Best weekend getaways from the Bay Area

The Bay Area is loaded with options for weekend getaways, whether you choose to staycay close by in Half Moon Bay or haul it out to the High Sierras. For trips of two hours or less, which you can read about here, going out and back in a day is a reasonable option. Anything longer, and I prefer to spend a night (or two). The idea is to relax, enjoy and explore a destination, and not have to think about driving back at the end of the day. (Unless of course the drive is the destination; there are some excellent scenic drives in the Bay Area, found here.)

The best getaways offer complete immersion in nature, and/or a plethora of things to do and see, where an overnight stay (or two) is the best way to take advantage of it all. Ideally? Leave on a Friday, come back on a Sunday, and you’ll be plenty refreshed and recharged, and feeling like you actually went somewhere. Here are my favorite:

Seaside terrace at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Peninsula: Just over two hours from San Francisco, the peninsula cities of Monterey, Carmel and Pacific Grove are uniquely California coastal, with more maritime feel than anywhere in the state (and possibly anywhere, period). The hand of nature is heavy on the area, with Monterey pines in permanent leeward bend, cool foggy weather, the ubiquitous smell of salt air and the sound of barking sea lions. Small enough for some urban relief, you also won’t run out of things to keep you interested, whether it’s combing the tide pools or sipping a Carmel Valley pinot at Clint Eastwood’s Hog’s Breath Inn. Monterey has most of the attractions: Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf, the historic Customs House in the Presidio and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (one of the best in the world). Pacific Grove has a small, seaside town feel. And Carmel is the twee, upmarket village amongst the trees, with shops and restaurants along the main drag of Ocean Ave., and an excellent beach at the end. For a brand hotel right on the water in Cannery Row, try the InterContinental Clement Monterey. Otherwise, there are loads of small, quaint inns and hotels to choose from.

Winter view of Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe: A three hour drive depending on weather conditions, Lake Tahoe is best divided into seasons. From November to April, it’s the state’s premier winter destination for skiing, snowboarding, snowplay and crackling fires at the lodge, with a number of resorts on either side of the lake (north or south). Keep an eye on the weather. It’s common for the highway to suddenly close due to snowfall. Summer is the time to enjoy the largest alpine lake in North America, and the second deepest in the US at 1,600 feet. And with miles of pristine shores, and the occasional lakeside restaurant (with docks), boating can be especially fun. You can rent any type of watercraft, from kayaks and canoes, to sailboats and yachts, from one of several concessions along the lake. You can also find lots of great hiking trails from the mild to extreme, and something I’ve been wanting to do: bike the 75-mile perimeter of the lake. The shoulder seasons of late spring and autumn offer the best deals on hotels.

The town of Mendocino on bluffs above the Pacific coast

Mendocino County: Remote and rural, you really feel like you’re on a getaway in this large county north of Sonoma. This is such pretty, pastoral country it deserves its own book, a tome by James Michener, or haiku by Robert Hass. You can explore the country roads and lanes, and stop at one of the Anderson Valley wineries that seem like undiscovered outposts up here. The coast is lovely and undeveloped, and accessible from Hwy 1 which runs along it. Hang out in inland towns like Boonville (which does have a book in its name) where you can visit Anderson Valley Brewing Company, or explore the rocky coast and towns like Mendocino, which has a number of country inn options with ocean views. You can also camp and explore in Mendocino National Forest.

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Artist Emil White, long-time Big Sur denizen and founder of the Henry Miller library.

Big Sur: Sure, you could consider this an extension of Carmel (about 30 minutes away), but the dramatic beauty of Big Sur is unlike any other place in the country (or world for that matter). This makes it more than worthy of its own visit, especially one that involves encounters with nature, whether hiking, camping, or my favorite: lounging with a book under a canopy of redwoods by the banks of a stream. Take in the stunning waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer State Park, hike up into the hills or down to the sea, lunch at Nepenthe with its incredible views, wander the grounds of the Henry Miller Memorial Library (or come for one of its many fantastic events (film screenings, concerts, talks)), have long picnics, or if you have the bucks, enjoy the luxury and million dollar views at one of the areas high-end hotel lodges.

The iconic Yosemite Falls

Yosemite: A nearly four-hour drive due east from San Francisco, a trip to Yosemite is really best done with a two-night stay, especially if you’ve been able to snag one of the hard to come by campsites. That, and Yosemite is one of the premier destinations in the entire national park system. Most people are familiar with the main Yosemite Valley, which features the 594-foot Nevada Fall and the 317-foot Vernal Fall, the spectacular Half Dome, lodgings, and shops for resupplying. But there’s so much more in the 1,200 square miles of vast wilderness that make up the High Sierra park, numerous valleys, mountain meadows and ancient sequoias. Experienced outdoorsmen/women can backpack through pristine back country and John Muir Trail. Besides the lodges in Yosemite Vally, you’ll find lots of options on the roads just outside the park.

Mt. Shasta in winter layer of snow

Mt. Shasta: This is a little beyond the limit at 4 and a half hours each way, but there’s no peak in the state more majestic than Mt. Shasta. There’s a reason it’s considered sacred by tribes old and new. Stay in Dunsmuir along the Sacramento River and explore nearby Castle Crags State Park and Shasta-Trinity National Forest, or climb the mountain. Lots of excellent hiking/biking trails along waterfalls, streams and lakes, or downhill and cross-country skiing in winter. Trout fishing is also a big draw here. And for those so inclined: high-frequency vortexes. Keep an eye out for Lemurians and the hidden city of Telos, and possibly other magical beings. Or just enjoy the regular flora and fauna.

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