San Francisco hills may be a workout to navigate, but at the top? Those views. Ever wonder what you’re really looking at? To the north are beaches, valleys, winelands, and the promise of towering redwoods—you can get it all in one weekend, on a road trip out of SF that’s not nearly as iconic as that Highway 1 ride but is no less beautiful.
Day One: A Scenic Drive, Canoeing, and Dining Along the Russian River
Start your trip by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—the gateway will bookend your drive through the Russian River Valley all the way to the untamed Pacific coast—with Guerneville, less than two hours away, plugged into Google Maps.
If you’ve gotten an early start (like, you’re off before 9 a.m.), make a quick detour in bayside Sausalito for breakfast at the Lighthouse Cafe. Though Sausalito has been long overrun by tourists, it’s as picturesque as ever, and the views it offers of San Francisco are a nice dose of perspective as you ditch the city for the weekend. If you slept too late, don’t worry—you’ll get the same effect by simply driving through Sausalito, past tony Marin, a stretch of eye-candy broken only by some highway driving before you enter the winding valley itself. After an hour and a half, you should arrive at Boon Hotel + Spa, your base for the day and night.
Start with a quick dip in Boon’s heated saline pool; a bike ride through the town of Guerneville (Boon has cruisers they’ll lend you); or lounge on one of the many nearby beaches (Johnson’s Beach is a popular choice, though tiny Monte Rio is a great escape from summer crowds). Of course, the quintessential way to pass the day is by floating down the river itself. Head to Burke’s Canoe Trips for canoe rentals. The full route from Burke’s down to Guerneville takes about three hours, and you can make stops along the way. If you plan to stay out that long, grab water and snacks at Big Bottom Market to bring along (and make sure to pick up local cult beer Pliny the Elder while there—it’s hard to find, but this market stocks it). If you’re visiting in the height of summer, you can also rent a tube (Johnson’s Beach and Monte Rio have them) or grab a paddleboard at Steelhead Beach.
When you’re ready for something to eat, head to Seaside Metal Oyster Bar, the perfect lunch spot, with fresh seafood dishes that feels surprisingly chic for the small town. Dinner is best enjoyed at El Barrio, with its great Mexican dishes, flights of mezcal, and an eclectically cool crowd that comes out as the sun sets. End your evening back home in Boon’s outdoor hot tub with a staggering view of the star-smattered night sky.
Day Two: From the Redwoods to the Pacific
Though a journey farther north would lead you to mammoth forests, the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve—with Boon at its foot—is a compact sampler of the centuries-old trees right in Guerneville. Today’s itinerary will take you deep into the remarkable cathedral of trees in the Russian River Valley before spitting you out at the mouth of the Pacific Ocean on Highway 1.
Boon’s offer to bring you breakfast in bed makes it easy to get an early yet leisurely start, but don’t linger too long. Throw on a pair of hiking boots and head a few steps up the street to the Armstrong trailhead. Hikes vary in difficulty, with everything from barely-break-a-sweat walks to a few loops with steep ascents—grab a trail map at the visitor center and give yourself until midday to tramp beneath the behemoth trees.
Throw your bags in the car post-hike and head west on Highway 116 toward the Pacific. The road snakes and weaves in tandem with the river for a 20-minute stretch until, finally, the trees fade away and you find yourself face-to-face with the Pacific. Dainty clusters of cottages and unassuming shops along the cliffs make up the town of Jenner, California, a favorite hideaway that has (miraculously) remained unspoiled by tourists. Treat yourself to lunch with a view at River’s End Restaurant (and keep an eye out for sunbathing seals on Goat Rock Beach just below), before embarking on the next leg of your road trip.
Drive south along Pacific Coast Highway—maybe detouring through the headlands of Sonoma Coast State Park—and take in the boundless ocean views until you reach Bodega Bay, a 30-minute jaunt from Jenner. Yet another highlight of the PCH route north of San Francisco, Bodega Bay draws significantly more visitors than Jenner: It’s home to a handful of beloved restaurants, including Michelin-starred Terrapin Creek Cafe & Restaurant, and sits right on the migratory path for gray whales. Park at the start of the trail at Bodega Head and follow the mile-long path atop the cliffs. Gray whales make their appearance closest to shore from March through June, and pass again in October and November—during these periods, volunteers along the trail help visitors spot whales, and answer questions. The rest of the year, the trails are still worth a stop for the views alone.
If timing lines up, grab dinner at Terrapin. If you find yourself leaving Bodega Bay on the earlier side, don’t worry—you won’t go hungry. Drive 30 minutes to Nick’s Cove, where you’ll stay tonight. The accommodations are made up of Instagrammable stilted cottages that sit on the pristine Tomales Bay, and sunset from your private porch or soaking tub will easily be a highlight of the trip. Nick’s Cove has a restaurant just steps away, and most items on the menu are fresh catches plucked straight out of the water.
From the river to the sea: driving north of San Francisco.
Day Three: Kayaking, Oysters, and Mead & Cheese
Get a head start on the day and kayak out onto the still morning water in front of your cottage. Blue Water Kayaking offers rentals and guided tours; spend your first half of the day with them (arrangements can be made through Nick’s the evening before). There are more than 2,000 wildlife species along Point Reyes National Seashore, and the hawk-eyed guides will help you spot dozens of them. After you’ve worked up an appetite, pack your bags and follow Highway 1 south to Hog Island Oyster Co. for lunch. This simple outdoor setup has a full-service Boat Oyster Bar where you can dine on freshly shucked oysters, local cheeses, and fresh salads; or you can hunker down in the Shuck-Your-Own picnic area and put yourself to work. Book in advance and you can also take a one-hour tour of the oyster farm itself. When Hog Island gives you the boot (they have a hour-and-a-half time limit on tables), continue down the road to the hamlet of Point Reyes Station. This small speck on the map is the connecting hub for Marin county’s outer farmlands, and has quickly become a mini gourmand mecca.
First stop here: Heidrun Meadery, one of several mead-brewers (yes, mead) coming onto the scene in a revival of this medieval bev. Derived from fermented honey (they have their own hives on-site), Heidrun’s champagne-style mead is delicate in flavor. If you’re the one manning the wheel on this road trip, grab a bottle to take home or sip a glass of their lower-BAV mead; others should take advantage of a tasting and explore they range they offer. Finally, make your last indulgent stop at Cowgirl Creamery’s original creamery and cheese shop, located in a restored barn in the center of town. Take the cheesemongers’ advice on which to sample, and see why San Franciscans delight when spotting Cowgirl on a menu. On Fridays, Cowgirl offers official tastings for just $5, but you can sample a few and buy snackable slices any day of the week.
Oysters, mead, and cheese under your belt, follow Highway 1 back to San Francisco—even if Waze tries to guide you on a quicker route. As you sail down the hills of Marin, taking hairpin turns back toward the Golden Gate Bridge, the lights of San Francisco will slowly twinkle into sight, welcoming you back.