Best California Road Trips to Take This Summer: Starting from San Francisco

Best California Road Trips to Take This Summer: Starting from San Francisco

Here at Sunski, we’re founded on a spirit of adventure, and we’re proud Californians. To prove that point, I’m writing this from the passenger seat of a car driving through central California, on what is hopefully one of this summer’s many California road trips. There’s no better state to explore the open road than California: you’ll find every imaginable type of food, huge mountains, a desert with Earth’s highest recorded temperature, and tide pools full of sea creatures.

Your trip of choice could be determined by your favorite outdoor activity or by your favorite climate, but because Sunski is based right by Ocean Beach in San Francisco, here are 3 road trip ideas that start and end right from San Francisco. All of these trips are perfect for a week-long getaway, but could be squeezed into a long weekend. The plans below are just a sketch–I’ll leave it up to you to fill in the details. 

sunski sunglasses road trip guide

1. San Francisco – Santa Cruz – Monterey – Big Sur – Pinnacles National Park

Distance: 370 Miles

Leaving San Francisco, drive south on Route 1. Highway 1’s legendary status is well deserved. When you’re driving along the coast with the ocean stretching out on one side and green hills towering on the other, the phrase “it’s the journey, not the destination” starts to make a lot of sense.  

Once you reach Santa Cruz, you can visit Natural Bridges State Beach or Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. After grabbing some food, you can move further down the coast to Monterey. Head towards the Old Fisherman’s Wharf and hop on a whale watching tour, or stop by the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.  

As you go towards Big Sur, don’t miss a stop over at the Bixby Creek Bridge. Built in 1932, it spans a canyon overlooking the ocean (and you might remember it from the HBO series Big Little Lies).

Bixby Creek Bridge shot by Spencer Davis

Bixby Creek Bridge shot by Spencer Davis 

Next up: Big Sur. Big Sur refers not to a specific park, but to a 90 mile stretch of land along the coast. Take your pick of campsites to stay in–book them early– and take time to explore the cool redwood forests and the jagged coastline at Andrew Molera State Park. Leaving Big Sur, head back up the coast then east to the underrated Pinnacles National Park. If you’re a climber, this part of the trip will be your favorite. The rock formations in Pinnacles, made from the remnants of an extinct 23 million-year-old volcano, offer both top-rope and multi-pitch climbs. Head back to San Francisco and get some rest after exploring land, rock, and sea.

2. San Francisco – Yosemite – Tahoe – Sacramento

Distance: 550 miles

Heading east across California’s central valley may not be the most scenic of drives, but once you get to Yosemite, you’ll forget anything that came before. If you haven’t been to this region of the Sierras, its diversity of landscape and pure grandeur feels incomprehensible. You can explore the valley by car, and it’s super accessible for both the young and the old. Stare at Half Dome or get a permit to do the 14-mile round trip climb up. Visit Mariposa Grove for gigantic trees, or stay in the stunning Ahwahnee hotel in the valley. Yosemite currently requires reservations to enter the park, even if you have a National Parks Pass, so be sure to book your trip as early as possible.

Yosemite shot by Christian Joudrey

Yosemite shot by Christian Joudrey 

Head west, passing Mono Lake and then north towards Lake Tahoe. If you can, get to Tahoe around sunset for a beautiful show of colors. There are a variety of towns surrounding the lake to choose from. South Lake Tahoe is on your way, but I like the classic mountain town of Truckee if you have time. If you mountain bike, there’s a segment of the Tahoe Rim Trail that’s highly recommended.

After hiking or biking to your heart’s desire, you can head back to the Bay Area by way of the state capitol, Sacramento, where you can explore the old town and stroll by the riverside.

Downtown Sacramento shot by Stephen Leonardi

Downtown Sacramento shot by Stephen Leonardi 

3. San Francisco – Napa – Jackson State Forest- Fort Bragg – Bodega Bay

Distance: 390 miles

This trip is an excellent choice if you like wine, food, and small towns. Head across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Napa County, AKA wine country. First stop: wine tasting. check out Jarvis Estate, a winery in a cave. For the nitty-gritty on the wine scene, check out this article from the New York Times. To fuel up on fresh food after your fill of wine, visit the Oxbow Public Market. 

Next, continue north to the town of Calistoga. There, you can visit a geyser, or even take a mud bath at the Indian Hot Springs. After a couple of days in wine country, continue north, bypassing Clearlake (it’s not as clear as the name implies), and heading to a hike like this one near Lakeport. Head west next: the drive over to the coast through Jackson State Forest is beautiful. Pass through dense, damp redwood forests and reward yourself with the coastal town of Fort Bragg on the other side. Once in Fort Bragg, visit Glass Beach, a unique spot filled with colorful washed-up glass. For the rest of the trip, you’ll head back down Highway 1, passing a variety of coastal towns (check out Mendocino and Bodega Bay) and nature preserves (I recommend Bowling Ball Beach and Point Reyes). The way down is all ocean views and cute coastal towns–stretch this part of the trip out as long as you want.

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg shot by Zahid Lilani

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg shot by Zahid Lilani 

Bonus Idea: San Francisco – Lassen Volcanic National Park – Mount Shasta

Distance: 680 miles

I have yet to do this trip myself, but it’s next on my list. North of San Francisco, Mt Shasta looms above small mountain towns with a 14,179-foot peak, while Lassen peak and its surroundings are famous for volcanic activity. I’ve heard this region is excellent for those who prefer fewer crowds.

Pro tips

  • Northern California has a ton of different climates. The weather can be foggy and damp on the coast and then quickly turn to 120-degree temperatures in the central valley. It’s wise to bring a variety of clothing options on your trip, no matter where you’re going.
  • The one downside to road-tripping in California is that gas can be really pricey. Before you fill-up the tank, do a search to see the current prices at different gas stations. Often Arco will offer lower per-gallon prices.

Sunski's road trip guide starting in San Francisco

Use our Far Out Guide to CA National Parks to learn more about Lassen and other incredible places to adventure!

Whether your NorCal road trip leads you to a glass of wine or an alpine lake, don’t forget your trusty pair of polarized Sunski sunglasses ;).