8 Road Trips from San Francisco: The Ultimate Guide

From starting college to now working my fourth job, I’ve spent a decade in the San Francisco bay area. It’s the longest I’ve lived in one place, and over the years I’ve been on countless road trips. Whether it’s to the beach, the desert, another city, or a national park, I’ve taken road trips from San Francisco that remind me of how lucky I am to be living in this city.

I’m excited to share with you eight of my favorite road trips from San Francisco, including how many days I suggest you allocate for each trip and the number of hours you’ll be on the road (assuming no stops). This should help you pick the road trip that makes the most sense for the amount of time you intend to be away.

Table of Contents

  1. Los Angeles
  2. Santa Barbara
  3. Sacramento
  4. Lake Tahoe
  5. Russian River
  6. Napa
  7. Crater Lake National Park
  8. Joshua Tree National Park

1. Los Angeles

Suggested Days: 3-4 | Hours on the Road: 7

AOC in Beverly Hills Los Angeles
AOC in Beverly Hills

Why I Love It:

Los Angeles is easily one of my favorite road trips from San Francisco. It’s got beaches, good food, amaaazing weather year round. It’s the perfect place for those who like to explore cities but also get out into nature – you can have it all in LA!

Things to Do:

When you arrive in Los Angeles, grab food at BCD Tofu House. The restaurant is located in Koreatown and is usually open till 2 AM. It has delicious tofu soup and you know it’ll be open even if you get to Los Angeles late at night.

Some spots you have to hit up while in Los Angeles include Griffith Park, Santa Monica Beach (Venice Beach and Manhattan Beach are also great options), Abbott Kinney (good coffee found here!), LACMA, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Grove.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you can do in LA. If you’re staying here for the recommended amount of days or more, you could even experience what it’s like being a local here: take a surfing lesson, get Taiwanese food in Irvine, or do a natural foods hop.

Where to Stay:

There are so many different areas you can stay at in LA. Some top ones I’d recommend are Santa Monica, Venice, and Koreatown. If you’re looking to stay in downtown LA, I recommend the Standard Hotel. The hotel is within walking distance to many downtown restaurants and shops. It also has a rooftop bar and pool that’ll be perfect for you to enjoy the city’s good weather, especially in summer.

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2. Santa Barbara

Suggested Days: 3-4 | Hours on the Road: 5-8

west beach santa barbara
West Beach Santa Barbara

Why I Love It:

I love driving to Los Angeles from San Francisco, but after going there at least once a year during my ten years in San Francisco, visiting LA didn’t feel much like travel anymore. I craved something similar to LA but more quaint. That’s when Santa Barbara came into the picture. And apparently a lot people from Los Angeles have the same idea since so many of the SB tourists are from LA!

You have two options for your road trip from San Francisco. You can either take the scenic route down US-1 South or take the more straightforward route via US-101 South. Taking the scenic route along the coast can take up to 3 hours more than the direct route, but the view is breathtaking.

Things to Do:

If you travel to Santa Barbara and don’t do at least one water activity then you’re really missing out! When we went visited SB, we did Stand Up Paddle Boarding at Stearns Wharf and got seafood from the Harbor Restaurant afterward.

Be sure to get tacos from Corazon Cocina and take a look at other shops at the Public Market while you’re at it. The food scene in Santa Barbara reminds me of San Diego and Los Angeles. There’s lots of variety and especially good Mexican food.

We found an awesome hike with a view of the Ocean and I was super jealous when I saw people paraglide along the coast! It’s definitely something I would book ahead of time next time I visited.

If you’re spending four or more days in Santa Barbara, another activity you can look into is a day trip to the Channel Islands. This does require an entire day so if this is something you really want to do make sure you have enough time and plan ahead.

Where to Stay:

Hotel Milo has amazing views and Spanish-style architecture that’s seen all over Santa Barbara. It’s also located right by Stearns Wharf so you don’t have to worry about waking up early for SUP=ing and is walking distance to restaurants.

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3. Sacramento

Suggested Days: 1-2 | Hours on the Road: 2

old sacramento railroad
Old Sacramento Railroad

Why I Love It:

Near the beginning of the pandemic last year, my boyfriend took the opportunity to work remote and became temporary digital nomads hopping from city to city along the U.S. west coast. Instead of doing road trips from San Francisco, we would stay at a spot for a month at a time. It was like a mega-road trip over several months.

Sacramento is one of the places we called home during this time. In fact, my boyfriend and I have been living in Sacramento for the last five months and we just can’t seem to leave.

So why do I love Sac? On the surface it may just seem like a place for government with some historical sites, museums, and parks, but it’s much more than that. There’s cool architecture, good food, and fun activities. Plus, the winters don’t get too cold and the summers come early.

Things to Do:

If you’re visiting Sacramento, you have to hit up at least one brewery. There are 81 breweries in Sacramento, and many of them have award-winning beers. During our stay here, my boyfriend and I have frequented Golden Road, Midtown Biergarten, and we recently went to Drake’s: The Barn for the first time.

For history lovers, Sacramento has a museum for just about anything. Some interesting ones are California Museum, California State Railroad Museum, Crocker Art Museum, and Leland Stanford Mansion State Park.

Sacramento reminds of Portland in many ways not only because of the selection of breweries but also because of how much good coffee there is here. We’ve been staying in Midtown and there are at least six good coffee shops within walking distance.

Where to Stay:

The Hyatt Regency is one of the nicer hotels to stay at in Sacramento. It’s located in downtown at the cross section of L Street and 12th Street and is close to many attractions.

It’s also got a pool for you to enjoy during the hot summer days. I’ve heard it can easily go past 100 degrees in Sacramento although I haven’t personally experienced it (thank goodness!)

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4. Lake Tahoe

Suggested Days: 3 | Hours on the Road: 4

road trip from san francisco tahoe
Kirkwood Mountain Resort Lake Tahoe

Why I Love It:

Lake Tahoe is frequented by San Franciscans, and not without good reason. The national park has an abundance of outdoor activities during the summer and turns into a ski wonderland during the winter.

Things to Do:

Tahoe has activities for everyone. In the summer, there’s beautiful beaches for those who just want to bask in the sun, drink champagne and read, bike trails and hikes for the active, and stand-up paddle boarding for those who want to stay active and cool at the same time.

In the winter, Tahoe is the perfect place for skiing or snowboarding near San Francisco. Many also visit just to see the snow. Sledding and snowshoeing are also great options.

If you’re a beginner skier visiting Tahoe for the first time, check out my guide reviewing the most beginner-friendly ski resorts in Tahoe. It took me a while to discover the resorts I like. Hoping this guide can help you have the best experience right off the bat!

Where to Stay:

This Tahoe Airbnb/Cabin sleeps 6, has a woody interior, a private hot tub, and an outdoor dining table. It’s also a short walk to the lake and the Heavenly Ski Resort.

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5. Russian River

Suggested Days: 1 | Hours on the Road: 2+

Tubing on Russian River

Why I Love It:

The temperature hovers between 40 and 60 degrees in San Francisco year round, so if I want a quick getaway and lots of sunshine, I look to Russian River for some fun on the water.

Things to Do:

Russian River is the best spot for tubing near San Francisco. Purchase a floaty from Amazon. This mermaid one and this flamingo one are both good options. Our go-to is this River Run floaty that seats two and has a cooler in the middle.

It’s common for people to bring beers on these river runs, and you can keep the party going at the Russian River Brewery afterwards.

Wanderer Tip: Drive at least two cars so you can leave one at the end of the river and the other at the start of it. You wouldn’t want to spend hours getting back to your car after a relaxing float.

Where to Stay:

The Boon Hotel + Spa is a 14-room boutique hotel that comes with a pool and doubles as a spa. The hotel is unique in that not only does it have the standard hotel rooms, it also offers glamping options. The rooms are super sleek and clean-feeling, and they are especially suited for romantic getaways or girls weekend trips.

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6. Napa

Suggested Days: 1-2 | Hours on the Road: 1-2

road trip from san francisco to napa
Downtown area in Yountville

Why I Love It:

Of all the road trips from San Francisco, I’ve probably done Napa the most! At the very least, it’s a close second to Los Angeles. Napa is one of the world’s most famous wine countries and it’s also one of the best places to celebrate special occasions. If Napa is your type of road trip, you might like these other bay area romantic getaways too.

Things to Do:

When visiting Napa, wine tasting is a must. I like to read up reviews for a few wineries that interest me, research their wine tasting prices, and make reservations in advance. Some wineries do require advanced reservations so make sure you’re prepared before going.

Aside from wine tasting, there’s also amazing food in Napa. 3-star Michelin restaurant The French Laundry is probably the most famous place, but there are also other budget-friendly options. Auberge du Soleil is my personal favorite because of its got an amazing view of the valley.

Lastly, book a massage at one of the hotels to get the full Napa experience. Bougie, I know. Worth your buck? Definitely.

Where to Stay:

If you’re debating between staying at a hotel or an Airbnb, I think hotel is the way to go for Napa. I love Airbnbs, but Napa tends to have better hotel options.

Plus, one of the best things to do in the wine country is to go to a spa and/or get a massage. Why not stay at a hotel that offers a place to stay and spa service?

The Meritage Resort & Spa offers the quintessential Napa experience with luxurious room options and spa services. Plus, their pool and chill area overlooks the winery. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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7. Crater Lake National Park

Suggested Days: 3-6 | Hours on the Road: 8

aerial photo of crater lake
Photo by Adil on Pexels.com

Why I Love It:

I know what you’re thinking. An eight hour drive?? I agree that that’s a long ride, but the beauty of Crater Lake makes it totally worth. And you can easily make a weekend or week-long trip out of it by visiting other areas in Oregon.

Things to Do:

The first thing we did once we got to Crater Lake is to get a good view of the lake itself. You can do so along the Rim Drive or hike one of the many trails. If you’re a sucker for waterfalls like me, there’s also several hikes that will take you to see one. Plaikini Falls is a favorite for many.

One thing I love about lakes is it’s got something for both Ocean and Mountain lovers. If I had to choose between going to the beach or going on a hike, I normally choose beaches unless there’s a waterfall along the hike. But I never have to choose at a lake. I can get the best of both worlds by taking a boat out onto the lake and admiring the reflection of the mountains surrounding me.

If you’ve chosen to make a week long trip out of this road trip from San Francisco, then it might be worth driving another four hours to go to Portland. Portland is another place we worked remotely from during the pandemic, and I’m still dreaming about those donuts from Blue Star.

Where to Stay:

There aren’t many options for stays near Crater Lake. We stayed in a cabin when we went and if I remember correctly we booked it through Airbnb or Vrbo. This brightly-lit home sleeps 6 and is a 30-minute drive from the National Park.

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8. Joshua Tree National Park

Suggested Days: 4 | Hours on the Road: 8+

Joshua Tree National Park

Why I Love It:

“I feel like a dinosaur could pop out any minute” was the first thing my friend said when we entered Joshua Tree National Park. The national park’s landscape is one of its kind, and it’s probably one of the coolest deserts you’ll visit in a lifetime.

Joshua Tree is a 3-hour drive from Santa Monica, so people often visit Joshua Tree while also visiting Los Angeles. When I visited with my girlfriends, four of us flew from San Francisco to Burbank airport, stayed the night there, and then drove to Joshua Tree the next morning. The other two girls lived in Santa Monica so they drove straight there to meet us.

Things To Do:

Joshua Tree is probably one of the best national parks to visit if you’re new to this whole outdoor thing. There are many short and easy hikes, it’s got insta-friendly scenery, good food spots, and LOTS of amazing Airbnbs you can stay at!

Where to Stay:

This Flamingo Rocks Airbnb has been on my wishlist for ages! The bath tub that looks out onto the rocky terrain is so one of its kind. And the many windows throughout the space allow lots of light in for an airy vibe.

Looking for a cute place to stay is probably the easiest part of planning a trip to Joshua Tree. Although your wallet might not agree 😛

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Which is Your Favorite Road Trip from San Francisco?

Russian Hill San Francisco
View from Russian Hill San Francisco

As you can see, there are many road trips from San Francisco to choose from. I’ve highlighted here eight of my favorite trips, the closest one is just an hour away and the furthest is an eight hour drive. I think road trips are a great way to bond with your SO, friends or family. Take advantage of the opportunity to spend quality time with loved ones while also enjoying the scenery along the way.

Are you also visiting San Francisco for the first time? Here are some guides that may help with planning your trip to San Francisco:

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