Wave-beaten bluffs. Pristine emerald lakes. Rolling vineyards. Northern California has no shortage of eye candy within driving distance. And hey, who doesn’t love a good road trip? (Cue Thelma & Louise.) Here, our picks for the best getaways within four hours of your San Francisco home base.
Best of The Coast
The route: Wind your way down Highway 1 for 140 miles (about three hours) to the tiny seaside town of Big Sur. The trip is worth it for the ride alone; you’ll soak up views of rugged bluffs and ocean as far as the eye can see. Just make sure the driver keeps her eyes on the narrow road. (Whoa, steep drop-offs…)
Where to eat: Reward yourselves with an afternoon treat at Big Sur Roadhouse, a rustic modern dining room serving up single-origin French-press coffee and hazelnut Boston cream pie.
Where to stay: Enjoy glamping under the stars at Ventana Campground, where you’ll sleep under a safari-style tent in a king-size bed.
Best of The Mountains
The route: Clocking in at about three and a half hours from SF, both shores of Lake Tahoe are buried in fluffy white powder—we’re talking record-high snowfalls. So if any winter activities—from skiing to sledding with the kids—are in your wheelhouse, you’d best get up there stat.
What to do: Try your hand at Squaw Valley night skiing for a serious thrill.
Where to stay: Book a room at the new Basecamp Hotel Tahoe City. Reserve the après-ski package and be treated to nightly s’mores, drink tokens, personal ski fitting and up to 20 percent off gear rentals.
Best of The Vineyards
The route: Skip the crowds in Napa and Sonoma for a more authentic wine-tasting experience farther afield. From the stretches of Inspiration Highway to the scenic back-road vibe of Highway 128 through Anderson Valley, you’ll get the same rolling vines and superb vino (Pinot Noir is the specialty here) minus the tourists.
Where to taste: Stop at big boys like Goldeneye and Roederer, but don’t forget to sip from the little guys, like Lula Cellars, Lichen Estate and Phillips Hill, too.
Where to stay: You’ll want to settle in for the night after a long day of wine tasting, and we recommend the funky Boonville Hotel.
Best of The Gold Rush
The route: Honor the state’s origins by making a trip to the heart of California’s Gold Country. Head 143 miles northeast of the city (about two and a half hours) to the sleepy town of Grass Valley.
What to do: Visit the Empire Mine State Historic Park for a glimpse back in time to the largest, richest gold mine in the state. While you’re there, walk the grounds of Bourne Cottage, an opulent estate modeled after the castles of 19th-century England.
Where to stay: For choice accommodations, drive south down Highway 49—leaving time for stops at antiques shops along the way—and spend the night at Eden Vale Inn, a posh seven-room bed-and-breakfast in Placerville.
Best of The Outdoors
The route: Just over two hours south of the city off of Highway 101 is Pinnacles, California’s newest national park. It’s an adventurer’s paradise with miles of trails leading to cliffs, crags and caves formed by an ancient volcano.
What to do: Start by squeezing through the narrow clefts of the park’s talus caves with a flashlight or headlamp leading the way. Then hike the High Peaks Trail (where you’ll gain 1,400 feet in elevation) for views down to the expansive grasslands and rock monoliths below. Look upward and you just may spot a California condor soaring above.
Where to stay: If you’re the rugged type, pitch a tent at one of the park’s 134 campsites. If not, shack up at the quaint Inn at the Pinnacles bed-and-breakfast, which has soaking tubs for a hot bath after a long day of hiking. (You earned it.)