Author’s Note: This article “Five Good Day Trips from San Francisco” is also a chapter in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Parallel coverage on Northern California occurs in my latest travel guidebook/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
After you have seen the highlights of San Francisco–and there are many–you should consider visiting some of the special sights not far from The City. They range from groves of massive ancient trees to world-class universities and lovely coastal towns. All are only short drives from The City by the Bay. You can easily see one of them in a day.
As a day tripper, you probably have a time frame in mind. Five suggested trips require only a day each. My recommendations include the major sights and a restaurant for a culinary interlude. Five further trips can easily absorb an overnight. Those write-ups offer the principal sights, a possible lodging, and a recommended restaurant. (The five overnight trips are in my coverage Five Good Overnight Trips from San Francisco.)
When you want to see the famous California redwoods, but stay close to San Francisco, proceed to 560-acre Muir Woods in Marin County.
Muir Woods satisfies partly because it honors the great conservationist, John Muir. Muir was one of the first to write eloquently about the California outdoors. His passion for nature helped create the constituency needed to protect redwoods and other natural treasures. Following Muir’s lead, Marin resident William Kent gets credit for the preservation of Muir Woods. He lobbied Washington to protect this splendid grove of giant trees. Theodore Roosevelt suggested at the 1908 dedication that the woods be named after this patron. But Kent declined and said that Muir’s name would be a more appropriate title.
What more fitting place could be imagined at which to commune with the redwoods, which are the tallest living things on the earth?
To get to the tallest California tree, which towers 367 feet, you would have to journey farther afield, to the Redwood National Park, north of Eureka. The trees at Muir Woods, however, stand 240 feet high and measure 16 feet wide.
Muir Woods is extremely popular. You must have a reservation. To book your trip to Muir Woods visit GoMuirWoods.com or call 800-410-2419. There is NO cell phone service or WiFi at or around Muir Woods National Monument. Download your parking reservation or shuttle ticket in advance.
The Drive to Muir Woods
The drive to Muir Woods is an easy 17-mile outing, but allow plenty of time because the road twists and turns along Mt. Tamalpais State Park. Drive north from San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge and follow Highway 101 to the Highway 1 turnoff. Muir Woods is clearly marked at the Panoramic Highway turnoff 2-1/2 miles west on Highway 1. Even with a reservation, parking can be tight. You may have to walk a short distance to get to the entrance.
The redwood grove at Muir Woods has a hushed, sacred aura, with the choicest section appropriately called Cathedral Grove. The trees extend down a narrow valley with a stream, a typical redwood terrain with an undergrowth of sorrel and ferns. Deep within the grove the light diminishes and few other plants can compete. In late autumn you can see coho salmon and steelhead rainbow trout migrating up this stream, Redwood Creek. In summer the coastal fog drips off the redwood branches, providing a substantial amount of moisture.
Hikes in Muir Woods
The farther you walk from the parking lot, the fewer people you will see. If equipped with walking shoes, a knapsack lunch, and bottle of wine, you can find pleasing picnic spots on the edge of Muir Woods where the trails meet Tamalpais Park. (Picnicking is discouraged within Muir Woods). Hillside, Fern Creek, and Ben Johnson are three trails that lead away from the central grove. For the ambitious hiker, Ben Johnson Trail can be followed four miles down to Stinson Beach.
The gift shop at Muir Woods sells an authentic, pleasing California gift–a redwood burl. A burl is a part of the redwood tree that can regenerate the whole tree. This is a remarkable adaptive trait that has allowed redwoods to thrive and dominate within the coastal forests. You simply put the burl in a shallow dish, flood part of it with water, and watch the tree sprout. The effect is not one of instant gratification, but over time the burl does sprout and the redwood begins to grow. For years the redwood will continue to thrive from the food stored within the burl, growing ever larger. I have watched as burl gifts sprouted and grew for a decade.
For a restaurant repast, backtrack to the town of Sausalito. Consider, after a walk in the quiet of the groves, a drink and a meal of fresh seafood at The Spinnaker. The extra benefit here is that you complement your day’s views of the redwoods with panoramic perspectives on the beauty of San Francisco Bay.
A visitor may already have some strong impressions about what Oakland and Berkeley are all about. Berkeley is perhaps less of a divisive symbol of activism today than it was in more strident times. And Oakland, with its booming port, is less a model of the down-and-out urban area. Nevertheless these images linger in the collective public imagination.
The East Bay is one day trip easily accessible on public transit by taking BART (the Bay Area Rapid Transit train). You can also get there by car, rental car, or AC Transit bus. The highlights are the University of California at Berkeley and the Oakland Museum of California.
For a day in the East Bay, you’ll need to make some choices, but here are some main attractions.
University of California Berkeley
The University of California at Berkeley and nearby Telegraph Avenue are always interesting to stroll. If you park at the public garage on Channing, just below Telegraph, you can plunge in.
Walk Telegraph Avenue from Channing down to Dwight and then cross the street and walk back to the University. Telegraph Avenue is a kaleidoscope of humanity, a cluster of bookstores, and a collection of coffee shops that invite lingering. Summer can be quiet on Telegraph, but as school starts in September and as the Christmas season arrives, Telegraph becomes a carnival of street vendors selling their crafts. Moe’s (2476 Telegraph) is the major surviving bookstore. Moe’s, located on several floors, offers a large selection of used books.
To enter the University, walk across Bancroft and approach the Sather Gate. On your left is the Student Union, where you can get a free walking map of the campus at the Visitor Center. Morning tours at 10 a.m. leave for a 90-minute guided walking excursion. Beyond Sather Gate is the Sather Tower, popularly known as The Campanile. It is the major symbol of the University. The Lowie Museum manages exhibits on Native Americans and other ethnic cultures.
Then drive/Uber into the hills behind the University, up Centennial Drive, to the University Botanical Garden. The garden is an excellent picnic spot with strategically located tables in the different plant communities. Besides the plantings from several continents on the south side of the road, cross to the young redwood forest on the north side.
Above the botanical garden, also on Centennial Drive, is the Lawrence Hall of Science. This promontory offers excellent sunset views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate. The wonder of science and technology, the subject presented inside, appeals to both adult and child visitors.
Tilden Park sprawls for thousands of acres across the Berkeley Hills. My favorite enclave in this vast park is the California native plant garden, technically called the Regional Parks Botanic Garden. This garden is a wonderful site at which to meditate over the diverse beauty of the Golden State.
Oakland Museum of California
When considering Oakland for your outing, the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, is a major resource. The state’s natural history, human story, and art occupy three tiers of the museum.
The Oakland Museum mounts impressive changing exhibits. Three from 2020 were on Burning Man, Maps (You are There), and Dorothea Lange’s landmark photography.
Strolling around Lake Merritt is a favorite weekend activity in the East Bay. Park along Bellevue Avenue for a walk along the scenic boathouse and bandstand side of the lake.
Jack London Square at the foot of Broadway contains London’s cabin from the Yukon and Heinold’s Saloon, where London supposedly polished his literary skills.
For an East Bay restaurant, try Nido, a Mexican place down Oak Street from the Oakland Museum. Nido is known for its inventive Mexican fare.
In 1881, after the tragic death from typhoid fever of their 16-year-old son in Florence, Italy, Leland Stanford and his wife turned their 8,200-acre stock farm in Palo Alto into the Leland Stanford Jr. University. They established the school so that “the children of California may be our children.”
Today this cerebral farm, home for 13,000 students and an establishment of medical and technical professionals, is well worth a visit.
Drive south from San Francisco along Highway 101 and turn onto University Avenue. This route takes you through the heart of Palo Alto, once known as Professorville. University Avenue becomes Palm Drive after you cross the El Camino Real. As you proceed up Palm Drive, stop at the University Museum of Art. The Museum shows memorabilia of Stanford and describes how he rose from being a Sacramento hardware merchant to become a railroad builder and governor. One of the appealing California Native American exhibits is a Yurok canoe carved from a single redwood log.
The Quad at Stanford
Continue on Palm Drive to the oval parking area. Immediately in front of you is the most historic part of the university, the Main Quadrangle. With archways and thick walls, the sandstone Quadrangle encloses a courtyard in the Romanesque style. Red tile roofs inadvertently echo California’s early missions. Memorial Church, dedicated in 1903, was Mrs. Stanford’s memorial to her husband.
Walk east from the main quadrangle to the Hoover Tower, the 285-foot landmark. You can take an elevator to the top. The tower houses the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. Moreover, it houses substantial collections of papers and books related to world conflicts. At the base of the tower you’ll find a museum room honoring President Herbert Hoover.
Hoover was a Stanford graduate and an engineer. His legacy endures here, however, not for his presidential years. He made a name for an earlier feat, as Secretary of the Interior. That’s when Hoover negotiated successfully an agreement to construct Hoover Dam. The dam impounded Colorado River water, which created hydro-electrical power and agricultural irrigation. The dam also provided flood control. Without Hoover Dam, life in California and the West would be substantially diminished today.
To get a feel for campus life, walk from the Hoover Tower to Tresidder Union and stop for a food/beverage break. You’ll pass such landmarks as the Main Library, Encina Hall, and the Campus Bookstore.
For a delightful restaurant, try MacArthur Park, 27 University. To get there, as you leave Palm Drive to enter Palo Alto, turn right after you pass under the railroad trestle. The restaurant resides in an ample white-painted building. The building, a World War I hostess house designed by Julia Morgan, is a historic treasure. Try the mesquite charcoal-grilled swordfish or the oak-wood smoked baby back ribs.
San Mateo Coast
The San Mateo coast between the Montara and Pigeon Point lighthouses offers a bucolic seaside drive with beaches, farmlands, and small seaside towns. Morning fogs tend to burn off by noon. Therefore, plan this as an afternoon outing. The road is relatively straight, compared to the roller coaster rides possible along the coast north of San Francisco or in Big Sur.
Pick up Interstate 280, then Highway 1, at the southwest edge of San Francisco and drive along the coast. At Pacifica, pause and drive inland along Linda Mar Boulevard. Where the road intersects with Adobe Lane, you’ll find the Sanchez Adobe. The whitewashed structure was completed in 1846 during the Mexican era. This is the only adobe in San Mateo County open to the public. Memorabilia at the adobe recall the era of Francisco Sanchez, mayor of San Francisco. He also served as commandant of militia under the Mexican Republic. Moving south along Highway 1, you pass the treacherous Devil’s Slide area. Here road washouts periodically occur.
In Montara, stop at the Montara Lighthouse. Turn toward the sea where you notice a small Youth Hostel sign. After several major shipwrecks along this coast, the lighthouse was built in 1875. First it operated as a fog signal station with a deep whistle run by coal-generated steam power. Today the grounds are open to the public and the buildings function as a rustic all-ages hostel.
Proceeding south, at the fishing village of Princeton, watch the boats return and see what the sea has offered up as prizes. Several sport-fishing charters leave from Princeton. Shops and restaurants offer seafood. Ketch Joanne serves tasty shrimp and crab sandwiches.
Town of Half Moon Bay
Next you’ll encounter the original and main coast-side community, Half Moon Bay. Once called Spanishtown, the village was populated by the Spanish as early as the 1830s. Today floriculture is big business here, managed in massive greenhouses. Take a stroll on Main Street, where the blue Zaballa House, 326 Main, is the most historic building. South of town, the landmark to see is the white Johnston House, poised up on a hillside. It’s amazing that this New England-style “saltbox” house could have been built in this roadless, isolated area in 1853. Hand-hewn timbers were floated ashore from ships at high tide. The setting exudes a certain longing, such as one feels in Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World.
Many beaches attract visitors south of Half Moon Bay. San Gregorio and Pescadero are among the most popular. The inland roads along the coast are also appealing. Drive inland south of Tunitas along Stage Road to the juncture of Stage and La Honda Roads. This is the site of the Peterson & Alsford General Store, built in 1899. They sell everything from Levi’s to kerosene lamps. However the establishment mainly provides a friendly ambiance for locals and visitors around its bar.
Proceed on Stage Road to the small community of Pescadero. The name means “fishermen” in Spanish. At Duarte’s Restaurant, try the cioppino or grilled fish-of-the-day. Follow that with dessert of local olallieberry pie. When you drive the mile west to the sea from Pescadero, you pass Pescadero Marsh. The marsh is one of the most important remaining coastal birdlife habitats. More than 180 species have been recorded here. Be sure to pack your binoculars.
Pigeon Point, five miles south, is one of the major architectural legacies among lighthouses along the U.S. Pacific coast. The brick structure is the second tallest lighthouse on the coast. The lighthouse is open on weekends. Wooden houses on the site function as an all-ages hostel, similar to Montara. A generation of houses in nearby Pescadero were painted white after the SS Columbia wrecked here in 1896, floating landward its cargo of white paint.
Memorial-Big Basin Redwood Parks
Redwood parks south from San Francisco are as inviting and are far less crowded than Muir Woods in Marin County. Memorial Park in San Mateo County is quite close and is particularly cool and pleasing in the heat of summer. Big Basin is a longer drive and a much larger park.
Redwoods have a capacity to inspire wonder, especially those at Big Basin. This is partly because of their age. At park headquarters you’ll see a cross-section of one tree that has been ring-dated as 2,200 years old. When the Romans flourished, this tree was young. But the tree may in fact be countless eons older.
Most redwoods sprout clonally. That means growing from the roots of their parent tree rather than from seeds. This same tree may have perpetuated itself in this fashion for thousands upon thousands of years.
(If the trees at Muir Woods seemed impressive, know that the tallest tree there, at 240 feet, is dwarfed by the 329-foot tallest tree at Big Basin. The acreage of virgin timber at Big Basin is also much larger than that at Muir Woods.)
The ride to these parks on Skyline Boulevard takes you along the spine of the mountains. Drive south from San Francisco along Interstate 280, turn west on Highway 92, and proceed south on Highway 25 (Skyline). As with coastal outings, this terrain can be foggy in the morning. The mist tends to burn off in the afternoon, so plan an afternoon excursion if possible. If you drive Skyline in fog, the experience is otherworldly as the fog sweeps past you.
Memorial Park and Big Basin
Memorial Park is a small, choice 560-acre redwood park at 9500 Pescadero Road. From Skyline, turn south on La Honda Road to La Honda. The park is 5-1/2 miles beyond La Honda on Pescadero Road.
Memorial Park, which honors World War I soldiers, has impressive first-growth redwoods. The park also offers two interesting nature trails. Don’t overlook the small interpretive center explaining both nature and the logging history of the region. Of the two trails the short Tanoak Trail meanders through the streambed area. Meanwhile the more ambitious mile-long Mt. Ellen Nature Trail provides an excellent introduction to the redwood forest. Be sure to pick up leaflets for these self-guided trails at the ranger station.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park was originally called California Redwood State Park. It was established in 1902 as the first park in the California state park system. To reach Big Basin, leave Skyline Boulevard via Highway 236.
When you arrive at Big Basin Park headquarters, pause for a few minutes at the Nature Lodge. The lodge celebrates the park’s history, flora, and fauna. Then walk the nearby Redwood Nature Trail. The trail displays one of the noblest stands of coastal redwoods south of San Francisco. You can see the massive Santa Clara Tree and the Chimney Tree, whose core has been hollowed by fire. An additional 60 miles of hiking trails twist through the park.
The restaurant Bella Vista, 13451 Skyline, offers a remarkable view toward the bay. The dining spot also has a cordial bar. Culinary pleasures could be veal oscar or fillet of salmon.
(To continue a discussion of the pleasure of trips near San Francisco, see the Write-up Five Good Overnight Trips from San Francisco.)