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 Clint 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 Bay area 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 visit" 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:


  • 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 US 101 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 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 website has 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 directions to 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 peaceful viewing.


  • 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 and the 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.




All Graphics & Text Steve Corley

The pictures you see were created by Steve Corley unless otherwise noted.
Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited