In an incomparable setting of rolling hills overlooking a sparkling emerald bay, San Francisco is close to some of California’s most beautiful coastal towns and natural areas. There are so many fantastic destinations within easy reach north, south and east of San Francisco, from a 30-minute drive up the coast to a four-hour drive to Yosemite that are well worth the travel time.
Sun worshipers can head south for a day to the fun town of Santa Cruz at the historic Beach Boardwalk amusement park. Romantics will love the charming town of Carmel, with its storybook cottages and beautiful sandy beach. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy Marin County’s hiking trails at Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, and Mount Tamalpais. In Half Moon Bay and Pescadero, the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean and an idyllic, pastoral landscape provide relaxation. For those seeking culture, the college town of Berkeley offers award-winning theater, gourmet dining, and a vibrant collegiate atmosphere. One of the most unforgettable excursions is the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito, a picture-perfect waterfront community that resembles a Mediterranean fishing village.
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Yosemite National Park
Yosemite’s majestic beauty has amazed everyone from 19th-century landscape painters to renowned photographer Ansel Adams and naturalist John Muir, who described this incredible place “where nature can heal and exult and give strength to body and soul.” A beautiful corner of the High Sierra mountains, Yosemite Valley has scenery so sublime that it is a wonder to imagine that nature inadvertently created the landscape. During the last ice age, retreating glaciers carved granite monoliths with sheer rock walls that encircle the seven-mile Yosemite Valley. The awe-inspiring scenery is a world unto itself, with beautiful surprises like 1,000 foot waterfalls, crystalline lakes, flower-covered meadows and old-growth redwood forests. This pristine wilderness is home to over 250 bird species, black bears, coyotes, squirrels, endangered bighorn sheep, and other wildlife.
With 750 miles of nature trails in six different UNESCO-listed areas , 1,200 square miles of Yosemite National Park is brimming with opportunities for outdoor activities, especially hiking on the spectacular trails. Other things to do at Yosemite include birdwatching , horseback riding, more fishingall year round, fishing on the river from April to November, and skiing in the winter. Those who want to camp can choose from 15 campsites (including two backcountry campsites). For rock climbers, Yosemite challenges with its epic climbs from 3,000 to nearly 5,000 feet on the legendary El Capitan and Half Dome bluffs. If relaxation is more of a priority than adventure, picnicking and photography can allow visitors to take in the scenery at a slower pace. Yosemite is nearly 200 miles from San Francisco, a long drive (about four hours round trip) for a day trip. Many tourists love spending a few nights at one of Yosemite’s top-rated campgrounds or in a cozy, rustic lodge.
2 Seaside Charm in Carmel en Monterey
Monterey and Carmel can claim to have the best of both worlds: old-world European style and the rugged beauty of the Northern California coast. Located along beautiful Carmel Bay , the beach town of Carmel (120 miles south of San Francisco) is one of California’s most romantic getaway destinations. Carmel Beach is prized for its soft white sandy sand surrounded by windswept cypress trees. The town itself is an attraction, for its fairytale cottages , luxury art galleries, cute little boutiques and sophisticated restaurants. Plus tourists can choose from a wide variety of bed-and-breakfasts and luxury hotels.
Less touristy and more urban in nature, the coastal city of Monterey (115 miles south of San Francisco) is famous for its historic Cannery Row . This waterfront fishing district was the inspiration for the colorful stories in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row . Another top destination is the Monterey Aquarium , especially loved by kids, who love seeing the incredible marine life, penguins and otters.
A must-see when visiting Carmel and Monterey is the stretch of California’s first freeway Highway 1 between the two cities, known as the 17-Mile Drive . Along the way are several glorious viewpoints and must-see natural areas, including the Punt Lobos Nature Reserve , Bird Rock Vista Point, and the iconic Lone Cypress tree. Also on this route are the prestigious Pebble Beach golf courses . Because there is so much to see, many tourists appreciate a guided tour. A recommendation is a full-day tour of Monterey, Carmel, and 17-Mile Drive from San Francisco, with stops in Monterey at the Cannery Row and aquarium, and continues on the 17-Mile Drive to Carmel.
3 Santa Cruz on the strand promenade
Just 70 miles south (a two-hour drive) of San Francisco on picturesque Monterey Bay is a sultry beach town playground with a carefree vibe. Santa Cruz attracts many visitors in the summer to the historic Strandpromenade theme park. Fronting the Beach Boardwalk is Main Beach (also known as Boardwalk Beach), a wide shoreline with shallow waters ideal for swimming, body boarding and paddle boarding. The Main Beach is also a great place to sunbathe, build sand castles and play beach volleyball. More remote beaches, such as Sunset State Beach and Natural Bridges Beach offer peace and serenity. Surfers go to Cowell Beach , or if they are really experienced, toManresa beach, with an impressive swell that only the best wave riders can handle. Other top attractions include the Santa Cruz Mission , built in the late 18th century by Spanish missionaries; downtown for shopping and dining; and the Fishing Pier for sea lion spotting, fishing or dining at a seafood restaurant. A fun activity for families with children is the Roaring Camp Railroad . This old-fashioned steam train takes passengers on a thrilling ride through the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
4 Sausalito: marinas and beautiful walks
Take a scenic ferry ride from the San Francisco Ferry House to the pretty coastal town of Sausalito in Marin County. This 30 minute boat trip has been called one of the most exciting ferry trips in the world. It offers sensational views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Angel Island before arriving at the quiet harbor of Sausalito. Sheltered from the fog by the rolling hills of the Marin Headlands, Sausalito has pleasantly sunny weather and a landscape that resembles a Mediterranean fishing village. Visitors will enjoy spending a leisurely afternoon strolling through the historic downtown areaof Sausalito, an inviting place for window shopping and waterfront dining. The quaint, Victorian-era pastel buildings are filled with interesting boutiques, art galleries, ice cream parlors, cafes and restaurants. Another highlight is the Bay Walkway with views of the marinas and San Francisco skyline.
5 University Town of Berkeley
This celebrated university town is an interesting destination for a day trip. Stroll through the majestic campus, perched on a hilltop overlooking the bay. The idyllic 178-acre campus is nestled in a lush, wooded hillside shaded by redwood trees. Adding to the tranquility is the babbling Strawberry Creek. Impressive classical buildings house the university’s classrooms, libraries and research centers. Be sure to visit Sather Tower and climb to the top for fantastic views of San Francisco Bay. Tourists can also pretend to be an undergrad at Bancroft Library or check out the bustling Sproul Plazato get a sense of student life. To see where students hang out off campus, check out Telegraph Avenue . This legendary street reveals the legacy of Berkeley’s bohemian counterculture. Browse the bookstore or stop for an affordable meal. Berkeley is also known for its culture, theater and foodie scene. Visitors can watch a Pulitzer-Prize-winning show and then have a memorable meal at one of the excellent restaurants in the Gourmet Ghetto . Other top attractions include the Botanical Garden ; the sprawling Tilden Park , with its lake, small farm, golf course, steam train ride, and Merry-Go-Round; and the Lawrence Hall of Science .
6 Hiking trails Muir Woods and Muir Beach
Escape to nature within a short drive from San Francisco to Muir Woods National Monument . This federally protected forest is located 16 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County . The drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, along Highway 101 and then on winding country roads takes about 45 minutes. Muir Woods is one of the last remaining redwood forests in Northern California and is valued for its beautiful old-growth coastal redwood trees. Hikers will be delighted by the shaded trails that wind through fern-clad creek banks and redwood canopies. The landscape also features fragrant bay leaves and seasonal wildflowers. Muir Woods has a well-groomed 3-mile loop trail, as well as smaller loop hikes.
It is possible to take another 3-mile distance from Muir Woods down to the Pacific Ocean at Muir Beach . This sandy beach offers camping and picnic areas. Nearby is the Pelican Inn , where you can grab a hearty meal of authentic English country cooking before taking the hike to Muir Woods.
Due to the crowds and limited space, the Muir Woods National Monument requires visitors to book in advance for paid parking or for a shuttle bus ride. Many tourists find it easier to leave the driving and parking for a guide. A recommendation is a Muir Woods, Giant Redwoods and Sausalito Half Day Trip departing from San Francisco.
7 Half Moon Bay’s countryside and beaches
Head to a rural retreat in the rolling farmlands of the Pacific Ocean. The small town of Half Moon Bay is located 30 miles south of San Francisco. Although it’s close to town, Half Moon Bay has a charming country feel.Pumpkin patches, farms, and vegetable farms cover the slopes that slope down to the beach. Spectacular sandy beaches stretch for miles along the coast of Half Moon Bay. Many visitors come to take nature walks along the shoreline, while wetsuit-wearing surfers brave the icy waters and powerful waves. Surfing competitions are held at Mavericks Beach when the conditions are right . Other outdoor activities include hiking, fishing, horse riding and bird watching. The historic downtownof Half Moon Bay has many unique local shops and excellent restaurants, which make a day trip even more enjoyable. A favorite time of year for locals to visit Half Moon Bay is in October for pumpkin picking and for the Pumpkin Festival in mid-October.
8 Stinson Beach en Dipsea Trail Hike
On sunny days, Stinson Beach is a popular day trip destination for Marin County , 14 miles north of San Francisco (allow at least an hour by car). This dreamy beach community is just six miles north of Muir Beach, although it can take 30 to 45 minutes (in traffic) to get from Muir Beach to Stinson Beach, as this portion of the route is a winding two-lane road that hugs the shoreline and traverses the Steep Ravine Canyon. The drive requires concentration on the switchbacks, but it’s rewarded with a hit of ocean vistas , and it seems worth the effort to see the little piece of paradise in Stinson Beach.
Protected by the hillside, the 3.5-mile stretch of sand at Stinson Beach is ideal for sunbathing, jogging, windsurfing, beach volleyball and picnicking. Swimming is possible, but not always recommended. Sometimes the ocean has dangerous rip currents and is usually too cold for swimming, except on the hottest days of the year. Surfers and bodyboarders ride the waves in wetsuits. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, lifeguards patrol the beach. (Check with lifeguards about safety before entering the water for a swim.) Next to the beach is a shaded area with picnic tables and barbecue grills, as well as restrooms and shower facilities. The town has a supermarket, where visitors can buy picnic products. Tourists can also choose from several seafront cafes and restaurants that serve casual meals on sunny patios. During peak season, it’s best to start the drive as early as possible in the morning to avoid traffic and to find a parking spot at Stinson Beach (the lot fills up quickly on weekends and in the summer).
For those who enjoy invigorating outdoor activities and inspiring coastal scenery, the Dipsea Trail is a wonderful all-day walk with spectacular views. The seven-mile trail begins at Muir Woods National Monument, traverses the forest and Redwood Creek, then descends 2,300 feet down the Steep Ravine to Stinson Beach. The trail includes steep steps that are challenging, but the journey rewards hikers with breathtaking ocean vistas. To complete the 14-mile round trip, you’ll need to take a brisk uphill hike to Muir Woods. Hiking Hints: Dress in layers and wear shoes with good traction to avoid slipping on the stairs. Parts of the trail are exposed to the strong midday sun, so a visor and other sun protection is recommended. Watch out for poison oak growing on the side of the trail. Bring bottled water and packed lunch for a picnic on Stinson Beach.
9 Filoli Estate
The Filoli Estate is a hidden gem 30 miles south of San Francisco, tucked away in a rural landscape with the densely forested Santa Cruz Mountains as a backdrop. The elegant Georgian style mansion, registered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has a 54,000 square foot interior decorated with fine paintings and antiques. William Bowers Bourn II, owner of Empire Gold Mine in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, built the Filoli residence between 1915 and 1917. Surrounded by green rolling hills, the pristine 654-acre estate overlooks Crystal Springs Reservoir. Bourn chose this location because the lake reminded him of Muckross, the estate in Ireland he bought for his daughter as a wedding present. With a grandeur that ranks as one of the finest estates in Europe, Filoli features refined architecture, lavish rooms and beautiful grounds that have made it a top choice for movie sets; the house was depicted Dynasty ,Heaven Can Wait , and George of the Jungle among other movies.
A highlight of the visit to Filoli is a stroll through the beautiful 16-acre English Renaissance Formal Garden , landscaped with immaculately manicured hedges, terraces, decorative pools, fountains and an extensive rose garden. The pleasant walkways and side borders of the garden invite visitors to admire the ever-changing collection of seasonal plants and flowers, from pastel colored tulips in early spring to rare varieties of roses in summer and richly hued chrysanthemums in autumn.
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The Filoli estate also features a 10-acre orchard with 150 heirloom fruit trees and a 528-acre nature preserve consisting of woods, redwoods, a pond, and grasslands. Within the Filoli Nature Preserve is a walking trail of twenty-two trails that are only accessible to visitors on docent-led walks, but visitors can take self-guided walks on the Estate Trail Nature Preserve’s 1-mile loop . Throughout the year, Filoli hosts special events, such as art exhibitions, afternoon tea , summer jazz concerts , an annual flower show, the Autumn Festival in September, and holiday festivitiesfrom mid-November to December.
Adres: 86 Canada Road, Woodside
10 Mount Tamalpais
Just 22 miles north of San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais State Park delights nature lovers with a 60-mile network of park-like trails. The hiking trails meander through refreshing redwood groves and oak forests with views of deep canyons, wooded hills and sweeping grasslands. Those looking for a challenge can hike to the top at 2,571 feet for breathtaking views . On a clear day, the prospect extends all the way to the Farallon Islands, 25 miles out into the Pacific Ocean, as well as to San Francisco and across the San Francisco Bay to the cities of Berkeley and Oakland. Mountain bikers can enjoy the versatile trails as well as the uphill trail to the top of Mount Tamalpais for recreational cycling.
Mount Tamalpais is a place of outstanding natural beauty all year round. During the rainy season (October to March), bubbling creeks and rushing waterfalls add to the peaceful surroundings. From February to May, vibrant wildflowers bloom in the park. Whale watching is possible during the migration season, from November to April. For a little culture in nature, the Berg Theater opens for performances on weekends in May and June. Another fun thing to do on hot summer days is have lunch in the shade of the park’s picnic areas . For the views, the East Peak Summit Picnic Area stuns with its 360-degree panoramas.
11 Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve
About 15 miles south of Half Moon Bay and 45 miles south of San Francisco, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve offers access to pristine wildlife and wonderful bird watching. At the confluence of the Butano Creek and the Pescadero Creek, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve is a 235-acre wetland with a tidal estuary and freshwater marsh. More than 200 species of birds find refuge in the marsh, including the great blue heron and double-crested cormorants. The Pescadero Swamp is also home to endangered species such as the California red-legged frog, San Francisco garter snake, trout trout, and Coho salmon. Hikers can explore the nature reserve by following one of four trails. For avid birdwatchers, theSequoia Audubon Trail , a 2.5-mile round-trip hike, is a good choice. Some visitors bring binoculars for a close-up view of egrets, ducks, herons, and other species. To learn more about the marsh’s natural environment and flora and fauna, visitors can take two hours of guided walking tours on the first Sunday of each month at 10 a.m. and the third Sunday of each month at 1 p.m., weather permitting it allows.
Across the highway from the preserve, accessible by a pedestrian walkway, is Pescadero State Beach . This mile-long coastline has a pristine beach, sandy coves, tide pools and areas for fishing. Facilities include picnic tables and a restroom. The small country town of Pescadero is about 2 miles from the beach and has a supermarket, small boutiques and a quirky local café. A popular spot in town is Duarte’s restaurant , a Pescadero institution known for its artichoke soup and homemade pies.
12 Angel Island
Travelers can escape to a remote, uninhabited island across the San Francisco Bay. Angel Island is a state park accessible by a 30-minute ferry ride from Pier 41 in San Francisco or a 10-minute ferry ride from Tiburon. Angel Island State Park opens at 8 a.m. and closes daily at sunset. A place of serene beauty by the sea, Angel Island has over 13 miles of scenic hiking trails , ranging from moderate to advanced, as well as nine miles of biking trails. Visitors can rent bicycles once they arrive on the island. The highest point on Angel Island is Mount Livermore at 788 feet, which rewards hikers with panoramic views of San Francisco and the Bay, the Marin Headlands, and Mount Tamalpais. The island’s amenities include a visitor’s center , public restrooms, an outdoor cafe near the dock, boating docks for use during the day or night, camping sites with restrooms, and multiple picnic areas with tables, barbecue pits, and running water.
For those who start the day early, it may be possible to also spend time in Tiburon , where the Angel Island ferry departs. (Please note the ferry timetable.) This charming seaside town has picturesque marinas and a quaint downtown area. The pretty main street is full of boutiques, cafes and restaurants. On weekends, locals enjoy brunch at waterfront restaurants with sunny terraces overlooking San Francisco Bay. If you are arriving by car, it is also worth visiting the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary for bird watching and the Tiburon Ridge Trail for hiking and biking.
13 Trione-Annadel State Park in Sonoma County
Explore the beautiful scenery of Annadel Park, located 60 kilometers north of San Francisco (about 1.5 hours away) in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County. The park features several miles of trails for hiking or mountain biking around beautiful Lake Ilsanjo and through fields of vibrant wildflowers. The best time to see most wildflowers is in April and May, but some flowers can be seen from January to September. Fishing in the lake is permitted with a permit. A convenient site to visit, the park has restrooms, drinking fountains and picnic areas.
14 Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve
The Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve is just 17 miles from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge in the East Bay. The drive takes only 35 minutes without traffic, although bridge traffic can easily add an extra 20 to 30 minutes. Native huckleberry plants thrive on the 241-acre preserve, which offers ideal soil conditions and a cool climate tempered by coastal fog. Within the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, the Huckleberry Self-Guided Nature Path is a 1.7-mile looping hiking trail that traverses mostly shaded terrain, including a laurel grove. (Stay on the upper trail for a more moderate hike.) Visitors are allowed to pick berries from blueberry plants along the trail.