Half the fun of visiting the gay mecca San Francisco is plotting enchanting jaunts outside this fabled city, which enjoys one of the world's great natural settings. You can venture in just about any direction and find appealing terrain, from the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the vineyards of Sonoma and Monterey to the rustic inns of the redwood-shrouded Russian River region. Here's a look at terrific gay destinations within striking distance of San Francisco.
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Of the many lovely towns in the Sonoma and Napa Wine Country, Healdsburg strikes perhaps the most impressive balance between small-town charm and big-city sophistication. Several superb high-end restaurants and small hotels and inns make this a perfect destination for romantics, and it's a nice base for winery-hopping. You're also close to the appealing town of Sonoma, as well as such inviting Napa communities as St. Helena and Rutherford. Distance: 70 miles (75 min)
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On the warmest winter day in San Francisco, you can still hop into car and drive just 3 hours east to reach some of the best ski country in the West. The famed Lake Tahoe region straddles the California and Nevada borders. Top ski areas include Heavenly and Squaw Valley, and gay-owned inns like the Black Bear and Holly's Place provide inviting accommodations. In summer there's kayaking, fishing, and plenty of other activities, and year-round you can gamble on the Nevada side of the lake. Distance: 180 miles (3 to 3.5 hrs)
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The sweet little town of Mendocino is familiar to many television fans because it's where the Murder She Wrote was filmed back in the '80s, but this is also one of the loveliest vacation retreats within weekending distance of San Francisco. You can get here driving up the coast via scenic Highway 1 or through the beautiful Anderson Valley, and up-and-coming wine-growing region. Once here, you'll find amazingly good restaurants for such a small town, a fabled farmers market, the lush Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, and a happily laid-back vibe. Distance: 150 miles (3 hrs)
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Although Monterey and the nearby towns of Pacific Grove and Carmel aren't as well known among GLBT travelers as some other northern California areas, this entire region is quite gay-friendly, extremely sophisticated, and unbelievably scenic. Attractions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and 17-Mile Drive are good fun, and golfers appreciate some of the best courses in the country. This is a prime couples destination, with dozens of romantic 19th-century inns, and Monterey also has a thriving wine country with numerous fine excellent vineyards. Distance: 120 miles (2 hrs)Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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One of the quickest ways to get from city to blissful serenity is to make the short drive up Hwy. 1 through the Marin Headlands to Point Reyes National Seashore, a 70,000-acre swath of gorgeous rocky outcroppings, pristine shoreline, and verdant meadows (home to a herd of some 400 elk). This is prime territory for hiking, biking, and beachcombing, and nearby Point Reyes Station and Inverness have a few gay-friendly B&Bs and appealing eateries, as well as the famed Cowgirl Creamery, a perfect place to pick up picnic supplies, including fantastic Mt. Tam soft cheese (yummmmm). Distance: 50 miles (75 min)
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Anchored by the fashionably offbeat little town of Guerneville, the Russian River has long been the preferred weekend hideout among outdoorsy Bay Area lesbians and gay men. The gay Guerneville scene includes a slew of charming inns, a few clothing-optional men's resorts, some rowdy and rugged bars, and a handful of diverting cafes and shops. This unpretentious, redwood-shaded patch of western Sonoma County is a good base for exploring wineries, biking out to the ocean, rafting along the river, and renting a cabin with friends. Distance: 75 miles (1.5 hrs)
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The leafy, pleasantly situated capital of California has one of the nation's most underrated gay scenes, and it's a great place to hide away for the weekend. With a dynamic downtown shaded by leafy trees and packed with historic Victorian and Arts and Crafts homes, not to mention a number of stellar restaurants and convivial, gay-popular coffeehouses, Sacramento has plenty going for it. Distance: 90 miles (1.5 hrs)
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It's a bit of a drive to reach San Luis Obispo County, which is midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but if you can spare the time (perhaps for a three- or four-day getaway), the rewards are absolutely worth it. This is one of the state's most underrated wine regions, and it's also site of the fantastic Hearst Castle. In nearby Cambria, along the coast, the very gay-friendly Moonstone Hotel group has several inviting inns. And San Luis Obispo itself has a charming downtown with diverting cafes, appealing shops, and a fantastic farmers market. Distance: 230 miles (3 to 3.5 hrs)Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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The profoundly liberal and progressive University of California Santa Cruz dominates this small, mountainous beach city at the northern end of Monterey Bay. The New Age-y, surfer-dude vibe here accounts for an easygoing, gay-friendly scene - there's even a gay beach a bit northwest of downtown. In the city center, you'll find hipster- and student-infested coffeehouses, bookstores, vintage-clothing stores, art galleries, and nightclubs. Santa Cruz has a particularly strong following among lesbians and feminists. Distance: 75 miles (75 min)
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Few natural vistas in America are more recognizable than Yosemite Falls (immortalized in paintings by Albert Bierstadt), the signature geographical feature of Yosemite National Park. This is the best of several outstanding outdoorsy destinations for the gay San Francisco set. You can stay right in the park at the historic Ahwahnee Lodge, or spend your time in nearby Tuolumne County, which offers magnificent hiking, wine-tasting, and charming B&Bs. About a half-hour's drive from the park's west entrance, there's also a great gay-owned vacation rental worth checking out, Camp Dude, in the Sierra Foothills. Distance: 200 miles (3.5 to 4 hrs)