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Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most beautiful places in the world. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the rolling hills of wine country, from the stunning Redwood forests to the rocky coastline, there is no shortage of things to see and do. And what better way to see it than from the comfort of your car? Here is my list of the top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area for couples, girlfriends, solo travelers, families, and nature lovers. I’ve compiled it after living and vacationing in the Golden State extensively for years. I hope you will be as smitten by the beauty of these scenic drives as I have been!

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A map of the scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area

1. Drive across The Golden Gate BridgeEnjoy all the views!

One of the most iconic landmarks in California, the Golden Gate Bridge is a must-see for anyone visiting or staying in the Bay Area. The Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937 and has been an international icon ever since. Spanning almost two miles across the Golden Gate strait, the bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County. It is one of the most photographed bridges in the world and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The best way to experience the bridge is by driving across it. On a clear day, you can see for miles in every direction. Be sure to stop at the lookout points on either side of the bridge to take in the view.

The Golden Gate Bridge Vista Points

The Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, located on the south side of the span, is the first stop for visitors. It offers exhibits on the history and construction of the bridge, as well as a gift shop, one of the best places to collect a souvenir of your trip. Round House Cafe, a circular art deco building built in 1938 by a Swedish architect, is just a stone’s throw from the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center. It has an excellent view of the city and is well worth seeing.

Once you cross the bridge, stop at the H. Dana Bowers Rest Area & Vista Point, located on the north side of the bridge. It offers a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and Marin County.

If time permits, also include a few more stops like Golden Gate Overlook and Battery Boutelle

Whether you’re a Bay Area resident or just visiting for a weekend, make sure to add driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to your list of things to do! It’s an experience you won’t soon forget. And don’t forget your camera!

2. The Pacific Coast HighwayFall in love with this picturesque road!

The Pacific Coast Highway is a world-famous scenic drive that winds along the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean. It begins in Mendocino County north of San Francisco and extends 656 miles south along the California coast to San Juan Capistrano, south of Los Angeles. The 4-hour drive from San Francisco to Big Sur is one of the best scenic drives in America, let alone the Bay Area.

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations, The Pacific Coast Highway
Bixby Creek Bridge, on the Big Sur coast of California, is one of the most photographed bridges in California

Scenic Stops between San Francisco and Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Bay Area or are visiting from out of town, add this road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1, to your San Francisco itinerary! Here are some of the most scenic stops to make along the way.

San Francisco

The Pacific Coast Highway travels straight through the heart of San Francisco. The City has innumerable things to see (including many free things) both during the night and the day. Starting from gorgeous viewpoints and world-famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Golden Gate Park, to name a few. If the day is clear and you’re looking for a panoramic view of the city, make the drive up to Twin Peaks.

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,
The Bay bridge!

Pacifica

Pacifica is a beautiful coastal town that offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. You can also take a walk on the fishing pier, which is over 1,000 feet long. 

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,
Fishing pier at Pacifica during the sunset!

Mori Point

Mori Point in Pacifica is a great stop along this route, with stunning views of the ocean and rocky cliffs. It’s also a great place for a hike, with trails that wind through the forest and down to the beach.

Devil’s Slide

One of the highlights of the Pacific Coast Highway is Devil’s Slide, a section of road that winds its way through a series of tight curves and hairpin turns. The path allows visitors to connect with nature, see wildlife up close, feel the sea breeze, and appreciate the coastline. It features gorgeous ocean views, with a backdrop of the cliffs and bluffs. The landscape is covered in beautiful wildflowers, depending on the season.

Montara State Beach

Montara State Beach is a great spot to stop for a little beach time. 

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is a small but beautiful coastal town and is best known for its world-famous pumpkin festival, which takes place every October. It celebrates the coming of Halloween with a competition to determine the world’s largest pumpkin! A few of my favorite spots at Half Moon Bay are the Ritz Carlton – a luxurious hotel located right on the coast with free coastal access, Seal Cove Cypress Tree Tunnel in Moss Beach, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, and Cowell-Purisima Trail for a beautiful hike.

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,
Sit by the sea, sip on some fine wine, and bask in the glory of nature at Ritz Carlton, Halfmoon Bay

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

About 20 miles south of Half Moon Bay is Pigeon Point Lighthouse. It is one of the west coast’s tallest and most photographed lighthouses. See the original Fresnel lens in the visitor center of this still-active lighthouse.

Año Nuevo State Park 

Año Nuevo State Park is a beautiful place to visit and explore. The park is located along the coast in Pescadero, California, and offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. Año Nuevo State Park is also home to various wildlife, including sea lions, otters, and seals. Visitors can enjoy hiking and biking trails, picnicking, and bird watching.

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,
The wild coast of California along the Pacific Coast Highway near Davenport

Shark Fin Cove

The name of this viewpoint originates from the rock formation that juts out of the ocean, resembling a shark fin. Park your car in the parking lot, and walk across the tracks to see the cove from above.

Natural Bridges State Park

Natural Bridges state park is famous for its natural bridge, which was created after years of erosion from the nearby ocean waves. The park also has several tidepools where you can get an up-close look at local marine life. Keep an eye out for migrating monarch butterflies between October and February! 

Before heading to the Natural Bridges State Beach, explore the West Cliff Drive – a scenic, 3-mile promenade in Santa Cruz, a quintessential California beach town.

17 Mile Drive

The 17-mile scenic drive is one of the most scenic drives in the world. The drive winds through dramatic coastal cliffs, snow-white beaches, mystical forests, and iconic golf courses. You’ll get to see some of the most beautiful sights in the area, including the inspiring Lone Cypress, Crocker Grove – home to the largest and oldest Monterey Cypress trees in existence, look at the untouched beauty at Fanshell Beach, Point Joe, and Spanish Bay. At the end of your drive, take a stroll by the beautiful golf course and the Pacific Ocean at The Lodge – a luxurious Pebble beach resort. The coastal access is open to the public.

Tip: Admission to 17-Mile Drive is $11.25 per vehicle. Check out the 17-mile drive map.

If you want to explore the Pacific Coast Highway further south, consider visiting a few more iconic spots – Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, and Point Lobos State natural reserve. You won’t be disappointed!

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,

3. Panoramic Highway – One of the most scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area

If you’re looking for a drive with incredible views, look no further than Panoramic Highway. This stretch of road will take you from Mt. Tamalpais all the way down to Stinson Beach, and there’s no shortage of things to see along the way. Keep your eyes peeled for some of the Bay Area’s most stunning scenery, including the Marin County hills, the San Francisco Bay, Mount Diablo, and on a clear day, even the Sierra Nevadas.

Mount Tamalpais State Park

The Panoramic highway provides access to Mount Tamalpais State Park, which offers hiking, picnicking, and camping opportunities. Be sure to visit the Visitor Center to learn more about the park’s history and geology. At Mt.Tamalpais, you’ll be treated to sweeping views of the Marin County hills, San Francisco Bay, and Mount Diablo. You might even see the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas off in the distance on a clear day. This is one of my favorite state parks because it offers a taste of everything — a stunning ocean panorama, lush coastal forest, and a chilly damp canyon chock-full of ancient redwoods.

Muir Woods National Monument – A magical encounter with a living landscape.

As you wind your way down the mountain, stop at Muir Woods National Monument so you can get out and stretch your legs amid towering redwoods.

The Muir Woods National Monument, the grove of centuries-old coastal redwoods in Marin County, is one of the most popular Redwood parks in the Bay Area.

Stinson Beach

Once you reach Stinson Beach, you’ll be able to spend the rest of the day relaxing on one of California’s most beautiful beaches. Soak up the sun and enjoy the fresh ocean air!

4. Skyline Boulevard – A cocktail of greenery and scenery!

Along the ridgeline of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Skyline Boulevard (also called California State Route 35, a two-lane state highway) offers breathtaking views of the Bay Area. It’s great to drive here during spring and summer. The best place to start is where Skyline Blvd (Highway 35) intersects with Highway 92 going from San Mateo to Half Moon Bay. There is a parking lot and a great vista point right at the intersection. Just park your car at the intersection and enjoy the incredible view! Take a little detour and visit Plugas Water Temple, a small piece of Europe in the heart of Silicon Valley. A great destination for a relaxing walk. This is open only during the weekdays. The best part is that there is no entrance fee, and the parking is also free.

Alice’s Restaurant

Enjoy the view and a burger at Alice’s restaurant in Woodside.

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve

The views from Windy Hill are breathtaking and rank among the best in the Bay Area. On a clear day, you can see to San Francisco, the Pacific Ocean, and across the South Bay to Mount Hamilton in the Diablo Range.

Thomas Fogarty Winery

Stop at Thomas Fogarty Winery if you are in the mood for wine tasting complimented by beautiful views all around.

Silicon Valley Vista Point

At Silicon Valley Vista Point, you’ll see unobstructed views of the world’s tech capital and its surrounding vicinity.

Enjoy the drive through many forest preserves and parks and pull over to see stunning valley vistas along the way. Watch out for cyclists; this road is popular with them on weekends!

5. Silverado Trail, Napa Valley – The journey is the destination!

Napa Valley is world-renowned for its beautiful scenery and its wine. But did you know that a hidden gem in Napa Valley is just waiting to be discovered? That gem is Silverado Trail.

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,

Silverado Trail is a scenic driving route that winds its way through the heart of Napa Valley. It’s the perfect place to take a leisurely drive and enjoy the views of the vineyards and rolling hillsides. You’ll also find several iconic landmarks, including the Robert Mondavi Winery and the silver-domed Artesa Winery. 

One of the best things about the Silverado Trail is that it’s less crowded than other Napa Valley routes. This means you can take your time and enjoy the scenery without worrying about traffic. And if you’re looking for a place to stop and enjoy a picnic lunch, there are plenty of scenic spots along Silverado Trail where you can do just that. 

Tip: I highly recommend driving through the Silverado Trail during the fall, around late October! Fall colors in Napa Valley are spectacular.

6. 49-Mile Scenic Drive through San Francisco – A journey through changing cityscapes!

San Francisco is one of the most interesting cities in the world, and there is no better way to experience its stunning scenery than by driving along its famous 49-Mile Scenic Drive. This drive will take you past some of the city’s most historic and iconic landmarks.

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,

Check out a Google Map of 49 Mile Scenic Drive. Here are a few key points of interest.

  • 49 Mile Scenic Drive begins at Civic Center, which is home to City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, and the Main Library.
  • San Francisco is home to many unique neighborhoods, each with its own distinct culture and charm. Explore North Beach – San Francisco’s Little Italy, Nob Hill – known for its upscale shops, restaurants, and its, stunning Victorian architecture, and China town, the largest Chinese neighborhood in North America
  • Popular tourist destinations like Union square, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ghirardelli Square.
  • Famous art museums like The Legion of Honor and SF Moma.
  • Golden Gate Bridge and The San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, known locally as the Bay Bridge
  • Presidio of San Francisco, a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
  • Ocean beach, with plenty of sand and surf, is a great place to walk when the fog is rolling in. You can also see the small, stony islands called Seal Rocks.
  • Lake Merced is a large freshwater lake and is a popular spot for fishing, boating, and birding. 

7. Sir Francis Drake BoulevardA dream drive awaits!

There’s nothing quite like a drive down the coast of Northern California. And there’s no better place to do it than on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. This scenic route takes you through some of the most beautiful coastlines in the state, with plenty of stops along the way to enjoy the views. One of the best things about driving on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is that there’s no need to hurry. This is a leisurely drive meant to be enjoyed at your own pace. So take your time and enjoy everything this beautiful stretch of road offers. Along the way, you’ll see some stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, as well as some of the most picturesque mountains and valleys in California. 

Here’s a quick guide to some of the best things to see and do on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

Point Reyes Shipwrecks

See the iconic wooden boat stuck on a sandbar in the town of Inverness. 

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,

Samuel P Taylor State Park

The thrill of seeing the redwood forest is a feeling that never gets old and refreshes with each new encounter. If you need a wilderness break from the city stop at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Marin County, for a picnic or a short hike. It has miles of hiking and biking trails.

Cypress Tree Tunnel

While walking through this Cypress tree tunnel, you will feel that you have left the cacophony of the modern world somewhere afar. The tree tunnel is made up of Monterey Cypress trees and reveals nature as a flawless architect. 

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,

Drakes Beach

Drakes Beach is named after Sir Francis Drake and is one of the most popular beaches in Point Reyes National Seashore. It boasts stunning views of Drakes Estero, an expansive estuary habitat that’s home to countless species of birds and other wildlife.  

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,

Point Reyes Lighthouse

With the beautiful view of the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean from above, Point Reyes National Seashore is a gem. Perched atop dramatic cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Point Reyes lighthouse has guided ships since 1870. The Point Reyes Lighthouse was retired from service in 1975. Today, it’s open to visitors who want to learn more about its history or enjoy its stunning views.

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,
On the way to Point Reyes Lighthouse!

8. Conzelman Road through Marin Headlands – Enjoy a dreamlike panorama through the windshield!

If you’re looking for a breathtaking drive with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, look no further than Conzelman Road. This backroad takes you through the Marin Headlands and is guaranteed to take your breath away. This scenic route offers unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. There are several scenic spots along Conzelman Road that are worth a visit. Hawk Hill and Battery Spencer are popular vantage points for pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. These sites also have interesting military history. Kirby Cove is another beautiful spot, but it requires a short hike down to the beach. Kirby Cove is also a popular camping spot. This drive is one of my favorite scenic drives.

A few more scenic drives in the Bay Area

Top 8 scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area, Travel Realizations,
When the Drive Matters More Than the Destination!

It is hard to pick just 8 of the best drives in the Bay Area. Here are a few more routes that I love.

  • Highway 128 To Healdsburg – The highway winds its way through Sonoma county, offering breathtaking views of vineyards, mountains, and valleys.
  • Berkeley Hills (Wildcat Canyon Rd) – A short drive but a scenic one!
  • Ridgecrest Boulevard – A curvy road through rolling green hills with a sea view – like the ones we see in the TV commercials.

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The San Francisco Bay Area is filled with winding roads that offer stunning views of the water and surrounding hills. Whether you’re a nature lover or a history buff, seeking scenic landscapes or exploring historic roads, these drives are sure to impress. Wait no more and hit the road to get enchanted!

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Chirasree Banerjee

Hello. My name is Chirasree. I have been traveling for almost 11 years to places all over the world. I enter into a separate reality during my travels and enjoy the allure of escape from the mundane. I seek beauty through nature and human-made creations. Because beauty is powerful. I seek knowledge. I observe, absorb, and write about the places I visit and the profound realizations and inspirations that each place has to offer.

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6 Comments

  1. Terri

    My dream is to travel the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible. Years ago, I traveled by bus along this world-famous scenic drive that winds along the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean.

  2. This is one of the most extensive posts I’ve seen on scenic routes in the Bay Area, Loved it! There is so much to explore there, taking notes for some of the places listed here that I am yet to explore 🙂

  3. We love to road trip around the San Francisco area. So were glad to read about some new routes for us to follow on a return visit. We have done the Pacific Coast Highway several times but missed Half Moon Bay and Montara State Beach on previous trips. Good reasons to drive one of my favourite road trip routes again. Skyline Boulevard sure does look like a great route for scenery. And it even has a good winery stop! Need to head back to San Francisco! Saving this post.

  4. Amy

    These are some outstanding drives you’ve suggested. I’ve done a few but I can see I need to drive a few more. The cypress tree tunnel is spectacular!

  5. Each of these road trips would be on top of my list to do. I’ve always heard how scenic the west coast roads are and then to make stops along the way at a winery or San Fran would be the ultimate trip.

  6. These scenic drives in the San Francisco Bay Area look absolutely stunning! Sir Francis Drake Boulevard looks beautiful! I’d love to see the wooden boat, it looks amazing! The cypress tree tunnel looks incredible too! Thanks for the great guide!

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