Day Trips by Andrew Nash
Day Trips from San Francisco
Unfortunately you will need a car to make these journeys. Public transportation outside the core San Francisco area is very poorly developed compared to European regions. Here are four very nice tours:
Sonoma County and Healdsburg
I recommend Sonoma County for wine tasting, it is slightly less touristy than Napa Valley and I prefer some of the wine made there. Two particularly nice places to visit are the Dry Creek and Russian River areas around Healdsburg and the Sonoma Valley area north of the city of Sonoma. By the way, if you plan to purchase wine, bring along a cooler to fill with ice – you can buy one inexpensively in San Francisco – it’s extremely hot in the wine country.
Healdsburg – Healdsburg is a beautiful town with a shady central square surrounded by restaurants and shops (seemingly) specialising in picnic supplies and wine. Some winery recommendations are: Dry Creek Winery, Lambert Bridge Winery – check out the historic bridge too!, and Preston Winery, but it’s hard to go wrong in this area. Healdsburg is about 1½ hours north of the Golden Gate Bridge on Highway 101 (with no traffic).
Sonoma Valley – The city of Sonoma is also a wonderful place to visit. The city’s central square (Sonoma Plaza) is surrounded by restaurants and shops specialising in picnic supplies and wine. We had a great dinner at The Girl and the Fig just off the square and really enjoyed the HopMonk tavern on Highway 12 south of Sonoma Plaza.
From Sonoma head to Arnold Drive and then north. TIP: Stop at the Glen Ellen Market (it’s a large grocery store) for picnic supplies and wine. You can frequently find great deals on excellent local wine here.
In Glen Ellen you can also take the road to the northwest to Jack London State Park (site of Jack London’s Wolf House) and visit the Benziger Family winery, a biodynamic winery. Benziger offers a great range of tours and tastings.
North of Glen Ellen turn north on Highway 12 towards Santa Rosa. There are many great wineries on this stretch of highway including Kunde, B.R.Cohn – they also make olive oil!, Kenwood and Chateau St. Jean.
As you continue north you will enter the city of Santa Rosa. This is Sonoma County’s largest city. There are good restaurants in the downtown and adjoining railroad square area. You can take Highway 101 south to San Francisco (about one hour with no traffic) from here (avoid the southbound Golden Gate Bridge Sunday/holiday rush between 4 – 8 pm).
Wine Country Circuit: Napa-Calistoga-Healdsburg
One of my favourite trips is overnight to Calistoga. Start in the morning in San Francisco, drive to the city of Napa for lunch. The city is restoring its historic centre and there are many excellent restaurants.
After lunch drive up the Silverado Trail (a road running parallel to the main Napa Valley wine tasting route – Highway 29). It’s a little less crowded. There are many wineries to visit along the Silverado Trail.
One of my favourite wineries is Stags Leap. In a tasting during the 1970’s Stags Leap cabernet was one of the wines that proved to France that California could make excellent wine too. Tours are only by appointment and fill up fast.
Further north on Silverado Trail is Mumm sparkling wine. This is a great place to stop in the late afternoon. There are tours (reserve in advance) and then tasting.
After Mumm, continue north on Silverado Trail to Calistoga. Try to get overnight reservations at the Calistoga Inn, the rooms are simple (bath on the hall), there’s no air conditioning, and small, but they are inexpensive and come with a continental breakfast. The ground floor contains an excellent restaurant with large outdoor dining area, a brewery (they make their own excellent beer) and a pub (with live music, where many locals seem to hang out; note this means it’s a bit noisy upstairs until the music is over). If you want to eat dinner here be sure to reserve when you reserve your room.
Calistoga is famous for its mud baths. My favourite mud bath recommendation is Indian Springs. If you have a mud bath there they also allow you to use the mineral pool. The mud bath treatment is about 2 ½ hours including steam bath, mud, soaking (with cucumbers on the eyes) and resting afterwards. Indian Springs also has great little bungalow cabins for overnight stays they are expensive, but you get a key to the mineral pool and can use it during the night!
Calistoga has many fine restaurants – like most of Napa and Sonoma county wine country! Good restaurants here are very popular, so be sure to make reservations early.
On the second day drive from Calistoga to Healdsburg via the Knights Valley and Alexander Valley wine districts. The wineries here are small but excellent. If you want to visit you’ll need to make an appointment. Stop at the Jimtown Store for great sandwiches (and stuff).
Once you are in Healdsburg explore the wineries mentioned above.
From Healdsburg you can head south to San Francisco on Highway 101 (about 1½ hours – avoid the Golden Gate Bridge weekend rush into San Francisco between 4 and 8 pm Sunday/holiday evenings).
Alternatively, you can drive to the coast and drive down Highway 1 through Point Reyes (see below).
Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is a wonderful park located about 1½ hours north of San Francisco. Drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and then take either Highway 1 up the coast or Sir Francis Drake Boulevard through rural Marin County.
Point Reyes is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and there are many trails. It’s a good idea to stop at one of the Visitor Centers to find out what’s going on and to pick-up a free map. The Point Reyes Lighthouse has excellent views (sometimes you can see migrating whales). The hike to the far north end of the Peninsula is excellent and you will probably see the giant Tule Elk on your trip; you will also see Tomales Bay, formed by the San Andreas fault.
A little way north of Point Reyes Bear Valley Visitor Center is the town of Point Reyes Station. Here you will find several good restaurants and shops for picnics. There is a very nice barn-like structure with great food shops including wonderful artisan cheese from Cowgirl Creamery (there’s a branch in the San Francisco Ferry Building too). There are also places to stay overnight in the area including many nice bed and breakfasts catering to weekend get aways from San Francisco. You may be able to get a good deal during the week.
Monterey is about a three hour drive south from San Francisco. It’s possible to do in a day but a bit strenuous. The highlight in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s fantastic and worth visiting even for people who don’t particularly like aquariums. The large tanks present entire environments, you can pick-up star fish, you can go outside to see the sea lions. It’s great.
I recommend that you break-up the trip. First drive to San Jose and stop at the Tech Museum of Innovation. This museum presents some of the history of the Silicon Valley. There are lots of places for lunch in San Jose’s rapidly changing downtown.
From the Tech Museum, take Highway 17 over the mountains to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is a typical California beach town with a boardwalk and amusement park. The town is a nice place to walk around for a while with lots of shops and restaurants.
From Santa Cruz, drive south to Monterey. Stay overnight in Monterey – this means you can go to the aquarium first thing in the morning and beat the crowds a little bit. There are many nice places to eat in Monterey.
When you are finished with the Aquarium, you can head south on Highway 1 to see all the places you have heard about: Big Sur, the Hearst Castle, Malibu, Los Angeles … of course this is a real trip; or you can head back north to San Francisco.
On the way north I would recommend staying on Highway 1 through Santa Cruz and on though San Mateo County. There are many isolated beaches here. The water’s generally too cold to swim and the waves are very dangerous, but the landscape is spectacular. Dress warm, it’s windy and cold all year round. There are several places to stop along this route including the town of Half Moon Bay, where you can find good restaurants and shops. It will probably take about 4 hours to drive Highway 1 up to San Francisco (if you don’t stop anywhere very long).