1. Yosemite National Park, 2. Seaside Towns of Carmel and Monterey, 3. Santa Cruz and the Beach Boardwalk, 4. Sausalito: Marinas & Scenic Walks, 5. University Town of Berkeley, 6. Muir Woods Hiking Trails and Muir Beach, 7. Half Moon Bay's Countryside & Beaches, 8. Stinson Beach and Dipsea Trail Hike, 9. Filoli Estate, 10. Mount Tamalpais. In an incomparable setting of rolling hills overlooking a sparkling emerald-green bay, San Francisco is close to some of California's most beautiful seaside towns and nature sites. Outside "The City" (as locals refer to San Francisco) are many fantastic destinations within easy reach, from 30-minute rides north or south along the coast to a four-hour drive to Yosemite that's definitely worth the travel time. Plan your excursions from the city with the list of the top best day trips from San Francisco.
- Yosemite National Park
- Seaside Towns of Carmel and Monterey
- Santa Cruz and the Beach Boardwalk
- Sausalito: Marinas & Scenic Walks
- University Town of Berkeley
- Muir Woods Hiking Trails and Muir Beach
- Half Moon Bay’s Countryside & Beaches
- Stinson Beach and Dipsea Trail Hike
- Filoli Estate
- Mount Tamalpais
Yosemite National Park
This magnificent corner of the Sierra Nevada Mountains boasts scenery so sublime that it seems impossible nature created the landscape unintentionally. The awe-inspiring landscape is full of marvelous surprises: 1,000-foot waterfalls, crystalline lakes, flower-blanketed meadows, and old-growth sequoia forests. It’s also home to 250 bird species, black bears, coyotes, chipmunks, and endangered bighorn sheep. With 750 miles of nature trails in six different areas, the UNESCO-listed, 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park abounds with opportunities for outdoor activities, especially hiking the spectacular trails. Other things to do at Yosemite include bird-watching, horseback riding, lake fishing year-round, river fishing from April through November, and skiing in the wintertime.
If relaxation is more of a priority than adventure, picnicking and photography allow visitors to soak up the scenery at a slower pace. Yosemite is nearly 200 miles from San Francisco, and getting there from the city is a long drive for a day trip. Many tourists delight in spending a few nights at one of Yosemite’s top campgrounds or at cozy rustic-chic accommodations like the Yosemite Valley Lodge and The Ahwahnee hotel. If you only have one day to visit, it’s a good idea to take an organized excursion. One recommended tour is the Yosemite National Park full-day trip that includes transportation to and from San Francisco, as well as a guided tour of Yosemite’s top attractions. Therefore, it is considered to be one of the best day trips from San Francisco.
Address: California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, California, United States
Phone: +1 209-372-0200
Entrance fee: Individual (on foot, horseback, or bus): $15/week; Motorcycle: $30/week; Automobile: $35/week
Google rating: 4.8/5.0
Seaside Towns of Carmel and Monterey
Nestled along the stunning Carmel Bay, the seaside village of Carmel (120 miles south of San Francisco) is one of California’s most romantic getaway destinations. The secluded Carmel Beach is prized for its pillowy, fine white sand framed by windswept cypress trees. Carmel offers plenty of tourist appeal and things to do. The town itself is an attraction, because of its fairy-tale cottages, upscale art galleries, cute little boutiques, and fine-dining restaurants. Visitors can choose from a wide variety of bed-and-breakfast and luxury hotels.
Another of the top places to visit in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, especially beloved by kids, who adore seeing the incredible sea life, penguins, and otters. Not to be missed when visiting Carmel and Monterey is the stretch of California’s oceanfront Highway One between the two towns, known as the 17-Mile Drive. This 17-mile portion of the Pacific Coast Highway (California State Route 1) is considered one of the most beautiful drives on the West Coast.
Address: Ocean Ave and Scenic Rd Carmel, CA 93923
Phone: +1 800-882-8142
Entrance fee: no entrance fee
Google rating: 4.5/5.0
Santa Cruz and the Beach Boardwalk
This balmy beach-town playground on the Monterey Bay exudes carefree, fun-in-the-sun vibes. Just 70 miles south (a two-hour drive) of San Francisco, Santa Cruz draws many visitors in summertime to its historic Beach Boardwalk amusement park. Fronting the Beach Boardwalk is Main Beach (also known as Boardwalk Beach), a wide shoreline with shallow waters ideal for swimming, bodyboarding, and paddleboarding. The Main Beach is also a great place for sunbathing, building sandcastles, and playing beach volleyball. And it is one of the best day trips from San Francisco.
More remote beaches, like Sunset State Beach and Natural Bridges Beach offer peace and serenity. Other top tourist attractions in Santa Cruz include the Santa Cruz Mission, built in the late 18th century by Spanish missionaries; the downtown area for shopping and eating out; and the Santa Cruz Wharf for spotting sea lions, fishing, or dining at a seafood restaurant. For families with kids, Roaring Camp Railroads train rides offer a thrilling experience. The train rides take passengers through redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Address: 400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, United States
Phone: +1 831-423-5590
Google rating: 4.6/5.0
Sausalito: Marinas & Scenic Walks
The scenic ferry ride from San Francisco’s ferry building is a wonderful way to arrive at the seaside town of Sausalito in Marin County. This 30-minute boat ride has been called one of the most exciting ferry rides in the world. It offers sensational views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Angel Island before arriving in the peaceful harbor of Sausalito. Sheltered from the fog by the rolling hills of the Marin Headlands, Sausalito has pleasant sunny weather and idyllic scenery.
Visitors will enjoy spending a leisurely afternoon strolling the historic downtown of Sausalito, an inviting place for window shopping and al fresco dining by the marinas. The town’s quaint, pastel-painted, Victorian-era buildings are filled with interesting boutiques, art galleries, ice-cream shops, cafés, and restaurants. Another of Sausalito’s highlights is the walking path along Bridgeway, which features views of the yacht-filled marinas and San Francisco skyline. This pedestrian pathway is one of the best places to visit in the SF Bay Area for vistas of the bay and The City.
Address: Sausalito, CA 94965, United States
Phone: +1 415-331-1540
Entrance fee: $28
University Town of Berkeley
The campus of this celebrated university town is perched on a hilltop with views of the bay and backed by a grove of redwood trees. Adding to the serenity is the babbling Strawberry Creek. Impressive classical-style buildings house the university’s classrooms, libraries, and research centers. The emblematic Sather Tower is one of the world’s tallest bell towers and affords amazing views of San Francisco Bay from its observation platform.
Berkeley is also well known for its culture, theater, and foodie scene. Visitors can watch a Pulitzer-Prize-winning show and then dine in the Gourmet Ghetto, home to the famous Chez Panisse bistro that started the local, organic farm-to-table cuisine movement. Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters is credited with changing food culture in America. Other top tourist attractions in Berkeley include the Botanical Garden and the Lawrence Hall of Science. For families with kids, Tilden Park is a favorite spot. Children love the small working farm, steam train ride, and old-fashioned merry-go-round. To sum up, it is one of the best day trips from San Francisco.
Phone: +1 510-642-6000
Entrance fee: free
Google rating: 4.0/5.0
Muir Woods Hiking Trails and Muir Beach
A short drive north (16 miles) of San Francisco is an exceptional nature site, the Muir Woods National Monument. 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 old-growth coastal redwood forests in Northern California and is appreciated for its magnificent scenery. Hikers relish the peaceful and refreshingly shaded trails that meander through fern-fringed creek banks, canopies of giant redwood trees, and groves of fragrant bay laurels.
It’s possible to take another three-mile trail from Muir Woods down to the Pacific Ocean at Muir Beach. This sandy beach offers camping sites and picnic areas. Nearby is The Pelican Inn, where you can grab a hearty meal of authentic English country cuisine before taking the hike back to Muir Woods. Due to the crowds and limited space, Muir Woods National Monument requires that visitors make a reservation in advance for paid parking or for a shuttle bus ride. Many tourists find that it’s easier to leave the driving and parking to a tour guide. One recommendation is the Muir Woods and Sausalito Half-Day Tour, which departs from San Francisco.
Address: Muir Beach, CA, United States
Phone: +1 415-561-4700
Entrance fee: $15
Google rating: 4.7/5.0
Half Moon Bay’s Countryside & Beaches
The small rural town of Half Moon Bay nestles along the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by forests and farmlands, just 30 miles south of San Francisco. Although it’s close to The City, this coastal community has retained its country ambience. Pumpkin patches, ranches, and vegetable farms cover the hillsides that slope down to the beach. Spectacular sandy beaches extend for miles along the Half Moon Bay coastline. Many visitors come to take nature walks along the shoreline, while surfers wearing wetsuits brave the frigid waters and powerful waves.
One of the highlights of Half Moon Bay is the historic downtown, which has many locally owned shops and excellent restaurants, as well as casual cafés and eateries. You’ll find a wide selection of restaurants, where you can grab a hearty meal after an invigorating walk on the beach or hike along coastal bluffs. A favorite time of year to visit Half Moon Bay is in October for pumpkin picking and for the Pumpkin Festival in mid-October. It promises to be one of the best day trips from San Francisco.
Address: 12 Young Ave, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019, United States
Phone: +1 650-726-8819
Stinson Beach and Dipsea Trail Hike
On sunny days, Stinson Beach is a popular day-trip destination in Marin County, 23 miles north of San Francisco (allow at least one 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 on a winding two-lane road that hugs the coastline and traverses the Steep Ravine Canyon. The drive requires concentration at the hairpin turns, but it rewards with striking ocean vistas. All the effort feels worth it upon catching sight of the little piece of paradise at Stinson Beach.
Protected by the hillside, the 3.5-mile-long sandy shoreline at Stinson Beach is ideal for sunbathing, jogging, windsurfing, beach volleyball, and picnicking. Swimming is possible, however not always recommended due to dangerous rip currents and frigid waters. Surfers and body boarders ride the waves wearing wetsuits. From Memorial Day until Labor Day, lifeguards patrol the beach. (Be sure to check with lifeguards about safety before entering the water to swim.) Next to the beach is a shady area with picnic tables and barbecue grills, as well as restrooms and shower facilities.
Address: Walla Vista, Stinson Beach, CA 94970, United States
Phone: +1 415-868-0942
Entrance fee: no fee
The Filoli Estate is a hidden gem 30 miles south of San Francisco, tucked away in a pastoral landscape with the densely wooded Santa Cruz Mountains as a backdrop. The 654-acre estate is registered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With a grandeur that rivals Europe’s finest estates, Filoli boasts gracious architecture, lavish rooms, and splendid grounds that have made it a top choice for film sets. The house was pictured in Dynasty, Heaven Can Wait, and George of the Jungle among other movies.
Filoli is renowned for its 16-acre formal gardens, landscaped in the English Renaissance style with perfectly manicured hedges, terraces, decorative pools, fountains, flower beds, and a rose garden. Pleasant pathways and parterres invite visitors to wander and admire the ever-changing array of seasonal plants and blossoms, from colorful tulips in early spring to vibrant chrysanthemums in autumn. The Filoli Nature Preserve includes a trail system of 22 hiking paths, only accessible on docent-led hikes, but visitors may take self-guided hikes on the Nature Preserve’s one-mile loop Estate Trail.
Address: 86 Canada Road, Woodside, California
Phone: (650) 364-8300
Entrance fee: $20 for adults, $15 for seniors 65 and over, $10 for children between 5-17, and free for children under 5
Just 22 miles north of San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais State Park delights nature lovers with a 60-mile network of park trails. The hiking paths meander through refreshing redwood groves and oak woodlands overlooking deep ravines, forested hillsides, and sweeping grasslands. And it is Mount Tamalpais which is one of the best day trips from San Francisco. Those seeking a challenge may hike to the summit at 2,571 feet for breathtaking views. On a clear day, the outlook extends all the way to the Farallon Islands, 25 miles out in the Pacific Ocean, as well as to San Francisco and across the San Francisco Bay to the cities of Berkeley and Oakland.
Mount Tamalpais is a place of exceptional natural beauty year-round. During the rainy season (October until March), gurgling creeks and rushing waterfalls add to the peaceful environment. From February until May, vibrant wildflowers blossom throughout the park. Whale-watching is possible during the migration season, from November to April. On warm summer days, many visitors enjoy picnicking in the park’s shaded picnic areas. For the views, the East Peak summit picnic area astounds with its 360-degree panoramas.
Address: 3801 Panoramic Hwy, Mill Valley, CA 94941, United States
Phone: +1 415-388-2070