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Traveling in California begs to be done on a road trip. From the Pacific Coast Highway to the California deserts and legendary national parks – we’ve got it all and you need a car to reach it all. That’s probably why I get so many questions about planning road trips in California. Especially true now, as we’re recovering from travel restrictions.
I moved to California a few years ago, and have spent these years exploring my new home state. I never thought I’d even live in California – much less be any kind of expert on California travel. But I do love road trips, and I love to escape the Bay Area. I’ve slowly been building out this list of the best road trips from San Francisco that I’ve done or am still dreaming of.
As part of my research on the best San Francisco road trips, I’ve partnered with Moon Travel Guides. I used their Moon Northern California Road Trips guidebook as I confirmed the most up-to-date suggestions for each of my road trip itineraries below. Some of my suggested road trips from San Francisco also overlap with those in Moon Northern California Road Trips.
Armed with the most current and accurate data from my Moon travel guide and my California local’s knowledge, here are the best San Francisco road trips to plan now for when we can all get back to traveling again.
My Definition of a “Road Trip”
Whenever I start working on a new blog post, I read other articles on the topic to learn what fellow travelers are recommending. But to be honest, as I researched “road trips from San Francisco,” I found a lot of day trips, destinations, and a bunch of super old forums.
But here’s the thing: day trips are not the same as road trips and traveling to a destination is not the same as a road trip just because you need a car to get there. There are fabulous day trips and weekend getaways from San Francisco – but they’re not road trips.
Let’s start with my definition of a road trip then: a road trip is a car/vehicle journey that takes you to a series of Points of Interest (POIs) or destinations over at least one night.
The focus of a road trip is as much on the journey (by car) as the destinations themselves. Road trip routes can be one-way, a loop, or an out-and-back – kind of like hiking. One-way road trips include expensive one-way car rentals, so I didn’t include any on this list. Instead, I looked at loop and out-and-back road trips that start in San Francisco (and end there too).
In this post, you won’t find a list of destinations or day/weekend trip spots you can drive to. Here you’ll only find eight awesome road trip routes from San Francisco.
How I Make Road Trip Maps
Like in many of my other road trip posts, I’m using Roadtrippers to make the maps you see in this post. I like to use a guidebook like my Moon Northern California Road Trips, then modify it into my personal map I can navigate with, making it a great program to use alongside the guidebook.
Anyway, you’ll see a map for each San Francisco road trip below; you can click the name of the trip on the map itself to jump to a bigger view with a lot more detail.
The 8 Best Road Trips from San Francisco
1. The Northern California PCH Road Trip
I’ve already written extensively about the Pacific Coast Highway, and it’s one of the most popular posts on my site. I’ve also covered the PCH from San Francisco to San Diego as a Coastal California road trip. Here’s the other half of the PCH for those who want to drive the more rural and rugged northern California Pacific coast.
To do this road trip, you can do it as an out-and-back, but I’d suggest doing a loop up to Grants Pass and coming south down the PCH. It makes for a more interesting road trip – even though it’s longer and the first day is all interstate driving. It’s possible to cut this trip short from the five days I suggest, though honestly, you’ll end up putting in long days and not enjoying the drive as much.
Along the way you’ll see some Redwoods (though you can plan specific road trips just for that, more below!), plenty of Pacific Coast, and loads of picturesque small coastal communities.
2. Big Sur Road Trip
Big Sur is both a specific place and a general area along the Pacific Coast Highway south of San Francisco – which is why it earns its spot on the list. Additionally, Big Sur is hard to reach, and necessitates an out-and-back or loop to see the whole area.
If you choose to visit Big Sur as an out-and-back road trip from San Francisco, you can follow California Highway 1 south from the city – and back up. Doing a loop means driving further south to San Simeon before turning inland to Paso Robles and returning north on I-5. In either event, you’ll drive the most picturesque stretch of the PCH south of SF.
At its shortest, you can do this trip as a 2-day, 1-night trip to Big Sur and back. But, I recommend adding in an overnight stop in Santa Cruz, Carmel, or Monterey at minimum to really enjoy this part of the coast.
3. The Highway 49 Gold Rush Road Trip
Between visiting and living in California, I’ve been fortunate to explore parts of the state beyond the basics. Over the course of two trips, I discovered some state history markers that inspired my version of this road trip route.
Most people call it the “Gold Rush Road Trip,” as it takes you to some of the historic sights that mark the California Gold Rush in 1849. I previously wrote about it for the San Francisco Chronicle in a story about California road trip routes, though this is a shorter version than I laid out in that story.
Over the course of four days, this road trip from San Francisco starts on the southern part of California Highway 49 (renamed for the ’49 gold rush!) and works north along that highway to end in the gold rush-era town of Nevada City. You’ll stop in places like Groveland, where the state marker notes the nearby discovery of gold that sparked the ‘rush,’ and Mercer Caverns near Murphy, where you’ll see that the Sierras are full of stunning geologic wonders beyond just gold.
(Bonus: if you’re an astronomy nerd, the first amateur astronomical observatory in California is located in Volcano, California. I wrote about it for the Chronicle, too.)
4. The Southern Cascade Volcanoes Road Trip
- Suggested Days: 4
- Suggested Overnights: Mount Shasta, Tulelake (near Lava Beds NM), and Mineral (near Lassen Volcanic NP)
If you haven’t seen it, I wrote about doing a road trip to the North Cascade volcanoes in my guide to Seattle road trips; this route is my counterpart in the southern Cascades. (Yep, the Cascade mountain range runs from British Columbia all the way to California!)
On this molten-hot-but-still-cool road trip from San Francisco, you’ll visit three different kinds of volcanic formations: volcanoes, lava tubes, and fumaroles, which is the best new word I’ve learned in a while. Just try saying it: f’you-ma-rolls! (A fumarole is “an opening in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge” – think of Yellowstone National Park.)
The primary stops are:
- Mount Shasta – a towering, dormant shield volcano
- Lava Beds National Monument – a huge formation of underground caves formed by lava
- Lassen Volcanic National Park – home to California’s only active volcano (Mt. Lassen) and a ton of other volcanic formations too
This is a rural road trip, and the largest community you’ll stay overnight in is Mount Shasta on the first night (I have a guide for things to do in Mount Shasta plus where to stay); Tulelake and Mineral have ~1,000 and ~100 residents respectively! You’ll end the loop driving on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway where it overlaps with California Highway 89.
I didn’t know there was such a thing as a “Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway” until reading Moon Northern California Road Trips; I’m such a volcano nerd (thanks, Dante’s Peak!) that now I want to drive it all! It also connects to Crater Lake in Southern Oregon.
5. The Coastal Redwoods Road Trip
I recently published an extended guide to planning Redwoods road trips that includes this itinerary in greater detail. (And the next one on this list about visiting the Giant Redwoods too). If you’re keen to see the Coastal Redwoods in all their glory – including Muir Woods, the Avenue of the Giants and Redwoods National and State Parks – this is the road trip itinerary for you!
I recommend doing this full route in six days, during which you’ll see more Coastal Redwoods than you can count, try to find Hyperion (the tallest living tree!), and even hunt down Albino Redwoods – which I’ve previously written about as the “ghosts of the Redwood coast.”
You can potentially do this Coastal Redwoods road trip in fewer than six days, too. A good truncated 4-day version would be San Francisco to Benbow/Humboldt Redwoods to Mendocino to Santa Rosa and back to SF.
6. The Giant Redwoods Road Trip
- Suggested Days: 6
- Suggested Overnights: Arnold, Yosemite NP, Shaver Lake, King’s Canyon NP, Sequoias NP
If your mental picture of Redwoods is the behemoth Giant Sequoias rather than towering Coastal Redwoods, consider this Giant Redwoods road trip instead. This six-day road trip itinerary can’t be cut down much – it takes a lot of driving time to reach the mountainous Giant Redwoods in the 75 groves where they are known to live. That plus the fact this road trip takes you to three of California’s epic national parks make it the kind of trip you’ll want to do in full.
Over the course of those six days though, you’ll wander down the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range that forms California’s eastern border. Here you’ll discover some of the most monstrous trees on the planet, including the Discovery tree in Calaveras Big Trees State Park (the first sequoia noted by naturalists in the 1850s!) and General Sherman Tree (the tree with the greatest volume on earth).
This is the longest road trip route from San Francisco, clocking in around 22 hours in total. But when you give your first Giant Redwood hug, you’ll know it’s all worth it.
7. Reno/Tahoe Road Trip
Okay, I’ll admit it – this is the most destination-ish road trip itinerary on my list of San Francisco road trips. I make up for it by suggesting a route that circumnavigates almost all of Lake Tahoe and takes you into Nevada. California’s so big that it’s one of the few San Francisco road trips that take you out of the state.
This is a fun route if you’ve never been to Reno and/or Tahoe – or you’ve never done them in a specific season. (For example, I’ve done Tahoe in several seasons, but never Reno.) Over the course of a four-day, three-night road trip from San Francisco, you’ll stop in hipster Truckee, glitzy Reno, and laid-back South Lake Tahoe. Along the way, you can gaze at stunning Emerald Bay, go hiking on Tahoe’s famed slopes in the summer (or skiing in the winter – I’ll aprés ski, tyvm.), and can even try your hand at the slots in Reno’s casinos.
For those on a shorter schedule, it is possible to do this as an out-and-back 3-day, 2-night road trip. Make your stops in South Lake Tahoe and Reno and spend less time around the lake.
8. The Eastern Sierras Road Trip
I’ll be honest: this road trip is entirely inspired by my research in Moon Northern California Road Trips. I’ve had several trip opportunities to visit the eastern Sierras fall through, but I’m hoping to tick this one off my own Someday List soon.
This is a great short road trip from San Francisco that you can do in a weekend. It takes you to three wonders of the eastern Sierras: alpine Lake Tahoe, alkaline Mono Lake, and Yosemite National Park. This San Francisco road trip route can only be done in the summer though; Tioga Pass (between Mono Lake and Yosemite) is typically closed in the winter.
There you go! Eight epic road trips from San Francisco that you can plan now and do in the future… (Whenever we can travel again!). If you have questions about any of them, let me know in the comments!