California has no shortage of awesome road trips, scenic drives, and epic vista points featuring everything from mountains, forests, beaches, jumbo rocks, and endless rugged coastlines. If you’re done with the same old views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, and Lands End, I implore you to head out of San Francisco to explore the magic of the rest of California!
If you’re a nature lover like myself, you’ll be pleased to find so many fun national parks within 3-6 hours of San Francisco!
If there’s one thing I can say about California for sure, it’s that this state boasts some of the best weekend getaways in all of the United States. So without further ado, let’s help you discover some of the best weekend trips, day trips, hidden towns, and outdoor adventures that are just a stone’s throw away from the San Francisco Bay Area!
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35 AWESOME WEEKEND TRIPS FROM SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Many of these beautiful places offer either sandy beaches, spectacular coastal views, miles of trails for hiking, charming town centers, some of the best restaurants you’ll find in little towns, or some combination of the above! Happy exploring.
1. HALF MOON BAY
The quaint little seaside town of Half Moon Bay, CA may be only a short drive from San Francisco, yet has a completely different feel from what the big city offers. Once you get past the winding two-lane road, you’ll be greeted by a variety of nurseries, charming shops, restaurants, world-class golf courses, and quaint bed-and-breakfasts.
When in HMB, you can’t ignore the pristine beaches. The Half Moon Bay coastline is made up of multiple state beaches, including Surfers’ Beach, Dunes Beach, Venice Beach, and Francis Beach. Perfect for sunbathing, picnicking, frolicking, or building sandcastles!
For dining and shopping, Main Street is where it’s at. Take a few moments to browse through all the local gift shops, clothing boutiques, bookstores, and home decor shops. Then, get in line for Barbara’s Fishtrap (serving up the freshest fish in the area) or Sam’s Chowder House (known for their lobster rolls and creamy clam chowder). For another great meal, head to Pasta Moon Ristorante, serving up delicious Italian fare.
If you’re traveling with younger children, Lemos Farm in Half Moon Bay, CA is a popular attraction that families can’t miss. This is a family-run farm featuring resident pigs, goats, sheep, and bunnies, which kids can meet and greet in the petting zoo. There are also little ponies here, serving up fun pony rides to small children.
Pro Tip: Got more time in the day? Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, CA is an epic, local-favorite spot to go tide pooling!
2. RUSSIAN RIVER / GUERNEVILLE
Situated in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley lies a little town named Guerneville. Guerneville is a rustic and quirky town, popular for summer weekend getaways and river activities. It’s had a long history; due to its proximity to San Francisco and easy railway access, the Russian River Valley (where Guerneville is situated) became a popular vacation spot in the 1920’s. This laidback area has been entertaining local vacationers since!
One of the best things about Guerneville is that it’s far quieter and more rugged than Healdsburg, Sonoma or Napa nearby. This makes it the perfect spot to enjoy the outdoors and truly unplug from the rest of the world! Case in point: Johnson’s Beach, the popular beach that grants you access to float in the Russian River! Johnson’s Beach not only features the beach but also has a snack bar and watercraft rental service.
After your river float, head to Main Street, dotted with a variety of trendy coffee shops, boutiques, art galleries, dive bars, and diners. Don’t miss Guerneville 5 & 10, where you’ll find old-fashioned candy, vintage toys, and other fun gifts. If you’re into vintage and thrift finds, take the opportunity to peek into the various secondhand shops in town.
For lunch, we recommend boon eat+ drink (a cozy little spot offering California comfort foods with seasonal ingredients) or Brot (a modern german concept serving delicious classics in a warm Bavarian atmosphere). Looking for something significantly more filling? Order the prime rib at Main Street Bistro & Caberet–where you come for the prime rib and stay for the live music!
Follow up your meal with a quick visit to Guerneville Bank Club, a collective retail and art gallery space featuring art shows, handcrafted pies, homemade ice cream, and curated goods. Experience Chile Pies Baking Company, Nimble & Finn’s handmade ice cream, and the Russian River Historical Society all under one roof.
Where to stay in Guerneville, CA: See if you can snag a night or two at Autocamp, hosting a stylish collection of hipster Airstream trailers and luxurious glamping tents.
Mendocino County is a picturesque region that showcases some of the most stunning natural landscapes that California has to offer. Located 163 miles north of San Francisco, it takes about three hours to get there. Though a lot of the drive is on windy terrain, the cliffs, crashing waves, and adjacent green wilderness make for an unforgettable road trip.
With over 90 miles of Pacific coastline, various state parks, countless redwood trees, and a treasure trove of things to do, the Mendocino Coast makes for the perfect weekend road trip from the San Francisco Bay.
Nature lovers should first pay a visit to Van Damme State Park before heading into the Victorian-esque town of Mendocino. Trust that this little village will be quaint, sleepy, and romantic all that the same time! You’ll come across spas, boutiques, gift shops, and chocolate shops, all of which tend to close around 5pm.
After the shops close, take a stroll on the trails overlooking the cliffs as well as through the neighborhood to see all the houses with impeccably groomed colorful gardens.
You could easily spend a day exploring the town’s numerous art galleries, but if you visit only one, make it the Mendocino Art Center. This spacious gallery exhibits a revolving selection of local and national artists. It also offers more than 150 retreat-style classes each year in subjects such as ceramics, jewelry and sculpture. How cool is that?
For breakfast or lunch, check out the popular local hangout the Goodlife Cafe, serving an irresistible range of homemade soups, sandwiches, pastries as well as very well-made coffee. Have dinner at Fogeater Cafe, a cheerful vegetarian restaurant, or Cafe Beaujolais, serving up French cuisine in a Victorian farmhouse (a fine dining staple here).
4. BODEGA BAY
Bodega Bay is jam-packed with hiking and biking trails that offer those stunning Pacific Coast views that California is known for. It’s also one of the West Coast’s premier whale-watching spots. Whales can be spotted almost all year long, but the best chances will be during primary migrations (October through April). Interested in horseback riding? Well no-brainer, the coastal views of Bodega Bay make for a wonderful backdrop.
Bodega Bay and the surrounding area is also a foodie’s paradise — fresh oysters and seafood are not to be missed here. Make sure to stop at Bodega Bay Oyster Company on your way in/out of town to try some of the freshest oysters in the area. If you’re not looking for anything fancy or fishy, check out Drakes Sonoma Coast Kitchen for breakfast, or head to Spud Point Crab Company for their famous crab chowder.
5. POINT REYES / MARIN COUNTY
Point Reyes, CA is the perfect spot to take a day trip from San Francisco, especially if you’re traveling with friends or family who love coastal views, animals, or the outdoors in general! Hiking, horseback riding, kayaking and clamming are just some of the family-friendly activities that attract local day-trippers, as well as checking out restaurants and browsing bookstores in the sleepy town center.
Start your day trip to Point Reyes National Seashore at Point Reyes Lighthouse, perched on the western headlands. If you want to get up close and personal, climb down a few hundred steps to check it out, then climb right back up.
Next, catch a glimpse of the many California elephant seals over the sea cliffs anywhere along the seashore. Want to see herds of elk in their natural habitat? Take a hike to the Tule Elk Reserve beginning at the Tomales Point Trailhead.
In the summer to early fall, you can catch the Point Reyes Farmers’ Market, running on Saturdays from 9 am to 1 pm at Toby’s Feed Barn. It’s not the largest farmer’s market, but it sure is a great opportunity to check out the local artisans, dairy farm products (cheeses and butters), and bakeries.
Follow up your trip to Point Reyes National Seashore with a visit to nearby Tomales Bay! The main reason to visit is for the oysters–these things thrive in the terrain of Tomales Bay. Hog Island Oyster Company is the best spot for fresh and irresistible oyster dishes. An alternative is the local institution Tomales Bay Oyster Company, where you’ll buy your oysters in bulk and take them to a beach nearby to enjoy.
6. NAPA VALLEY
Despite the fact that Napa Valley is a world-class wine region, there are actually a ton of other things to do here other than wine taste. The sunny weather, relaxed atmosphere, foodie culture, and extremely friendly people are what keeps families and non-drinkers coming back year after year.
Families traveling with kids can also enjoy activities such as the Safari West wildlife compound and catching California’s Old Faithful Geyser spray its waters high up in the sky. To see Napa from a different perspective, you can hop onto horseback, hop on a wine train, or hop aboard a hot air balloon!
As you can see, there are so many exciting things to do in Napa Valley other than wine tasting. Check out our Napa Valley travel guide to discover all that Napa Valley has to offer!
Sonoma, Napa’s more laid-back little sister, is a treat to explore. Sonoma County is home to 60,000 acres of vineyards and more than 400 wineries, spread over 18 distinct wine regions all catering to different tastes.
Spend a few hours exploring the different wineries near Sonoma, including the picturesque Viansa Winery (pictured above and below), Robledo Family Winery, and Roche Winery & Vineyards. There are obviously hundreds of other wineries worth checking out, but these are some of our top recommendations.
The historic Sonoma Plaza offers a postcard-perfect start to your adventures. It’s a pedestrian paradise, so park your car and get to exploring! There are so many local boutiques, tasting rooms, hotels, bars, restaurants, home decor shops, olive oil shops, and more dotted along the square. Our favorite stores include Figone’s Olive Oil, Sign of the Bear, Chateau Sonoma, and The Corner Store.
For an unmissable lunch/dinner spot, look no further than El Molino Central, the best restaurant for Mexican food. If you’re stuck on what to order, get the chicken mole tamales, pork tamales, the chile relleno plate, or the fish tacos. Better yet, get all of it.
Cruise up to Healdsburg, CA, a town offering a less touristy but equally memorable wine country experience. Healdsburg is a small, charming town filled with modern amenities as well as an abundance of world-class wineries and farm-to-table restaurants. It’s the perfect base for exploring the countryside of lush valleys and redwood forests that surround Lake Sonoma and the Russian River.
It’s structured similarly to the city of Sonoma, with its historic downtown dotted with art galleries, tasting rooms, eateries ranging from super-casual to fine dining, boutiques, and kitschy antique shops.
You can expect to spend about 2-3 hours walking around and exploring all the town has to offer before hitting the road again. If you plan on doing some winetasting, expect to stay a lot longer! Healdsburg is surrounded by an array of great wineries within the Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley wine regions. If you’re looking for something more conveniently located in the city, check out the tasting rooms Banshee or La Crema.
Given the large variety of bed & breakfasts, hotels, and lodges here, Healdsburg will provide you with an unforgettable overnight experience. Opt to stay downtown, as you’ll be within walking distance of the many restaurants, bars, and shops surrounding the main plaza.
To start your day off, stop in to Flying Goat Coffee in downtown Healdsburg for some of the best coffee in town. Hungry? Grab a table at the New Orleans-inspired breakfast spot, The New Parish, serving up beignets overloaded with powdered sugar…as they should be.
Other recommended options for eats include Chalkboard (small plates), Bravas (tapas), and Madrona Manor (for that special occasion fine dining meal).
9. SANTA ROSA
Surrounded by various state parks and wineries, Santa Rosa attracts both nature lovers and wine lovers. The diverse culture and local cuisine also attracts art/history lovers as well as foodies.
Start with downtown Santa Rosa where you’ll find lots of coffee shops, restaurants, and breweries. This area is also a hotspot for antique, thrift, and vintage shoppers. In fact, popping into the various secondhand shops ended up being one of our favorite things to do in Santa Rosa!
While you’re here, pay attention to the Historic Railroad Square, located in the heart of downtown Santa Rosa. The buildings in and surrounding the square were restored and preserved to serve as a reminder of the impact that the railroad had on Santa Rosa. The square is home to various restaurants, shops, hotels, as well as the West End Farmer’s Market.
Santa Rosa is also home to Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife reservation where visitors can actually experience a slice of Africa without the steep safari tour prices or a plane ticket! In my opinion, this is the best-kept secret of Sonoma County!
Ah, Sacramento, CA, also known as the capital of California! This wonderful family-friendly town features Old Town Sacramento, The California State Railroad Museum, and Sacramento Zoo. Trust us, with the sheer amount of things to do in this city, a day trip to Sacramento may not be enough! The city of Sacramento deserves at least an entire weekend of exploration (and even then you’ll barely scratch the surface).
Start at Old Town Sacramento (Old Sacramento State Historic Park) where you’ll immediately be transported back into the Gold Rush era, then continue your trip back in time at The California State Railroad Museum, one of the most popular museums in Sacramento.
To continue learning about the rich history of California, check out the California State Indian Museum. This museum’s mission is to showcase three different themes important to Native American life–Nature, Spirit, and Family. The museum is full of photographs and items that exhibit how the Indians prospered in California for thousands of years.
To get a taste of art, head for the Crocker Art Museum, where you can find works of art in the museum dating from the Gold Rush to today. If you’re traveling with the kids, consider spending a few hours at the Sacramento Zoo, featuring 400 animals from all corners of the globe.
And sitting right in the heart of Sacramento is the California State Capitol Museum, where you can learn all about California’s history! Not only is it a museum, but it also acts as an active government building. You can opt for a guided tour around the museum (there’s so much you can learn on a tour) or explore the building in a self-guided manner.
11. FORT BRAGG
Fort Bragg is a classic Northern California seaside town that’s meant for weekend fun. Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach is a great place to start your exploration.
Seemingly covered in gems, the beach floor is the result of decades of broken bottles, windows, and car taillights littering the area. These useless particles have naturally transformed into beachcombing treasures covering the beach. Hike down the smaller cliffs to the main parts of Glass Beach to check out the sea life and tidepools that exist here.
The downtown area by Main Street is the best spot to grab breakfast/lunch. We love Eggheads Restaurant, a fun family-owned restaurant adorned in Wizard of Oz photos and murals. Follow up your meal with a stroll through town, popping into the various gift shops, boutiques, and general stores.
Explore MacKerricher State Park if you want to see seals and migrating whales. Stop at photo-worthy Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park and the sprawling Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens as you head north.
Where to stay in Fort Bragg, CA: If you’re in need of a place to stay in Mendocino County, the iconic Inn at Newport Ranch should be your first option, if it’s within budget. Set on a 2000-acre coastal cattle ranch, the Inn is your ultimate escape from reality. Surrounded by epic ocean views and redwood trees, the property consists of over 20 miles of private trails perfect for strolling, hiking, or horseback riding for all ages.
12. SAN JOSE / SOUTH BAY
The San Francisco Bay Area is so much more than just San Francisco! One region of the Bay Area that’s often overlooked is San Jose, CA in the South Bay Area. Ever heard of Silicon Valley? Yeah, this iconic region sits right here in California’s South Bay!
If you can make some time to venture out of San Francisco, there’s a whole world of premier shopping, live music, tech museums, unmissable bars/restaurants, children’s parks, and other fun things to do in the South Bay. Due to its proximity to San Francisco, you can explore San Jose without even needing to book an overnight stay.
While you’re here, check out some tech-related museums such as The Tech Interactive, IBM Museum, or Computer History Museum. For some more fun, explore the Winchester Mystery House. Finally, wind down your day with some good eats at San Pedro Square Market before making the drive back to San Francisco!
Looking for the best things to do in the South Bay? Check out our dedicated South Bay post here.
13. SANTA CRUZ
Santa Cruz, California is no doubt one of the best beach/surf towns in the USA. With fresh coastal air, Mediterranean-like weather, and a killer surf culture, Santa Cruz equate to a wonderful weekend trip from San Francisco. Kids and adults alike will love Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, one of the best old-school amusement parks.
And while it’s a super popular thing to do, the city of Santa Cruz is not only home to the boardwalk, but it’s also the epitome of laidback vibes, featuring surf, redwood forests, mountains, and all-around happy outdoor culture. In fact, one of the coolest outdoor things to do here is situated within the Santa Cruz Mountains… riding the Roaring Camp steam train through the towering redwoods!
While on the beachier side of Santa Cruz, you need to hit the beach at least once. The two most popular (and busiest) beaches in Santa Cruz are Main Beach and Cowell Beach. You might even embrace the surf culture and consider taking a surf lesson!
From there, head on over to a more hip part of town, downtown Santa Cruz. This is Pacific Avenue to be exact, and here you will find a variety of vintage shops as well as modern apparel and gift stores, eateries, bars, and coffee shops.
For nature lovers, the surrounding parks near Santa Cruz has got some good stuff for you! The best hiking trails in Santa Cruz can be found at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Last but not least, stop by Natural Bridges State Beach to have a lunch picnic or watch the sun go down behind the iconic rock formation here.
With so many terrains to explore all in one place, it’s no wonder there are so many cool things to do in Santa Cruz. Discover the 30+ best things to do in Santa Cruz in this post!
14. CAPITOLA, CA
As the West Coast’s oldest beach resort, Capitola, CA sure is worth a visit. This little resort town located just minutes from Santa Cruz offers a wide variety of trendy beachfront stores, restaurants, and museums.
Aside from enjoying the warm sand and sun at Capitola Beach, take some time to stroll through Capitola Village, being sure to enjoy the ambiance, eateries, and shops.
Planning a visit in the summer? Be sure to check the city’s event calendar! During the summer months, a variety of special events are hosted at the beach, including free family movies, art shows, and a twilight concert series.
Just an hour away from Santa Cruz, you’ll find Monterey Bay, CA. This seaside town may look sleepy, but that might just be due to the overcast skies that frequent the area. Don’t fret because they’re actually a lot to do here!
Highlights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium (often considered as one of the best aquariums in the world), Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf. If you are yearning for that quintessential scenic drive, the 17-Mile-Drive has got you covered. Don’t miss iconic spots like Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove, boasting some of the best coastal views in the area.
While in Monterey, you definitely cannot miss walking down Cannery Row, the setting of two John Steinbeck novels. Here, you’ll notice many warehouses that used to be sardine canneries now serve as home to popular restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Whale watching, sailing, kayaking, golfing, and biking are also popular activities to do here. We love Monterey so much that we created an entire Monterey travel guide to showcase some of the best things to do in town!
Carmel is one of the cutest little towns you’ll ever lay eyes on–it’s a quaint and romantic seaside village with a great selection of shops, galleries, cafes, wine bars, and restaurants. You will not be able to resist the charm that the town of Carmel carries, evident the minute you step out of your car. I’d highly recommend slowing down to explore the hidden courtyards and passageways in this picturesque village!
With it being just 2 hours away from San Francisco, you will feel worlds away. Take advantage of the wine tasting opportunities by spending a night or two here.
For wine, check out Talbott Vineyards in Carmel or Folktale Winery in Carmel Valley. For food, explore the culinary delights of the area on this food and wine walking tour. With a knowledgeable foodie guide, you’ll learn about the history and gourmet culture of Carmel as you visit local eateries to sample regional favorites as well as ethnic dishes.
This romantic getaway is a great place to unwind and relax, though the B&B lodging options here might be pricier than in neighboring cities like Monterey.
17. BIG SUR
Just over two hours south of San Francisco is a 90-mile stretch of coastline boasting unforgettable experiences known as Big Sur, CA. Big Sur is an epic California destination with tons of things to do for folks who particularly enjoy dramatic coastal views and spending time outdoors.
If you’d like to get the most out of Big Sur, consider spending the night so you can enjoy a whole day of exploring the various hidden beaches, vista points, and state parks. Notable spots include Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Keyhole Arch Rock at Pfeiffer Beach (an unmissable sunset spot).
Some other outdoor activities include hiking Manuel Peak at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, hunting for jade at Sand Dollar Beach, wandering through redwood groves at Limekiln State Park, and going for a horseback ride along the beach.
Looking to call it a night somewhere along the Big Sur? Many of the state parks such as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park have campgrounds you can book in advance. If you don’t have camping gear with you, there are various lodges, inns, motels and resort options as well. Search for Big Sur hotel availability and pricing here.
Sold? Check out our jam-packed 2-day itinerary for Big Sur, CA here!
18. PASO ROBLES
About 30 miles east of the Pacific Coast Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean in Central California, you will find the quaint, hidden gem of a town known as Paso Robles. Paso Robles is one of California’s fastest-growing and up-and-coming wine regions. This place almost reminds me of Napa and Sonoma in Northern California, with how its downtown area is structured, brimming with things to do!
Spanning across several blocks in the downtown area, there are many wine tasting rooms, artisan gift shops, and gourmet shops selling quality items such as olive oil and soaps. If you have the time, make a pit stop in the center of town and allocate ~2 hours to peruse the shops, grab some wine (Justin Winery is great), and hang out by the tree-lined town square.
If you have more time to wander outside of town, head to the surrounding areas to explore the many other picturesque wineries and estates. Paso Robles has great weather, so it’s almost always ideal for sipping and eating al fresco style!
If you’re here during the night, be sure to check out Bruce Munro’s Field of Light at Sensorio. This immersive art installation is comprised of an array of over 58,800 stemmed fiber-optic lightbulbs, gently illuminating the landscape in morphing colors.
19. LAKE TAHOE
Lake Tahoe, another great weekend trip from the San Francisco Bay Area, is a gorgeous place that you must see for yourself. It’s one of California’s most family-friendly destinations, yet has a whole array of fun activities for adults to enjoy too!
Lake Tahoe has a lot of really great beaches, which is something a lot of lakes lack. That means not only can you partake in a bunch of usual watersports, but you can even beach, picnic and sunbathe. During the warmer seasons, you and your family can get your fill of swimming, water sports, golfing, cycling, mountain biking, and hiking.
During the winter season, there’s snowshoeing, snowboarding, cross country skiing, and world-class downhill skiing. In the winter, be sure to head to Palisades Tahoe, formerly Squaw Valley Ski Resort, for some epic skiing. The resort area was the host site for the 1960 Winter Olympics and is located northwest of Tahoe City in the Sierra Nevada region.
All year round, visitors can enjoy several touristy, fun towns dotted all around the lake, perfect for exploring after a day of outdoor recreation. Be sure to check out Incline Village, South Lake Tahoe, and Stateline. Check out our latest Lake Tahoe/Reno road trip from San Francisco. This itinerary is packed with many other fun family-friendly stops as well!
Reno may look a little rough around the edges these days, but I assure you there are some really cool spots here if you’re willing to explore past its surface!
Midtown Reno is a neighborhood we recommend checking out–it sure has character and soul. This neighborhood, conveniently located between South Virginia Street and Holcomb Ave, features an eclectic range of businesses from one-of-a-kind restaurants to mom-and-pop shops. Some of Reno’s best-kept secrets are in Midtown!
While you’re here, be sure to grab a tiki drink or two at Rum Sugar Lime (RSL). They have such eclectic tropical drinks! Next door is Melting Pot World Emporium, Reno’s coolest counter-culture store since 1996.
Back towards the downtown area, be sure to grab dinner at Liberty Food and Wine Exchange (we got a truffle oil mushroom pizza and a black seafood pasta, both completely delectable) followed by cocktail drinks at Blind Dog Tavern. Looking to grab a pint instead? Head to The Eddy, a super lively beer garden in downtown Reno.
And you definitely cannot leave the area without trying your luck at the midway games inside of Circus Circus! We won so many stuffed animals that we absolutely didn’t need or want (it’s a good thing we know of a toddler who would love our prizes).
And if you’re an outdoor lover like myself, you’ll be happy to know that there’s also a Patagonia Outlet here. For art lovers, The Nevada Museum of Art is a must (it’s the only accredited art museum not just in Reno, but in the whole state).
Where to stay in Reno, NV: The Peppermill Resort Spa Casino is one of the best casino resort hotels in Reno!
21. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
California is so lucky to be the home of this iconic National Park. You’ve probably already heard of Yosemite, known for its majestic rushing waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, and granite cliffs more massive than one could imagine. If you’ve never been, expect to find tons of activities to do, including hiking, rock-climbing, biking, and swimming.
Yosemite holds many natural wonders such as Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall, Half Dome, and El Capitan. Here, you can take a hike among ancient sequoia trees, ride bikes with incredible rock formations as your backdrop, soak in the Merced River, and even catch glimpses of baby bear cubs!
I’ve been going to Yosemite since I was a kid myself and to this day I keep going back, so I know you are going to have a wonderful time here.
While Yosemite is certainly worth an entire weekend or even longer, we understand that some people might not have that much time to spare. Check out our 1-day Yosemite National Park itinerary here!
Pro Tip: If you’re an avid hiker, try snagging permits to hike Half Dome, one of the most epic hikes in all of California!
22. LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of California’s lesser-known national parks, due mainly to its obscure location in Northern California, but it is also one of its most fascinating! Lassen belongs to the Cascade Mountain Range and is considered one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world, last erupting in 1921.
Despite its name, Lassen doesn’t only feature bubbling pits of lava and volcanos—it has some awesome water attractions, too. This park has everything from volcanic summits to geothermal areas and stellar waterfalls. It is a must-visit when passing through this part of California, especially if you happen to be driving by during the season where everything is more accessible (June/July to October/November).
While Lassen is open year-round, 24 hours a day, many facilities are only open for the summer season and road access is limited in the winter months. Notable landmarks worth stopping by here are Bumpass Hell (3-4 mile roundtrip hike), Kings Creek Falls (2.4-mile roundtrip hike), and Sulphur Works.
23. SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK / KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are two parks that are separate and adjacent but administered as one by the National Parks Service. At these parks, you can easily spend your days taking photos, enjoying waterfalls, hiking mountains, taking scenic drives, and picnicking in one of the many wildflower meadows.
At Sequoia National Park, aptly named for its giant sequoia trees, some of the best things to do include gazing at the General Sherman Tree, hiking on trails including Big Trees Trail and Tokopah Falls Trail, and taking in spectacular views atop Moro Rock.
Kings Canyon National Park, named for the deepest canyon in North America, features terrain similar to Yosemite Valley and is home to the largest remaining grove of sequoia trees in the world (Redwood Canyon). At Kings Canyon, explore the sequoias at Grant Grove, feel the mist of powerful waterfalls on your skin including Roaring River Falls, Mist Falls, and Grizzly Falls and hike on the Big Stump Trail.
Since you can expect to spend a total of 2-3 days in total exploring these parks, it’s one of our favorite weekend trips from San Francisco if you have a long weekend.
24. JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Joshua Tree National Park provides a nice contrast to California’s coastal destinations and is a wonderful longer, weekend trip in California. This park is famous for its otherworldly terrain, covered with whimsical Joshua Trees as well as its massive boulder formations.
You may have also heard that Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise, and with good reason. Once you lay your eyes on the jumbo rocks dotted across the park, you’ll easily understand why. Consider hiring a local guide to teach your family rock climbing basics and to keep them safe as they learn new skills.
Aside from climbing, there are many other features of the park to enjoy, including beautiful desert vistas, epic camping and stargazing, wildflowers in the springtime, educational walks, and family-friendly hiking. You can even explore the park on an adventurous half-day Joshua Tree jeep tour!
With all there is to do, how do you prioritize it all? If you only have one day to experience this park, follow my 1-day itinerary for an epic Joshua Tree day trip!
25. BURNEY FALLS
Without question, Burney Falls is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the entire state. Located in the Cascade Mountains forty miles north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, you’ll find a large, everflowing set of falls fed by the melt of the surrounding mountains.
The 129ft waterfall draws many road trippers and adventurers to McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park all year round, even when the rest of the waterfalls in California have turned into small trickles in the summer.
There is a short 1-mile hike you can take after soaking in the beauty of the falls. Visitors can enjoy the interpretive signs on the nature trail and enjoy the shaded greenery of the park. The end of the trail leads you to the bottom of Burney Falls where you can experience the majestic falls up close. Parking Fee: $10 per car for entry.
26. MAMMOTH LAKES
The year-round adventure haven of Mammoth Lakes, CA is not to be missed. From gondola rides to hiking, mountain biking to snowboarding/skiing, ziplining to beer tasting, Shakespeare plays to outdoor movie nights, there’s something for every adventurer here!
Many people know of “Mammoth” for its world-class skiing and snowboarding during the wintertime. During the colder months, Mammoth Mountain is a huge draw for the area, with people visiting from all over the world to hit the slopes here. Meanwhile, in Mammoth Lakes and the surrounding region, there is plenty of nature to be explored by hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, and other outdoors enthusiasts.
Mammoth Lakes is a great jumping-off point for a fun weekend of adventure, camping, the outdoors, and good eating. You’ll find many amenities in this town, as well as so many cool sites nearby like Devil’s Postpile, Rainbow Falls, Minaret Vista, Hot Creek Geological Site, Earthquake Fault, and Wild Willy’s Hot Spring.
Where to stay in Mammoth Lakes, CA: The Village Lodge – Featuring direct access to a gondola and ski elevator at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the Village Lodge condos are surrounded by mountain views. The property features a heated outdoor pool, 5 hot tubs, and 3 gyms, as well as free WiFi. Rooms are huge and come fully equipped.
27. SAN LUIS OBISPO
San Luis Obispo, located in Central California, is a pleasant university town with a historic Spanish mission in the middle of downtown. If you’re interested in learning more about California’s mission history, visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
Centered around the old mission lies the historic downtown area of SLO. What you’ll find here (on Higuera Street) is traditional Spanish-style buildings housing various restaurants, shops, and cafes. If you’re looking for entertainment for the kids, check out San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum or San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum.
SLO is a great place to discover before continuing to nearby towns like Pismo Beach.
28. PISMO BEACH
Steps away from SLO, you will find Pismo Beach, a classic Central Coast beach town famous for its sand dunes, boutique shopping, award-winning boardwalk, and beautiful coastline. You can easily spend a whole day here eating at the restaurants, wine tasting, fishing, surfing (or learning how to surf), beaching and enjoying the mineral springs here.
Be sure to also check out the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, where thousands of butterflies migrate to spend the winter. Lastly, the main attraction that draws many Californians to Pismo Beach: ATVing on the sand dunes next to the beach!
If you want to prolong that old-school California flair on your road trip, consider spending a night in Pismo Beach. You can spend your day on the golf course, horseback riding, or picnicking on the beach, then fill your nights with some good wining and dining options at one of the many waterfront restaurants.
Where to stay in Pismo Beach, CA: On the hunt for kitschy attractions and/or lodging? Check out Madonna Inn, one of California’s quirkiest places to stay. From the outside, it’s already unique as heck. On the inside, you’ll find that each one of its 100+ rooms is decorated in a completely different style than the next!
Local Tip: Do not miss the clam chowder at Splash Cafe. So thick, so creamy and dreamy. They even sell boxes of it for you to take home!
Guess what the main attraction is at Lompoc? You guessed it, wine tasting (like much else of Central California)! Lompoc is a popular getaway destination for not only wine lovers, but also history buffs and art enthusiasts.
Lompoc is home to one of the oldest structures standing in California – La Purisima Mission, founded in 1787! Today, this is the most extensively restored mission that exists, with 10 original buildings furnished to transport you back to the era. You can take a self-guided tour of the church, living quarters, and gardens.
Old Town Lompoc is another gem, where you can take a stroll while soaking in that small-town charm. Keep your eyes peeled for the ~40 custom murals in the area. Other Lompoc attractions include a wild horse sanctuary (Return to Freedom) and a missile and satellite launch facility.
30. SANTA BARBARA
Santa Barbara! How can anyone not love the Mediterranean atmosphere of Santa Barbara, CA? After all, the city’s nickname is the “American Riviera”. Families love vacationing in Santa Barbara of the beaches, zoos, parks and museums here. The Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and Lotusland are all popular things to do in Santa Barbara.
Head over to State Street for top-notch shopping, great restaurant options, and lively nightlife as the sun sets on the town. If you’re looking for ice cream, you need to stop by McConnell’s. Our one and only recommendation is the Cookies and Cream (prepare to be mindblown by the power of the flavors).
When in Santa Barbara, don’t miss the opportunity to eat some fresh strawberries or uni (sea urchin)! Both strawberries and uni from Santa Barbara are world-famous. For the freshest uni, head to some of the seafood markets or restaurants in Santa Barbara. For strawberries, you’ll find produce stands selling them at many exits along the way as well as near the fields where they’re grown.
Local Tip: Head over to Leadbetter Beach if you’re looking to just float along merrily in the ocean. The lack of waves at this beach is absolutely perfect for families and children– and people who just don’t want to be dodging waves left and right.
Where to stay in Santa Barbara, CA: One of the best bang-for-your-buck options is the oh-so-stylish La Playa Inn.
Solvang is literally something out of a fairytale, or at least out of the United States anyway. Who knew you could find a Danish town smack dab in the middle of California?
For a taste of Europe, head on over to Solvang, where you’ll find Danish eateries, shops, and a refreshing, unique atmosphere. I know, you’re probably wondering how the charming city came to be. Solvang was founded by Danish immigrants who wanted a feeling of familiarity after immigrating to the USA.
Since this town is fairly small with the main attractions condensed across a few cross streets, allocating three to four hours to explore should be enough. On the way into town, you’ll pass an ostrich farm called Ostrichland USA, where you can pay to go in and feed these guys! Nearby is also Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch, literally the cutest things you’ll ever see on a road trip ever.
While you’re in the area, mosey on over to the tiny town of Los Olivos, CA. It’s tiny, but it’s a cute place to explore nonetheless.
32. CATALINA ISLAND
Live out your island dreams for a few days on Catalina Island, located just west of the Southern California coast. Simply hop on a one-hour ferry ride from the mainland to get to the quaint seaside town of Avalon on the island. There are lots of great shops and restaurants to explore here.
If you’re looking to spend more time on the water, you can see marine life on a glass-bottom boat tour. These fun boat tours will allow you to experience the many species of fish and marine life that dwell in the kelp forests along the island. Want to get underwater instead? Consider the Catalina Island Undersea Expedition.
Did you know that Catalina Island is also home to bison? These amazing animals were brought to the island during the 1920s for filming and they never left! Take a bison expedition eco-tour to view them and more of the wildlife on the island.
33. LOS ANGELES
Los Angeles, CA needs no introduction. In LA you can do the typical touristy things like visit the LACMA, walk along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, hike the Hollywood Sign, visit Griffith Observatory, or stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. But if you did just that, then you’d be missing out on what the real LA has to offer.
My recommendations are to travel east and visit neighborhoods such as Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Koreatown (you’ll find such great coffee and food options in all three neighborhoods), stroll along grungy Venice Beach and the refined Abbott Kinney neighborhood, both of which are LA hotspots, and head to the Arts District near Downtown LA for the many up-and-coming breweries, coffee shops, and art galleries.
And for those of you looking for cleaner, more swimmable beaches, head even further south to my personal favorite beaches: Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Redondo Beach. Each has its own personality and charm, ranging from bro-y to family-oriented. Since the waters are so much cleaner down here, this is a great place to beach, surf, or go stand-up paddleboarding under the warm Southern California sun!
34. PALM SPRINGS
Palm Springs is nothing if not unique. This Southern California desert city has had a long association with the rich and famous of Hollywood and continues to prove as a great escape from the hustle and bustle of more metropolitan cities such as Los Angeles. Its neighboring areas are equally as unique and quirky and are definitely worth paying a visit if you’re in the desert area.
If you can manage to tear yourself away from sunbathing by the pool for a day or two, you’ll find a world of eccentric art, spectacular hiking trails, and unique architecture in the deserts of Southern California. When I lived in LA, I absolutely love long, weekend trips to Palm Springs. There’s simply so much to see, do, and eat!
A weekend trip from San Francisco to Palm Springs can be manageable if you catch a Thursday or Friday evening flight there instead of driving. If you’re looking to explore this artsy hipster town, check out my post on the coolest things to do in Palm Springs!
35. SAN DIEGO
The sunny beach city of San Diego, CA is home to the famous San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld. In my opinion, San Diego deserves at least 3-4 days to properly enjoy.
From the historic Gaslamp Quarter to the waterfront of San Diego Bay, from beach towns to breweries, and hiking to kayaking– the sheer amount of things to do in San Diego is unreal. No matter what your interests are or what neighborhood you end up in, there is no shortage of things to do in San Diego.
There are also a few vibrant San Diego neighborhoods to explore, including Mission Beach, Little Italy, the Historic Old Town area, the Gaslamp Quarter, and La Jolla.
Traveling to San Diego as part of an extended vacation or even just for a weekend? We’ve got you covered on your perfect San Diego itinerary. Here are some of the best things to do in San Diego, CA!
ROAD TRIP PREPARATION: NEED A RENTAL CAR?
If you don’t have a car or don’t have a reliable car you trust to get you out of San Francisco Bay Area and back in one piece, I suggest you pick up a rental car for your road trip.
We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive.
If you are more the type to compare prices between rental car companies, use Priceline’s rental car search. Not only does the tool allow you to compare rental car prices, but most of the time, you can book with no prepayment and no cancellation fees. These two reasons are exactly why we love using Priceline to lock in rental car reservations, even if we aren’t 100% certain we’ll go on our trips.
Regardless of which rental car company you decide to go with, make sure you have the appropriate car rental coverage. Our credit card benefits typically cover car rental insurance, so we usually stick with that as our primary insurance.
SAN FRANCISCO WEEKEND TRIP: ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST
If you’re going to be driving instead of flying to any of these destinations, we’ve got an essential road trip packing list for you! Aside from the normal clothing and toiletries you’d pack for any regular trip, here are the things I’d recommend you not leave home without:
- License and registration | This is a no-brainer, but always good to check you have all documents before it’s too late and you get too far away from home. Do NOT leave home without them. They are road trip essentials!
- AAA Membership | If you’re really not one to do it yourself when you run into car problems, then you need a AAA Membership. Perks of the annual membership include 24/7 roadside assistance including battery replacement, gas delivery, towing, and lockout service. There are also a bunch of rental car perks too. If you don’t have AAA, then prepare some phone numbers for roadside assistance, just in case.
- Spare Tire | In addition to carrying a spare tire with you, don’t forget to check your current tire conditions before you set off as well.
- Jumper Cables | Jumper cables are one of those things on your road trip list you hope to never use, but are so useful when you do need to call on them! If you’re looking to invest in something exponentially more powerful/convenient than simple jumper cables, get the NOCO Boost HD Car Battery Jump Starter Box. This tool serves as a car jump starter, portable power bank, LED flashlight, and 12-volt portable power–all in one.
- Roadside Emergency Kit | You never know what kind of car trouble you may encounter on the road. This kit contains 42 roadside emergency components, including jumper cables, an aluminum flashlight and batteries, 2-in-1 screwdriver, duct tape, poncho, cable ties, bandages, towelettes, and zipper-lock bags.
- Trunk Organizer | With any road trip comes lots and lots of stuff to pack. Keep your road trip essentials organized with a trunk organizer. Not only will this make it so much easier to find what you need, but it will also lead to more space in your trunk for you to pack other necessities.
- Flashlight | You never know when you’re going to be stranded on the road at night, out hiking late, or even exploring a dark cave. Even adventurous times call for some pre-planning and preparation. Leaving a flashlight in your car can really come in handy when you’re faced with unexpected situations.
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- Umbrella | An umbrella, particularly a wind-proof umbrella, is crucial when traveling to destinations with varying/unpredictable weather. If you have an umbrella with you, then it means the rain can’t stop you from enjoying your trip and exploring the outdoors.
- Slip-on Sandals | Slip-on/slip-off sandals are a must for that extra comfort while sitting in the car. This allows you to make lots of stops without having to go through the process of putting your sneakers/boots back on.
- Portable Cooler | Coolers are a must for any road-trip. Not only will you be able to keep beverages cold and refreshing, but you will also be able to keep perishables fresh (like berries and pies). A portable hard cooler will allow you to pack picnic lunches, bring cheese and jams, and more. If you’re looking for the best cooler technology out there, the Yeti Portable Cooler is top of the line, with ColdCell Insulation that offers superior cold-holding compared to other soft coolers.
- Roll-up Picnic Mat | Probably one of the best inventions since sliced bread, and one of my best investments for the summertime! Not only are these picnic mats super-portable because they roll up into themselves, but their water-resistance factor is a game-changer. No need to worry about wet-grass-butt anymore!
- Swiss Army Knife | A multi-tool is great to have in any car, regardless of if you’re going on a road trip or not. It can be useful in so many situations! There have been so many instances where I’ve needed to cut something or open up hard-to-open packaging while away from home, and this has been a lifesaver.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk! Note: This is not the same as the roadside emergency kit.
- Garbage Bags | Because you don’t want the inside of your car to resemble a dumpster can. Plastic bags (or garbage bags) can also be used to hold wet clothes if you get caught in the rain, go for a swim, etc.
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | Make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on spending some time by the beaches, rivers or lakes, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — they’re comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Waterproof Rain Jacket | A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Since these weigh virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer. My top recommendations are Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women).
- Puffy Jacket | You’re going to need layers in Northern California. The coastal California climate brings chilly evenings year-round, even on warm summer days. Fog can also roll in unexpectedly up here. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of outdoor adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Laundry Bag | Summer and outdoor activities = lots of sweaty, smelly, dirty, and worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire travel bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
- Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Sun protection is key for any outdoor destination. Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need when you’re hopping from a river or lake to a car. This one here is a great option.
- Travel Clothesline | This is a small and portable clothesline that allows you to hang up your wet clothes almost anywhere. I’ve found that it’s really handy whenever I have wet bathing suits or towels that need to be air-dried. I love it for its multi-purpose functionality!
- Dry Bag | Another multi-purpose item on the list! Dry bags are completely necessary for keeping your dry belongings (clothes, electronics, money, etc)… dry. Don’t set foot on a kayak, boat or canoe without putting your stuff in a dry bag. Trust me, it’s better than ending up with a phone or camera submerged in water in the case where the boat tips or something. It’s also super handy for carrying around wet bathing suits and towels. Or even doubling as your laundry bag!
- Insect Repellent Lotion | Mosquitos love hot and wet climates, so I would definitely recommend packing insect repellent with a high DEET percentage if you’re traveling in the summer and plan to be on the water. Sawyer makes some really great bug repellent products, and they’re travel-friendly too!
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Emergen-C packets or Liquid I.V. Hydration Packets | These are a great way to support your immune system and overall health on a road trip. They are light, take up no space, and are easy to pack.
- Headlamp / Flashlight | Being able to find your way through the wilderness or walk around a dark campground is essential, so you should always carry a light source with you, even if you don’t plan on staying out past sunset. An LED headlamp allows you to hike hands-free and is my preferred source of light. FYI, the flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great breweries and eateries… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
- Medications | Motion sickness pills for those windy roads, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, etc.
And that concludes this post! We hope that this post has inspired you to try something new! If you have any questions about the destinations or have your own travel tips to share, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below.