Introducing guest blogger Sally from Little Hiccups
San Francisco is a fantastic city to visit with kids. The city offers a wealth of things to do and see no matter where your interests lie. World class museums and art galleries, famous historical sites, stunning vistas as far as the eye can see, hiking and outdoor adventures, tasty food and cultural experiences… You name it; San Francisco has got it!
While the city itself has enough to keep visitors occupied, if you have some extra time on your hands, there are plenty of amazing places to visit within a short drive of the San Francisco Bay Area. Looking for stunning beaches and marine wildlife? Maybe rolling hills and lush forests? Snow-capped mountains and natural hot springs? Wineries and farmland? All of these things can be found within a fairly short drive of San Francisco, making the city a wonderful starting point for many day-trip adventures.
Living in San Francisco we made sure to make the most of having all of this right on our doorstep, with many day trips spent exploring the wider area. Here are some of my favorite places to visit on a day trip from San Francisco.
This post is part of our Explore My City series – come and visit cities around the world through the eyes of local parents
Monterey is a popular day trip for Bay Area locals and visitors alike. Located just a two hour drive south of San Francisco, Monterey is best known as being home to Monterey Bay Aquarium which is widely revered as one of the best aquariums in the world. And rightly so.
A visit to the Monterey Peninsula is not complete without a visit to the aquarium. Here you’ll find a wealth of sea life, both local to the California coast and from further afield. You’ll find sea otters, sharks, jellyfish, sea horses, rays, starfish, octopus, and more fish than you could possibly imagine, all under the one roof.
From the viewing decks you’ll likely spot sea otters and sea lions in the kelp forest filled waves below, and if you’re lucky, you just might spot a whale or two.
If you’ve got young kids, Monterey Bay Aquarium may feel familiar. That’s because it’s the inspiration for the fictional “Marine Life Institute” in the movie Finding Dory. You’ll easily find yourself spending the better part of the a at the aquarium exploring its exhibits, so it’s best to head off for this day trip early, or make it an overnight trip.
While Monterey Bay Aquarium is the major drawcard bringing visitors to the area, there is plenty more here to explore. Whale watching trips are popular, with humpback whales commonly found in the area from April to November.
The coastline around Monterey is truly stunning. You’ll find plenty of tide pools to explore along the rocky shore. My favorites can be found at Pacific Grove Marine Gardens Park and Asilomar. The tide pools are alive with anemones, hermit crabs, star fish, and teeny tiny fish.
For jaw dropping views of the beautiful coastal scenery, a drive along the famous 17 Mile Drive is a must. There are 17 designated stops along the route including sandy beaches, rocky beaches,a Monterey Cypress grove, and many stunning vista points.
Before leaving Monterey to head back to San Francisco, make sure to stop at Dennis the Menace Playground for some old fashioned playground fun. This large playground in El Estero Park has something for kids of all ages with swings, various types of slides, climbing structures and plenty of space to run around.
One of the most popular day trips from San Francisco is a visit to Muir Woods. Here visitors find themselves a world away from the city among the towering coastal redwoods. With its close proximity to the city and easy hiking trails, this lush green forest is popular with visitors of all ages.
The hiking trails throughout the park vary in intensity, but the main trails are relatively flat and either paved or decked making them wheelchair and stroller accessible. They’re also fairly easy for little legs, making Muir Woods a great place for a hike with little ones.
Muir Woods is a part of the National Parks system which means that kids ages 5-13 can take part in the Junior Ranger program. Through this program kids fill out an activity book as they explore the park, learning about the plants and animals that call this part of the state home. It’s a great way to keep kids occupied and once they’re done with their activities they earn a Junior Ranger badge.
Muir Woods is just a short trip to the north across the Golden Gate, and can be easily accessed by car from the city or by ferry to Sausalito. Many visitors like to take the ferry option for a scenic day out and to avoid the hassles of parking. From the ferry terminal in Sausalito there are regular shuttle buses to the entrance of Muir Woods.
If you choose to drive, make sure to arrive early in the day or avoid busy weekend times as the parking lot fills very quickly. If parking is full when you arrive, your best bet is to drive to Sausalito and take the shuttle bus to the park. On the drive back to San Francisco make sure to stop at Battery Spencer, the Golden Gate Bridge Vista View Point or Fort Baker for views over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Like Muir Woods to the north, Big Basin State Park is home to towering coastal redwood groves. Located an hour and a half south of San Francisco this sprawling state park is a great place to spend a day hiking and exploring.
Due to its larger size and further distance from the city, Big Basin doesn’t tend to get as crowded as Muir Woods, making it a great alternative if you’re visiting San Francisco during busy tourist seasons. The hiking trails here vary in degree of difficulty from fairly accessible loop trails to day-long hikes that lead past waterfalls and to the ocean.
The Redwood Trail is a great option for families with young kids. This fairly flat half-mile loop trail starts near the visitor center and takes hikers past some of the tallest redwood trees in the park, including the Mother of the Forest. The Mother of the Forest tree is the tallest in the park, standing at 329 feet tall with a circumference of 70 feet at its base. The inside of the tree is hollowed out, but is off-limits to visitors.
The nearby Chimney Tree, found along this trail is also hollowed out and accessible for visitors to stand inside of. For a longer, but still kid friendly hike, check out the Sequoia and Skyline to Sea trail loop which takes hikers to a platform overlooking the Sempervirens Falls. This hike is 4 miles in length and has an elevation of about 300 feet.
While the towering trees are definitely a drawcard at Big Basin, make sure to keep an eye out for the smaller details. You may just find yourself coming face to face with one of the area’s quirkier creatures – the banana slug! These yellow slugs can be found on fallen trees and in the undergrowth, and are surprisingly large for a slug. The banana slug is the mascot for nearby University of California Santa Cruz. Local tradition calls for giving a banana slug a kiss when you see one for the first time, so you may just see other visitors giving a banana slug a quick peck!
If you ever get a chance to solo explore, rent a motorcycle in San Francisco and enjoy a glorious ride through the incredible towering forests of Big Basin. With its superb tight turns and elevation, it’s one of the states top-rated routes.
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
Got a budding marine biologist in your family? A day trip south to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is perfect for you. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is located in Moss Beach, just a 40-minute drive from San Francisco.
Here nature lovers can explore tide pools and the amazing creatures that call them home. You can expect to find sea anemones, starfish, hermit crabs, sea urchins, abelone and fish going about their day in the rocky pools along the coast.
While these creatures are fun to watch, don’t forget that there’s no touching, and definitely no collecting allowed. Seals can also be spotted in the marine reserve but please make sure to keep your distance as they are wild animals. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is open from 8am to sunset daily, but is best visited during low tide when the rock pools are exposed. Visitors can find low tide times here.
As well as the rocky tide pools, the area is home to sandy beaches, perfect for a day of beach fun. If hiking is your thing, the nearby Pillar Point trail is a great place for a hike with views over the ocean.
The drive along Highway 1 to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve from San Francisco is quite a scenic one, with many vista points along the way. Make sure to allow extra time for stopping to take in the views.
Fort Bragg Glass Beach
For a beach experience of a different kind, head north to the Mendocino coast and the small town of Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg is about a three-hour drive north of San Francisco and is famous for its glass beach. A small area of coastline here is littered with smooth pieces of sea glass in a vast array of colors.
Wondering where all this glass came from? The history is not quite as romantic as you’d expect. The glass didn’t wash up from shipwrecks or messages in bottles. It came to be here after the coastline was used as a dump for 60 years in the early 20th century! A cleanup movement removed all of the hard waste, but the glass remained and was worn down over time to create the sparkling beach you see today.
Head down to the beach and you’ll find plenty of green, brown and clear sea glass mixed amongst the sand and pebbles. Look a little closer and you just might find some brighter colors including blues, purples and yellows. When we visited my kids had a treasure hunt to see who could find the biggest pieces and the rarest colors.
While it’s tempting to take home a souvenir or two, removing the sea glass is not allowed. In fact, over the years, this famous glass beach has lost much of its color due to visitors collecting the glass to take home.
The rocky coastline surrounding the glass beach makes for some fun exploring. Depending on the tide, you just might find some tide pools teeming with sea life. The rocky islands off the coast are home to seals and sea birds so bring a pair of binoculars to do a little nature watching while you’re here.
Sonoma and Napa Valleys
For many visitors to San Francisco, a day trip to Sonoma and Napa Valleys to visit wineries is in order. If you’re travelling with kids, this may not be something on your radar, but these famous wine regions have plenty on offer for families.
Many wineries in the region cater to families with onsite activities perfect for keeping children entertained while the grown-ups do a little wine tasting. Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga features an aerial tram ride to the top of the vineyard and self-guided tours through their winemaking facilities.
Castello di Amarosa, also in Calistoga, features a faux 13th-century castle complete with moat, drawbridge, turrets, armory and even a mock torture chamber. Self-guided tours of the site are available as is grape juice tasting for the kids.
Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville features swimming pools and cabanas available for rent, as well as a children’s library and teepees for relaxing with a book.
Beyond wine tasting the region offers many more attractions for families. Sonoma TrainTown Railroad in Sonoma is popular with tourists and Bay Area locals alike, especially those with train-loving kids. The park features amusement rides and, you guessed it, train rides. Their quarter-scale trains take visitors for rides along a 4-mile track to a miniature town with a petting zoo.
For a natural wonder, visit Old Faithful Geyser of California in Calistoga. Much smaller and less impressive than Old Faithful in Yellowstone, this geyser is nonetheless faithful when it comes to the timing of its eruptions. With a dramatic blast of steam and hot water every 15 to 30 minutes, you’re guaranteed to see some geyser action here. The property is also home to a petting zoo and a small geology museum.
For another geological wonder, head to the Petrified Forest, also in Calistoga. Here you’ll find half-mile long walking trails that take visitors past the remains of petrified redwood trees. These giant trees were covered in ash when a nearby volcano erupted some 3.4 million years ago. Over time the trees turned to stone and what we see today is quite remarkable.
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is about a two and a half-hour drive south of San Francisco but feels a world away from the Bay Area. This National Park is a great place to visit if you love hiking or rock climbing.
Hiking trails throughout the park are quite varied, but the most popular hikes take visitors not just along rock-lined trails, but also through caves. Trails lead through Bear Gulch and Balconies Cave, both of which are talus caves and home to colonies of bats. When these bats are hibernating, the caves may be closed to hikers, so it’s always best to check with the National Parks Service in advance.
When the caves are open, they are a glorious respite from the heat outside. Make sure to bring a flashlight (the one built into your phone should do) to make hiking through the caves easier and to ensure that you don’t miss any of the sights to be seen within the caves.
My favorite thing about hiking in Pinnacles NP is that when you pop out of a cave, you’re met with the most wondrous rocky spires that the park is known for. The terrain here is rather varied so make sure to wear sturdy shoes before heading out on a hike and bring plenty of water. It can get rather hot in the park during the Summer months, so most visitors tend to come in the cooler months.
Rock climbing is also popular in Pinnacles NP, but you’ll need to be experienced and bring your own equipment. Like Muir Woods, as Pinnacles NP is a part of the National Parks Service, children can take part in the Junior Ranger program and earn themselves a badge. The badges make for great souvenirs and they don’t cost anything.
Planning a few hikes with your little ones? Don’t forget to check out our complete guide to the best hiking shoes for toddlers
Not all day trips from the city lead to the countryside or beach. Sacramento, California’s capital city, is less than a two-hour drive northeast of San Francisco and makes for a great day out.
The historical Old Sacramento Waterfront area, in particular, is a fun place to visit. Here you’ll find something of an open-air museum, with the roads and buildings just the way they would have been during the gold rush era. You’ll find streets of historical buildings, with a mix of current retail, restaurants and museums. Horse-drawn carriage rides are available through the area and are a fun way to feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
The Delta King paddle steamer, now a hotel, takes pride of place in Old Sacramento, docked in the Sacramento River. In its past life, this fully restored paddle steamer carried passengers between Sacramento and San Francisco daily in the 1920s and 30s. Visitors can dine in the onboard restaurants and explore the public areas of the paddle steamer.
For train lovers, a visit to the California State Railroad Museum is a must-see. The museum boasts over 2.5 acres of exhibits including historic locomotives, rolling stock and maintenance vehicles such as cranes and snow plows. The museum offers train rides on weekends from April through September. These rides feature vintage steam or diesel locomotives and vintage carriages including an open-air gondola and first-class observation cars.
Speaking of trains, a fun way to get to and from Sacramento is to take a trip on Amtrak.
If there are Charlie Brown and Snoopy fans in your family, a visit to Santa Rosa is a must. The city of Santa Rosa lies just over an hour north of San Francisco and was the long time home of Peanuts creator Charles M Schulz.
Schulz’s legacy has lived on in the city in the form of the Charles M Schulz Museum. This museum is fun for children and adults alike, with interactive displays, a theatre showing classic Peanuts movies, many of Schulz’s original artworks on display, craft rooms for kids to get creative, and on special occasions, the Peanuts gang walking around for kids to meet.
The Peanuts fun continues next door with Snoopy’s Home Ice, a large indoor ice skating rink which is also home to Warm Puppy Cafe and Snoopy’s Gallery & Gift Shop.
The Peanuts-themed fun continues throughout the city of Santa Rosa with fun sculptures of the beloved characters to be found around the city center. These sculptures have been painted by artists and each one is a masterpiece in its own right. A treasure hunt around the city to see how many of these sculptures you can find is always fun. Maps for tracking down the individual sculptures can be found at the Santa Rosa visitor center.
About the Blogger
Sally is an Australian expat living in the USA with her husband and three daughters. After eight years living in the San Francisco Bay Area they made a move to the mountains last Summer and now live in Boulder, Colorado.
Sally writes about her family’s adventures exploring the USA and abroad on her blog Little Hiccups. She also shares fun craft DIYs, party inspiration and recipes.
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