The San Francisco Bay Area is a metropolitan area in Northern California that comprises San Francisco and the eight surrounding counties, with more than 7.75 million people. The area is known for being one of the most ethnically diverse in the United States and is known for its amazing food and laid back coastal atmosphere. There are also many National and State Parks in the area which is very ecologically diverse as well and home to many endangered and threatened species. Because the Bay Area is so expansive, there are many places that make for an ideal day trip in the region.
Just seventy miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz County offers lots of surf, sand, and redwood forest-covered mountains, and fourteen state parks, that will delight visitors who love the great outdoors. Santa Cruz is also popular for its organic farms, beer, and wine scene which has produced some of the most amazing farm-to-table restaurants anywhere in California. Many of the attractions in Santa Cruz revolve around the water and beaches, including the Beach Boardwalk, which was where cult classic movie, “The Lost Boys” ¸ and horror thriller, “Us” was filmed. Roaring Camp Railroads is another great attraction that offers a glimpse into Santa Cruz's history while touring the redwood by steam engine.
Travelers who love garlic can visit Gilroy, the "Garlic Capital of the World," all year round. The town is known for the Gilroy Garlic Festival held annually on the last weekend of July and is one of the largest food festivals in the United States. Many people who visit Gilroy like to explore the wine trails, farmer's market and stands, vibrant nightlife, and restaurants. Visitors can also see the only horticultural theme park in California at Gilroy Gardens, shop at Garlic World, and The Garlic Shoppe for gourmet garlic themed gifts and edibles, or picnic at one of the wineries. There are also many outdoor activities to enjoy, including spending time on the lake and hiking the Mummy Mountain Trail at Harvey Bear Ranch County Park; or enjoy the outdoor festivals that happen all year long.
Alcatraz Island is one of the most notorious places in the United States and is located in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The island was used as a military reservation in 1850, with troops permanently garrisoned there by 1859. Alcatraz is most famous however due to its use as a U.S. Penitentiary from 1934-1963. The prison was built as a response to the high rise in public crime during the prohibition era. From 1969-1971 a group of Native American tribes’ members occupied the island and laid claim to the land. The protest garnered change in federal law that saved tribal culture.
Visitors to Alcatraz can participate in mostly self-guided tours of the prison or the free programs that often happen on the island. These educational programs cover topics such as Escapes from Alcatraz, the military history of the island, and the Native Occupation, as well as natural history of the Bay Area. Ferries depart every half hour during daylight hours.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, B201 Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA
4.Angel Island State Park
Visitors to Angel Island State Park, the largest island in the Bay Area, can gain access by ferry or private boat from 8am to sunset. Ferries leave from San Francisco, Alameda, Tiburon, and Oakland; however, ferry service is limited during the winter. There are no dogs allowed on the island, and roller skates, skateboards, and scooters are prohibited as well. Campsites are available for overnight camping, but campers must use charcoal grills as food fires are not permitted. The island is rugged, and the waters are very choppy and hazardous for swimming. Visitors should take caution as there are no lifeguards. Most visitors come to the island to hike the summit of Mt. Caroline Livermore.
5.Armstrong Redwood State Reserve
Armstrong Redwoods State Park was open to the public in 1936 and named after the Armstrong family who the land was in possession of since the 1870s. The reserve is 805 acres and features several notable trees such as the Colonel Armstrong Trees, which is 1,400 years old and the Parson Jones Tree, which stands taller than the length of a football field at 310 feet.
Most visitors to the reserve hike the interpretive trails, including The Discovery Trail, which features a Tree Hugging Platform and is wheelchair accessible. The Armstrong Nature Trail is also paved and has interpretive exhibits in Braille. The individual trails at this reserve are short, but when they are combined, visitors can hike for around five and a half miles. One of the trails connects to the Austin Creek State Recreation Center, which is adjacent to the Reserve and has twenty miles of trails.
17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville, CA, 95446, Phone: 707-869-2015
The Big Sur makes a perfect day trip for people who love driving up the California coast. This section of coastal Highway 1 is ninety miles long and stretches from Carmel-by-the-sea through the redwoods and waterfront to Hearst Castle. There are several places to pull over along the way where travelers can take in the gorgeous ocean views, the phenomenal Bixby Bridge, and watch for birds like the California Condor, which is endangered, or whales and sea otters. Campgrounds and hotels also dot the highway along with iconic restaurants and boutiques in places like the Santa Lucia Mountain towns. Art galleries and popup showcases are also found along the highway along with the Henry Miller Memorial Library and a Japanese style bath called The Sur House, which also has a restaurant. The Esalen Institute offers massages, a hot springs spa, and dance classes.
Nestled along the sandy beaches of northern California is a charming, European village where visitors can walk to art galleries, boutiques, inns, shops, and more with people from all over the world. The town has been named as a Top 10 Travel Destination and is the perfect place to go for a quiet day away in the Bay Area. The hotels and inns in the area are known for their sustainable practices without the use of flashy neon lights, and no national chains offered.
Carmel is a great place to visit for perusing wineries, spending a day at the spa, shopping, visiting art galleries, and attending special events such as holiday markets, the annual city Birthday Party and Parade, and numerous cultural and arts events. Many of the spas and inns also host retreats and fitness events.
Central California Gold Country is found along the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, where the discovery of gold launched a national migration to the west coast of people hoping to strike it rich in the foothills. Visitors to Gold Country can explore the Old West in historic towns, pan for gold, and even go white water rafting. They can also dine at gourmet farm-to-table restaurants, or spend the afternoon tasting wine at the local vineyards or shopping in the surrounding towns. One of the best ways to experience California’s Gold Country is to cruise along the Golden Chain Highway on historic Highway 49, stopping at the local boutiques, restaurants, and inns along the way.
9.Half Moon Bay
Visitors to California who want to see some of the tallest and oldest trees on earth can visit Half Moon Bay on the San Mateo County Coastside. Visitors get both sandy, golden beaches, and the iconic redwood forest, all within 300 acres of countryside. Visitors may enjoy hiking in Ano Nuevo State Park, visiting Half Moon Bay’s Main Reserve, or strolling through the redwood forest. Visitors can also horseback ride, spend the day at one of many spas, charter a boat to go fishing, cruise along the wine trails, or enjoy art galleries, local shops, and festivals all year round.
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Some of the best shopping and dining in the Bay Area is had in Los Gatos, a charming, pedestrian-friendly, historic, small town. Visitors love shopping in Los Gatos during the holiday season, especially when there is free valet parking downtown with no time limits and holiday events happening frequently. There are many charming locally owned boutiques that offer specialty and gift items, beauty brands, toys, art, home furnishing and more. There are four hotels all within walking distance of Downtown Los Gatos for visitors who want to stay for more than just the day.
Visitors can get the best of everything California has to offer in Mendocino County, including ocean coastline, forest, and a great city vibe with fantastic shopping, dining, and spa experiences. Mendocino offers more than ninety miles of coastline and some of the best beaches in California. Visitors can hike through old-growth redwood forests, explore the vineyards, go boating on inland rivers and lakes, or even venture into the snow-capped mountains in the Yolla Bolly Wilderness. There’s also a vibrant performing arts community with theater and music performances often happening at one of the five theaters in Mendocino County.
One of the best road trips in the country, Big Sur on Highway 1, takes visitors through Monterey County, where there are great shops and attractions, especially along Cannery Row, the former Ocean View Avenue. Monterey County is known for its wineries and tasting rooms, surfing, and golf courses, as well as the magnificent Carmel Beach. Some of the best attractions in Monterey County include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Pebble Beach, historic missions, Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, and the National Steinbeck Center. Some of the best times to visit Monterey County are during one of the acclaimed special events, including the Carmel Beach Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, or Monterey Car Week.
13.Muir Woods National Monument
Visitors looking for a way to disconnect, leave their phones behind, and get in touch with nature can explore Muir Woods National Monument, where there is no cell phone reception or internet available. The Muir Woods National Monument is open every day of the year from 8am to sunset and offers a parking and shuttle reservation system which visitors are now required to use to access the park. The visitor center offers passes to the park, a bookstore, and people available to answer questions and provide information. There is a café, The Muir Woods Trading Company, and Café, which offers food and drinks. There are no pets allowed in Muir Woods.
1 Muir Woods Rd., Mill Valley, CA, 94941, phone: 415-561-2850
Napa Valley is one of the most iconic places in California and is known for its amazing wine and food. The Napa Valley is made up of nine towns—Calistoga, Angwin, Lake Berryessa, St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville, Napa, and American Canyon. All but Angwin and lake Berryessa are located along Highway 29. Wine tasting is one of the most popular things to do in the valley, but visitors also enjoy the spas and resorts, golf courses, museums, Public Market in Napa, and has many outdoor adventures like hiking, watersports, and climbing. One of the most popular outdoor activities to do for families in Napa Valley is visiting the Petrified Forest in Calistoga and the many parks in the area.
15.Pescadero Marsh Nature Preserve
© Brian E Kushner/stock.adobe.com
The Pescadero Marsh Nature Preserve spans 235 acres of Pescadero State Beach along Highway 1 and is the only large wetland along the San Francisco Peninsula coast. The preserve includes five different habitats, including tidal estuary riparian woods, scrub, and two different marshes, and a trail that leads visitors through them all. During nice weather docents from the visitor’s center lead two hour walks on the first and third Sundays of the month. Kayaking, seasonal fishing, birdwatching, and hiking are the main activities that people enjoy at Pescadero Marsh, and there are four trails to explore. The march is undeveloped and does not have handicap accessible trails. Toilets are available only in the parking lots. Dogs, foraging, and fires are not allowed.
Pescadero State Beach, New Year’s Creek Road, Pescadero, CA, Phone: 650-593-3281
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is one of the most beautiful of all 280 California State Parks and features picturesque vistas amid unique geological formations and rare plant communities on both land and sea. The reserve is located on the central coast of California with an entrance on Highway 1 and just 125 miles from San Francisco. Point Lobos is open all year round from 8 am to 7 pm with daily entrance fees for cars. Only 150 vehicles can be accommodated, and the popularity of the park means that some people have to park on the highway and walk-in. The climate in Point Lobos is similar to the Mediterranean, and guided walks are available where guides will point out great spots to view harbor seals and sea lions, otters, whales, and lots of different birds.
62 CA-1, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923, Phone: 866-338-7227
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17.Point Reyes and Tomales Bay
The Point Reyes National Seashore is a 33,300-acre coastal park with estuaries, beaches, forest, and marshland habitats are available for visitors to explore. The San Andreas Fault also runs through Point Reyes, and visitors can see examples of how the movement of the fault line has affected the landscape. There are three visitor centers—Bear Valley near the Highway 1 Entrance, the lighthouse, and Drakes Beach, where people can find maps, information, toilets, and find out weather conditions and forecasts. Other sites at Point Reyes include the Kule Loklo Coast Miwok Indian Village, Pierce Ranch, and Alamere Falls at Wildcat Beach.
Sausalito is just north of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge along Highway 101 with two miles of sunny shoreline and charming cafes and boutiques. The small bay town is usually accessed from San Francisco via a walk, bike, or drive across the Golden Gate Bridge or ferry trip across the harbor. Sausalito is an artsy town full of galleries, restaurants, and writers, but is also very industrial with a thriving harbor economy. Visitors to Sausalito can take houseboat tours, which are one of the main attractions or check out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Bay Model. The working model of the San Francisco Bay is hydraulic and spans over an acre.
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At the crossroads where State Highways 12 and 16 meet, there is a rural community called Sebastopol that is a nuclear-free zone with a rich history in agriculture, including Luther Burbank’s Experiment Farm. Over 800 varieties of products were developed on this farm in the late 19th century. The town also has a thriving fine arts community and is known for its many practitioners of the healing arts, sustainable living, and outdoor recreation. Visitors to Downtown Sebastopol can enjoy fine dining, cafes, art galleries, boutiques and retailers, health and wellness centers, New Age stores, and more. One of the most popular areas of downtown Sebastopol is Antique Row, where there are many antique and thrift stores.
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People who love to keep up to date with the latest and greatest in technology and scientific advancement will love spending a day in Silicon Valley. The area is home to technology giants such as Apple, Google, Uber, and Facebook, with thousands of tourists coming to the valley each year. The metropolitan city has a population of four million and has lots to do, including a visit to Stanford University, the Tesla Motors Show Room, HP Garage, and the Google Visitors Center at the Google Headquarters, although Google attractions are limited to employees and their families. Visitors can also go to the Computer History Museum, NASA Exploration Center, and Fry’s Electronics.
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Visitors to the Bay Area looking for a scenic road trip with less traffic than Big Sur Highway 1 can explore the Skyline Boulevard where they can take in mountain views, and brave narrow, curvy roads just forty minutes outside of San Francisco. There are several places to pull over and view the amazing scenery on the Skyline Boulevard, including the San Mateo Peninsula and the lush riparian forests. Visitors can also enjoy hiking and mountain biking at El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve near Skeggs Point Turnout or take a break at one of the quaint roadside diners.
One of the U.S.’s greatest leaders of sustainable tourism is the Sonoma Valley of California. Less than an hour north of San Francisco, the valley is a perfect getaway for visitors looking to experience shopping, hiking, biking, and arts and culture, amidst a backdrop of wineries and vineyards stretching seventeen miles right next to Napa Valley.
Sonoma is considered the birthplace of modern Cali and is also known as “wine country.” Most people who think of Sonoma picture urban bohemians, farmers, and lush landscapes. Visitors can also enjoy historic walking tours, botanical gardens, visit the state parks, or take part in a retreat at one of the spas or wellness centers.
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Right next to Mt. Tamalpais State Park, just twenty minutes from San Francisco, is Stinson Beach, a popular beach for locals day-tripping from the Bay Area. Visitors to beach can take boat tours for whale and dolphin watching, hike or walk the beach, have picnic, go treasure hunting, collect shells, surf, fish, and swim, along with other water sports and recreation. The water at the beach is relatively shallow and calm and great for families with young children. Other points of interest nearby include Audubon Canyon Ranch, Martin Griffin Preserve, Point Reyes Lighthouse, Bolinas Lagoon Preserve, Red Rock Beach, and Mt. Tamalpais State Park.
24.Yosemite National Park
Founded in 1864, the 1200 square miles of Yosemite is one of the most beloved National Parks in the United States. Visitors to the park can camp, hike, or explore the wilderness. There are guided hikes, interpretive programs, and ranger programs available for visitors. Tours by trolley are also available for visitors who prefer not to walk or hike. Birdwatching, fishing, and horseback riding are also popular activities, as well as rock climbing, which Yosemite is world-famous for. Winter sports such as skiing and snowshoeing are also available seasonally. Yosemite National Park also has one of the darkest skies in the country, making it ideal for stargazing.
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24 Best Bay Area Day Trips
- Santa Cruz, Photo: Richard/stock.adobe.com
- Gilroy, Photo: Andrei/stock.adobe.com
- Alcatraz Island, Photo: jovannig/stock.adobe.com
- Angel Island State Park, Photo: kwphotog/stock.adobe.com
- Armstrong Redwood State Reserve, Photo: Alexei/stock.adobe.com
- Big Sur, Photo: Maks_Ershov/stock.adobe.com
- Carmel-By-Sea, Photo: Andrei/stock.adobe.com
- Gold Country, Photo: lunamarina/stock.adobe.com
- Half Moon Bay, Photo: diak/stock.adobe.com
- Los Gatos, Photo: Andrei/stock.adobe.com
- Mendocino, Photo: Melastmohican/stock.adobe.com
- Monterey, Photo: vadiml/stock.adobe.com
- Muir Woods National Monument, Photo: Andrei/stock.adobe.com
- Napa Valley, Photo: bbourdages/stock.adobe.com
- Pescadero Marsh Nature Preserve, Photo: Brian E Kushner/stock.adobe.com
- Point Lobos, Photo: susanne2688/stock.adobe.com
- Point Reyes and Tomales Bay, Photo: lemanieh/stock.adobe.com
- Sausalito, Photo: Crin/stock.adobe.com
- Sebastopol, Photo: Kirk/stock.adobe.com
- Silicon Valley, Photo: Andrei/stock.adobe.com
- Skyline Boulevard, Photo: Andrei/stock.adobe.com
- Sonoma Valley, Photo: Erika/stock.adobe.com
- Stinson Beach, Photo: Tupungato/stock.adobe.com
- Yosemite National Park, Photo: diegograndi/stock.adobe.com
- Cover Photo: Melastmohican/stock.adobe.com