Show of hands from anyone who’s done the 49-mile scenic drive around San Francisco. That’s what I thought. While most everyone has come across the classic seagull signs scattered throughout the city, and have thus found themselves on a section of the famed drive, doing the drive is a little like going to the zoo: you know it’s there but you never think of going it unless a relative comes to visit. And even then, there’s so much on offer that such a drive is probably down the list. I mean, it’s 49 miles, and driving the city’s streets can be a pain. Traffic fatigue can easily blind us, but get away from 101 or the 880, and the Bay Area has some of the most scenic drives you’ll find in any city.
The 49-mile scenic drive
Everyone knows about it, but who’s actually completed the circuit around San Francisco in one fell swoop? The drive is really a roundup of some of the city’s best tourist spots, which was the intention back in 1938 when it was introduced. Start off on the Embarcadero, cruise through SOMA and up and over to Japantown, then back downtown through Chinatown, up to Nob Hill, over to North Beach and Grant Street, then up and through Fisherman’s Wharf. From there it’s along Marina Blvd to the Palace of Fine Arts and through the Presidio to Seacliff, down the Great Hwy and up and through Golden Gate Park, and eventually winding your way up to Twin Peaks. Even if you don’t stop along the way, it’s still a full day of sightseeing.
I-280 – Cupertino to San Francisco
I know, it’s an interstate, but have you ever driven along this 45-mile highway in the afternoon as the fog is rolling over the ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains? Breathtaking. At certain points, you can catch a glimpse of the bay, as well as a lovely view of the Crystal Springs Reservoir near Hwy 92 to Half Moon Bay. What you won’t see is a billboard, or fast food joint, or any other signs that an urban snarl is just over the hill – nothing but open and unspoiled land (thanks Peninsula Open Space Trust
, and others). But don’t take my word for it, the Junipero Serra Freeway has been designated as the World’s Most Beautiful Freeway
(check the plaque in Daly City). The road also runs parallel with the San Andreas Fault, for all you seismologists.
Berkeley Hills – Grizzly Peak Rd/Wildcat Canyon Rd
This is a nice drive along the western edge atop the Berkeley Hills. The road winds through parts of Tilden Park
and the bordering neighborhood, and offers amazing views of the city below, and the bay and San Francisco beyond. It’s stunning at sunset, one of the best in the Bay Area. You also get a flavor of the lovely Berkeley Hills neighborhood.
Hwy 35 – Skyline Blvd
Start from the crossroad with Hwy 92 and head south to Hwy 9 that takes you to Saratoga. Skyline Blvd
runs along the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains, alternating between towering stands of coastal redwoods and open stretches that offer excellent views both east and west. There’s great hiking trails along the road too – just pull over and park at the trailheads and off you go. (Again, props to the Peninsula Open Space Trust.) The roads here are popular on the weekends with bikers and cyclers, and you’ll find them gathering at Alice’s restaurant at the crossroads with Hwy 84, a nice little diner and a great place to relax of an afternoon.
Hwy 1 – Pacifica to Santa Cruz
It’s not quite as magnificent as the stretch farther south in Big Sur, but the gently rolling coastline of bluffs and beaches, and almost zero development, is a great drive for wonderful ocean views. Stop off at one of several beaches along the road (San Gregorio State Beach is especially nice), or stop at one of several small sea-side towns - Half Moon Bay, San Gregorio, Pescadero, Davenport.
Pt. Reyes Petaluma Rd
We started out from Petaluma on a hot day, making our way through the rolling hills and valleys of Marin County, and by the time we arrived at Pt. Reyes Station we needed jackets. It’s incredibly scenic along this not-too-windy road, mostly open spaces with a few farm houses here and there. Near Pt. Reyes, the road bisects the lovely Nicasio Reservoir, with various waterfall splashing about.
Sir Francis Drake Blvd – Pt. Reyes Station to Fairfax
From Pt. Reyes, take Sir Francis Drake back to Fairfax (which continues to Hwy 101). The road cuts through Samuel P. Taylor State Park, and you’re completely lost in the darkness of the forest in this stretch, surrounded by coastal redwoods. There’s also a spectacular view of the valley as you descend along one stretch, with one particular spot where people pull over to gaze (or paint). Stop at a roadside market in Lagunitas, San Geronimo, or check in at the peaceful Spirit Rock Meditation Center and walk the grounds.
The roads in Sonoma and Napa are obviously scenic, what with all the rolling hills and vineyards and stuff, but the traffic can be heavy at times with the weekend tourist migration. Hwy 29 is the main thoroughfare through Napa Valley and its many wineries, but running parallel just to the east is Silverado Trail. It’s a more scenic alternative, with views of the valley and its vineyards, and without the traffic.
I-880 – Richmond to Milpitas (j/k)
Hwy 101 – South San Francisco to San Jose (j/k again)
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