San Francisco Is The Key To Unlocking The True Majesty Of California’s Great Outdoors

San Francisco Is The Key To Unlocking The True Majesty Of California’s Great Outdoors

Chris Singh
Chris Singh


San Francisco’s multilayered, multicultural history has been the subject of many of America’s greatest stories. From the city’s central role in Asian American culture to its formative Spanish heritage; the beat generation to the LGBT movement. It’s hard to resist using the cliche of a melting pot, but that’s exactly what The Golden Gate City has become – America’s great, big kinetic heart of culture (and cultural change). A tremendous example of how one city can go on to inspire millions.

That San Francisco has a tremendous amount of character is not at all a new discovery. And yet there’s still a sense that this city of just over 815,000 people, spread across 36 distinctive neighbourhoods, is by and large the underdog of California. 

So much of America’s third largest state lay right at the doorstep of San Francisco, making the Golden Gate Bridge much more than just a cherished icon, but also a symbolic entrance to some of the best experiences California – has to offer.

We’re talking about the enormity of Yosemite National Park; the tightly-packed action of Mammoth Mountain; the thrill of Lake Tahoe; the deep, soulful vastness of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. These are some of America’s most definitive destinations.

All of the above are easy short trips from San Francisco, and nifty travellers are often able to fit several of these outdoor essentials in while still basing themselves in the Golden City. 

Here’s a quick run-down of just how close the city is to these destinations, measured by the distance it takes to drive from the centre of San Francisco.

  • Yosemite National Park: 3 hours and 11 minutes
  • Lake Tahoe: 3 hours and 32 minutes
  • Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: 4 hours and 18 minutes
  • Mammoth Lakes: 5 hours and 45 minutes

To help give you a bit of a guide on your travels, we’ve put together a slick itinerary so you can make the most of your time in Northern California.

San Francisco

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco (Image credit: Maarten van den Heuvel).

Ideal time: 3-4 days

You’re obviously going to start in San Francisco, where the slanted streets are steeped in some of America’s greatest moments. 

After touching base at the very accessible San Francisco International Airport (SFO), it’s a quick 30-minute drive to the city centre, which branches off in all sorts of directions to essential neighbourhoods like the iconic Mission District, rapidly modernised Dogpatch and the breezy Italian enclave of North Beach. 

Where To Stay

The splurge-worthy Hotel Drisco has long been a favourite amongst celebrity guests and luxury travellers, offering a prime location in Pacific Heights that’s easy to zip around from. Alternatively, hit up The St. Regis San Francisco, just a stone’s throw from the excellent SFMoMa museum and a short walk from union square. 

If boutique and affordable is more to your taste, Palihotel San Francisco is a comfortable, homely option with a loft-style restaurant and easy access to both Chinatown and Michelin-packed high-end neighbourhood Nob Hill. 

What To Do

For many San Franciscans, the city’s most exciting heritage neighbourhood has never been up for debate. The Mission District channels the city’s deeply-rooted Spanish, Hispanic and Latin American roots into an ever-evolving oasis of restaurants, cafes and bars that are amongst the best in California. 

Don’t leave without grabbing a massive Mission Burrito from La Taqueria or grabbing some goods from Tartine Bakery for a picnic in the bustling Mission Dolores Park.

North Beach is the hub of San Francisco’s Italian culture and easily one of the city’s coolest neighbourhoods. This is where you’ll find the emblematic Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, always worth a stop for the sky-high perspective right before you dip right into all the top-quality pasta, pizza, coffee and pastries you could possibly ask for. 

If your time is capped, make do with a visit to Francis Ford Coppaloa’s Cafe Zoetrope. After all, it was in North Beach that the legendary Director penned the script to The Godfather. 

Unless you’re a local, it’s unlikely you’d know what Dogpatch even is. The largely industrial neighbourhood has been rapidly modernised over the past few years, primarily with several breweries, taco joints and pubs lined up along a wide street. Live like a local and zip along Third Street for a good ol’ fashioned pub crawl.

And don’t forget to ferry around San Francisco Bay. It’s not exactly the world’s largest archipelago, but there are 18 different islands for you to really get an idea of the city’s dynamic lifestyle. Chief amongst these is, of course, the iconic Alcatraz but you also should make time for the idyllic city of Sausalito and both Treasure Island and Angel Island, all easily accessible from Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Yosemite National Park

The vibrant colours of Yosemite National Park (Image credit: Rakshith Hatwar).

Ideal time: 1-2 days

Getting There

If you don’t want to make the short drive from San Francisco, there are three daily trains between the two destinations. The fastest Amtrak train will take around 6.5 hours, but the drive, which starts by crossing Oakland Bay Bridge, is an easy 3.5 hours.

Where To Stay

Yosemite Valley Lodge is a nature lover’s dream accommodation right near the incredible Yosemite Falls. Although for something higher-end, go for a few nights at the grand Ahwahnee Hotel which is renowned for its magnificent architecture in the heart of Yosemite’s main valley, as well as its noted past guests like John F Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II and Barack Obama.

What To Do

Yosemite National Park is one of America’s greatest achievements and a fine example of how powerful perfectly-preserved nature can be. Those towering sequoia trees set against the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome make hiking here an otherworldly experience. 

After you’ve conquered all these essential marked trails, either set up camp in one of the many designated areas for a picnic or head to Curry Village in Yosemite Valley to grab a bite to eat.

Mammoth Mountain

The impressive Mammoth Mountain (Image credit: Mathilda Khoo).

Ideal time: 1-2 days

Getting There

Given its proximity to Yosemite, most visitors would follow up a visit to the famously vast national park with a spot of skiing at Mammoth Mountain. 

There is no direct train route from San Francisco to this part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range so your best bet if coming from the Golden City is to drive, which takes just under seven hours. 

Alternatively, you could fly into Mammoth Yosemite Airport with United or Alaska Air.

Where To Stay

The Village Lodge Mammoth is an impeccable property with ski-in, ski-out access and all the touchpoints of an upscale resort hotel. Direct gondola access makes it a popular choice for skiers who are only up at Mammoth for a few days.

What To Do

One word: ski. That much is obvious, of course, but it’s something you’ll want to be doing pretty much all day since Mammoth Mountain is much more boutique and smaller than Palisades Tahoe. 

Pro skiers from around the world regularly train at Unbound Terrain Park but there are also plenty of options for beginners who are mostly just shredding their way to their next aprés session. Speaking of which, there are plenty of great bars and restaurants dotted around the resort. 

Lake Tahoe

The action-packed Lake Tahoe (Image credit: Fabian Quintero).

Ideal time: 2-3 days

Getting There

There are only two daily trains from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe and the fastest will take you around 5.5 hours. The 3.5-hour drive is much easier with a fairly straight shot through Sacramento.

Where To Stay

While Northern Italy has Lake Como, America has Lake Tahoe. The two couldn’t be any more different, and yet they are similar in their allure for luxury travellers and the hotel brands that cater to them. As such, it’s worth splurging on the Ritz-Carlton here with its immense 1,579-square-metre slope-side spa and 170 well-appointed guest rooms. 

What To Do

There is no shortage of fun things to do in Lake Tahoe. Sure, you could just relax on the golden grains of Sand Harbor Beach or get a culture hit in a historic Nordic-style mansion Vikingsholm, but most come here for the action. 

Jet Skiing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and skiing are all available in abundance across the entire Lake Tahoe area. And you won’t have to go far to find spots where you can squeeze all of those activities into one day trip. 

For avid skiers, Sugar Bowl is the most accessible resort from San Francisco with 12 lifts and various terrain. Although if you have longer in the area, you should check out Palisades Tahoe, which is where the 1960 Winter Olympics were held. 

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

The giants of Sequoia National Park (Image credit: Vitto Sommella)

Ideal time: 1-2 days

Getting There

Both Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks fall under the same administration so most visitors would fit both into one or two days. If you want to take public transport from San Francisco, you’d need to first catch a train to the town of Hanford before jumping on a bus or a shuttle. 

Therefore, the best and more direct way is to drive. It takes just under five hours from the centre of San Fran, first driving across the Oakland Bay Bridge and then heading south-east towards Los Angeles.

Where To Stay

Visitors find it best to stay in Sequoia National Park and fan out from there, so go for the comfortable Wuksachi Lodge with its very convenient location near the park’s Ash Mountain Entrance.

What To Do

Since you’re hopping between two huge national parks, you’re going to need to plan your time carefully. The primary distinction between them is that Sequoia is more suited to those who love those dense, thick forests while Kings Canyon is much more open, with immense peaks, canyons and waterfalls. 

If you’ve done what most international visitors do and headed to Yosemite National Park first, then you should have a firm idea of what kind of terrain you’d prefer. Pick one and tick off all the marked hiking trails before leaping over to the other.

This article is sponsored by Visit California. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Boss Hunting.

Chris Singh
Chris is a freelance Travel, Food, and Technology writer. He has had work published by The AU Review, Junkee Media and Australian Traveller Media and holds tertiary qualifications in Psychology and Sociology.


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