northern california road trip

Get fueled with trendy food and drink on Cannery Row. (Photo: Getty Images)

San Francisco

Drive from Napa Valley to Silicon Valley on this Bay Area Road Trip

Whether you have a week or just a weekend, San Francisco is a perfect starting point for a road trip into Silicon Valley. You’ll enjoy breathtaking vistas high above the Pacific Ocean, taste world-class wines, get in touch with your hippie side, and stroll historic streets in some of NorCal’s most picturesque villages.

Local’s tip: The name of the game in the Bay Area is microclimates: Drive 10 miles east or west and expect a 10- to 20-degree temperature swing. Always pack layers!

Start: San Francisco

There’s no shortage of things to do in the City by the Bay, from distinguished art museums like SFMOMA to a lively and eclectic music scene.

northern california road trip
The gardens tour is an unusual look at Alcatraz. (Photo: Dreamstime)

Take the Gardens of Alcatraz Tour to discover this historic military base-turned-notorious prison through its plants, climb the “hidden stairs” to Coit Tower for stunning views on a fog-free day, or shop the vintage boutiques that line Haight Street.

Each neighborhood presents its own unique point of view on food, fashion and entertainment, and whether your palate tends more toward foodie (Atelier Crenn with three Michelin stars) or feisty (try Cha Cha Cha in the Mission), you’ll find something to please.

San Francisco to Point Reyes Station

Point Reyes Station is only about an hour drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but you could easily take all day to get there. Marin County offers a plethora of walkable, fun-to-shop villages — Sausalito, Tiburon, Mill Valley, Larkspur, San Anselmo, Fairfax.

If hiking is more your thing, stretch your legs on one of the many trails up and over the Marin Headlands or to the summit of Mount Tamalpais.

northern california road trip
Wander through Muir Woods. (Photo: Getty Images)

Be sure to make a parking reservation for Muir Woods National Monument, a towering grove of old-growth redwood trees named for conservationist John Muir, situated halfway between Mill Valley and Muir Beach.

From Muir Beach, head north along CA-1. The area is known for organic and sustainable dairy production, including Cowgirl Creamery and Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Enjoy local oysters from the Tomales Bay Oyster Company.

Point Reyes to Wine Country

Do the one-hour drive from Point Reyes Station to Sonoma in a single shot. Have lunch at The Girl & the Fig and then take some time to meander north along CA-12 toward Calistoga and back south along the Silverado Trail. You’ll find some of California’s, and indeed, the world’s, best wineries along these two roads.

northern california road trip
Enjoy an excellent meal at The Girl & the Fig. (Photo: The Girl & the Fig)

Chateau Montelena put the Napa Valley on the winemaking map when its 1973 chardonnay won at the “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting, made famous by the movie “Bottle Shock.” Stag’s Leap Winery’s 1973 cabernet sauvignon won in the red category. But don’t overlook the small, family-run wineries like Crocker & Starr in St. Helena, known for organic cabernets and sauvignon blancs.

Napa to the East Bay

Berkeley is a world away (and an hour south) from Napa, and though the Summer of Love may be long gone, the hippie vibe is alive and well, especially along Telegraph Avenue, where you’ll find plenty of thrift stores and Amoeba Music, the world’s largest independent record store. Make reservations for dinner at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, the birthplace of the country’s slow food movement. Call in advance for hours of operation.

Oakland is a little more hipster than hippie, with a vibrant literary scene and a craft cocktail culture. Be sure to stroll along Lake Merritt with the locals.

The East Bay usually has a lot of traffic, so you’ll want to plan your arrival and departure to avoid rush hours.

East Bay to Monterey

Sleep late and then hit the road just before lunch for the two-hour drive to Monterey. The drive is fairly mundane until you get south of San Jose.

Cannery Row, once the epicenter of Monterey’s sardine-packing industry, is now lined with shops and restaurants. At one end is the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium and at the other is San Carlos Beach Park.

If you have time, Monterey is the perfect jumping-off point for a side trip to Pebble Beach, Carmel and Big Sur.

Monterey Bay to Half Moon Bay

Drive north on CA-1 around Monterey Bay through the beach town of Santa Cruz. The 50-mile chunk of road between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay is known as the “Slowcoast,” a not-too-busy route along the Pacific Ocean through a series of state parks offering plenty of scenic hiking opportunities.

Stop at Duarte’s Tavern in the coastal farming community of Pescadero. The Duarte family has run this historic saloon since 1894; in 2003 it won the James Beard Award for American Classic Restaurant, serving local fish, produce and wines.

End: Silicon Valley

From Half Moon Bay, you’ll head back east over the Santa Cruz Mountains. I-280 is a more pleasant and scenic highway than US-101, with access to Silicon Valley’s most prestigious communities — Palo Alto, Los Altos, Cupertino, Saratoga and Los Gatos.

Spend an afternoon window-shopping the local real estate or drive past your favorite technology company: Apple, Google and Intel.