The Best Day Trips from San Francisco, California

The 15 Best Day Trips from San Francisco, California

There’s a lot to do in San Francisco. From the many attractions of Golden Gate Park to the incredible views at Lands End to the ever-stunning Palace of Fine Arts, it’s a city filled with culture, nature, and beauty.

But what if you want to escape city life for a day? Just outside of San Francisco, there are entire worlds to explore. From the laidback beach city that is Santa Cruz to the famous Napa Valley, there’s a great deal to explore in San Francisco’s backyard. Whether you want to spend the day relaxing on a beach, going on hikes to take in amazing views, or screaming on a roller coaster, there are day trips from San Francisco that will delight everyone.

Are you planning a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area? We’ve compiled a list of the best day trips from SF, some as short as under an hour’s drive away. Choose your next destination from this list, and you’ll have an incredible time exploring Northern and Central California.

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The 15 Best Day Trips From San Francisco

1. Sausalito

Day Trips from San Francisco: Sausalito

If you’re looking for one of the easiest day trips from SF, Sausalito is a perfect choice. Just a ferry ride or a half-hour drive over the Golden Gate Bridge away, Sausalito has long been a place that’s embraced the artistic spirit of its residents. There’s color everywhere you look in Sausalito, starting with the famous Richardson Bay houseboats.

Sausalito juxtaposes natural and humanmade beauty, allowing you to get the best of both worlds during your visit. Take in the views of San Francisco, Alcatraz, and Angel Island from the Bridgeway Promenade, then stop into the many art galleries that call this area home. Or take a kayaking tour or set out on a sailboat to get up close to the Golden Gate Bridge.

If you’re looking for a great place for a beach day, you can hardly beat Stinson Beach, known for its white sand and clear waters. Or, if you want to take in some views, visit the Marin Headlands and take a walk to the historic Point Bonita Lighthouse.


2. Monterey

Fun San Francisco Day Trips: Monterey Bay Aquarium

After just two hours of driving time, you could be in Monterey, one of the best day trips from SF. Once known as the “Sardine Capital of the World,” this seaside getaway is now a perfect place for outdoor excursions. 

Hop on a pedal boat and take a tour around El Estero Lake, go kayaking around Monterey Bay, join the throngs of scuba divers, or go whale-watching from Old Fisherman’s Wharf. From otters to sea lions to seals, there are many beautiful creatures that call this area home, and you’re bound to see quite a few as you explore Monterey.

No trip to Monterey would be complete without a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered one of the best aquariums in the world. Located on Cannery Row, this aquarium was built out of the remains of a once-bustling sardine cannery. It’s a historic location that can show you about Monterey’s past while also introducing you to the area’s conservation efforts that are focused on creating a better present and future.

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3. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Best Places to Visit near San Francisco: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is an idyllic seaside town near Monterey that looks like it popped out of a fairytale and makes for a great San Francisco day trip. In fact, some of the most famous sights in Carmel-by-the-Sea are the cottages that were designed to look just like the ones you’d see in storybooks! 

In 1924, Carmel resident Hugh Comstock built a cottage to house his wife’s dollmaking business. From there, he built 30 fairytale cottages, with more than 20 still standing today.

Art is at the heart of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and here, art takes many forms. You can tour around the area’s many art galleries or study the unique architecture of the fairytale cottages. But residents here also turn food and wine into an art form as well. While you’re on your day trip from San Francisco, consider taking the Carmel Wine Walk.

While beautiful art is all around you in Carmel, there’s also a great deal of natural beauty to explore. Spend a day on one of the scenic beaches, take the famous 17-Mile Drive, or visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, one of the best places to go scuba diving in the world thanks to its rich underwater habitat. 


4. Santa Cruz

Day Trips from San Francisco: Santa Cruz

With its laidback surfer vibes, Santa Cruz is one of the best places to go on a San Francisco day trip. Located about an hour and a half from the city by car, Santa Cruz is a true beach town. Spend the day exploring the area’s beaches, playing volleyball in the sand, or catching waves with the locals at Steamer Lane.

The most famous thing to do in Santa Cruz is visit its beloved Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Featured in movies like The Lost Boys and Us, this boardwalk has been entertaining families for generations. Here you’ll find mini-golf, arcades, carnival games, and funnel cakes the size of your head. 

There are rides for everyone, from the biggest thrill-seekers to little ones who want to give their first roller coaster a try. One ride that’s not to be missed is the Giant Dipper, which dates back to 1924. This wooden roller coaster is the boardwalk’s most iconic attraction.

While Santa Cruz is a popular destination for beachgoers, there are also plenty of hiking trails for those who would rather be in the trees than lying out on the sand. Check out 40 acres of old-growth redwoods at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. You could also take the Santa Cruz Beach Train courtesy of the Roaring Camp Railroads to see both the state park and the beach on one trip.


5. Sonoma

Fun San Francisco Day Trips: Sonoma
Images courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

Just an hour from San Francisco is one of California’s most famous wine countries, Sonoma. But there’s much more to Sonoma than wine tasting.

Sonoma is a cultural hub. No matter when you visit, there’s always something new to experience. Planning a San Francisco day trip in March? See works from up-and-coming actors and directors at the Sonoma International Film Festival. Visiting in June? Check out Taste of Sonoma, where you’ll sample all things food and wine.

But if you’re visiting Sonoma for its famous wineries, give the Sonoma Valley Wine Trolley a try. This six-hour tour is unlike any other. Inspired by San Francisco’s beloved cable cars, you’ll head out from Sonoma Plaza to be whisked off to three unique Sonoma Valley wineries.

Along the way, you’ll take in incredible views, learn about local history, and sip and zip from winery to winery. It’s a great way to safely enjoy wine tasting, as driving between wineries is a much less safe option. 

Or you can book a tour that picks you up right in San Francisco and takes you to the wineries. That way, you don’t have to worry about driving at all! 


6. Half Moon Bay

Day Trips from San Francisco: Half Moon Bay

Looking for a coastal getaway that’s not too far from San Francisco? Half Moon Bay offers one of the best San Francisco day tours because it’s less than an hour’s drive away. Depending on the season, you may get a very different experience, so you may end up visiting multiple times throughout the year.

In the summer, hit the beach. If you’re looking for a family-friendly beach day, try Pomponio State Beach. Looking for a good surfing spot? Hit up Mavericks Beach, nearby Pillar Point Harbor. For some tide-pooling, check out Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

Come fall, Half Moon Bay transforms from a beach destination to a pumpkin party. If you want to go pumpkin-picking, there are few places better to go than Half Moon Bay. In mid-October, you’ll find the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival, featuring tons of family-friendly entertainment, including the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off.

Outside of the festival, you can also check out local farms, like Lemos Farm. In addition to their pumpkin patch, you’ll also find fairground rides, pony rides, and even goat yoga at this popular farm.


7. Big Sur

Cool Places to Visit near San Francisco: Big Sur

Taking the three-hour drive to Big Sur is easily one of the best day trips from SF. Offering one of the most scenic drives in the US, let alone California, this day trip may end up taking longer than you expect because you’ll keep wanting to stop to take photos. 

Once you hit Big Sur, there’s even more beauty to behold. Check out the Bixby Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in California. Visit the 80-foot McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, or see the redwoods at Limekiln State Park. To see a true natural wonder, walk along the purple sand of Pfeiffer Beach, which gets its color from manganese garnet.

Keep heading farther south to visit San Simeon, where you’ll find even more to do. See and hear the thousands of elephant seals that call the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery home. Or visit the famous Hearst Castle, a massive estate conceived by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.


8. Morro Bay

Quick Getaway from San Francisco: Morro Bay

Located just about a four-hour drive from San Francisco, Morro Bay is a seaside destination that’s worth a visit. Just look for the iconic Morro Rock, where you’ll also want to take a walk around to look for otters. 

You’ll likely see a great deal of wildlife throughout your visit to Morro Bay. Rent a kayak or take a guided tour, and you’re bound to see otters napping in the kelp or looking for their next meal. While you take a stroll around Morro Rock, keep your eyes peeled for peregrine falcons, as the famous rock is actually a designated bird sanctuary for them and other birds.

Speaking of bird-watching, you’ll find even more at the Morro Bay State Park, which boasts the Heron Rookery Natural Preserve, where you’ll see birds like the great blue herons and double-crested cormorants between February and June. To learn more about the unique wildlife, geology, and oceanography in Morro Bay, visit the Museum of Natural History, also located in the Morro Bay State Park. 


9. Pinnacles National Park

Fun San Francisco Day Trips: Pinnacles National Park

About two and a half hours from San Francisco by car is Pinnacles National Park. As one of the newer national parks, only established in 2013, Pinnacles often gets overlooked in favor of the larger and older national parks in California, like Death Valley National Park. But Pinnacles National Park makes for one of the best San Francisco day trips, thanks to its unique geological formations and exploration opportunities. 

Pinnacles National Park’s namesake formations are actually the eroded remains of a volcanic eruption that took place 23 million years ago. From exploring caves to rock climbing, this national park and its spectacular landscape are an adventurer’s dream.

What makes this national park even more unique is that it’s one of the release sites for the California Condor Restoration Project. It’s one of the few places where you’ll see these stunning creatures in the wild.

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10. Napa Valley

Day Trips from San Francisco: Napa Valley

If you’re a wine connoisseur, there are few better San Francisco day trip options than Napa Valley. Napa has been considered one of the best wine regions in the world since 1976, when two Napa wineries beat out two famous French wines in a blind-tasting competition. 

At the time, wine professionals outside of France weren’t taken very seriously, and the judges and competitors scoffed at the idea of a California wine winning both categories. But since then, Napa has maintained its title as the best wine region in the US and one of the top wine regions in the world.

Napa Valley is now home to more than 400 wineries. If you drive to Napa, you should only go winery hopping if you have a designated driver, but luckily, Napa offers many tour options for wine tasting throughout the region, including the famous Napa Valley Wine Train

Or take a tour that picks you up right in San Francisco, so you don’t have to worry about your car at all. You can also take an all-day tour that will allow you to visit both Napa and Sonoma.

But there’s more to do in Napa beyond its internationally-recognized wineries. Kayak down the Napa River, take a hot air balloon ride, or soak in the hot springs in Calistoga! 


11. Muir Woods National Monument

Best San Francisco Day Trips: Muir Woods National Monument

Located in Marin County and a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument offers one of the best day trips from SF if you want to see California’s famous redwood trees. Muir Woods National Monument is located just under an hour’s drive from San Francisco. 

But there are also several tour options that will take you to see the redwoods, including ones that also add in time at other popular day-trip destinations, like Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley. This type of tour may be ideal, as you may find that you’ll still have several hours to spare in the day after you’ve spent some time exploring Muir Woods. 

Or, if you just want to include Muir Woods and Sausalito in your day trip but don’t feel like driving, you can take the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito and then take the Muir Woods Shuttle from there to the national monument. The shuttle also is available from Marin City. 

The main attraction in Muir Woods is its old-growth redwood trees. There are several trails to explore, from shorter ones that allow you to see the famous trees to longer ones that will also give you ocean views. If you want to learn more about this enchanting location, be sure to pop into the park ranger’s daily Tree Talk presentations or take a guided tour. 

One spot you should make sure you hike to is the spiritual Cathedral Grove. This area asks you to enter in silence, allowing you and your fellow hikers to be one with nature. 


12. Lake Tahoe

Cool Places to Visit near San Francisco: Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is where many Bay Area skiers and snowboarders spend their winters. The area is famous for its winter sports. There are tons of ski resorts to visit, from the upscale Heavenly Ski Resort, offering tons of entertainment in addition to slopes for all levels of experience, to Kirkwood Mountain Resort, where the most experienced of skiers come to play. 

If you’re not a skier, you’ll still find that there’s plenty to do in Tahoe in the winter, from sleigh rides to snowshoe tours. But there’s a great deal to do in Lake Tahoe outside of the snowy season.

Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America, and it’s surrounded by massive mountains and lush green forests. Take a boat cruise out on the water to see the beautiful deep green waters of Emerald Bay, spend a day at the lake’s many beaches, take in the views from the area’s picturesque trails, go parasailing, or even take a unique hot air balloon tour over the lake! 

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13. Point Reyes National Seashore

Day Trips from San Francisco: Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore, located about an hour and a half from San Francisco by car, is more than an amazing summer day trip from SF. Yes, there are over 80 miles of shoreline, making for several beautiful beaches. But despite its name, you likely won’t want to spend the day here just basking in the sun. Instead, you’ll want to hit the trails.

Bring sturdy shoes and a sense of adventure here. The best trails tend to be the longer ones, like the Tomales Point Trail, a 9.4-mile round-trip hike where you’ll see ocean views and many beautiful creatures that call this area home. 

Or visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can see the lighthouse from the Visitor Center, but if it’s open, you can also climb down the 313 steps to get an up-close look at it.


14. Bodega Bay

Fun San Francisco Day Trips: Bodega Bay

Just about an hour and a half away from San Francisco by car is the laidback oasis of Bodega Bay. This place offers one of the best San Francisco day trips if you want to take it easy and just enjoy a natural wonderland. 

The small village of Bodega Bay is filled with quaint shops, mom-and-pop-owned restaurants, and art galleries showcasing local talent. Spend some time perusing these spots while meeting the locals! 

If you’re looking for natural beauty, you’ll find it in spades at Bodega Bay. Stroll along the sand or fly a kite at Doran Regional Park. If you want to spend your day in the water, take a surfing lesson with Bodega Bay Surf Shack or rent a kayak from Bodega Bay Kayak. You can also take in the views from the hiking trails or explore on horseback with a guided trail ride from one of the local stables.


15. Mount Tamalpais State Park

Quick Getaway from San Francisco: Mount Tamalpais State Park

Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Tamalpais is just under an hour’s drive away from San Francisco. Rising out from the heart of Marin County, Mount Tamalpais stretches into the sky to reach a massive 2,500 feet, offering you one of the most incredible views of the San Francisco Bay and beyond. You’ll see the Marin County hills, Mount Diablo, and, on rare occasions, even the Sierra Nevada Mountains over 150 miles away.

Mount Tamalpais State Park is filled with diverse areas to explore, from redwood forests to oak woodlands to open grasslands. You could easily spend an afternoon hiking around and taking in the views, stopping only to have a picnic and fuel up for more adventuring.  

Or you can visit the Gravity Car Barn, where they’re preserving the history of the Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway. For more history, check out the “Mountain Play” at the Mountain Theater, a Bay Area tradition that’s been going on for nearly a century. The Mountain Theater also hosts the Sound Summitt, a music and arts festival that’s held every summer.

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There you have it! The 15 best day trips from San Francisco. What’s your favorite San Francisco day trip? Let us know in the comments!


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About the Author:

  • Jacqueline Gualtieri

    Jacqueline is a writer and editor pursuing the freelance life to explore the world. Born and raised in New Jersey, she spent her college years in Boston before settling down with her partner and puppy in Monterey, California.

    When she’s not writing, you can often find her planning her next trip. Road trips are her favorite, whether it’s driving across the country or simply exploring a new city in her own backyard. She loves uncovering the history of every new place she goes.

    Jacqueline has a restless passion for learning and makes it a goal to pick up a new skill every year. She’s picked up embroidery, crocheting, knitting, and cross-stitching, but she’s hoping to master more languages to help her in her travels. She’s also a published author, with short stories and poetry appearing in several anthologies.

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