia City, NV

250 miles from San Francisco (4 hours)

When to go: May to October when the mines and attractions are open

Why you should visit: The town of Virginia City is across the Nevada border from Lake Tahoe located between Carson City and Reno. Another town that grew rapidly during the gold rush, Virginia City's downtown is a historical marvel with a wooden boardwalk and real classic buildings.

Storefronts in the classic mining town of Virginia City, Nevada
Arne Beruldsen/

How to get there: Follow the directions for the road trip from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe (#17) and then take I-580 north through Carson City to reach Virginia City.

Our highlights: The discovery of Comstock Lode under Mount Davidson was the pivotal point in the formation of the city. One of the largest silver deposits found at the time sparked a rush to the town and the development of large mine shafts.

You can go on a tour of a mine - the Cholar Mine and Ponderosa Mine are both open to visitors and you will be able to walk through the tunnels, see mining gear and bits of silver ore in the rock. The Comstock Gold Mill and the Marshall Mint are both open to visitors as well.

The V&T Railroad ride lets you take a trip on a 19th-century train. At one point Virginia City had a sophisticated rail network with 45 trains a day transporting workers and taking ore to and from the city. The train rides take 35 minutes to go and return from Gold Hill.

Bonus: Stop by the Red Dog Saloon to check out the bar where Janis Joslin was part of the House Band!

Our travel tips: Getting around the small town is easy - the locals didn't spend too much time thinking up street names, so C Street is where you need to be headed. It's unsurprisingly located between B Street and D Street.

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Long weekend trips from San Francisco (5-8 hours each way)

Looking to get away from San Francisco and have more time on your hands? Here are a few long-weekend road trips which will take you to some hidden gems and fascinating cities.

25. Sue-meg State Park, CA

300 miles from San Francisco (5 hours 20 minutes)

When to go: May to September although the weather is very consistent throughout the year

Why you should visit: If you are a fan of local flora, Sue-meg State Park is the place to visit for you. This state park is home to coastal redwoods, pine, hemlock, fir and red alder as well as wildflower meadows.

This park was previously called Patrick's Point State Park but its name was changed back to Sue-meg, which is the name used by native Yurok people.

Waves rolling in along Agate Beach on a foggy morning in Patrick's Point State Park,California
randy andy/

How to get there: US-101 will take you all the way north out of San Francisco and you will reach Sue-meg State Park past Eureka.

Our highlights: Sue-meg State Park is right in the north of California on a rocky outcrop off the Californian coast.

The park itself is small and has a number of campsites and places you can park your RV. Beware though that a lot of the sites are not flat and the facilities are not the best you will find. Opting for a motel in Trinidad or other accommodation nearby may be money well spent.

Lodging, however, is not what you visit Sue-meg for. The views and hilly forests that run along the coast is what brings people here throughout the year despite the distance from San Francisco and Portland.

You can see down to Agate Beach from the park and it is a perfect place to spend the day watching the waves crash into the sand.

Beyond the beach are three large lagoons, separated from the Pacific by narrow spits. The Redwood Highway (Highway 101) meanders through these on its way up the coast.

If you go inland from the lagoons, you will find Redwood State Park, or you can keep following the road north to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (which is part of the same Redwood National Park system).

With some 300 miles of trails among the giant redwood trees, there are plenty of places to explore if you're coming for a week or longer. There are campsites throughout where you can stop overnight as well.

Our travel tips: Make sure you bring the right clothes and gear. The weather here is very moderate with temperatures in the 40 to 60 degree range throughout the year. Rain can and does happen frequently and can hit on any day and the forests can get very misty in the summer.

26. Los Angeles, CA

Via Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur

390 miles from San Francisco (6 hours)

When to go: April to November although it really is great to visit all year round

Why you should visit: For those wanting to visit the only city that is bigger and better known than San Francisco in California, Los Angeles is only a few hundred miles down the coast.

People and cars on Hollywood Boulevard's Theater District in Los Angeles, California
Sean Pavone/

How to get there: You can get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in as little as 6 hours if you head straight down the I-5. If you want to make it into a proper road trip, however, take Highway 1 which runs along the coast.

The total driving time will increase by 3 hours or so, but the unbelievably scenic route will offer a lot of places to stay, amazing sights and things to do and some of the best driving roads anywhere.

Our highlights: On the way down to the City of Angels from San Francisco, you'll pass through Carmel-by-the-Sea, drive along the Big Sur and into San Luis Obispo. Further along the road and as you approach Los Angeles, come Santa Barbara, Malibu and Santa Monica.

Compared to the more old-school city design of San Francisco, Los Angeles spreads over a huge area spanning multiple different cities and neighborhoods.

From the Hollywood Hills to Long Beach to Beverly Hills and Pasadena, there is a huge amount to do and see. You can visit movie studios, visit theme and amusement parks and hit some of the most famous beaches in the country.

Bonus: Take the compulsory photo with the star of your favorite actor along the Walk of Fame and do some people-watching along Rodeo Drive - trust us - it's seriously entertaining!

READ MORE - Road Trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles

27. Crater Lake National Park, OR

400 miles from San Francisco (6 hours 30 minutes)

When to go: Go from May to August when the routes through the park are open and free from snow

Why you should visit: The Crater Lake National Park surrounds a beautiful deep blue lake that sits in a volcano that erupted in 5,700 B.C. At 1,900 feet deep, this is the deepest lake in the United States which gives it the gorgeous color.

Crater Lake and Wizard Island in the Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

How to get there: Getting to Crater Lake National Park from San Francisco is relatively easy. Make your way to the I-5, joining after it passes Sacramento and head north until Highway 97 splits off at Weed. From there, you'll cross into Oregon and arrive at Crater Lake in about 2 hours.

Our highlights: Roads through the park and around the lake are only open from mid-May through September due to heavy snow and bad conditions - check ahead of your trip to make sure you'll be able to get in.

The main activity in the park is hiking. There is a mix of trails from simple walks to long hikes up mountains thousands of feet high. The dense forests and high altitude make it a very worthwhile experience and a great way to breathe some amazingly fresh air, miles away from any city.

Our travel tips: In general, the Crater Lake National Park is incredibly remote even by National Park standards. There are only a few accommodation options available so book these as far in advance as possible.

The same goes for food - you won't find many options around so bring everything you need with you.

Lastly, be very careful with gas - the one gas station in the park only operates during the summer so if you see a gas station on your way, it's a good idea to fill up.

READ MORE - Road Trip from San Francisco to Crater Lake National Park

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Longer trips from San Francisco (Over 8 hours each way)

These road trips might take longer than 8 hours, but they are worth taking the extra time due to their unique features. Here are a few iconic landscapes to visit if you are looking for a longer vacation.

28. Death Valley National Park, CA

460 miles from San Francisco (9 hours)

When to go: March to April to see wildflowers blooming in the desert

Why you should visit: Death Valley National Park is the hottest place on Earth (recorded 134 degrees Fahrenheit at Furnace Creek Ranch in 1913!) and the largest US National Park outside Alaska.

This unique national park has a mixed geography with rugged mountains, cracked lake beds from lakes that dried out in the past and huge sand dunes. The infamous Apple Mac background was shot in the middle of these very dunes.

Sunrise in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, California

How to get there: The road trip from San Francisco to the hottest place on Earth heads east towards Yellowstone and along the scenic Highway 120 before taking Highway 395 south from Inyo Forest.

Ignore navigators that tell you to take the I-5 to Bakersfield unless you love a good long stretch of interstate with literally nothing to see along the way.

Our highlights: Death Valley is on the other side of the Sierra Nevada from San Francisco, and it will take you a long drive to get there. With around 9 hours on the road, you could do it in a day, but we'd highly recommend breaking up the journey into two legs to make it more palatable. With some amazing places to stop en route, you'd be crazy not to!

While the park is accessible all year round, it's a good idea to avoid the summer months when the temperatures are scorching even in the middle of the night.

In the winter, you can camp in the Death Valley and stargaze at night with no lights for many miles in every direction. There are endless hiking trails and offroad driving routes throughout.

Our travel tips: If you want a bit more luxury, there's a few hotel resorts within the park boundaries or you can stay at a motel by one of the entrances instead.

READ MORE - Road Trip from San Francisco to Death Valley National Park

29. Las Vegas, NV

570 miles from San Francisco (9 hours)

When to go: All year round, although June to August can get very hot, especially in the Mojave and Death Valley deserts

Why you should visit: Las Vegas needs little introduction or reason to go - the entertainment capital of the world has everything from insane hotels to endless gambling, clubs, bars and restaurants and dozens of shows happening every single night.

The iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign in Las Vegas, Nevada

How to get there: There are two ways to drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas, so if you're making the trip, it's a good idea to go and come back along different routes to make the journey more interesting.

Half of the places on this list are directly on the way between the two. The Highway 120 route will take you east to Yosemite National Park, passing close to Columbia and Sonora, before passing through the Inyo National Forest and heading southeast to Las Vegas through Nevada.

The slightly quicker, but less scenic route goes south along the I-5 to Bakersfield before cutting across to I-15 that takes you all the way into Vegas.

Our highlights: Driving all the way from San Francisco to Las Vegas may not sound like a good idea - many people would take a flight instead and save themselves time and money by doing so.

There are only a few other things, however, that are as good as a long-distance road trip. A flight doesn't let you visit some of the best National Parks in the United States en route, see the deserts of Mojave and Death Valley or spend a couple of days in Los Angeles.

While in Las Vegas, head to the legendary Strip and hop on a ride on High Roller to get a better view of the sparkling city that never sleeps from up top.

Sin City is as famous for its ongoing resident shows as it is for its casinos and glitzy lifestyle. Book a ticket in advance and watch your favorite singer put on a fascinating show!

Bonus: Time permitting, make sure you bundle in a few stops along the way and if you're feeling really adventurous, keep going into Arizona to see the Grand Canyon and beyond! See our definitive guide on the road trip from San Francisco to Grand Canyon for more information.

READ MORE - Road Trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas

30. Salt Lake City, UT

Distance from San Francisco: 740 miles (10 hours 30 minutes)

When to go: September to October for the best hiking weather and fewer crowds

Why you should visit: Salt Lake City is known for its Mormon heritage and the incredible architecture that you can spot often in the city, which includes the majestic Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

View of  the Salt Lake Mormon Temple from behind the Reflecting Pool in Salt Lake City, Utah

How to get there: Salt Lake City is the longest road trip from San Francisco on our list, beating Las Vegas (see below) by some 170 miles, but if you've explored all over California or have that little bit more time for an epic drive, a trip to Utah could be on the cards.

Despite the very long distance, getting to Salt Lake City from San Francisco could not be easier. Find the start of I-80 around SoMa - South Beach in San Francisco and stay on it all the way to the Crossroads of the West.

Our highlights: The road trip from San Francisco to Salt Lake City will take you to the Nevada border at Lake Tahoe and then cut across the entire width of Nevada before carrying on into Utah.

Going through the desert of northern Nevada does not provide a lot of options for stopovers. The landscape doesn't change much at all for a few hundred miles and the desolate rocky plains are only occasionally broken up by a small town.

Unless you want to spend the night in a small motel somewhere in the middle, we'd recommend spending the night (or three!) somewhere around the northern edge of Lake Tahoe before spending a day doing the rest of the drive over. If you set off early, you'll get there by mid-afternoon and have time for drinks and dinner to unwind.

Salt Lake City is known as the hub for Mormons with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints owning a lot of the land and some of the most prominent buildings around the city. Less than half of the population is Mormon, but you can see the prominence of the church everywhere you look.

Unfortunately, you can't go inside the main Temple or some other Mormon institutions as they are reserved for church members. However, you can still see the sights around Temple Square including the Tabernacle where you can catch a choir performance at set times during the day.

Our travel tips: Depending on your time, you can loop back via Idaho and Oregon through Boise or head south to Las Vegas rather than backing up on yourself through Nevada.

The northern route is very scenic with Idaho and Oregon full of lush forests, wild animals and great driving roads. Plus you can pack in a few stops in Northern California on your way down.