Known for its tasty bread, steep streets, and iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the great city of San Francisco has been on the radar of California visitors for a long time. This West Coast metropolis has seen an explosion of tech startups, real estate values, and tourists in recent years.
But if you’ve seen all the sights in town and you’re looking for some outdoor adventures, sandy beaches, or just a change of scenery, there are dozens of unique day trips from San Francisco. Many new and exciting things can be seen even within the San Francisco Bay Area, while even more can be reached just a short drive into the mountains surrounding it.
It may not be your first instinct to rent a car when visiting San Francisco, as everything is reachable easily on foot, public transport, or bike. Plus, parking is notoriously expensive. However, reserving one for a day or two to enjoy a day trip can be well worth it.
This is an incredibly stunning corner of America with plenty of history and culture around it, and whether you are looking for some simple afternoon activities or ideas for weekend getaways, there is something to see nearby. Take a look below at some of the top day trips from San Francisco, California, and our tips on each of them.
Escape the hustle and bustle of San Francisco for a day and immerse yourself in California’s world-famous wine country. On this full-day tour, you’ll visit multiple wineries in Napa and Sonoma, including both big-name and family-run estates. You’ll get to taste regional varietals, learn about the winemaking process during guided tours of vineyards and barrel rooms, and savor the area’s gourmet culture with a stop for lunch in charming Sonoma Square Plaza or Yountville.
Looking to explore the majestic Yosemite National Park? Then this tour is for you! This small group tour with an expert guide will take you to see some of the park's most iconic sights, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and the giant sequoia trees. Plus, you'll also get to hike to the historic giant sequoias (weather permitting). With a maximum of just 15 passengers, this tour provides plenty of opportunity to stop at more places and take more photos.
If you're looking for an exciting and scenic drive down one of California's most beautiful roads, look no further than this full-day tour from San Francisco. You'll cruise along Highway 1, passing the stunning mansions of Pebble Beach on the iconic 17-Mile Drive. You'll also have plenty of time to explore the charming town of Monterey, where you can stroll down Steinbeck's Cannery Row or visit the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Table of Contents
- Best Day Trips from San Francisco
- 1. Yosemite National Park
- 2. Muir Woods National Monument
- 3. Half Moon Bay
- 4. The Pacific Coast Highway
- 5. Angel Island State Park
- 6. Santa Cruz
- 7. Stinson Beach
- 8. San Jose
- 9. Napa Valley
- 10. Point Reyes National Seashore
- 11. Carmel-by-the-Sea
- 12. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- 13. Castle Rock State Park
- 14. Monterey Bay Aquarium
- 15. Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve
- 16. Mount Tamalpais State Park
- 17. Lake Tahoe
- 18. Sacramento
- 19. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
- 20. Mendocino National Forest
- 21. Reno, Nevada
- 22. Fresno
- 23. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
- 24. Redding
- 25. Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Where can I go for a day trip in the Bay Area?
- Is Yosemite National Park a day trip from San Francisco?
- Do you need a car for day trips from San Francisco?
- Can you visit Lake Tahoe on a day trip from San Francisco?
Best Day Trips from San Francisco
1. Yosemite National Park
Distance from San Francisco: 167 miles (about 3.5 hours by car)
Let’s start with one of the most popular northern California destinations, even for those not staying in San Francisco: Yosemite National Park. At about three and a half hours away, it does stretch to the limits of a potential day trip, but it is absolutely for nature lovers keen to see the famed park.
Yosemite is famous for many things, including its giant sequoia trees, many dramatic waterfalls, and towering granite cliffs. All of these natural features make for some amazing hiking trails, nature photography, and outdoor activities like rafting and fishing. Mountain bikers will be delighted to find miles of ridable trails, but note that departing from these paths is not allowed.
You can find the visitor center operated by the National Park Service in the town of Yosemite Valley, where maps with nature trails and information on outdoor activities are available. Some of the faster hikes and easier-accessed waterfalls also begin here, such as Mirror Lake and Lower Yosemite Falls.
A wide range of tours and experiences are available, ranging from a self-guided audio tour from the comfort of your own car to day trips with transportation from San Francisco. If you want to make this a multi-day trip, the Yosemite View Lodge is in an excellent location along the Merced River, with several pools and a hot tub.
2. Muir Woods National Monument
Distance from San Francisco: 16 Miles (about 45 minutes by car)
If some outdoor fun sounds good, but Yosemite is just too far, another great option is the Muir Woods National Monument. This forest expanse is just north of San Francisco beside the town of Mill Valley, making for an easy San Francisco day trip.
You can also find some more famous giant trees here – redwoods. In fact, the monument is considered to be an old-growth forest, which once covered millions of acres of this part of California. Today, nearly all of them are gone, making Muir Woods a rare example.
There are miles of long hiking trails around the trees, creeks, and hills leading to viewpoints and spots to enjoy the peacefulness. You may even run into species like owls, foxes, or river otters native to the area. The little cove that hides Muir Beach is a great spot to relax on the sand and hike some seaside trails.
Thanks to its close proximity, it’s easy to find tours of the Muir Woods National Monument that depart from and return to San Fransisco if you don’t want to visit on your own. Choose a forest tour that will focus on the beautiful redwood trees the park is famous for.
3. Half Moon Bay
Distance from San Francisco: 30 miles (about 45 minutes by car)
Arguably best in the summer but truly delightful to visit year-round, Half Moon Bay is one of the most popular coastal towns to visit near San Francisco. It sits on the famous Pacific Coast Highway and is a great endpoint if you want to drive just a small portion of it.
Sitting on the Pacific Ocean, Half Moon Bay is a popular beach destination with several miles of sand. A coastal trail follows the sea and makes for a lovely stroll or jog. Even if the beach isn’t your thing, the town has a laid-back, coastal vibe with plenty of local shops and cafés to explore.
At the northern end, a trail leads to Pillar Point, where cliffs drop to tide pools and rocky shorelines below. But the most popular thing to see at the point is the famous Mavericks surf spot, where some of the biggest waves on the continent draw adrenaline junkies from all over the world.
Another popular activity to do from Half Moon Bay is to take a boat tour to see marine life like gray whales and sea lions. You can find boats departing from the marina at El Granada.
Half Moon Bay is a beautiful and high-end area to stay in if you’re looking for luxury accommodations. The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay is one of the top luxury hotels in town and even in this whole region, and you can expect everything to be top-of-the-line if you choose to stay here.
See Related: Best Surfing Spots in the World
4. The Pacific Coast Highway
Distance from San Francisco: 0 miles (but about 20 minutes to the nearest point along the coast)
Speaking of the famous Pacific Coast Highway, driving the road can be a sort of a day trip itself! California’s most famous highway is designated an All-American Road, meaning it has special, intrinsic qualities that make it enjoyable to drive.
It is actually the longest state route in California, with one end starting well north of San Francisco in Mendocino County and the other south of Los Angeles in Orange County. Therefore, you probably won’t be driving the full length of it as a day trip. But some of the most scenic sections are within reach of San Francisco.
In the southern direction, you’ll encounter a mixture of small coves, sandy beaches, and dramatic cliffs on the ocean side. Natural stops on this route are Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, and finally, the Monterey-Carmel area. The latter is a good point to turn back or inland to take the freeway back to the city.
If headed north, the highway will take you over the Golden Gate Bridge, through some mountainous state parks and preserves, and along an overall steeper coast through more sections of mountains and hills. A good point to turn back on the freeway is after Sonoma Coast State Park near Jenner, as after this, vast mountains separate the coastal route from the nearest major roads.
Don’t want to do the driving? Take a guided tour on the portion between San Francisco and Carmel to take in all the scenery without having to take the wheel.
5. Angel Island State Park
Distance from San Francisco: 6 miles (about a 30-minute ferry ride)
Looking for an escape from the city without venturing too far from it? The perfect compromise may be Angel Island State Park, located in the bay just off Fisherman’s Wharf, but it might as well be on a different planet.
To reach it, you’ll need to take the Angel Island Ferry, departing from both the San Francisco Ferry Terminal and from Tiburon on the other side of the bay. Trips from San Francisco take about 30 minutes and run four times per day.
Angel Island is a great place to escape the city, hike some trails, and catch great views of the San Francisco skyline over the bay. There are remnants of civilization on the island as well. It has been used for a variety of purposes, such as hunting and ranching, military operations, and a quarantine and immigration station for primarily Asian migrants.
If you decide not to make a full day trip out of Angel Island but would still like to see it, there are plenty of bay tours and sunset cruises that will sail around it. You’ll also get commentary to learn about its history.
See Related: Best Family Hotels in San Francisco, California
6. Santa Cruz
Distance from San Francisco: 75 miles (about 1.5 hours by car)
Heading across the Santa Cruz Mountains will bring you to the quaint, medium-sized town of Santa Cruz, sitting on Monterey Bay. With sandy shorelines, a famous beach boardwalk, and beautiful scenery throughout, Santa Cruz is one of the best day trips from San Francisco for families.
The boardwalk is one of the icons of this coastal town, with vintage rollercoasters and games next to the Pacific Ocean. The wharf sitting just beside it on the bay is another, with its shops, restaurants, and views.
While there are great beaches all throughout this town, one of particular interest is Natural Bridges State Beach to the west. While the sandy space is on the smaller side, the main attraction is the natural arch that looks like a bridge across the beach. The beach is also a great spot to see birds and monarch butterflies in their migrations.
Want to fit in with the surfer vibe of Santa Cruz? Take a surfing lesson for beginners at one of the most iconic beaches for it in California. Waves aren’t too intimidating here, and most people can stand up for at least some time.
Although it’s not far from the city, some visitors like to make Santa Cruz more than just a day trip. There are a variety of boutique and chain hotels to choose from, but we like the Hilton Santa Cruz Scotts Valley for its stellar location and lovely grounds.
7. Stinson Beach
Distance from San Francisco: 24 miles (about 1 hour by car)
Stinson Beach is a tiny beachside community nestled in a small valley behind the mountains of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. More than just a sleepy beach town, it’s a unique escape from the city with numerous activities available in all seasons.
The drive down the mountain is a bit windy, and parking in town is limited, but those who make the trip won’t be disappointed. A long, sandy beach, partially managed by the National Park Service, stretches from the inlet to the Bolinas Lagoon to dramatic boulders near Red Rock Beach.
The list of activities available is long: volleyball, fishing, hiking, surfing, bodyboarding, and more. Surfing is best in the winter and spring, while waves become smaller and more suitable for bodyboarding in the summer. You can catch fish straight from the beach if you bring a rod and lure.
The southern part of the coast consists of trails to Red Rock Beach and Steep Ravine Beach, which do require a bit of effort to access. Rock climbing is popular around both, but be very careful in this remote part of the coastline.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Lone Pine, California
8. San Jose
Distance from San Francisco: 55 miles (about 1 hour by car, about 1.5 hours by train)
One of the other major cities of the Bay Area is San Jose, sitting just south of San Francisco in what is now known as Silicon Valley. A major technology hub, the city also has a rich history and its own local identity, making it certainly worth a visit.
If you’re still in the planning stages of your trip, know that San Jose has a major international airport that can also be used to access the Bay Area. Whether you’re just spending a few hours or a few days, highlights of the city include architectural landmarks in the downtown historic district, its various art galleries, and interesting museums like the Tech Interactive.
An iconic thing to do in San Jose is to visit the Winchester Mystery House, a 160-room mega-mansion that belonged to rifle company heiress Sarah Winchester. It was built in 1884, and while grand and beautiful, it’s also rather strange, with staircases to nowhere and useless doors. It’s a unique experience, and you can take a tour of the house to see it all.
As mentioned, San Jose is a major city and can be a destination itself. If you decide to stay a night, plenty of hotels are available, such as Hotel De Anza. This boutique hotel is in the heart of downtown and reflects its unique identity.
9. Napa Valley
Distance from San Francisco: 53 miles (about 1.5 hours by car)
Some of America’s most appreciated wines come from Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which is conveniently just over an hour north of San Francisco. That makes it a great destination for a day trip to see rolling hills of vineyards, do some wine tasting, and learn the history of this important land.
Your trip to Napa Valley might start in the town of Napa. It’s an excellent choice of destination, with 19th-century architecture, a riverside promenade with dining and shopping, and farmer’s markets with local products. It’s also where you can get on the Napa Valley Wine Train to taste some of the products while rolling through some of the most celebrated vineyards in the region.
Besides all things wine, there is some great nature to be appreciated in Napa Valley. For example, the Old Faithful Geyser of California blows thermal water into the air in the northern part of the valley.
You can take a half-day excursion from San Francisco to Napa and back for vineyard tours and wine tasting if you don’t want to make the drive yourself. If you don’t mind the trip and finding your way to one of the towns of the valley on your own, a guided tour with a picnic lunch is available, along with a host of other wine country experiences.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Santa Maria, California
10. Point Reyes National Seashore
Distance from San Francisco: 37 miles (about 1.25 hours by car)
Covering over 71,000 acres, Point Reyes National Seashore covers far more than just the seashore. This massive expanse technically encompasses some of San Francisco but is mostly the area between Stinson Beach and Tomales Bay.
The preserve is heaven for anyone looking for some outdoor fun in the woods, ridges, grasslands, and beaches of this region. If you’re willing to hit the hiking or horseback riding trails, treasures such as Alamere Falls and secluded beaches await. But even by car, you can access sights like the Point Reyes Lighthouse and the Cypress Tree Tunnel.
You can also have a beach day here, and it shouldn’t be hard to find a spot along its 80 miles of shoreline. Camping is permitted at several backwood sites, as well as on some beaches along Tomales Bay.
As the Point Reyes National Seashore is so large and there are so many landscapes to see here, many visitors like to stay nearby for a few days to fit in all the hiking they can. Renting a comfortable cottage in a nearby town like Inverness can be the perfect place to return to after a day in nature.
Distance from San Francisco: 122 miles (about 2 hours by car)
Another unique and adorable little seaside town is Carmel-by-the-Sea, reachable in just about two hours from San Francisco. It’s found on the southern side of the Monterey Peninsula beside a protected marine conservation area.
Many things allure day-trippers to this seaside town: the beautiful Carmel Beach, its historic, village-like downtown area, and the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course. For some light hiking and great natural scenery, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve offers trails and viewpoints just south of town.
A popular itinerary is to walk, bike, or drive on Scenic Road from the Carmel Beach surf spot to the Carmel River State Beach, which reveals why it was given the name “Scenic Road.” You can also take a guided e-bike tour to the most appreciated places in town to enjoy the oceanic air without getting too exhausted.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is known for its quaint downtown that has a more village-like atmosphere than most, and there are dozens of little inns and similar accommodations if you choose to spend the night. The Carmel Mission Inn is a very popular boutique hotel sitting just outside of downtown with upscale amenities and a pool.
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12. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Distance from San Francisco: 7 miles (about 15 minutes by car)
One of the easiest and closest day trips from San Francisco is to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just across from the entrance to the bay. You can even reach the edges of the area next to the town of Sausalito by bus or, depending on how active you are, by walking across the Golden Gate Bridge.
There is plenty to do within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Historic sites, hiking and biking trails, beaches with golden and black sands, and scenic points are all scattered throughout. In fact, some of the best viewpoints of the Golden Gate Bridge are in the GGNRA, making for great opportunities for photographers.
The Point Bonita Lighthouse can be reached on a relatively easy trail to the end of its peninsula, where sweeping views of the Pacific, San Francisco, and the rocky shoreline are exceptional. On either side are Rodeo Beach and Black Sands Beach, perfectly secluded by rocky cliffs and great for sunbathing.
Since this area is so close to San Francisco and it’s full of outdoor experiences, it can be a lot of fun to rent a bike for a day to explore. You’ll get to ride over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and enjoy the breeze as you pedal to the various points of interest.
13. Castle Rock State Park
Distance from San Francisco: 57 miles (about 1 hour by car)
Comprising over 5,000 acres of the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Castle Rock State Park is an easily accessible and popular day trip from San Francisco. It’s located even closer to San Jose, making it an option for visitors to that city as well.
People visit the park for its mostly untouched landscape of native redwood and fir trees. Their massive stature along the rolling ridges makes for excellent scenery and a great glimpse into natural northern California. This is also a popular destination for rock climbers, with some interesting-looking and challenging formations in the park.
Castle Rock was one potential starting point for the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, a massive, 30-mile hike from the Santa Cruz Mountaintops to the ocean until it was forced to close by wildfires in 2020. However, there are over 32 miles of open trails in the park alone, and hikers can find some fantastic waterfalls within its limits.
There are several campsites within Castle Rock State Park if you are looking to spend a night under the stars, but note that dogs are not allowed here. Horses are permitted on certain trails, however.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Lone Pine, California
14. Monterey Bay Aquarium
Distance from San Francisco: 119 miles (about 2 hours by car)
In search of some fun wintertime day trips from San Francisco? Take a day to visit one of the most respected aquariums on the West Coast, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Located on the rocky coastline of Monterey Bay, the aquarium is much larger than those you’ll find in San Francisco. Many firsts in marine science were achieved at the museum: they were the first to exhibit a living kelp forest, the first to successfully display and care for a great white shark, and their scientists pioneered the first efforts to raise jellyfish.
Needless to say, there are a ton of interesting things to see at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. With over 35,000 animals and 550 species on display, including a massive Open Sea wing that has seemingly no boundaries, it’s easy to spend a full day here. There is also a sea otter care center and display tank, a species on which much of the aquarium’s research efforts are focused.
The Cannery Row promenade that the aquarium sits on is also full of fun activities, restaurants, and shopping, with the aquarium being the true anchor to it all. Take a self-guided walking tour of the area to get the full experience of Monterey. Also, keep in mind that while California is a well-known whale-watching area, there are none on display at the aquarium – but you can take a whale-watching tour to see some.
15. Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve
Distance from San Francisco: 44 miles (about 1 hour by car)
Nature lovers might be interested in visiting the only extensive wetlands on the San Francisco peninsula coast, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. This smaller recreation area still counts about 235 acres and is where the Butano and Pescadero Creeks meet.
There are several delightful trails and beautiful sites throughout the preserve. The most popular is the Sequoia Audubon Trail, running from the tide pools of the coast, through the grass and marsh along the creek, and into the forest behind. Other trails include Butano Trail, Round Hill Trail, and North Pond Trail.
One of the main things that allures visitors to the marsh is the wildlife that can be spotted there. Endangered local species like the San Francisco garter snake (harmless), great blue heron, and the California red-legged frog are all known to inhabit the ponds and banks in the preserve.
The area around Pescadero town and the preserve can be a good place to base yourself if you are looking to do a few days of hiking, surfing, or beach relaxation. With limited hotels, there are a few vacation rentals like the Ocean View Cottage in the area that have everything you need to recharge after a day of fun.
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16. Mount Tamalpais State Park
Distance from San Francisco: 20 miles (about 45 minutes by car)
Mount Tamalpais State Park surrounds one of the most prominent peaks within the Muir Woods. This mountain, known locally as Mount Tam, rises over 2,500 feet of elevation and sits just north of the city over the Golden Gate Bridge.
The mountain is a place to practice a wide range of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, and even hang gliding. While trails to the peak can be steep and challenging, those who make it are rewarded with views all the way to San Francisco Bay and beyond.
Heading down the slope can be just as rewarding, however. Stinson Beach is the end point of many trails and is a great place to wind down at a café or jump into the sea. Other points along the rocky coastline, like Steep Ravine Beach and other small, sandy coves, are quieter spots to relax with a view.
The views are what inspire people to explore Mount Tamalpais State Park. Some of the most popular viewpoints are Forbes Bench, O’Rourke’s Bench, and Veterans’ Bench. Take Ridgecrest Boulevard for a variety of beautiful views.
17. Lake Tahoe
Distance from San Francisco: 180-200 miles (about 3.5 hours by car)
Here, we’re pushing the limits of a day trip again – but for a good cause. Lake Tahoe and the Tahoe National Forest are some of the most appreciated places in the north of California for their natural beauty and peaceful atmosphere.
Small towns line the California shoreline of Lake Tahoe, and the towns of Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe are good places to plan your journey. In both, you’ll find plenty of restaurants, shops, and places to access and enjoy the clear lake water in California.
Lake Tahoe is massive, which allows plenty of room for fun on the water: kayaking, jet skiing, paddle boarding, water skiing, and swimming are just a few. You’ll find water sports centers all around the lake. It’s best to take a boat ride or helicopter tour to see the best spots on the lake, both of which will take your breath away.
While the crystal clear water and mountainous landscape are truly spectacular in the summer, make no mistake, Tahoe is a winter destination as well. Winter sports like skiing and snowboarding are practiced on the slopes just above the shoreline and are an equally beautiful way to appreciate the views.
See Related: Best Beaches in Lake Tahoe
Distance from San Francisco: 88 miles (about 1.5 hours by car)
Many people are surprised to hear that the capital of California is actually Sacramento, located just an hour and a half from the San Francisco Bay Area. Known locally as the City of Trees and the Farm-to-Fork Capital, Sacramento has a reputation for being a major producer of the foods many Americans find on their menus every day.
Sacramento has a young and evolving culture and is known as a very “hipster” city. Top attractions include the Crocker Art Museum, the oldest of its kind west of the Mississippi, the California Automobile Museum, and the Old Sacramento neighborhood, with its historic buildings and streets.
One of the best ways to see the city is by boat on the Sacramento River, which hosts party cruises and basic sightseeing tours alike. Since the city is known for its food and produce, it would also be appropriate to try a Sacramento food and history tour and enjoy the best eateries in town.
In a city of this size and with a ton to do, some visitors might find it worthwhile to spend a night or more. The Hyatt Regency Sacramento is luxurious, centrally located, and well-equipped with a pool and spa.
See Related: Best Things to do in Sacramento, California
19. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Distance from San Francisco: 66 miles (about 1.5 hours by car)
Want to see the giant, ancient redwood trees that the northern regions of California are known for? You’ll certainly find them in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park and a California Historical Landmark.
Just south of the city and opposite Castle Rock State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the more than 18,000 acres of woods here are home to the largest continuous stand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco. The climates and ecosystems in the park range from damp and often foggy near the coast to sunny and warm in the heights.
The park is home to several campsites, some of which require you to bring a tent and others fully equipped with cabins. Even if you don’t stay the night, there are a number of waterfalls and loop trails that are easily doable in a day’s hike or less. Certain summits provide ocean views when clouds aren’t present.
Once you’ve had enough time with the giant trees and peaceful forests, a few vineyards and wineries can be found just outside the park in the mountainous countryside. The town of Redwood Grove is home to a few, plus some great restaurants and cafés.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Fallbrook, California
20. Mendocino National Forest
Distance from San Francisco: 140 miles (about 2.5 hours by car)
There are nearly one million acres of rugged, mountainous wilderness that the Mendocino National Forest protects. It’s also the only one of all of California’s national forests to not be crossed by a paved road, so this is truly a place to get off the grid in your escape from San Francisco.
The closest point to reach the forest is its southeastern edge in the Sacramento Valley foothills, near Clear Lake and the towns that surround it. From there, you should be ready to do some off-road driving, if not hiking, biking, or horseback riding.
In fact, the Mendocino National Forest is a bit of an off-roader’s paradise. There are many dirt roads and trails suitable for jeeps and other 4x4s, dirt bikes, and quads, for example. That’s not all, though – these forests have vast spaces for activities like hunting, fishing, boating, picnicking, and more.
There are many forests and wildernesses within the park to consider, based on the massive size of the whole preserve. The Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Forest in the north of the park is where you can find some of its highest peaks of over 7,000 feet in elevation, while the Sanhedrin Wilderness in the west does not have any developed trails, providing for a really remote experience.
21. Reno, Nevada
Distance from San Francisco: 220 miles (about 3.5 hours by car)
Trying to get out of the Golden State for your day trip? Well, the Silver State is just to the east and is your best bet – specifically, the city of Reno. While it will take you more than three hours to get there by car, the trip can be made in a day or turned into a weekend getaway.
Known as “The Biggest Little City in the World,” Reno is comparable to Las Vegas in some ways, but Reno loyalists will tell you it is much more enjoyable. There are neon lights and casinos here too, and many visitors do come to try their luck at the games and crawl the bars.
Outdoor activities are available on the Truckee River, Pyramid Lake, and the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Winter activities like an ATV and snowmobile adventure are available in the cold months, making Reno a year-round destination.
If you’re staying a bit longer than a day, the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino is an iconic place to stay and have fun in Reno. Lake Tahoe is just south of the city and easily combined with it on a weekend in the region, and the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa, & Casino may be the perfect place to stay on the Nevada side.
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Distance from San Francisco: 190 miles (about 2.75 hours by car)
Take a ride into the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, another major agricultural production region of California, and you’ll find the city of Fresno in the middle. While it’s the fifth largest city in California, Fresno has a small-town vibe that makes visitors feel welcome.
There are plenty of fun things to do in Fresno, ranging from historical to adventurous. One of the most famous, by far, is the Forestiere Underground Gardens. This underground complex was hand-dug by an Italian immigrant who was experimenting to find ways to escape the summer heat and also grow crops. Today, its 65 chambers and gardens under the ground are open for exploration.
Other popular attractions include the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, which has a wide variety of animal displays like giraffes and otters, and the Island Waterpark, a great place to cool off in the summertime. You’ll find breweries, cafés, and restaurants serving local food and drinks throughout town.
Fresno is a popular starting point for visitors to the nearby Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park. If you’re headed to one or both of those beautiful places, consider staying the night in Fresno. The Holiday Inn Express Fresno South has free parking and free breakfast.
23. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Distance from San Francisco: 150 miles (about 2.5 hours by car)
Many travelers have the famous Big Sur on their to-do list, and this rugged region is certainly accessible on a day trip from San Francisco. The Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park encompasses one thousand acres of the expanse and is a great place to journey inside it.
The only real way to get to the park is by driving the Pacific Coast Highway about 45 minutes south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. It’s a beautiful stretch of coastline that is very enjoyable to drive, and some people make this their activity of choice in Big Sur. You can download a Pacific Coast Highway self-drive tour for this section of the road.
But if you choose to park your car and head out on foot in this State Park, some gorgeous sights await. Most visitors like to follow the trails along the rivers and creeks, leading to scenic gorges and waterfalls. There are views across the valleys and ridges after a bit of climbing as well.
Just past the park on the highway is the town of Posts, a small community among the rugged terrain. Stop by for some classic American barbecue at one of the few local restaurants, or take a look inside one of the art galleries.
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Distance from San Francisco: 220 miles (about 3.25 hours by car)
Another relatively small city that serves as a regional capital is Redding, a bit over three hours north of San Francisco. Sitting on the Sacramento River, it was a population center during the 19th-century gold rush, as the tributaries nearby proved somewhat successful in finding gold.
One of the biggest draws to the town is the Turtle Bay Exploration Park. This is a place with many individual attractions, such as an arboretum and botanical gardens, a museum, a wildlife center, and a trail along the river. The Sundial Bridge across the river on its grounds is a local icon and, besides functioning as a bridge, is a giant, working sundial.
There is plenty of outdoor fun to be had in and near Redding as well. The Whiskeytown National Recreation Area offers camping, hiking, and fishing on a large lake on the outskirts of town. Explorers looking for a challenge can take the trail around the Mount Shasta Mine Loop.
The Shasta State Historic Park is one of the best things to do near Redding. It’s the ruins of a 19th-century gold mining village, providing a unique and authentic look into the past of the Wild West. Explore the museum, jail, blacksmith shop, bakery, and other restored brick buildings that are now protected sites.
25. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Distance from San Francisco: 240 miles (about 3.5 hours by car)
While San Francisco may be the closest major city to Hawaii, you don’t need to fly all the way to the Aloha State to get your volcano fix. Lassen Volcanic National Park is just east of Redding and reachable from the Bay Area, and while you won’t see live lava here, there are some pretty amazing sights.
This national park is one of a handful of places in the world where all four types of volcanos can be found. Plug dome, shield, cinder cone, and stratovolcano types are all within its limits. Lassen Peak dominates the landscape and is the largest plug dome volcano in the world.
The area surrounding Lassen Peak is highly active, with thermal springs, steam vents, and boiling mud pools throughout. Bumpass Hell is one of the most popular places to see in the park, where acres of boiling mud cover the surface and can be observed from a deck above.
Elsewhere, you can find moonlike lava landscapes covering the mountainsides that might fool you into thinking you are on the Big Island of Hawaii. Looking higher above, you’ll see several permanent snow fields on the mountains that contrast the fiery activity taking place underground. Don’t miss this wild experience and hidden gem in northern California.
See Related: Best Things to do in Hawaii & Places to Visit
Where can I go for a day trip in the Bay Area?
If you’re looking to stay within the Bay Area, there are several day-trip options. Angel Island or the Golden Gate National Recreation Area make for great outdoor adventures, while San Jose and Sacramento are nice city breaks that make for great day trips from San Francisco by train.
Is Yosemite National Park a day trip from San Francisco?
One of the best day trips from the Bay Area, California is certainly Yosemite National Park. While it’s about a three-hour drive each way, early risers can definitely fit in a full day of sightseeing in this beautiful place, while spending a night or two makes for one of the best weekend getaways in northern California.
Do you need a car for day trips from San Francisco?
If you are looking to make some day trips from San Francisco without a car, there are a few options, such as going to San Jose or Sacramento by train. You can also take a series of buses to places like Half Moon Bay, Napa Valley, or Santa Cruz, but it will take longer than having a car.
Can you visit Lake Tahoe on a day trip from San Francisco?
The California shores of Lake Tahoe come in at just over three hours from San Francisco, making the crystal clear waters and exciting ski slopes within reach for a day trip. You’ll want to get an early start if you are returning same-day, but there are many hotels and vacation rentals along Tahoe in case you decide to spend a few nights.