Are you heading to Northern California for vacation and looking to venture beyond the city limits of San Francisco? Or a local who is looking for a long weekend getaway? Either the way, you’re in luck. The Bay Area is within driving distance of many incredible attractions. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. Yosemite National Park
I’ve written in depth about Yosemite before, and this isn’t just one of my favorite weekend trips from the Bay Area, it’s one of my favorite places in the world. This is one of the most popular National Parks in the US, so I’d recommend avoiding holiday weekends (especially Memorial Day through Labor Day). If you can arrange it so that you’re here during the week, you’ll find it to be a much calmer and more peaceful place. Even if you have to fight the weekend crowds, however, Yosemite’s beauty is worth it.
In spring, you can admire some of the most magnificent waterfalls in the US.
In any season, the view from Glacier Point is stunning (and for hikers, the Four Mile Trail up here is a great workout). Seeing a sunset from here is on my list for my next trip.
No visit to Yosemite is complete without a stop at Tunnel View, a famous spot with a spectacular view of Yosemite Valley.
2. Lake Tahoe
One of my biggest regrets about my years in California is not spending more time near Lake Tahoe. If I ever make it back to the Bay Area for an extended period of time, a long weekend here will be at the top of my to-do list. Tahoe is famous as a ski and snowboarding destination in the winter, and a place for swimming, boating, and stand-up paddle-boarding in the summer. In the shoulder seasons, many of these activities aren’t available, but you can still enjoy hiking around the lake and admiring its gorgeous, brilliantly blue waters. The combination of Lake Tahoe’s crystal clear water and its mountainous backdrop is simply stunning.
3. Channel Islands National Park
I think Channel Islands is the hardest National Park in the lower 48 to get to, but it’s worth the trek. From Ventura, California (about 30 minutes south of Santa Barbara, a charming, laid-back city worth visiting in its own right), you take a boat operated by a company called Island Packers. Adventurous people can camp overnight, but most just visit for the day. Even to Anacapa Island, the closest of the five Channel Islands to the mainland, it’s a fairly long (more than an hour) and rough trip over there. I definitely recommend seasickness medication.
If you go in spring (February – April) you’ll see the islands covered in wildflowers. May is seagull hatching season, which means there are fluffy baby seagulls everywhere.
The highlight of Anacapa Island for me was the short walk to Inspiration Point, where you have an incredible view of other parts of Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island, another of the Channel Islands.
4. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
This is a “two for the price of one” journey, since these two National Parks are contiguous and can easily be seen together. For tall trees, it doesn’t get better than Sequoia, which is home to the world’s largest tree by volume (the massive General Sherman) and many other giants.
Although the trees are the main draw in Sequoia, a climb to the top of Moro Rock is a must for the panoramic views of the park.
Kings Canyon has a lot of Sierra Nevada scenery that’s fairly similar to Yosemite. Although there’s nothing quite as jaw-dropping as Tunnel View or Glacier Point here, it’s much less crowded than its northern neighbor, and the views of the high Sierras are certainly impressive. While hiking in Zumwalt Meadow, I could have sworn we were in Yosemite Valley.
Although much of it is not technically in the park, driving the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is a must-do.
These two parks are also a great place to see wildlife. Deer are all over the place and black bear sightings are common too.
5. Mendocino County
In my opinion, Mendocino County has some of the prettiest coastline in all of California, and despite its beauty, it’s one of the less touristy corners of the state, making it the perfect place to go when you want to get away from it all. If getting to all of the US National Parks is on your bucket list, you can continue on to neighboring Humboldt County and check out Redwoods National Park. If you’re not into checking off lists, however, you might as well just stay in Mendocino, which has redwoods that are every bit as impressive as the ones in the park. In particular, State Route 128 between Highway 1 and Highway 101 has some really lovely tree-lined areas. A large stretch of SR 128 is known as the Wine Road, thanks to its rolling vineyards and densely packed wineries. It’s a lot like Napa, but without the crowds – and with much lower tasting fees.