Guerneville and Russian River Valley
Drive time from SF: 1.5 hours / 75 miles (120 kilometers)
A favorite vacation spot for LGBTQ travelers since the 70s, this once-sleepy town (outside of its long-running Lazy Bear Weekend and Women's Weekend events) has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years. Bay Area locals stay in Airstreams at luxury glamping retreat AutoCamp, sample farm-to-table cuisine at boon eat + drink, and divide their time between wine tasting along Westside Road, dog walking amid the old-growth Armstrong Redwoods, and floating down the river from Johnson’s Beach. Twenty minutes outside of town, the Sonoma Coast towns of Jenner and Bodega Bay (where Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed) are worthwhile additions to any weekend getaway itinerary.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Drive time from SF: 1.5 hours / 75 miles (120 kilometers)
Point Reyes National Seashore is an easy day trip from San Francisco, but stop and stay awhile and you'll find a multitude of reasons to return to its windswept coastline time and time again. On the drive over from SF, park up in Point Reyes Station town for provisions: Cowgirl Creamery is your go-to for cheese and charcuterie, Point Reyes Books is where you can stock up on reading material, Tony's Feed Barn brews the best coffee in town, and Bovine Bakery is a must-visit for homemade chai tea and pizza. En route from town to the seashore, drop in for tastings at Heidrun Meadery and Point Reyes Vineyards, and get your Tomales Bay oyster fix at Marshall Store (order the fish tacos, too) or Hog Island Oyster Co. Food and drink aside, make time to go hiking (if you only have time for one trail, make it Chimney Rock) and visit Tule Elk Preserve, the Cypress Tree Tunnel, Point Reyes Shipwreck, and 150-year-old Point Reyes Lighthouse.
Drive time from SF: 3 hours / 155 miles (250 kilometers)
Fog-laced beaches, redwoods, organic wine, and starry nights followed by crisp mornings—Mendocino County is quintessential Northern California. It’s the perfect place to get back to nature: Glass Beach, whose sands have been replaced by century-old trash (or mermaid tears, if you believe the legend) that’s been smoothed into sea glass, is the prime sunset-viewing location. Meanwhile, Mendocino Headlands, Russian Gulch, and Van Damme state parks are where you'll find the best hiking trails (and tide pools, if that's your thing). If a wine-tasting weekend’s more what you had in mind, head to Anderson Valley, and hit Baxter Winery for their pinot noirs, Drew Family Wines for their chardonnays, and Handley Cellars for their rosé.
Drive time from SF: 2.5 hours / 150 miles (241 kilometers)
It doesn’t get much more California Dreamin' than a road trip south on Highway 1 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH). Hit the road early to tie-in visits to cutesy Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey, and Point Lobos State Reserve. Plan to hit the highlights—Bixby Bridge, purple-sand Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park—and carve out a day for hiking. Don’t skip Nepenthe for drinks with a view, Henry Miller Memorial Library for book shopping or a gig, and Big Sur Bakery for coffee and baked goods or lunch. For the quintessential Big Sur camping weekend, book a spot at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, which reopened on November 17. If you’re planning a romantic getaway, try luxury coastal resorts Ventana Big Sur or Treebones Resort. Or if camping isn’t really your thing, Carmel is a great base for exploring the northern end of Big Sur.
Editor’s note: Check the California Department of Parks and Recreation website before planning your trip as some areas, including much of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, are closed.
Drive time from SF: 3 hours / 200 miles (322 kilometers)
Tahoe’s Big Blue makes it a popular vacation destination all year round. Summer on its shores is all about hiking and water sports (parasailing, kayaking, paddleboarding, and Emerald Bay cruises are great ways to get out on the water). It’s in winter though that most San Francisco and Bay Area locals head for this lake in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Squaw Valley, where the 1960 Winter Olympics was held, might be the most well-known ski resort. But it’s far from the only option: Sugar Bowl gets the freshest snow, Heavenly Mountain is where you’ll find the best après ski action, and Kirkwood offers fewer crowds and more challenging terrain. For the ultimate romantic winter weekend getaway activity, book a horse-drawn sleigh ride and admire the snowy scenery in a more remote part of the lake.
Yosemite National Park
Drive time from SF: 3.5 hours / 170 miles (274 kilometers)
One of the country’s most-visited national parks might not seem like the best place to visit during a pandemic, but with Yosemite’s new car reservation system and other crowd-limiting measures in place, there’s maybe no better time. Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Half Dome are the park’s rock stars, with easy hiking trails like Lower Yosemite Fall Loop, Cook’s Meadow Trail, and Mirror Lake (all of which happen to be dog-friendly) showing off their best sides. Book early to secure one of the limited camping spots inside the park (Upper Pines Campground is the only partially open campground), or look for cozy cabin accommodation in the Yosemite gateway towns of Mariposa, Groveland, or Fish Camp.
Drive time from SF: 1.5 hours / 75 miles (121 kilometers)
Santa Cruz has all the trappings of a Californian beach town: a boardwalk with retro amusements (it’s both the oldest amusement park in the state and the first to reopen since the pandemic started), a wooden pier, and gnarly surfing spots. But it’s the city’s artsy UC campus and heritage as ground zero for Ken Kesey’s first Acid Test that gives it its edge. Look beyond Santa Cruz’s obvious distractions and you’ll find a peaceful (or adventurous) mountain escape complete with a monarch butterfly grove, towering Big Basin redwoods, and activities ranging from wilderness survival training to mountain biking, and, of course, surfing.
San Luis Obispo
Drive time from SF: 3.5 hours / 230 miles (370 kilometers)
A weekend trip to San Luis Obispo means two things: Staying at the iconic—and outlandish—Madonna Inn, and a visit to Bubblegum Alley. After checking into your themed room of choice at the 1950s motel (Love Nest, Caveman, Jungle Rock, and American Beauty are just four options out of more than a hundred), head to the local craft breweries: Oak and Otter Brewing Co. and Central Coast Brewing are two food-serving SLO breweries that have been cleared to reopen. From there, add your piece of gum to Bubblegum Alley, hike Bishop’s Peak, see the botanical garden at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and ride the dunes at Pismo Beach. If you’re making a long weekend of it, spend a day wine tasting in nearby Paso Robles, or venture to Morro Bay to see its namesake rock and sample fresher-than-fresh seafood.
Pro tip: It’s currently closed but when it reopens, plan to stop in at Hearst Castle on the drive down from SF.