Point Reyes and Tomales Bay
With an enormous 71,000 acres of nature preserve on the Pacific Coast, Point Reyes is a dramatic windswept land populated by elephant seals, old-growth Douglas-fir forests, and a 145-year-old lighthouse. Start your trip at the Bear Valley Visitor Center to pick up trail maps then make your way to Chimney Rock, where a five-minute walk from the parking lot takes you to a cliff 's-edge vantage point. If you're visiting between January and April, keep your eyes peeled for the Pacific gray whale migration which passes just off the coast on the journey between Baja California and feeding grounds in Alaska. At the Tule Elk Preserve, hike or take a ranger-led tour to get a glimpse of these majestic animals (July to September is rutting season), or visit the historic Pierce Point Ranch at the trailhead. If you want a dip in the water, Heart’s Desire Beach in neighboring Tomales Bay has shallower and warmer waters than the open ocean.
Skyline Boulevard (Hwy 35) and Woodside
Escape into the cool blue mountains via Skyline Boulevard in Woodside, which offers nature trails, spectacular ocean and valley views, and wine-tasting without the traffic. When you reach the town, you'll see a wooden cabin in a clearing at the intersection. This is Alice's Restaurant, the place to stop if you like to have your burgers and BBQ paired with the rumble of Harleys. Popular with bikers and cyclists plying the mountain roads, Alice’s offers breakfast until 2 pm, Texas-style BBQ (brisket and pulled pork smoked in-house), and cheesy motorbike-themed burgers. This is still the Bay Area, though, so the burgers are made with hormone- and antibiotic-free beef patties, and there’s gluten-free beer on the menu.
Distance from SF: 45 mins
Stinson Beach and Bolinas
For friendly, laidback beach vibes, venture north to Stinson Beach and Bolinas. These two points, which bookend Bolinas Bay, boast rugged coastline, stretches of white sand, and water-based activities. New surfers can book lessons at the 2 Mile Surf Shop while keen swimmers should look out for Bass Lake, a body of freshwater situated a short drive up Mesa Road followed by a near-three-mile hike.
Distance from SF: 1 hour
Beyond the surf and boardwalk amusement park rides that Santa Cruz is best known for are mountain ranges, treetop walks, butterflies and indie bands. The adventurous should beeline for Mount Hermon, where you'll find all sorts of activities ranging from an ecology tour in the trees to a two-hour zipline, railroad riding, and Bigfoot hunting. Those who prefer to remain on the firmer ground (and are visiting during the colder months) should try and catch the impressive butterflies residing in the eucalyptus trees at Monarch Grove, in Natural Bridges State Beach.
Distance from SF: 1 hour 30 mins
Carmel’s Ocean Avenue and its environs are a great place to feel the European village vibe the town is famous for. A worthwhile stop is the elegant Harrison Memorial Library which occupies a building designed by Bernard Maybeck. The reading room captures the charm of the quintessential small-town library, with heavy tables flanked by tall windows. Outside, the flagstone courtyard is a pleasant place to sit back and people-watch. For a cultural stop, and to sample works rooted in this historic artist's colony, visit the Weston Gallery. In addition to a vintage photography collection, the gallery also has regular exhibitions of contemporary work.
Distance from SF: 2 hours 15 mins
Tiburon and Angel Island
In Tiburon, you'll get that small-town vacation vibe less than an hour away from the city—and with fewer tourists than in Sausalito. Rent a bike and ride a segment of the Paradise Drive Loop or ride past the town's pretty houses and impressive bay views. Hop on to the Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry and visit the museum at the Angel Island Immigration Station which documents the experiences of the many immigrants who crossed the Pacific Ocean stopping first at the "Ellis Island of the West." Look out for poetry scrawled on the walls when the station was used as a detention center.
Distance from SF: 40 mins by car, 20 mins by ferry