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The fastest way out of San Francisco and into the rugged wilds of North Bay is via Highway 101, across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin and Sonoma counties north of the city.
Here, you’ll find endless hikes, mountain bike rides and good roads for road cycling. These adventures span all different types of terrain – from dark redwood forests to tranquil Bayside views. There’s enough to satisfy your cravings for thrilling single-track, relaxed nature walks and overnight camping. When you’re done, you can relax and refresh with some fantastic eats or a glass of the best wine in the country – from Napa County.
Here is all the info you need to plan your trip to the North Bay region, though most people end up staying in San Francisco and make day trips to the North Bay area. We’ll also show you a couple good towns to stay in and explore if you’d like to spend a night out of the city – Petaluma and Napa/Sonoma.
Honestly, the Bay Area is great 12 months of the year. While it can get hot some days in the summer – especially inland and in the valleys – the influence of the Bay keeps things cool. Likewise, while inland can get chilly in the winter, the Bay and the ocean keep things comfortable.
The varied terrain of the region, however, means that the area comprises dozens – if not hundreds – of microclimates. It might be 65 and foggy in San Francisco or Marin County, and 30 minutes away be 90 and sunny in Sonoma or Napa. In fact, during much of the year, those differences in climate are a given. We can tell you from personal experience that it’s a good idea to bring a good jacket, everywhere
It doesn’t rain much during the summer and can be predictably dry and sunny a good 8-10 months of the year. During the spring and winter, however, it rains quite a bit – sometimes unpredictably.
By Car: If coming from the south or from San Francisco, getting to the North Bay is easy: take Highway 101 North over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. From 101, you can get to anywhere you want to go. From the East Bay, take 80-W into San Francisco and then follow the signs for the Golden Gate Bridge.
By Plane: San Francisco International and Oakland International both service the Bay Area and are easy to access. San Francisco generally serves as the main international hub for the region and for cross-country flights, while Oakland offers tons of flights from budget carriers.
By Bus or Train: Using a car is still the easiest way to get to and around the North Bay, and we highly recommend driving. If you need transport, however, there is ferry service from San Francisco to Tiburon in Marin County, and SMART provides rail service between Sonoma and Marin counties. A car is necessary to get to our hikes.
Most of our favorite hikes in the North Bay are within a short drive of San Francisco and make great daytrips. In fact, we usually do at least one of the hikes on our list when we find ourselves in San Francisco. San Francisco is full of great hotels, so we often just look for great deals on Booking.com or Hotels.com
If you want to spend a night out of the city, however, we recommend heading to Napa or further up to Bodega Bay, about two hours north.
Napa Valley is the Wine Capital of the US. If you like wine tasting, it’s a must-visit; you’re a short drive away from award-winning wineries. You’re also only a short drive from great hiking and outdoor activities, as well as from other great towns like Petaluma.
If you’d like to spend a luxurious night in Napa, we recommend the Meritage Resort and Spa. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s a treat to stay in – gorgeous rooms, a luxurious spa, wine tasting on site, and even a bowling alley.
If you’re on a budget, you can hit up the Napa Valley Hotel and Suites. It’s much less expensive than most Napa resorts, but the rooms are nearly as good. And, you’re within a short walk to all the activities and dining Napa has to offer.
If you’d like a more rustic and peaceful getaway – as we do – you can head up to the area around Bodega Bay. Here, you’ll be a short drive away from some of our favorite hikes, in a totally different and more peaceful world than crowded San Francisco – where the sea meets the rugged, mountainous coastline.
There are fewer lodging options here. One place we really like is the Bodega Bay Lodge, which is located within sight of the ocean and about 3 minutes from the local golf course (with ocean views). It’s also 5-minutes from the Coastal Access Trail, with great birdwatching. The outdoor fireplaces have couches for relaxing as the sun goes down.
The Bodega Bay Inn feels smaller and quainter. Stay here and you’ll get a bright room with lots of windows and your own balcony overlooking the woods, or an ocean view. Be sure to check out the lovely sculpture garden outside, and relax by the fire pit!
The entire Bay Area is known for its many, many culinary offerings – and the North Bay is no different.
If you’re staying close to the city, you should grab some incredible seafood in Sausalito, where you can enjoy expansive bayside views as you dig in. Sausalito’s Crab House and Prime Rib is fantastic without the pricey tab, but if you’re willing to splurge, Scoma’s of Sausalito is a longtime favorite amongst locals.
Napa has some great food in addition to wine, too; grab some gourmet California pizza at The Forge or get some tapas at Zuzu. You should also check out the Oxbow Market, which tons of local shops and delicious eats.
Sonoma and Napa Counties are also known for their many, many breweries. If in Napa, hit up Fieldwork Brewing in the Oxbow Brewery. If in Petaluma, you can get free beer at the world-famous Lagunitas by taking one of their free brewery tours.
The North Bay is littered with excellent hikes. Some of our favorites are over at Point Reyes, where you’ll see pine forests, imposing cliffs and rugged coastlines. Hikes to check out there include Tomales Point, Abbots Lagoon and Alamere Falls – a popular but challenging hike that traces the coastline to a rugged, hidden waterfall.
If you don’t feel like driving that far, there are tons of great hikes just minute from the city, at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Muir Wood National Monument; see our list. Mt. Tamalpais is a steep, challenging peak with 360°, panoramic views of the entire Bay Area and the Pacific Ocean.
If you’ve brought the dog, try Hill 88 – even closer to the city and very dog-friendly.
Keep in mind that those hikes are usually very, very crowded on weekends, especially during the summer and peak seasons. Winter and weekdays usually offer a bit more solitude.
If you’re up in Bodega Bay, drive a bit further north to Salt Point State Park. The hikes here are easy but rugged, with beautiful views and trails taking you right down to the sea’s rocky edge. Also be sure to check out the legendary Mammoth Rocks.
What to do Besides Hiking
Mountain biking is very popular in the North Bay – it was “invented” in Marin County! While you’ll see lots of biking at Muir Woods and around Point Reyes, our personal favorite loop is at China Camp; sweet, winding single-track climbs for a while before looping around and providing excellent views of the Bay on clear days, before an exhilarating downhill to the parking lot. Loop a few of the trails together for a good half-day of riding. The Fairfax Bo Ridge loop is 64.4km+ of challenging single-track and fire road with epic views – good for an entire day of biking.
Visit A Historic Lighthouse
The Point Reyes Lighthouse a historic and scenic lighthouse overlooking on a rocky cliff, jutting out in the Pacific. It’s a beautiful place to explore and spend a day wandering around the coastline. Keep in mind that it’s closed for restoration until April 2019.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the sheer amount of wine tasting there is in Northern California. Napa wineries tend to be more expensive and touristy but are consistently some of the best in the world; we liked Cuvaison Estate Wines, which doesn’t get as much of the crowds. Sonoma wineries are cheaper and less crowded; Paradise Ridge Winery is located a bit further out of town but is probably one of the best we’ve ever been to. There are tons more, but these are some of our favorites.
Ocean Kayaking or Paddle boarding
If the open water sounds like fun, you can rent a kayak and get out on the ocean – or explore one of the many estuaries, coves and inlets – the North Bay and the Pacific offer. Rent a kayak from Bodega Bay Kayak if heading up north. If staying closer to the city, try Sea Trek Kayak in Sausalito; they also have stand up paddle boarding.
What to see a piece of little-known California history? Head up to Fort Ross in Bodega Bay, originally a colony settled in 1812 by Russians. Yup, the Russians were here long before California was a state; the Russian River, which runs through Sonoma County, is named after this part of the state’s history.
- As we mentioned earlier, the weather can be unpredictable. San Francisco and the North Bay can be very chilly in summer. Bring a jacket!
- Also, from personal experience, it’s easy to forget how sunny it is when it’s 55 or 60 degrees out by the Bay. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses always, or you might get a rude surprise.
- You need reservations to visit Muir Woods, as it’s just too crowded. In fact, it’s so popular, they make you park closer to HWY 101 and take a shuttle in, to avoid the insane traffic backups and accidents that frequently occur.
- There are tons of sea lions around the Bay Area. You can spot some on the piers in San Francisco, and they tend to hang out on the less-crowded beaches in Sonoma County – and up at Bodega Bay. As always, take plenty of pictures – but don’t disturb them!
- April and sometimes early May is a prime time for whale watching in the North Bay. If you head up to Point Reyes or the Sonoma Coast and keep your eyes open, you’re likely to see a mother whale and calves swimming close to the shore.