Northern California Weekend Getaways

Canoeing on the Russian River
Courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism

Northern California offers scores of places that you can go to for a two- or three-day getaway. 

Getaways in the San Francisco Bay Area

If you live in or near San Francisco (or are starting your getaway from there), these places are all within an hour's drive - and you could avoid traffic and get to most of them by using public transit.

If you haven't explored San Francisco yet, (and that includes San Franciscans who never take time to see what's close to home) start with this first-timer's getaway plan. If you love movies and film, you can explore San Francisco in the movies with this plan - or take a quick trip to Japantown.

Berkeley is more than just the home of the famous university. It's just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco and a great place for browsing through unique shops, going to the theater, and enjoying an excellent meal.

In the South Bay, adorable, walkable little Los Gatos has been a getaway spot for San Franciscans since the early twentieth century. Cuddled up against the Santa Cruz Mountains, it's a good base for hiking, wine tasting, or a leisurely stroll down the main street.

Cross the Santa Crua mountains to explore one of California's most iconic beach towns. In Santa Cruz,  you'll find a waterfront amusement park, take a sailboat ride on the bay or a clifftop walk above one of California's most famous surfing beaches. The area also has some gorgeous beaches and a lively music scene.

Halfway between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is an excellent spot to get out of town for a relaxing weekend exploring the coast.

Getaways North of San Francisco

North of San Francisco, you can spend a weekend in Wine Country. But don't stop there. Explore the backroads of Sonoma County, or drive along the coast highway all the way to Mendocino.

In Napa County, you can check out the up-and-coming Town of Napa, go north to laid-back, funky Calistoga for wine tasting and a relaxing mud bath, or take a look around Napa Valley.

Sonoma Wine Country is much bigger than Napa, with regions as varied as the landscape they occupy. The Sonoma Valley near the town of Sonoma is full of wineries and farm stands, with some delicious places for a meal. To help plan your trip, use the guide to things to do in Sonoma Valley.

Near the coast, the Russian River Towns are close to wineries, beautiful redwood forests, and backroads drives.

At the north end of Sonoma, Healdsburg offers a charming downtown, and it's close to the Dry Creek and Anderson Valleys for wine tasting.

You can even go a little more off the beaten path with a trip to the Sonoma Backroads: Sebastopol and Occidental.

On the coast in Marin County, a trip to Point Reyes is a fun way to get away from it all and see some spectacular coastal scenery. Even further north, try charming and romantic Mendocino - or check out the cute little town of Eureka with its Victorian-style architecture and surrounding forests. Even further north is Crescent City, where you can find more things to do.

Go north through Napa Valley, and you'll be in Lake County, one of California's undiscovered destinations. You'll find one of the largest lakes in California there, and some exciting, up-and-coming wineries, too.

Going north on Interstate Highway 5 will take you to Mount Shasta and Lake Shasta, which I call Shasta Country. The scenery in the area is spectacular.

Also in the area is Lassen Volcanic Park, home of a smoldering landscape created by a volcano that last erupted in 1915.

Getaways South of San Francisco

Some people may say that a four-hour drive south from San Francisco takes you too far, out of "northern" California in southern, but if you're simply looking for a place to get away, who cares what the geographical purists think?

Going south on California Highway One, you can spend a weekend in each of the towns at the south end of the Monterey Bay: MontereyPacific Grove or Carmel.

Keep going a little further south from Monterey and Carmel, and you can explore the gorgeous Big Sur coastline.

South of Big Sur, the cute little towns of Cambria and Cayucos are both ideal places to relax, putter around and walk on the beach. You can also make an entire weekend out of a trip to Hearst Castle.

My favorite getaway spot south of the Bay Area is Paso Robles, California's fastest-growing and most exciting wine and food destination.

For something off the beaten track, think about a visit to the old Spanish Mission San Antonio and stay overnight at William Randolph Hearst's ranch on a trip to the Valley of the Oaks and Hearst’s Hacienda.

Getaways in Central California and the Sierras

Go east and inland to explore the mountain country and California's high desert. The mountain scenery may be spectacular, but if you get yourself over the mountains into eastern California, you'll find some of the state's most dramatic (and under-visited) sights.

Yosemite National Park is a local favorite, but it's also surprising to me how many Bay Area natives have never been there. If you're one of them, now is the time to fix that.

If you prefer to enjoy your gorgeous scenery without crowds, try Sequoia and Kings Canyon instead. Naturalist John Muir called Kings Canyon even more spectacular than Yosemite, and the giant sequoia trees are bigger there, too.

You can also "glamp" in spectacular style at the Sequoia High Sierra Camp - and you don't even have to hike very far to get there. 

Before you get to the big mountains, you could stop off in the Sierra Foothills for a look at Gold Country, with its 1850s gold camps and cute little towns.

You probably know about winter skiing trips, but Lake Tahoe in summer is a lot of fun, too. 

You need a three-day weekend to get away to the high desert east of the Sierras. And you need to go when the mountain passes are clear of snow. It's well worth the effort: Mono Lake, Bodie, and Mammoth are some of the most spectacular places to see in all of the Golden State.