The San Francisco Bay Area is an incredible place to explore. Here is a list of easy day trips from San Francisco which you can do solo or with family and friends. A change of scene, smell, and sound along with unhurried conversations will be your reward if you embark on any of these journeys. Let your everyday anxiety and stress ebb away. Replace your Twitter and Instagram feed with refreshing lush greenery, blue-robbed ocean, postcard-perfect small towns, the old charm of historic places, or gardens with hundreds of blooming flowers. Which one would you choose? The list is mine and the choice is yours. Embark. Explore. Enjoy. Experience.The San Francisco Bay Area is an incredible place to explore. Here is a list of easy day trips from San Francisco which you can do solo or with family and friends. #SanFrancisco #California Click To Tweet
1. Pinnacles National Park – A wonderful day trip from San Francisco
Distance – 123 miles | Driving time – 2h 10min | Recommended duration – Full day
Choose wilderness whenever possible – that’s my rule of thumb in this digital era. A two-hour drive from San Francisco will transport you to a completely different world. You will step into silence and stillness. The Pinnacles National Park is a small national park, but it sure packs a punch with its beautiful landscape and diverse flora and fauna. Spend some time sitting beside a beautiful stream located a few miles from the east entrance visitor center. Then go for a hike. You can choose to do rock-climbing or just take out your binoculars and watch beautiful birds all around. If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the California Condor. Pick an activity that suits your mood. Also, enjoy a picnic under a tree. I have visited Pinnacles many times and loved being there every time. I love hiking till the Bear Gulch cave on the, you guessed it, Bear Gulch trail. You can choose a different trail from easy, moderate, and strenuous ones. Also, don’t forget to stop at the visitor center and buy a souvenir for your memories. A trip to Pinnacles is one of the best day trips from San Francisco to refresh in the wilderness.
Wilderness is a necessity there must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls.John Muir
2. Saratoga – An easy day trip from San Francisco
Distance – 49.3 miles | Driving time – 1h 5min | Recommended duration – Full day
Start with the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga. It is one of my favorite places in the Bay Area to unwind. Every time I meander through its beautiful tapestry of formal and informal gardens, I get transported to a romantic realm. So, take out your camera and slowly walk around the gardens and the ground. You will get to see many picturesque locations while walking. The Spanish Courtyard, Italianate Garden, Love Temple, and Great Lawn are all great locations for some beautiful photographs. Beautiful sculptures, art installations are here almost year-round and inspire one’s creative spirit and provide food for thoughts. Once you have savored the gardens and the ground of the Montalvo Arts Center, choose a trail and go for a hike. In the Montalvo Arts Center, you will get ample opportunities to connect with nature’s majesty. After a hike drive to Saratoga Village for a sumptuous lunch in one of its many high-quality restaurants; Pasta Armellino is one of my favorites to get a dose of La Dolce Vita. If you are wondering what to do after lunch then don’t worry. You can spend a couple of lazy afternoon hours strolling through the Japanese garden in Hakone Estate and Gardens. This Japanese garden is a hidden gem; a peaceful place, perfect for a quiet walk, photography, and conversation. An easy and fulfilling day trip to beautiful Saratoga will surely rejuvenate you!
The Japanese garden is a very important tool in Japanese architectural design because, not only is a garden traditionally included in any house design, the garden itself also reflects a deeper set of cultural meanings and traditions. Whereas the English garden seeks to make only an aesthetic impression, the Japanese garden is both aesthetic and reflective. The most basic element of any Japanese garden design comes from the realization that every detail has a significant value.E. J. W. Barber
3. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Distance – 124.5 miles | Driving time – 2h | Recommended duration – Full day
Among all of California’s 280 state parks, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve has often been called the “crown jewel of the State Park System”. Select a sunny day and go for a hike. It offers a wild, majestic landscape laced with 14 meandering trails. If you choose a trail along the shoreline as I did, you will get to see innumerable seabirds along the way. The soothing serenity here will nourish the painter, poet, or photographer in you. If you want to spice up the day with some adventure, then go for scuba diving. The sea near Point Lobos is considered to be one of the richest underwater habitats in the world. Don’t miss seeing the Whalers cove, a small cabin built by Chinese fishermen which is now a cultural history museum.
4. Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton
Distance – 70.4 miles | Driving time – 1h 43 min | Recommended duration – 3 hrs
After your daily work, have you ever looked up and got lost in the beauty of the moon or the immense night sky? I am sure you have. So, plan a drive to Lick observatory, which is the world’s first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory. Come here and get lost in the world of cosmos through its various exhibits. Listen to a short informal talk about Lick history while taking a look at the Great Lick Refractor in the 36-inch telescope dome for free. Also, don’t forget to take a short walk to the Shane Dome to view the 120-inch Reflector. The Shane reflector is one of the major telescopes used to discover extrasolar planets. Enjoy a cup of coffee in the adjacent garden and enjoy the view of the Santa Clara Valley from the parking lot at 4,209 feet.
Astronomy compels the soul to look upward, and leads us from this world to another.Plato
5. Oakland – An easy day trip from San Francisco
Distance – 13.3 miles | Driving time – 24 min | Recommended duration – Full day
Lake Merritt and its surroundings are perfect for a leisurely stroll on a weekend. I often visit Lake Merritt especially around sunset for some beautiful sunset photographs. The reflection of the buildings, trees, and boats look stunning during the golden hour. But that doesn’t mean you have nothing else to do during the day.
Visit the adjacent Bonsai garden and spend some time savoring the beauty and diversity of these tiny plants.
Then visit the Oakland Museum of California to know the history of California and how it has evolved. It is the best museum on California by far, and you will be humbled and proud to know about how much influence it has had on the world! Don’t forget to check out the museum shop for some pretty cool souvenirs.
After exploring the museum, visit The Cathedral of Christ the Light, and see the digital Jesus inside the church. It is only appropriate that such a beautiful fusion of old faith and modern technology exists so close to the Silicon Valley!
6. Gilroy Gardens and Mount Madonna
Distance – 80.5 miles | Driving time – 1 hr 31 min | Recommended duration – Full day
Gilroy Gardens is a garden themed family theme park. The park has 22 rides and 5 attractions and is perfect for some fun and run for the little ones and the whole family. Don’t miss Axel Erlandson’s Circus Trees and a train ride through the garden!
When I visited this garden, I saw the beautiful Chinese lantern festival and can’t wait to go back again to this garden of several delights.
After spending a couple of hours in Gilroy Gardens, head towards the Mount Madonna Center – a peaceful haven where you can step back, slow down, contemplate, and get engaged in deeper conversations with members there. You can also join one of their yoga classes. Please reserve your spot there before going. I loved this center and the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple located inside. I am not a particularly religious person but loved the spiritual and serene atmosphere.
A short drive from Mount Madonna center, visit the Tu Vien Kim Son Monastery on your way back home. You will enjoy a soothing and peaceful environment here with beautiful sculptures. Spend some time and get transported into a spiritual realm. End your day trip with some relaxing quiet moments.
Distance – 17 miles | Driving time – 25 min | Recommended duration – 5 hrs
How about a steam train ride akin to a fairy tale? Enjoy a steam train ride on the 15″ gauge miniature railway in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley as it passed through the quiet, winding railroads amidst the redwood trees. Train rides evoke a sense of nostalgia and adventure in me. I have traveled a lot on trains while living in Switzerland and India. I enjoy the thrill of going on short train journies with strangers where the conversations make a permanent impression on our memories.
After spending a few hours in Tilden Regional Park, drive to Berkeley Botanical Gardens. The 34-acre UC Botanical Garden is one of the most diverse landscapes in the world, with over 10,000 types of plants including many rare and endangered species.
8. Point Reyes – Inverness, Cypress Tree Tunnel, and Drakes Beach
San Francisco to Point Reyes – Distance – 58.7 miles | Driving time – 1 h 34 min | Recommended duration – Full day
On your way to Point Reyes or Drakes Beach, spend some time in two places. The shipwreck behind the Inverness store and the uniquely beautiful Cypress tree tunnel. You will get lots of photo opportunities in both places. If you want to indulge in some quiet contemplation, then all the three places, Inverness, Cypress tree tunnel and Drakes beach will reward you with peace and quiet abundantly.
While walking through this Cypress tree tunnel, I felt that I have left the cacophony of modern world somewhere afar. The tree tunnel is made up of Monterey Cypress trees, and reveal nature as a flawless architect. I really feel lucky that I live in a place from which I can easily avail such natural treasures.
From the Cypress tunnel, drive to the beautiful Drakes beach and relax. The blue-robed ocean, the sound of the waves, seagulls, and the drifting clouds will all greet you happily. And the waves – I have seen some of the biggest waves in Northern California here in Drakes beach. This beach is not the place for lazing in the sun. It is cold and bring adequate warm clothes. Once you are there and have spent some time, you can easily adjust to the cold.
Leave the beach and start driving back home during sunset.
And if you are lucky, then you will get to see deer, lots of them, crossing the road in marching formations – their silhouettes creating a magical scene on the yellowish orange horizon.
9. Moss Landing State Beach and Salinas – n offbeat day trip from san francisco
Distance – 106 miles | Driving time – 1h 37min | Recommended duration – Full day
“How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” – Remember this beautiful and profound sentence? This is by John Steinbeck, a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Spend a few hours exploring the National Steinbeck Center and I am sure you would love it. Buy one of his books, the Grapes of Wrath being my favorite, from the museum and head towards Moss Landing State Beach.
In Moss Landing State Beach, relax and feel the sun while reading the book you bought. This is definitely off-beat but the creative indulgence is oh so satisfying! I love this beach very much because it is easily accessible from the parking lot and is never very crowded. Later, you can also opt for whale watching. Drive to Monterey Old Fisherman’s Wharf, where the boats set sail into the harbor, home to breathtaking sea views. Book your tickets for Monterey Bay Whale Watching Tour.
10. 17 Mile Drive and Carmel-By-The-Sea – A charming day trip from San Francisco
Distance – 121 miles | Driving time – 1h 52min | Recommended duration – Full day
Reach Carmel-by-the-Sea from San Francisco, early, say by mid-morning. In this small town by the Pacific ocean, you will find an architectural mishmash of storybook English cottages and Swiss Alpine chalets, a distinctly European feel that will transport you to the old continent for a while. It is best to explore this small town by walking. You will love seeing all the beautiful paintings in the galleries and can definitely collect some for your home. Stroll, ponder and reach the beach for a quintessential California view – a sandy beach and the rugged Pacific coastline.
If you love wine then indulge in some wine tasting and savor a delicious lunch in one of the restaurants in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Visit the beautiful Carmel Mission, one of my favorite Spanish missions in California. Whenever I visit this place the “ordinary” seems exquisite and it feels like an escape from the over-stimulating “extraordinary” of reality. I especially love the carefully manicured garden behind the church. Also check out Father Junipero Serra’s book collection, identified as “California’s first library.” Father Junipero Serra was the founder of this mission. Next stop – the iconic 17-mile drive.
The world-famous 17 Mile drive is the kind of place which you can recall from memory again and again and each time the result will be surprisingly detailed. The warm pleasure of this place will be with you forever, even if you drive this path just once. So, keep your eyes wide open, feel the air, and drive. Don’t miss the famous landmarks along the way – especially the lone Cypress tree along the way to Pebble beach.
One of my cherished pleasures at present is to see the waves in the Pacific ocean while driving along the 17-mile drive during sunset. Believe me, the effect of this scenery on us is similar to the effect of listening to a violin. So make sure to witness the setting sun along the 17-mile drive and plan your trip accordingly.
Distance – 119 miles | Driving time – 1h 50min | Recommended duration – Full day
Deep under the sea, a colorful world exists and if we get a chance to peep into that world for a day, the excitement knows no bound. If you visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you will love watching another world in slow motion through giant glass windows. One of my favorite exhibits in this aquarium is the 28 feet kelp forest enclosure, which is one of the tallest aquarium exhibits in the whole wide world.
If you want to take a break and relax, then head over to the food area. Sit near a window, order a sandwich and see the boats sailing by. If you have kids, check out the play area too. Buy a souvenir from the aquarium shop. I remember buying a stuffed red octopus that resembles an original Octopus I found in one of the exhibits.
After a whole day of fun in the aquarium, head towards the Beach House in Pacific Grove for a delicious dinner. Lamb shanks and beef stroganoff are some of my favorite dishes that await you!
12. Big Sur – An iconic day trip from San Francisco
Distance – 146 miles | Driving time – 2h 26min | Recommended duration – Full day
If you are in a mood for a long drive, then choose Highway 1 – the epic and winding coastal road of California. With the Pacific ocean as a constant comanion, a sense of vastness permeates into our being while driving here. Remain open and don’t plan anything except for one or two must-see stops. Every turn here is beautiful. You can always choose to pull over at numerous turnouts and take in the amazing views. One place where you must stop is Bixby Creek Bridge. After all, it is one of the most photographed bridges in California!
If you want to go on a hike, especially after sitting inside the car for long, then head towards the Pfeiffer Falls trail in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. If you don’t feel like hiking, watch the water rush by in the Pfeiffer-Redwood creek and relish a tasty dinner or afternoon coffee and snack in the Big Sur Lodge.
13. Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery and Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Distance – 72 miles | Driving time – 1h 24min | Recommended duration – 5 hrs
On the way to the Big Basin Redwoods State park, California’s first state park, stop at Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery and spend some time in peaceful silence.
Redwoods stand tall on the sides of the meandering road to the Big Basin Redwood state Park. Enjoy the drive!
Enter the park and see how nature tells stories from the past. Be a silent observer and walk amidst the greenery. This 118 years old state park recently survived the California wildfires. Many structures in this forest have burned down but not the resilient redwoods. Please check on the government website when it is safe to return. Until then drive for 30 mins more and visit another beautiful state park – the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. You will also get to ride a beautiful steam train at roaring camp railways.
Distance – 72.3 miles | Driving time – 1h 17 min | Recommended duration – 8 hrs
Park your car and then forget it for a few hours. Embark on a steam train and ride through the towering green trees. I loved seeing the light filtering through the leaves and the sound of the train rolling over the track. Within minutes, I felt I am far away from the familiar cityscape. The puffing sound of the train as steam is blown through the stack and the hissing of the air-pump took me away to a world of a bygone era. After the refreshing ride, I went to the adjacent Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park for an invigorating hike amid the towering redwood trees.
15. The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
Distance – 35 miles | Driving time – 37min | Recommended duration – 3 hrs
The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University gives an outstanding cultural experience for visitors of all ages. With 24 galleries and year-round exhibitions, this place takes you to the world of art and aesthetics. The Cantor Arts Center possesses one of the largest groups of bronze sculptures by the famous french sculptor Auguste Rodin. I believe art is not something that happens at the periphery of our lives. It’s actually the thing that’s right there in the center. Creative works carry the wisdom of the world. So see and feel the heart and listen to the whispers of artists from past and present through their work.
I still remember how my 2 year old daughter was delighted to see all the paintings. Paintings create a sensory stimulation and often encourages to intellectual pursuits. Great works of art carry with them so many messages and meanings.
After exploring the Cantor Arts Center, take a coffee break in their beautiful cafeteria. Then explore the sculpture garden outside to see beautiful works by Rodin and other artists.
16. Napa Valley – A relaxing day trip from San Francisco
Distance – 67 miles | Driving time – 1h 20min | Recommended duration – Full day
Let the rolling hills and vineyards fill your car’s window for miles. Visit different wineries, taste exquisite wines, take photographs and enjoy every moment. Every winery has its own unique charm. In the last few years, I have visited many wineries in Napa Valley and loved them all.
One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters…But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you chose. But get drunk.Charles Baudelaire
Every fall, I visit Napa Valley to see the beautiful fall colors. A nip in the air, a glass of wine and a book – a perfect combination. Don’t you think?
17. The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose
Distance – 48 miles | Driving time – 47min | Recommended duration – Full day
The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose is a must see place for everyone, whether you are interested in technology or not. At the heart of the silicon valley, where new ideas emerge and lead us and have had such a profound influence on the world, a museum such as this is indeed expected. All the exhibits here are interesting. Innovations in Health Care and Body Motion are the two of my favorite exhibits. This museum entertains, educates, involves and inspires.
Also plan to visit the San Jose Museum of Art, located at a walkable distance from the Tech Museum of Innovation. This premier modern and contemporary art museum in Silicon Valley has inspired me in different ways. I love seeing their well-thought exhibitions, all year round. Whenever I visit this art museum, I am struck by the hanging colorful glass chandeliers by Dale Chihuly.
Just outside the San José Museum of Art, I like walking on the well decorated open space. Catch the beautiful sunset before heading for a delicious dinner in one of the innumerable restaurants in downtown San Jose.
18. Computer History Museum and Googleplex – An enriching day trip from San Francisco
Distance – 36 miles | Driving time – 35min | Recommended duration – 5 hrs
Technology is changing the geography of our lives. Since we live in the heart of Silicon Valley, it is interesting to know the long history of technology and its revolutionary impact on the world. Visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View and discover stories and exhibits that inform and inspire, or satisfy your curiosity with hands-on activities. The story of computing is invigorating and is driven by the human passion for tinkering, inventing, and solving difficult problems. Spend a day here and you will go back home thinking about human ingenuity.
Silicon Valley’s innovative tech culture is built up around a belief that Change is Good. While exploring this museum, I was thinking about the changes brought about by technology to every aspect of our lives. The pace of change confounds me often. This museum gave me a fertile ground to reflect upon many profound things directly related to our lives.
What Orwell failed to predict was that we’d buy the cameras ourselves and that our biggest fear would be that nobody was watching.Keith Jensen, comedian
After exploring the Computer History Museum, head over to Googleplex in Mountain View – the corporate headquarters of Google. Enjoy a cool sculpture garden there before heading back home.
19. Asilomar State Beach and Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
Distance – 123.9 miles | Driving time – 1h 57min | Recommended duration – Full day
Asilomar State Beach is my favorite beach in northern California. I love seeing surfers, the sunset and also love walking on the boardwalk all the way to the Spanish Bay and back. The cool ocean breeze and sweet sunshine at Asilomar always have a therapeutic effect on me.
If you are in a mood to explore more, visit the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove. Monarch butterflies arrive in October, and cluster together on pine, cypress and eucalyptus trees in the sanctuary. Their migration to Pacific Grove is so unique that Pacific Grove is nicknamed “Butterfly Town”!
The benches in this park are butterfly shaped. How cool is that?
20. West Cliff Drive and Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz
Distance – 75 miles | Driving time – 1h 20min | Recommended duration – Full day
West Cliff Drive is a scenic, 3 mile promenade and undoubtedly it is an easy day trip from San Francisco. While walking the path I stop often to take in the refreshing views of the Monterey Bay. Soak up the sun and do some people watching before heading to the Natural Bridges State Park.
Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz is an excellent place for viewing shorebirds, migrating whales, as well as seals and otters playing offshore. This state park is also well known as a hotspot to see monarch butterfly migrations. The Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve is home to up to 150,000 monarch butterflies from October through early February. Explore this place to your heart’s content and let the wonders attract the child in you.
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A Map of all the places listed above
In this age when we have to re-invent ourselves in every aspect of life, so unlike from the past lives we have known through our parents and read about, different places and perspectives act as a catalyst to fuel our innate ability to adapt. Amid your ever-busy work-life schedule, organize your weekends with these easy trips to disconnect and rejuvenate. Depending on your mood, choose a place and activity. Relax in nature, explore museums, stroll through a place akin to a story-book, or indulge in meaningful conversations with artists and strangers in exhibitions. In this list, you will find greenery, turquoise oceans, beaches, history, forests, gardens, museums, and many more places to indulge your senses! No matter what season you are in, these places will gift you some space to contemplate. So which place did you decide to visit first?In this age when we have to re-invent ourselves in every aspect of life, so unlike from the past lives we have known through our parents and read about, different places and perspectives act as a catalyst to fuel our innate ability… Click To Tweet
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