The best weekend trips from San Francisco for gay travellers

Find yourself in the Bay Area with a driving licence and an empty weekend to fill and all you need to do is look to the coast for inspiration. In the south, there’s the attraction-packed Big Sur with its stunning Pacific Coast scenery while, to the north, Mendocino lies upon the sleepy headlands of Highway 1. As captivating as coastal California can be, however, it isn’t your only option for weekend getaways from San Francisco. Follow us on our journey to discover the best way to spend a weekend around gay California, including Sonoma wine tastings, Lake Tahoe trails and Yosemite views along the way.

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San Francisco | Photo: Ninjason

Visitors to San Francisco won’t be itching to leave right away, what with all kinds of gay action taking place around the Castro and the Bay Area at large, it’s likely you’ll want a week just to cover key attractions such as the 10 best things to do in gay San Francisco. When you’re finally ready to make an SF-exit however, pop the trunk on your rental, throw in a towel and prepare for multiple weekends tripping along some of America’s most loved coastal roads…

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Besides the all-encompassing headland views up on its cypress-laden cliffs, Mendocino offers a number of sandy beaches, rose gardens and forest trails within Van Damme State Park to keep you in nature all day through

1. Big Sur

A region that could easily fill the first, second and possibly third of all your weekend trips from San Francisco, the Big Sur has no shortage of attractions. The scenic drive to get here warrants itself, an iconic drive north along the Californian Coastal Highway (Highway 1), flanked on one side by crashing surf and Pacific vistas and on the other by redwood mountains, waterfalls and vast nature reserves. One highpoint within the Big Sur region is the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, lined with the aforementioned redwoods and centred by the 80-foot McWay Falls. Also in the area is the Esalen Institute, a New Age naked hot springs retreat open to the public (check online to make a reservation), as well as Nepenthe, an upmarket restaurant with pinnacle cliff-side views from its heated patio.

The neighbouring towns of Carmel and Monterey are two such spots to spend the night, each with their own seaside town charm and wine-centric establishments. At Carmel, attend service at the Spanish-era Carmel Mission or try any of the coastal trails around Point Lobos State Reserve, ending with a reviving soak at Refuge thermal spa. Monterey meanwhile has a reputation for being more down-to-earth, as a former cannery town, today staying relevant with its world-class aquarium, boutique stores and wine tasting rooms. Looking for a place to stay along the way? Check out our list of the top 10 boutique hotels in California.

Big Sur | Photo: Cosmin Serban

Photo: Tyler Nix

2. Mendocino

Journeying along Highway 1 towards the Big Sur it can be easy to bypass the sleepy town of Mendocino, but take a day and a night to get acquainted and you’ll soon see why this redwood-cut village makes our list. Besides the all-encompassing headland views up on its cypress-laden cliffs, Mendocino offers a number of sandy beaches, rose gardens and forest trails within Van Damme State Park to keep you in nature all day through, plus whale watching at sunset beside Point Reyes Lighthouse to cap it all off. Also available for adventurers is sea cave kayaking and tide pool fun at MacKerricher State Park. In town, base yourself in a white-picket-fenced B&B along the shore, enjoying the New England styles, in amongst seafood restaurants, independent boutiques and family stores without a Starbucks in sight. You might think Napa to be the only option for wine tasting in California but with low-key wine tasting throughout Mendocino town, it might be time to think again! On the way back to San Fran, try breaking a while in Fort Bragg for sunbathing on Glass Beach.

Mendocino | Photo: No Longer Here

3. Lake Tahoe

You think you know Lake Tahoe, with its famed ski resorts backgrounded by the idyllic white slopes of Squaw Valley, Kirkwood and more, but come spring when the valleys thaw, Lake Tahoe transforms into something else entirely. Spring, summer and fall are all good alternatives to ski season on Lake Tahoe, when, in place of whiteouts you’ll get verdant views over Emerald State Park and DL Bliss State Park, two top spots for hiking and communing with nature. The Desolation Wilderness hike is a great place to start, while Emerald Bay is a lush place to wind down, in view of turquoise waters and Viking’s Castle. Though walking trails are bountiful around the bay cliffs (including the Rubicon Trail and Crag Lake hike), the sea also has its own action in the form of kayaking, paddle-boarding and boating. For more high octane action, the Truckee River is one for you, renting either a raft or tube and drifting downstream with other fun-loving locals and tourists.

If you grow weary of Lake Tahoe, help is on hand from neighbouring Nevada, just across the border with its array of 24-hour casinos lit in a blaze of neon. Also in Nevada, just 20 minutes’ drive from South Lake Tahoe, is Carson Valley, where wild horses roam free.

Lake Tahoe | Photo: Eric Ward

Lake Tahoe | Photo: Makenzie Cooper

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An underrated destination populated with fun-loving students and laid-back locals, San Luis Obispo is in easy reach of a ton of coastal attractions including the surf spot of Pismo Beach, Avila Beach and Morro Bay

4. San Luis Obispo

Almost halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo provides the perfect base for road-trippers and long-distance romancers seeking a romp in central Cali. An underrated destination populated with fun-loving students and laid-back locals, San Luis Obispo is in easy reach of a ton of coastal attractions including the surf spot of Pismo Beach, Avila Beach and Morro Bay. The latter is known mostly for the huge Morro Rock upon which resident seals, sea lions and otters get their morning rays.

Although the town itself is not packed with action, there’s a fair amount to keep you busy for a weekend, by way of the farmer’s market downtown on Higuera Street which often transforms into a BBQ party in late summer afternoons and merges with the student-centred bar scene come nightfall. Consider staying at the gaudy yet lively Madonna Hotel with its clashing décor and pink-hued restaurant, moving out come morning to sip on the local grapes at Edna Valley, Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande, before returning for a show at the Art-Deco designed Fremont Theatre. To learn more of the history of the town, head to Hearst Castle for a look into the lavish life of William Randolph Hearst, California’s larger-than-life newspaper magnate who inspired the movie Citizen Kane.

Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo | Photo: Alex Samuels

5. Healdsburg

An hour and a quarter outside of San Francisco in the thirsty wine region of Sonoma, Healdsburg lies as the go-to place for foodies and oenophiles alike. Arrive hungry and Healdsburg will not disappoint with its fine selection of restaurants and tasting rooms dispersed around the town’s main plaza. Healdsburg has come a long way from its quiet farming days and now offers a glamorous yet inexpensive view of Cali’s best wineries, though locals aren’t so happy to admit their town has come to rival Napa. Expect busy summer periods or shift your trip to a weekday to better enjoy slow strolls along tree-lined boulevards, sampling locally farmed produce before branching out to try swimming, tubing or kayaking adventures on the Russian River. If Healdsburg’s popularity steals some of its allure, mosey on up to the nearby mountain town of Guerneville tucked away in the redwood forests between Healdsburg and the coast. For more of the region’s best, check out our articles on the best wineries in Napa Valley and the top things to do in Sonoma.

6. Yosemite

You’ve surely seen or heard the name even if you’ve never uttered it because Yosemite National Park receives a lot of lip service from travellers and publications everywhere. Pronounced ‘yo-sem-it-ee’, the park has garnered such worldly fame thanks to its many photogenic peaks, waterfalls and rock formations in among the amazing natural beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. About a four-hour drive from San Francisco, visiting Yosemite is certainly worth it, standing as one of the most beloved national parks in the US spread across 3,027 square kilometres of wow. Being as popular as it is you’ll likely have to share the views, particularly in the summer months when the waterfalls are at their most impressive and temperatures warmest. Avoid the worst of the crowds by visiting in late spring or fall, possibly moving out of the valley towards the lesser-visited alpine lakes and granite landscapes of high country, trekking to Cathedral Lakes for a tranquil afternoon swim.

Of the park’s best hiking trails, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite Falls Trail, Mirror Lake and Sentinel Dome all have their own distinct features, with add-ons of Taft Point Loop, Mariposa Grove and Tenaya Lake Trail is time allows. The Half Dome Trail is reserved for adrenaline junkies willing to climb steep granite walls by rope ladder to reach epic views over the Sierras. Making your way up or down the West Coast? Map the route with one or more of our 8 best West Coast USA road trip itineraries.

Yosemite National Park | Photo: Grant Ritchie

Yosemite | Photo: Nathan Dumlao

Having trouble planning your trip?

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Yosemite National Park | Photo: John Gibbons

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