Life

The Best National And State Park Getaways Near San Francisco, CA

Summer is on its way, and if you’re anything like me that means one thing: road trips. Specifically, to visit National and State Parks. Of course, with gas prices spiking, a road trip across the country may not be feasible. Luckily, you don’t necessarily have to travel far to have that summer road trip experience. There are parks just a short drive away from every major US city – some well known and some less so.

San Francisco is one of my favorite big cities in the US for spring and summer. It has so much to offer, from food to parties to incredible vistas. Even more importantly, it’s located near some of my top picks for parks and weekend road trip destinations across the country. You don’t have to travel far outside the city for any of them.

Here are the best road trips within just 200 miles of San Francisco:

Yosemite National Park – 170ish miles

Yosemite is one of the undisputed crown jewels of not just the National Park system, but of the United States as a whole. Stepping into the valley is like entering another world. But despite feeling removed from everything, Yosemite is just 170 miles or so from San Francisco.

With five entrances, you have options on your road trip – to say the least. The park encompasses 1,169 square miles – 94% of which is designated wilderness – and is home to some of the most iconic vistas of the American West.

What to do:

The options are nearly endless. With over 750 miles of trails in the Yosemite Wilderness, it’s an outdoor lover’s playground. The valley is legendary and worth at least a day of your time to just meander and absorb the incredible landscapes around you. Grab a drink and have the most memorable happy hour of your life on the banks of the Merced.

Head to Yosemite Falls Trail or try your luck at nabbing a permit to hike Half Dome.

But be aware: you’ll need a reservation to enter the park between 6am and 4pm from May 20 – September 30 this year. They are released March 23 here.

Where to stay:

This can be trickier than you might imagine. There are plenty of options ranging from campgrounds to short term rentals to traditional hotels and resorts, but they book up incredibly fast for a premium. There are also many rentals who advertise as being close to the park but that will actually add another hour or more onto your driving time.

I generally visit in the colder months and opt to stay in Oakhurst, which is just 16 miles from the Southern entrance of the park. Of course, once you enter the South entrance it is another 45 minutes to an hour drive to get into the valley – but I like this entrance. It will give you jaw dropping views of the valley and take you through the famous tunnel view on your way down. There are a few new major chain hotels in Oakhurst, but I often opt for the more quaint (and allegedly haunted) Sierra Sky Ranch.

Camping is available in the park, of course, but fills up extremely fast. This year there are no first-come, first-serve sites – all open campgrounds are reservation only. The system can be accessed here.

Point Reyes National Seashore – 43 miles

One of my absolute favorite places in the country to visit is just outside of the Bay Area but feels a world away. Point Reyes National Seashore, to me, is a fairytale come to life. From the rocky headlands and beautiful beaches (where you might catch a glimpse of an elephant seal!), to the infamous cypress tree tunnel – this National Seashore has it all.

Tucked away and unassuming, the transition from city to country happens fast. I could feel my stress melt away as I drove down the winding roads towards Tomales Bay on my recent trip. It is a must.

What to do:

What can’t you do around Point Reyes? Hike Divide Meadow or Mount Wittenberg, kayak on the sea, bike through the park, visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse, and Tule Elk Reserve. Spend some time exploring the four towns on the Peninsula: Bolinas, Olema, Inverness, and Point Reyes Station. I always stop in Bolinas and at the nearby Nicasio Valley Cheese Company when I’m in the area.

If you have time, try to stop and spend some time at Mount Tamalpais State Park on the drive out – just 37 miles from the city and 21 to Point Reyes. Muir Woods is also nearby.

Where to stay:

There are several small towns in the area with some bed and breakfasts, and some short term rentals. Camping is open at Bootjack and Pantoll campgrounds at Mount Tamalpais State Park as well as group camping and Steep Ravine Cabins.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – Big Sur – 140 miles

There is nothing quite like Big Sur. It’s the image that comes to my mind when dreaming of a California coastal road trip. And while it is fairly remote and undeveloped (with just 1800-2000 full-time residents on the 71 mile stretch of coastline) – it’s still just 140 miles from San Francisco, the perfect length for a short summer getaway.

What to do:

Big Sur has been famously detached from most cell service (although that is changing slightly) and with just one major road – highway 1 – the name of the game is solitude and peace. I always visit Pfeiffer Beach to roam around on the purple sand, then try to nab a spot at the outdoor bar seating at Nepenthe to enjoy a South Coast Margarita with a million-dollar view.

You’ll want to make time for McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – the quintessential California Coast photo op. Explore the park then head to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, and the Henry Miller Memorial Library.

Where to stay:

Big Sur can come with a big price tag. Due to the remote location, there aren’t a lot of options and airbnbs are very limited. There is some private and public camping – but it fills up fast. Camping on the road is illegal, so make sure to get your spot in advance. Or save your coins for a splurge like Ventana Big Sur or the Post Ranch Inn.

Mendocino Headlands State Park – Mendocino Coast – 155 miles

Travel north on the Pacific Coast Highway for another unforgettable short road trip to the Mendocino Coast. While it lacks some of the name recognition of others on this list, that is a good thing. Trust me. The Mendocino Coast encompasses Mendocino County – a county with over ninety miles of pristine coastline. Portions of the legendary undeveloped Lost Coast of California are located within Mendocino County, along with several quaint small towns, state parks, and the famous Glass Beach in Fort Bragg.

What to do:

Head to Mendocino Headlands State Park for some otherworldly beauty. Between the undeveloped bluffs, opportunities to whale watch, and trails, it is a peaceful respite. If you visit in July be sure to check out the eclectic Mendocino Music Festival. Another great option is the Big River Unit of the state park, where you can enter the wetlands to hike, canoe and kayak. It is just in between two other state parks – Mendocino Woodlands and Van Damme.

Where to stay:

There are lots of options for lodging and camping in the area. From resorts to bed and breakfasts to short term rentals – you can find nearly anything you need. I recommend looking in Fort Bragg. For camping, check out Hendy Woods State Park, Mendocino Woodlands State Park or the stylish glamping spot – Mendocino Grove.

Monterey/Carmel-by-the-sea – 120 miles

Winding down the PCH to the south are the coastal enclaves of Monterey and the aptly named Carmel-by-the-Sea. Just four miles apart, you can cover a lot of bases in both towns during a weekend escape. I prefer the quaint bohemian vibes of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where houses have names instead of addresses and Clint Eastwood is a former mayor. It is an interesting town to visit, but an even more beautiful natural area – with tons of beaches and state parks.

What to do:

I always visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel-by-the-Sea. It has the sort of coastline views that take your breath away, and hiking that will do the same. I recommend visiting China Cove, then taking a hike on Bird Island Trail, Moss Cove Trail or South Shore Trail.

Other great options are Asilomar State Beach on the Monterey Peninsula and Garrapata State Park – hike Soberanes Point and Whale Peak – make sure to keep an eye out for whales and dolphins.

Where to stay:

There are ample options for hotels and resorts, but like many beach destinations they can be pricey. There are some public and private campgrounds in the area, but book early!

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