3 of the Best Day Trips in Northern California

You can explore the West Coast even on a tight budget and a tight schedule.

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Gas prices have been volatile over the last year or so, and costs tend to be consistently higher in California, where some fuel stations have charged up to $10 per gallon. A long road trip might not seem like the most sensible choice, given the potentially high cost of gasoline, but there are still plenty of neat places to go within a reasonable distance of the major cities in Northern California.

San Jose to Monterey and Big Sur

From the bustling Silicon Valley city of San Jose, venture south on Route 17 to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Enjoy some nature time under the forest's shady canopy before setting your course for Monterey on Highway 1. But first, make a stop in beachy Santa Cruz at Verve Coffee for the funky atmosphere and a cup of joe for the ride ahead.

Monterey has tons to offer, whether you're interested in a dog-friendly cafe for your pet or an incredible aquarium for the kids. Visit historic landmarks such as the Old Custom House, Cannery Row, and Fort Ord National Monument before heading on your way.

Farther down the coast is Big Sur, which has plenty of vistas and hikes to explore. If you can, take a break at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where a short trail leads you out on a point to see McWay Falls spill into the ocean.

On the return trip, consider taking scenic Route 152 out of Watsonville, over Hecker Pass, and into Gilroy, known as the Garlic Capital of the World. There, you can dine on everything garlic flavored (ice cream and chocolate included) and visit Gilroy Gardens, where you can take a ride in — what else? — a giant bulb of garlic. It's not to be missed.

Sacramento to Yosemite National Park

While it's a long drive — more than 150 miles — from Sacramento to Yosemite, it's well worth it when you need some outdoor time. The national park is home to iconic rock formations such as El Capitan and Half Dome. At various points over the last few years, visitors have needed a reservation to drive through the park — and most campsites continue to require reservations — but as of 2023, no driving reservations are needed. Just the $35 entrance fee per car.

To reach Yosemite, travel southeast from Sacramento on Route 16 through Rancho Murieta, then link up with Route 49. Take that south through Angels Camp and, when it turns into Route 120, on to Groveland, where there are some restaurant options before you enter the park. Try Iron Door Saloon for burgers and fries or Two Guys Pizza for some 'za.

San Francisco to Napa Valley

An hour and a half northeast of San Francisco sits one of the most famous wine-producing regions in the world: Napa Valley. It's home to renowned vineyards such as Robert Mondavi, Stags' Leap, and Mumm, as well as world-class restaurants like Bouchon Bistro, the French Laundry, and SingleThread Farms.

Cross the glorious Golden Gate Bridge heading north (there's a toll for southbound traffic only) to leave San Francisco. Then take U.S. Route 101 to Route 37 and on to Route 121, which will lead you to Napa.

Of the 450-plus wineries in the region, many don't open until 10:00 a.m., but if you wish to head into town early for something to eat, there are seasonal goodies at Monday Bakery, which isn't just open on Mondays. And for lunch, consider grabbing a bite at Gott's Roadside, a widely acclaimed burger joint.

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Abigail Bassett
Abigail Bassett is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. There, she covers everything from automotive and business to travel and luxury. She has a passion for 1980s-era Volvo wagons, microcars, and dogs. She is also a World Car Juror.