Northern California’s Best Driving Destinations
Anyone who has been to San Francisco knows that this is the most beautiful large city in America. Whether you’re a visitor or resident, if you’re lucky enough to be behind the wheel, that’s only the starting point to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
Here are just a handful of the best places to take a day trip when in the Bay Area.
The Oakland Hills
Yes, you heard right: Oakland. Some San Franciscans love to be snobs about Oakland, the same way Manhattanites in New York City used to lord it over Brooklynites. You can see how well that’s worked out for them. While Oakland may never have the hip cachet of its neighbor, Berkeley, the Oakland Hills, on the eastern side of the city, are well worth a ride over the Oakland-Bay Bridge.
If they think of the Oakland Hills at all, most people associate them with the wildfires that are endemic to life in California’s urban upper reaches, particularly the 1991 fires that devastated much of the area.
Since then, it has more than bounced back, with beautiful homes, parks, hiking trails, and three wonderful scientific centers.
Joaquin Miller Park would be worth the trip alone. The 500 heavily wooded acres include redwoods and panoramic views of the Bay Area, including the spires of San Francisco rising above the fog that usually encases the city. There’s an amphitheater for musical comedies and plays. And the hiking trails are spectacular. Best of all, there’s The Cascade, a 1941 waterfall dedicated to California’s writers.
Lake Temescal is a small reservoir where you can sun yourself or play volleyball surrounded by lush greenery on the artificial beach. Or bring your bait and tackle: The lake is stocked periodically with all kinds of freshwater fish.
The Chabot Space and Science Center is the successor to the famous Oakland Observatory, which was instrumental in many important 20th century astronomical discoveries. The Joseph Knowland State Arboretum and the Oakland Zoo are both world-class institutions -- and a hell of a lot of fun.
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge stand the most majestic organic creatures on earth. Muir Woods’ 554 acres includes 224 acres of old growth redwoods. Thanks to a unique set of conditions, including the fog, these trees grow to a height of up to 258 feet. One of them is estimated to be at least 1,200 years old.
Located 138 miles northeast of San Francisco, these two towns together are the West Coast equivalent of Woodstock, N.Y. It might take the better part of an afternoon to climb one of the majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevadas that surround the towns, but the God-like views are incomparable in their splendor.
Boutiques in Paradise are as colorful and original as their owners. Not unexpectedly, artisans reign supreme here. You can buy quilts, hand-made jewelry, hard-to-find yarn and plenty more unexpectedly delightful gifts.
As a university town, Chico is a bit more upmarket but just as laid back. Don’t miss the National Yo-Yo Museum; Bidwell Mansion, an 1868 Victorian home; and Stansbury House, another Victorian. The Gateway Science Museum is the leading public scientific education center for Northern California and is full of information and exhibits relating to the area’s history, natural resources and topography.
While there, be sure to visit a pub to have a pint drawn of a Sierra Nevada, the second-largest craft brewer in the country. The pale ale is probably the most respected and honored such beverage in the United States and compares quite favorably to its British counterparts.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco will take you back to one of the most storied episodes in American history.
On Jan. 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, and the rest, as they say, is history. The 300,000 people who rushed to California became known as the ’49ers.
In the process, they transformed San Francisco from a sleepy mission town into a metropolis known as the Barbary Coast for its vice. At one time, the city reportedly had more whorehouses per capital than any other city in the world. The Gold Rush helped establish San Francisco as a wide-open town where everybody and everything was acceptable.
Among many other things, the Gold Rush is also famous for launching the venture of Levi Strauss. The German-Jewish immigrant quickly saw a need for pants durable enough to endure weeks of prospecting. Strauss got the idea of using copper rivets on denim overalls. The result, of course, were blue jeans, or "levis," as they’re universally known.
In recent years, gold mining has resumed around Sutter’s Creek, but the real gold is in tourism. You can take tours of the pioneer cemetery; the Kennedy Gold Mine, one of the most famous of the Mother Lodes; or take a walking tour of this historic town. Of course, this being Northern California, you can also visit local wineries.