While San Francisco is a beautiful city to explore, it is also an excellent home base while discovering Northern California through a series of day trips. From beautiful Pacific Ocean vistas to national park trails, there is something for every traveler wanting to experience the beauty of California.
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge sit the world famous wine regions of Napa and Sonoma Valley, each offering something for everyone. Visit the Castello di Amorosawinery, where you can participate in a barrel tasting or tour the vineyards surrounding the authentically designed 13th century style Tuscan castle. Or visit the bustling Sonoma Plaza, with its weekly farmers market and more than 25 tasting rooms where you can sample top wines from the region.
If you want to explore more of wine country, the Healdsburg Shed is a unique, casual dining experience and market. Sit on the sunny patio and sip a shrub, a refreshing fruity fermented drink made with vinegar and sparkling water. Browse the unmatched selection of high-end gardening tools and housewares, in case you want to start your own fancy garden at home.
Driving into Yosemite Valley for the first time is not an experience you forget. From a pullout on Big Oak Flat road, everyone stops to snap photos of the trees spread out below like a lush green carpet, with the towering granite figures of Half Dome and El Capitan in the distance. While the higher elevation areas of the park are inaccessible to car travel in winter, lodging and activities in Yosemite Valley are open year-round. The luxurious Cedar Lodge is a great place to curl up with a drink or a book beside the fireplace.
To experience the natural grandeur of Yosemite and learn about the park’s history without leaving the city, the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco is currently running an exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, which established the park as protected wilderness. Yosemite: A Storied Landscape will be on display through January 2015.
Pack up a picnic and take an easy, 2 mile hike (one way) to Mirror Lake. You’ll be rewarded with an impressive, close-up view of Half Dome and a bit of insight into Yosemite past, as the lake was formerly a popular destination for summer travelers and the path is lined with unique signs.
Every October, Half Moon Bay hosts its annual pumpkin festival, the highlight of which is the pumpkin weigh-off competition. Last year, the winning gourd clocked in at 1,985 pounds. The rest of the year, HMB is a charming sleepy beach town filled with small shops and art galleries. Local beaches include Gray Whale Cove, Cowell Ranch, Pomponio and Half Moon Bay State Beach, but California’s northern coast can be chilly year round, so don’t forget to take a jacket. For an overnight stay, the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay property is situated on bluffs overlooking the ocean, with outdoor fire pits for cozy relaxation.
The line of parked cars stretching down the side of Highway 1 is usually the first sign that you’re approaching Sam’s Chowder House, a popular waterfront restaurant in Half Moon Bay. The wait can be long, but the chowder and the views keep visitors coming back, and you can stroll along the nearby beach while you wait to be seated.
An hour outside San Francisco, the Point Reyes National Seashore coastline juts out west into the Pacific Ocean and offers travelers historic lighthouses, rolling farmland and jaw-dropping vistas. From the Bear Valley Visitors Center, it is a 4 mile walk on a wide dirt trail to Arch Rock, an overhanging arch formation that frames the ocean waves. If you go at low tide, you can scramble down to walk through the arch and onto the beach. A short interpretive Earthquake trail that explains the area’s geology and local fault lines runs near the visitor center. The historic Point Reyes lighthouse is about a 45-minute drive from the visitors center and hours are limited so check before you go.
Outside the small town of Point Reyes Station, the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. opened The Fork venue earlier this year, offering a true farm-to-table experience via tastings and farm tours. Don’t leave without trying the “Original Blue” cheese!