Travel Guide

The Perfect Day Trip North of San Francisco

October 4, 2017
day trip north of San Francisco

Muir Woods has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. So, when I finally decided to go, I was going to make a day of it. Planning a trip and discovering what’s in an area is one of the things I enjoy most about travel (aside from actually going somewhere). Though San Francisco is an incredible city, I wanted this trip to be all outdoors. And, let’s face it. We all need to escape from the city at times. So, here is the perfect itinerary for a day trip north of San Francisco.

Muir Woods National Monument

day trip north of San Francisco

Always remember to look up in Muir Woods

As the inspiration for this trip, I wanted to get to Muir Woods bright and early as I read parking is limited there. Arriving 10-minutes after opening at 8:10 a.m., I found myself parking in the overflow lot. It’s a short walk to the Visitor’s Center (which opens at 9 a.m.) with the redwoods waiting for you on the main trail. Being the tallest trees on the planet, they do not disappoint as they extend far above you. A highlight is Cathedral Grove where signs ask you to respect the area as a quiet zone. And, it feels like entering a cathedral. The large concentrations of redwoods form a natural nave.

day trip north of San Francisco

View from above on Plevin Cut Trail

Crowding is the norm here so I sought respite by going on a side trail – the Plevin cut. A delightful 1.6 mile trail that takes you deeper into the woods. The sounds from the main trail soon faded away and I felt completely alone in the woods. It’s an easy trail that does works its way up a hill. Even with gaining elevation, you are still not eye level with the tops of the redwoods. But the perspective you get by looking down and then looking up to see the same tree – it’s spectacular!

day trip north of San Francisco

Hiking along the Hillside Trail

Once back at the main trail, I crossed over bridge 4 to go up the Hillside Trail. A narrow trail that snakes along the upper portion of Cathedral Grove, you see how little everyone is compared to the trees. How much you want to explore of the monument is up to you. There are trails of varying lengths and difficulty so there is something suitable for everyone.

Next to the Visitor’s Center is a gift shop and restaurant featuring local product. If you plan on arriving later in the day, an option to consider is to take the shuttle into the park.

Point Reyes Ship Wreck

day trip north of San Francisco

The Point Reyes shipwreck in Inverness

Leaving behind the heights of the redwoods, it was on to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Passing through Inverness, it was a pleasant stop to view the Point Reyes Ship Wreck. The name is a bit misleading as the boat really isn’t a wreck; but, rather a fixer upper that never got started and left forgotten. Regardless, the boat is wonderful to walk around. The surrounding scenery of Tomales Bay provides the perfect setting. It’s a favorite area for photographers for good reason. A day trip north of San Francisco must include this spot.

Parking is behind the Inverness Store and then it’s a short walk to the site.

Cypress Tree Tunnel & KPH Radio Station

day trip north of san francisco

The incredible tunnel of Cypress Trees

Continuing to Point Reyes, it was another fun stop at the Cypress Tree Tunnel and KPH Radio Station. Driving along Sir Francis Drake Blvd., you can’t miss spotting the Cypress Tree Tunnel before you get to it. The Monterey cypress trees line the drive up to the Point Reyes National Seashore North District Operations Center and the KPH RCA Radio Station. It’s a slow progress down the drive due to the bumps in the road and all the people photographing the tunnel and posing in the drive. It’s a remarkable sight that’ll get you jumping out of the car to start snapping away.

day trip north of san francisco

The historic KPH Radio Station

At the end of the drive is a small parking lot and the historic building housing the Operations Center. This was where the last ship-to-ship Morse code transmissions were sent out from. When the site finally shut down, the company left all the equipment in the building. So, volunteers took the time to situate all the computers and machinery so the station does still work. It’s a fascinating look back in time.

Point Reyes Lighthouse

day trip north of san francisco

The small but ideally situated Point Reyes Lighthouse

I was not expecting the scenery that greeted me after leaving the KPH station. Ranches. And cows. Lots of cows! It seemed such an unlikely spot for herds of cattle to graze, but there they were dotting the landscape of the last 6-miles to the lighthouse. That was a wonderful surprise on my day trip north of San Francisco.

As soon as you park, I was instantly drawn to the overlook of Second Beach. The shoreline disappears and the waves just kept coming. The scene was hypnotizing. Fortunately, the strong winds forced me to not spend too much time there. From the parking lot, it’s 0.4 miles to the lighthouse.

day trip north of San Francisco

Overlooking South Beach

Oddly, you don’t see the lighthouse until you get to the overlook at the end of the path. It’s not large, but it’s so ideally situated. And the color of the water – so blue. If you are lucky, you may spot whales. I wasn’t lucky but I certainly kept looking. To get to the lighthouse, it’s 300 steps down. Once there, you can tour the old buildings and go into the lighthouse.

day trip north of san francisco

Only 300 steps down (and up!) to the lighthouse

Coming back up, the gate at the top of the stairs was closed. After letting me out, the National Park Service Ranger informed me that the lighthouse closes when winds reach 40 MPH. They were clocking the winds at 41 – it certainly felt like it! As the lighthouse is right on the water and very exposed, it’s best to have layers as it can get chilly.

Battery Spencer Overlook & Golden Gate Bridge

day trip north of San Francisco

The stunning colors at sunset from Battery Spencer

The last stop heading back to San Francisco was the Battery Spencer overlook on Conzelman Road. I had a feeling that this would be the spot to view sunset from and I was right! Walking to the tip of the battery, the San Francisco bay spreads out in front of you. Angel Island and Alcatraz are right there. Not only is the spot an amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge, but you have the San Francisco skyline, too. The setting sun behind you sets the bridge aglow. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful day trip north of San Francisco.

day trip north of San Francisco

The view of San Francisco from Battery Spencer overlook

As soon as you turn on Conzelman Road, you will see a side road to a parking lot indicating trail head parking. I recommend parking there and taking the short SCA trail up to the overlook. I made the mistake of driving up to the overlook where the traffic was horrendous and the parking was over crowded at each of the overlooks.

Top Tip

Before setting out on your day trip north of San Francisco, it’s best to check traffic conditions and road closures as both are unpredictable in the bay area. I spent a little too much time finding alternate routes due to accidents and a closure on CA-1.

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  • Kyle Studstill October 4, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Love the light coming through the height of the trees! 🔮🙏

    • April October 6, 2017 at 10:29 pm

      Thanks! It was a clear, sunny day when I went, but the trees certainly blocked a lot of the sun, so you’d see lots of rays poking through. Such an amazing place.

  • terra October 11, 2017 at 2:41 pm

    Looks absolutely beautiful! I haven’t managed to get up there yet, but I think the next time I visit SF I’m going to make getting up to Muir Woods a priority.

    • April October 23, 2017 at 9:14 pm

      I hope that you do make it there. Just be sure to get there early!

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