Thirty Years Of Trips To California
We have traveled to California just about
every year for over 30 years. We've even driven there four times from
here in Colorado up to Wyoming via Hwy287, intersecting with I-80, and then
driving West in to San Francisco. I actually enjoy the drive as the
terrain on I-80 between Wyoming and San Francisco is rather scenic.
There are the Rocky Mountains as well as the Sierras that you get to cross
and between them a rather desert like terrain, but always having a mountain
of some sort within view. The downside is that driving takes two full
days to accomplish whereas the flight is roughly 2 hours. So we
usually fly, but I am looking forward to the next driving trip so that I can
see how much has changed (or hasn't changed) since 1998 when I last made the
trip using a car.
Driving From Denver To California
When we drive this trip (about 1300 miles
from Denver to San Francisco) we spend the night in Salt Lake City, Utah for
the first night and leave Salt Lake City about 8AM the next morning. I usually
continue driving the rest of the way to San Francisco with some "pit stops"
at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Elko, Nevada, Reno, Truckee, Sacramento, and
then drive in to San Francisco. The rest of the family thinks this is
a bit much given that we will be doing lots of driving once we get to
California, so I think the next time I drive I will plan to stay in both
Salt Lake City, Utah and Reno, Nevada. When I drive from San Francisco to
Denver I'm usually fed up with driving so I do spend two nights in hotels,
one in Reno and the other in Salt Lake City. You get a great deal on
really nice top of the line hotel rooms in Reno since they want you to
gamble there at the hotel. We don't gamble, we just stay at a 4 star
hotel for about 50 bucks a night and move on the next morning.
Salt Lake City is a good stopping point since
when going West towards California on I-80, the trip will not be that long
from Denver and there are not many good places to stay between Salt Lake
City and Reno. One time I zipped past Salt Lake City and drove until I
got to Winnemuca, Nevada and although the stay was just fine, it was a
little too dark to see the Bonneville Salt Flats which we really enjoy.
The best thing about the Bonneville Salt Flats (other than being an amazing
bed of salt) is that there is a good strong wind for doing kite flying with
no obstructions such as hills, buildings, trees, etc. One impression I
think most people will get when driving the I-80 route west of Salt Lake
City is why the heck are there people living out there? I know that
there are mines here and there, but this is a desolate place out in the
middle of nowhere. Even Reno is a strange town. At night you see
all the lights and casinos from a distance but when seeing it during the
daytime, it seems that unless there was gambling there, no one would really
be there at all. Kind of stays that way until you hit Sacramento which
I kind of understand since it sits at the western slope of the Sierras.
The Bay Area
When I say we go to California what I really
mean is that we pretty much go to the Bay area of California. We
always stay at a Residence Inn in either San Mateo (nice and close to the
airport) or down south in Sunnyvale (they have two Residence Inn's in
Sunnyvale). We get the "Penthouse Suite" which has an upstairs and
downstairs area so that the kids have some privacy downstairs and Chris and
I get the upstairs so we can hear the kids' TV blaring until they finally go
to sleep. The rates are very high during the week but quite reasonable
on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We time it so that we usually fly to San
Francisco on a Friday afternoon, stay at the Residence Inn, see a bunch of
sights around the Bay area (more about what we see later), and leave for
Monterey on Monday morning. On the way to Monterey we stop in Gilroy
to see our friend Tom Kruse and order some of his fine wine (plus Tom's a
little bit of a nut and always like hearing him talk about anything).
We take Hecker Pass in Gilroy heading West and drive through Watsonville
over to Highway 1 and then south to Monterey. We usually stay in
Monterey but we mostly spend time in Carmel-by-the-sea (beautiful little
town) and always see the Monterey Aquarium as well as walk around the
Cannery Row area, check out Pebble Beach, and Pacific Grove as well. There are
lots of B&Bs in Pacific Grove that are nice to stay in so lately we've been
trying them out as opposed to the Marriott in Monterey. I love
Eastwood's Mission Ranch restaurant located in Carmel since I think it has
the best view of most any restaurant in the area. You can sit inside
or outside and eat, or just sit outside in Adirondack chairs overlooking a
huge field with Sheep grazing and the ocean in the distance while you relax. You usually need a sweater (since it's cold along the shoreline
cities at night in Northern California), but the restaurant has gas heaters
they will turn on if you ask them. We end up staying in the area for a
few days and then drive back up North towards San Francisco again for a few
more days before returning home. We usually stop by the
J. Lohr winery for some wine tasting and
buy a few cases of their excellent wines. We stay for a whole week in the
since we really like the place, but shorter trips can work too (you'll just
take more of them over the years).
What To See
There is a ton of stuff to see in the Bay
Area, but I have been there so many times that I pretty much improvise as I
go and mix it up a little. I went with Todd and Cheryl (son-in-law and
daughter) in March of 2003 and took them on a whirlwind tour that they claim
was perfect for the short amount of time we were there (about 4 days).
I also went with cousin Mikey a few years ago and he got to see things in a
few days that would normally take weeks to see if going by himself (being
unfamiliar with the area and all). I've listed a sample "three day
below that seems to work well for people that have never been to San
Francisco and don't have very long to visit. The longer you stay, the
more you can see but this town will make you want to come back over and over
just like it has for me and my family. So read the itinerary
below and match up a scenario that sounds close to what you may be planning.
It seems that I get lots of questions from friends that will tell me they
plan to be in San Francisco for "a few days" but upon questioning, it turns
out that two of the days are travel days. That's really not a three
day stay in San Francisco although the trip consumes three days. I'll give
an example of the "three day trips" and others, but read my text closely
regarding the scenario I'm posing. Note that it also makes a big
difference which days you travel. As I mentioned above, we like
staying at a Residence Inn in the Bay Area however the rates are ridiculous
Monday through Thursday, so this means we travel to the Bay Area on Friday
rather than Monday through Thursday.
There is also the traffic problems that show up any time near rush hours and
a busy highway system on both Saturday and Sunday. So watch out for
arrivals, departures, and your transit trips between sights that hit in
these key busy times. You could end up spending a lot of time in slow
traffic. Then again you could be doing 90 mph on US 101 if everything is
going smooth (folks drive fast).
3 Day Visit
First of all, see the San Francisco area only
- don't drive South to Monterey since you will spend most of your time
driving and not enough time sightseeing. So for example, assume you
left for San Francisco on a Thursday arriving around 2PM and you need to
leave for home on the following Saturday morning. That will give you
part of Thursday, all day Friday, and then leave for home on Saturday.
Forget Saturday morning for seeing anything since it is a weekend and
traffic on US 101 can be packed. You wouldn't want to miss your flight
due to being stuck in traffic after trying some sightseeing adventure.
Be sure you have your Hotel set up for guaranteed late arrival on your first
night since you
won't be going to the Hotel until later at night. Lets assume that like so
many others, you want to see Alcatraz. You need to get the
reservations in advance or you may find the only times available are first
thing in the morning around 9:30AM. The steps below are what I would do as
soon as I got off the plane.
Day 1 (arrival at San Francisco airport)
You should only have a carry-on due to
your short stay, so pick up the rental car (allow at least 30 minutes to
get the car and get out on the highway). Be sure you get the San
Francisco city map when you get your car. San Francisco is a large
city with lots of streets and practically zero parking. You will
be heading for the Wharf area and Pier 39, so note where it is on the map
(I'd highlight it with a yellow marker) for when you get close and in
case you get lost. It should take you about 30 to 40 minutes to
get to the Wharf area from the car rental area unless traffic is bad.
Head North on 101 for San Francisco
taking the exit in to downtown (Civic Center, 9th street, Chinatown,
etc.). Do NOT get on the highway heading across to Oakland or you
just blew some time on that mistake. The turnoff is close to San
Francisco downtown so watch out for the Bay Bridge and stay off. I
forget whether it's I-280 or just I-80, but it will take you to Oakland
where you will have to turn around and come back after paying tolls.
Head towards the Wharf area near Pier 39
and park your car expecting to pay the all day rate of anywhere from 8
to 20 bucks depending on how close you are to the Wharf and the time of
year. Since I'm
assuming you will pay the max rate, don't even worry about the cost for
2 hours or whatever, it will just be distracting. One thing I will
suggest is that once you find a place to park, you could step in to a shop along the
Wharf area and ask
folks where they would park if they were coming to San Francisco for
their first visit. I'd probably ask a few folks to be sure I'm
getting the best deal. This may help you for the next day if
you plan to visit Alcatraz.
Immediately walk for the Wharf area (not
towards Pier 39) and see if you can get on one of the smaller boats that
will take you on a tour of the Bay. They typically cost 10 bucks
and are a lot more fun (and cheaper) than the big commercial tour boats.
They have a canned recording they play and the boat is a sightseeing
boat during the day and a fishing boat at night or for reserved fishing
trips during the day. The area where they are located is rather
small and is near the Western end of the outdoor crab salad area.
Note that if someone is disabled you should probably avoid the smaller
boats since you will have to climb down a steel ladder to get to the
boat below. In that case, just take the larger Bay area cruise
boats (Red and White or Blue and Gold). You will get to see the
Marina area as you head towards the Golden Gate Bridge where it will
circle back and you will also
get somewhat close to Alcatraz Island. Nice and cool trip anytime
of year, and very scenic. Here is the link for the Blue and Gold
tour boats: http://www.blueandgoldfleet.com.
Once finished with the Bay tour (about an
hour), you can walk to the area that is towards Pier 39 near the
Submarine and look for a cable car that is on wheels. This sounds
a little strange, but they will drive you around with commentary and you
will get to see much more of downtown San Francisco than you ever would
on your own. There's a place in the middle of the "cable car" where you sit that is
enclosed, but I like the open air so I sit towards the back.
Sitting over the rear wheel can be jolting at times but I find the ride
to be pretty rough no matter where you sit. Kind of adds to the
ambience. They have blankets you
can cover yourself with in case it's too cold but I would go no matter
what the temperature. I would even consider going on a rainy day
(won't be able to do much about that since you are only there for a few
days anyway), except stay in the inside protected area of the motorized
cable car. Forget the regular cable cars on a three day trip.
There's always a long line of people and you will probably not be able
to get on for a while (hey, the clock's ticking so you won't have time
to be just standing around waiting for an hour to get on a short cable
car ride only to do it again on the other end).
By this time you will have seen a couple
of interesting sights and really quite a bit since you didn't just
wander in to town not knowing what to do next. I've never heard
anyone regret the motorized cable car ride for seeing things around San
Francisco. I probably would not take the longer motorized cable car tour
since you don't have a lot of time and it's getting towards the end of
their trips for the day. So now it's time to walk around the Wharf
area and see the strange people that seem to flock to the area.
I'd just walk along and look at what's going on, I wouldn't eat any
snacks yet because you will be heading for Pier 39 and you will probably
want to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe. The Wharf area isn't too big,
but eventually you will head for Pier 39 which has a lot of shops.
Once at Pier 39 you will want to just
walk around and look at stuff, but head towards the area where the Seals
are laying around since they can be quite a show for onlookers. I
can spend a half hour there just watching their antics as they vie for
"king of the platform." Lots of seals and pretty noisy so you
probably won't have trouble finding them.
Now it's time to get something to eat, so
I'd go to the Hard Rock Cafe and get whatever you like but also a Hard
Rock Sweatshirt from San Francisco. As in most Hard Rock Cafe's,
there are lots of music memorabilia to see and the San Francisco store
was one of the older ones back in the Hippy days. It has moved
from its old location that was at California and Van Ness to the Pier 39
area, but at least parking isn't a hassle. I'd probably hang
around until dark before continuing on to the next stop - the Golden Gate Bridge.
Now it's time to hit the road, so I'd
find my way to either Van Ness (North-South street) or Lombard
(East-West street) and go West towards the Golden
Gate Bridge. Drive North across the bridge (open your windows for
the sound and cold air) and stay towards the right lane so that once
across, you can turn off to the scenic overlook area. This is a
beautiful view at night, or really any time, but a good place for taking
pictures - especially if you have a tripod for night shots of the city.
I could easily spend a half hour just looking at the city lights.
Note that it will probably be cold no matter what time of year.
Once through with the scenic overlook,
the exit to Sausalito is also located real close to the scenic overlook.
Take this winding road towards Sausalito and drive in to town and park
the car. I like walking along the various shops or just hanging
around near the sailboats and listen to the clanking sounds which I find
relaxing. I also get a Latte while there and just kind of walk
around passing time. It's starting to get late now, so I'd be
heading for my Hotel after relaxing.
Continue heading North out of Sausalito
(instead of back-tracking) which will take you towards US 101. You will want to go South on
towards San Francisco. The pace will pick up as you enter the
highway since there always seems to be a lot of traffic on the bridge.
Get some money ready since it will cost you to re-enter San Francisco
from the North side of the bay (they collect the money on the South Side
of the Golden Gate Bridge). Doesn't cost anything to go North, but
it does to go South (I think it's around 5 bucks now).
Day 2 (all day to see sights)
This will be the second day of your "three
day trip" but will really be the only entire day that you will have devoted
to actually seeing a variety of sights. Note that it will also be your
last day for sightseeing since you will be focused on leaving on the third
day (unless the third day's departure is late in the afternoon, you should
plan on not really doing any sightseeing and just making it to the airport
in time). I'm assuming that you are staying in a hotel that serves
breakfast and that like me, you don't like getting up too early.
Besides, there's all that rush hour traffic you need to avoid in the Bay
area. Let's assume you are one of the many folks that talk to me about
their "three day trip" and really want to see Alcatraz. You will need
to book the tickets in advance and you can find out the times and cost at
www.blueandgoldfleet.com where you
can also set up your reservations. The steps below are what I would do
on my second day's visit assuming you too want to see Alcatraz. I do
offer a counter side trip to Alcatraz that I personally find more rewarding,
but that's up to you. Read on for the details.
Most free continental breakfasts end by
9:30AM or thereabouts, so I'm assuming that you will leave for the
downtown area around this time and it will not hamper your reservations
for taking the ferry boat to Alcatraz Island (as long as you set up
reservations for around 11AM or after). It isn't a bad time since
the main part of rush hour is nearly over. So head in to the
downtown area and if you liked where you parked the first day, just go
ahead and park there again. If you were a smart parker and asked
others where the cheap parking is located, you may have another place in
mind that will get you closer to the Blue and Gold fleet boats that will
take you to Alcatraz.
So you are parked and maybe you have 30
minutes or so to kill waiting for your departure to Alcatraz. You
could walk around a few of the shops you missed on Pier 39 or just sit
around and watch the zanies do their thing since there always seems to
be a street performer/musician doing something. I would say that
you could plan on spending the next 3 to 4 hours involved with Alcatraz.
So if your scheduled departure is at 11AM you probably won't be too
hungry just yet but will get hungry after some walking around the old
prison. If you didn't make the Hard Rock Cafe on the previous day,
you will have another shot at it for a later lunch. I'd do
something light since my plan is to have you eat in Mill Valley around 6
PM or so.
Just in case you decided not to see
Alcatraz (personally, I wouldn't on such a short trip), I have an alternative for you. It's the "Exploratorium"
where they have lots of hands-on gizmos that reflect the realm of
physics in a variety of ways and actually teaches you something in the
process. They characterize the adventure as "a collage of over 650
science, art, and human perception exhibits." The Exploratorium
directions that you can print before you leave on your trip for San
Francisco. I find that people of all ages
really enjoy this place although you could get the impression it's just
for kids. It's for everyone and I think you will definitely enjoy
your visit to this remarkable place. You could easily spend a few
hours in this place and your legs will probably get tired in the
process. If you decide to go this route instead of the Alcatraz
trip, then you may be able to get something light at the Exploratorium
including Lattes for you coffee lovers. Note that you will NOT be
driving to the Wharf area as you drive towards the Exploratorium,
however you will have exited off of US 101 and found your way to Van
Ness. Van Ness runs North and South and is the main drag for going
to the Golden Gate Bridge in an easy way (North on Van Ness and then to
Lombard Street hanging a left on Lombard and following the main road
towards the Golden Gate Bridge).
If you decided to go to Alcatraz, you
will want to find your way to Van Ness and Lombard Street for the next
adventure. If you decided to skip Alcatraz and go to the
Exploratorium instead, then let's take time before we go to the
Exploratorium and also hit this next adventure - the "crookedest road in
the world" - Lombard Street. At least a very small section of
Lombard Street anyway. Instead of turning left on to Lombard from
Van Ness and driving towards the Exploratorium, turn RIGHT (East) on
Lombard and it will send you towards the Wharf area, some very scenic
views and very steep hills, and of course - the "crookedest road" in the
world. You can actually drive down this very crooked street but
note that people have houses right off the road and would probably
prefer it if the city would close the street down to automobiles.
I like to go down the crooked street and once down, continue down
another hill and when at the bottom, take a right and go to the top of
some very steep roads. I go up for the thrill and then turn around
and come back down for an even bigger thrill. You won't believe
how steep these streets are in this area. VERY steep!
By now your feet are tired either because
you went to Alcatraz and walked all over the island for a few hours, or
you went to the Exploratorium and learned a lot about many things while
on your feet. Now it's time to get in the car and drive to the
next stop - the South side of the Golden Gate Bridge. You will
continue your trip from the Exploratorium westward towards the Golden
Gate Bridge (same road as the first day), or you will be driving West on
Lombard after doing the "crookedest road" adventure if you went to
Alcatraz. Either way, you need to head for the Golden Gate Bridge.
You should be in the right hand lane as you approach the toll booths
just before the bridge for your next adventure - the Golden Gate Bridge.
You will find that the Golden
Gate Bridge website has lots of interesting info as well as
directions to this area. This will be the last time that you
will be heading North across the bridge (at least until your next visit
to San Francisco) so now is the time to see interesting info about the
bridge as well as a cable section that shows the thickness of the main
cables and the many strands of wire that make up a cable. It has a
scenic view that is very nice and if your legs aren't too tired, you
could even try walking out towards the middle of the bridge (pedestrians
can only walk on the East side of the bridge - the side you will be on).
I've never actually crossed the whole bridge since it is 1.7 miles
across and then I'd have to walk back (bad knees), so I usually walk out
to the south tower and take pictures, drive across the bridge to the
scenic overlook on the Marin side of the bridge (the north side) and
walk to the north tower and take more pictures.
You've wrapped up the short visit to the
South end of the Golden Gate Bridge and now it's time to drive across
the bridge and stop at the scenic overlook again so that you can take
some beautiful pictures with daylight. Spend as long as you like
and remember the view since it is a spectacular sight (the bridge, the
bay, and the city of San Francisco).
So you got all of your pictures of the
bridge and the city and let's assume it's now around 4PM. I'd
suggest that you drive North on US 101 and take the Stinson Beach exit
to see Muir Woods and
hopefully, Stinson Beach.
It has a beautiful view from the cliffs and you can get some great
pictures (watch out for backlit conditions since it's the afternoon).
You will find
directions to Muir Woods and
Stinson Beach via the Internet easier than I can describe, so be
sure and print the directions before you leave. Beautiful area and
Muir Woods has some old growth Redwood trees that are preserved for
You finished your drive to Muir Woods and
Stinson Beach and now it's time to get something to eat. Follow
your way back down the steep hills and get back to the stop light noted
in the directions where you made the turn to go towards Muir Woods and
Stinson Beach. If you were to turn right at this main stop light
you would be heading back towards the entrance to US 101 that will take
you southbound on the highway, so don't go that direction.
Instead, go through the light and towards the left (North) to reach Mill
Valley. You should find yourself on Miller Street and you should
see the Mount Tamalpais school on your left as you keep driving until
you are obviously in the "downtown" area. This is a quaint town
with a couple of good coffee shops and some good eating places offering
a variety of foods (Italian, Thai, Cajun, and one of my favorites -
French). The road will also pass the old saw mill on the left and
end in the downtown area where you will find parking with some outdoor
chess games perhaps taking place. You can walk around the town (a
short walk) and check out the various restaurants ultimately picking one
for dinner. It's a pretty competitive restaurant environment for
the locals so most all of the restaurants are good.
Well, you have hopefully eaten a good
meal and now it's time to head back to your hotel from Mill Valley.
Find your way back to the main road that ended in the downtown area and
go back towards US 101. The road to get back is pretty straight
forward, just be sure you don't make a turn at the main stop light and
end up going back towards Muir Woods. I think it is somewhat easy
to find your way back to US 101 but if not, stop and ask someone since
you won't be far from the highway. Mill Valley is about 20 miles
North of San Francisco and will probably take you about 30 minutes to
reach the toll booths once you are on the highway. You will pay
the toll at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge and will head East
back towards the Exploratorium and the major intersection with Van Ness
where you will turn right (South) and keep going until you see signs for
US 101 South. Assuming you stayed south of the city (I would), you
will be heading in the direction of San Jose or Sunnyvale, or Palo Alto,
etc. until you get to your hotel area. I always stay near San
Mateo when in the Bay area since I don't want to get caught downtown and
having to hope I make it to the airport with no traffic problems.
More hotels down South and a variety of prices. Be sure and make
your reservations in advance.
Day 3 (return day)
There isn't much to say for this last day
since the flights leaving towards the East Coast have a tendency to occur at
or near noon unless it's a shorter flight to Denver or Salt Lake City.
It's the time difference that causes this since airports back East don't
like to have planes taking off and landing during the late night hours.
So this means you will just be focused on making the trip to the airport
leaving yourself plenty of time to get there in case the traffic is bad.
Just in case you have a flight that is later in the afternoon, I have one
sight that isn't too far from the airport and I have found interesting to
see. It's the Hiller Aviation Museum
directions make it easy to find since it's right off the highway.
You could see this very interesting museum (be sure and see the 747 cockpit)
and easily kill a couple of hours learning something in the process.
So there you have it, a simple yet clean
"three day trip" to San Francisco that should leave you feeling as though
you got to see something and will probably make you return. There is
much more to see in San Francisco and definitely the return to the Bay area
so that you can drive up to the wine country area up North (also a big wine
area down South) or down to Monterey will be a must-see. I'll add more
suggestions for longer stays as I get time, but I usually get a request for
the "three day trip" for some reason so hope you find it informative.
If you think my info needs correction or clarification or any other
comments, just use the email link below to let me know.
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