Editor’s Note: This feature is presented by our partners at Visit California.
Okay, so one trip just wasn’t enough. We got a taste of the open road on our Southern California excursion and couldn’t get kick the California road trip travel bug. We had to get out and do more. So we got to planning and green-lit another trip.
Our second road trip throughout the Golden State took us to northern California. On this four-day outing, we had the same “Power Trip” mentality as the last: travel far and wide and pack as many activities and experiences in as possible. Reflecting on it now, we feel that we did a pretty good job.
Over a span of four days in Northern California, we went surfing, sightseeing, food-tasting, mountain biking (with a World Champion and Olympian), hot-air-balloon riding, wine-tasting, sailing, coffee-tasting, drove antique cars, and went snowboarding with an X-Games gold medalist.
Below is our Northern California itinerary, including commentary on our experiences and a few tips that we learned along the way.
Start: Outer Richmond, San Francisco
End: Sonoma, CA
Surfing the Bay Area:
We woke up in Outer Richmond, a neighborhood on the west side of San Francisco just south of the Golden Gate Bridge. Our alarms jolted us out of bed at 5:15 AM. With daylight savings time still to shift, the city was still dark and quiet.
We drove down an empty Balboa Street to Ocean Beach. After eyeing the conditions from the cement seawall, we decided it would be best to continue onward. Ocean Beach is known for epic, heavy surf, but this morning the conditions were not ideal; winds swirled a mixture of side shore and onshore combined with strong currents, creating a disorganized texture across the water.
Fortunately, Northern California has no shortage of coastline. We packed up and kept the surf check going.
We traveled twenty five minutes south of Ocean Beach to the picturesque town of Pacifica, where the waves looked a little bit more inviting. The crescent shaped beach faces slightly more north, with cliffs on either side providing more protection from the winds, creating more order and structure to the waves. Eager to get in the water, we climbed into our XCEL 4/3 suits, slid booties on our feet, and paddled out for an hour-long session.
- Wetsuit: A good 4/3 is necessary, and you probably won’t regret booties and a hood for the early morning sessions… we definitely didn’t.
- Parking is free until 8AM. Early bird
gets the wormsaves $5.00
- Respect the water. Even if the swell isn’t that heavy, the currents at Pacifica still rip.
Quick Stop: Fisherman’s Wharf
After a hot shower, we loaded up and made the drive to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco proper. We wanted to see some quintessential SF sights, and heard rumors of a sea lion colony living on Pier 39 that we needed to see for ourselves.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a historic maritime district with plenty of seafood shops, snack stands, and attractions for tourists. In close proximity, you explore historic boats and ships at the Maritime National Historic Park, visit the Ghirardelli Chocolate experience, and walk or drive Lombard Street. Oh, and about those sea lions. They’re definitely there!
- If you’re eating, keep your head on a swivel! The seagulls are quite bold and will not hesitate to snatch food right out of the hands of unsuspecting tourists.
- There are parking garages all over; many do a full day for a fixed price. We found it convenient to park our car and walk around to the different sights nearby.
Mealtime: Lunch in the Marina District
San Francisco is widely known for its fantastic culinary scene, boasting everything from reservation-only farm-to-table experiences, Michelin-starred restaurants, to fast-casual eateries and food trucks. With over 4,000 restaurants located in the city alone, it’s helpful to have a plan, or to enlist some help. We opted for the latter and connected with local food celebrity, Darion Frazier. Darion runs the popular Instagram account @BayAreaFoodz, where he documents his culinary escapades all around the SF Bay area. His favorite part about the food scene in San Francisco is the diversity of cuisines.
Darion took us to Blackwood, a Thai fusion restaurant in the Marina District. They’re known for their fancy brunch cocktails, artful and delicious entrees, and their bacon flights. We put back more than our fair share of food, then parted ways with Darion to beat the rush hour traffic out of the city.
Sunset Cruise: Mountain Biking in Fairfax
About 45 minutes north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge lies Marin County, a rugged region with everything from sandy beaches to rolling hills, lush forests, and mountains. Marin County is widely touted as the birthplace of mountain biking. Ask any local rider, and they’ll corroborate this story.
Our travels took us to Fairfax – a small town in Marin County near some great mountain biking trails. In Fairfax, we met up with Kate Courtney, World Champion Mountain Biker, and Marin County local. She took us out on the trails for a quick ride at sunset. It quickly became obvious how the terrain of Marin and the surrounding mountains could foster a world class talent like Kate. With hundreds of miles of easy-access trails, thousands of vertical feet to climb or descend, Marin County is a mountain bikers dream.
- Get a tour from a World Champion Mountain Biker if you can.
- The Lodge in Fairfax has a fleet of demo bikes that come fully equipped. It’s also a great spot to hang out for food and/or a beverage after a successful outing on the trails.
Start: Sonoma, CA
End: Sacramento, CA
Sunrise Hot Air Balloon
For the second day in a row, a symphony of iPhone alarms woke us up well before sunrise. We were all a little delirious from our first day of adventure, but the promise of a sunrise hot air balloon ride made it easy (or at least easier) to wake up.
Sonoma Ballooning Adventures is a tour guiding company that offers hot air balloon rides above Sonoma. They offer sunrise flights year round for anyone who wants to kick off their morning with a birds eye view of the sunning Sonoma landscape.
We arrived on site at Sonoma Ballooning at 6:00 AM for our safety briefing. By 6:45AM we were off the ground, packed comfortably into the gondola basket, looking out over the rolling hills and vineyards across Sonoma. Our pilot, Jose, used wind shear, a navigation technique where the pilot uses the wind directions at various altitudes to control the balloons direction, to fly us in a circular route, landing no more than a couple hundred yards from where we took off.
- Dress warm; it’s cold before the sun comes up!
- Get yourself out of bed and do it. The sights are worth the early wake up.
Vineyard Tour at Gundlach Bundschu:
When you think of Sonoma, you might think “wine” or “wine country.” At least, we do.
While passing through town, a friend tipped us off that we should pay a visit to the grounds of Gundlach Bundschu, the oldest family winery in Sonoma.
At Gundlach Bundschu, they like to do things a little differently. This became evident when Joe Urh, Director of Winemaking, and Nora Murphy, Wine Educator, poured us a couple of glasses of a Bordeaux-inspired blend and tossed us in the back of their Pinzgauer, an all-terrain military vehicle, for a tour of the grounds. Between bumps and lots of laughs, Joe and Nora guided us around the property, sharing their knowledge of the diverse microclimates and soil types that winemakers, like Joe and his team, use to create a wide range of varietals. Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels, Merlots – they can make them all on the property.
Gundlach Bundschu is known for their commitment to the land and environmental practices; the vineyard has been CCOF certified (California Certified Organic Farmers) since 2007.
- Keep your plans flexible in case you want to stay on the Gundlach Bundschu grounds longer than you initially anticipated. It’s not an easy place to leave.
- The charcuterie boards are next level; we would recommend ordering one.
- Pronunciation: Gun-Lock-Bun-Shoe 🙂
Sunset Sailing aboard the Schooner Freda B:
How do you cap off a day of hot air balloon riding and wine tasting? The obvious answer is a sunset sail aboard the Schooner Freda B.
The Freda B is a gaff schooner built in the late 1800s that now calls Sausalito and the San Francisco Bay home. We joined Captain Paul Dines and his crew aboard the 80-foot wooden vessel and took full advantage of strong winds to get out on the water, check out some landmarks such as Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, and enjoy a beautiful evening on the San Francisco Bay.
Schooner Freda B offers a variety of sailing experiences – everything from public sails to private charters. The ship can accommodate you and 31 of your friends, and we can attest that there’s no better way to see the sights around San Francisco.
Start: Sacramento, CA
End: Truckee, CA
Caffeination at Temple Coffee Roasters:
On our road trip, fun packed days lead to late nights, followed by early mornings… and nothing gets us moving and excited to take on the day like a great cup of coffee.
Fortunately for us, we kicked off the third day of our road trip in Sacramento, the home of Temple Coffee Roasters. Temple Coffee Roasters is a specialty coffee shop founded by Sean Kolb and Karina Kolb, whose mission was to create a coffee roasting company focused on ethically sourced beans and top notch roasting.
Temple Coffee Roasters practices a farm-to-cup ethos: they source their beans directly from farms and farmers that they know all from around the world. Sean, Karina, and their team, work with their partners to ensure the coffee is grown and harvested in environmentally conscious ways, and that the farmers are paid fairly for their crops.
It’s a shop with a great mission. You can taste the passion with each sip.
Sacramento Automobile Museum:
Did you know that Sacramento is home to one of the largest collections of antique cars? Neither did we. That is, of course, until we stumbled upon the Sacramento Automobile Museum, located just a short drive from Old Town Sacramento and the Capitol building.
The Sacramento Automobile Museum is a non-profit that regularly showcases over 120 vehicles – everything from classic, vintage and rare cars to the modern automobiles of today.
Outside of its regular displays, the museum features special exhibits that pay homage to a specific type of automobile, or era. Fittingly, when we passed through, the museum was setting up for their “Woody” exhibit, a showcase of quintessential surf automobiles from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
- The museum offers ride-alongs on Sundays. This is your opportunity to cruise around Sacramento in a vintage or antique car.
- Check the museum website for information on exhibits, ride alongs, and/or other events
Start: Truckee, CA
End: Truckee, CA
Shredding the Gnar at Boreal Mountain Resort:
The snow-capped mountains were quite a departure from the sunny skies and hot temperatures we had experienced the day before in Sacramento. Now, we were up to our necks in snow at Boreal Mountain Resort.
Located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Boreal is only 80 miles east of Sacramento. The resort is graced with over 400 inches of snow annually, providing plenty of coverage for the variety of terrain. The trails range from beginner and child-friendly trails all the way up to expert level runs.
The resort is also lauded for its terrain park builds, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that we crossed paths with Zebulon Powell, Red Bull Athlete and X-Games Gold Medalist, during our visit. Zebulon was hosting the inaugural Red Bull Slide In Tour at Boreal, a community snowboarding event that tours around the US, built to inspire more diversity within snowboarding.
We had the good fortune of spinning a few laps with Zebulon, who unintentionally showed us (with a giant smile the entire time) how Boreal could accommodate riders at very different skill levels.
- Get to Boreal early if you can. The parking lot fills up quickly in the morning.
- Check the weather before and during your visit. The mountains can be unpredictable, and the highway patrol is quick to close the mountain pass for weather safety.
So there you have it: our Northern California Road Trip adventure.
Interested in following our itinerary? Check out the map below for our route here.