It takes four to five hours to get from Reno to San Francisco by car—without stopping, that is. But when you’ll be driving past so many must-see destinations on the way, why would you want to rush? From Lake Tahoe to UC Berkeley, the stops that dot the road from Nevada to the City by the Bay are well worth a few detours. Besides, you just can’t beat that California scenery! Keep reading to see some of our favorite destinations that make the drive from Reno to San Francisco such an awesome road trip route.
Lake Tahoe is about an hour south of Reno, and even if you’ve been here before, a place this beautiful is worth coming back to again and again. Incline Village is located at the northern portion of the lake—which, we should mention, is the largest alpine lake in North America—and some of the town’s attractions include Handmade At the Lake, a homey shop that sells locally-crafted goods; Tahoe Adventure Company, which offers outdoor recreational tours; and Big Water Grille, a mountain-top restaurant with panoramic views of the lake. But there’s one portion of North Lake Tahoe that you definitely don’t want to miss: Sand Harbor Beach.
Sand Harbor State Park is host to an array of outdoor activities, both on land and in the water. These include hiking, picnicking, photography, boating, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, and scuba diving. Plus, in July and August, Sand Harbor is also home to the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. While you probably won’t be splashing around in the water, winters at Sand Harbor are just as scenic, and visitors can even hop on a sleigh ride through the snow (horse-pulled carriage rides are also available in the summer).
If there’s one piece of American pioneer history that most people know, it’s the story of the Donner Party, a group of westward-headed emigrants who packed up their wagons and attempted the long trek from Illinois to California. (Hmm… On second thought, maybe this isn’t the best time to be talking about the Donner Party?) Unfortunately, the party became stranded in the snow while traveling through the Sierras and in order to survive, were (allegedly) forced to resort to cannibalism amid the harsh winter. Today, the area is a memorial park that remembers the pioneers, like the Donner Party, who carved a trail for generations to come.
Hiking, fishing, and boating are some of the activities that can be enjoyed at Donner Memorial State Park, which is about 40 minutes west of Reno and borders Lake Donner. Additionally, there’s a monument statue that was built in 1918, and if you want to learn more about the history of the land (including the Native Americans who originally lived there, the Donner Party, and the engineers who built the transcontinental railroad), then you can stop by the park’s visitor center—which in addition to selling maps, brochures and souvenirs—features a variety of informational displays and exhibits.
Around two hours northeast of San Francisco, the city of Auburn is a quaint town that lies east of the Eldorado National Forest. An intimate city with several parks and a slew of restaurants, Auburn is an ideal place to take a short break from the car, stretch your legs, and grab a bite to eat. While you’re there, be sure to take the time to visit the Gold Rush Museum, an interactive learning center dedicated to the history of the California Gold Rush.
Open Thursday through Sunday from 10:30 am to 4 pm, the museum is free to the public and, while modest in size, is an engaging stop that will help you to appreciate the area’s backstory. There’s a mining tunnel to explore, an indoor panning stream where you can sift through the water in search of your own gold, and because the museum is housed in the city’s old train depot, you’ll even see a few trains. (More learning opportunities in Auburn include the Bernhard Museum Complex, the Gold Country Medical History Museum, and the Placer County Courthouse Museum.)
Just outside of Sacramento, the Aerospace Museum of California has over 40 aircraft—commercial, private, and military—as well as exhibits that focus on both aeronautics and astronautics. Its permanent exhibits range from a comprehensive look at women in aerospace to a collection of vintage aircraft engines to a Mars-themed multimedia center. Many of the museum’s exhibits and displays are hands-on, and it also hosts temporary exhibits and special events. The museum is open daily from 10 am to 4 pm, Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is $15 for adults and $10 for students, seniors, teachers, and veterans. (Active military members receive free admission, as do children three and under.)
The Aerospace Museum’s appeal is enhanced by its admirable mission to promote STEM among children from all backgrounds, especially those who don’t have the privilege of visiting museums. In order to do this, the museum sponsors educational programs and youth outreach efforts through donations and community partnerships.
Slightly west of Sacramento and about an hour northeast of San Francisco, Davis, California, is largely known for two things: the University of California, Davis, and being incredibly bike-friendly. In fact, the United States Bicycle Hall of Fame is one of Davis’s most-prominent attractions! But regardless of how you get there, the UC Davis Arboretum & Public Garden is a must-see when passing through the Davis area. (Some other worthwhile stops are the UC Davis Design Museum, the Bohart Museum of Entomology, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, and Explorit Science Center.)
With a history that dates back over 80 years, the UC Davis Arboretum & Public Garden has become an educational staple in the city and has risen as a leading proponent of environmental stewardship and conservation. The Arboretum & Public Garden is comprised of 100-plus acres, the highlights of which include the Animal Science GATEway Garden, the California Rock Garden, the Native American Contemplative Garden, Nature’s Gallery Court, and the T. Elliot Weier Redwood Grove. The university also has themed gardens that showcase plantlife from particular geographic locations, like the Southwest United States, the California foothills, East Asia, the Mediterranean, and Australia.
Only around 20 minutes northeast of San Francisco, Richmond, California, is an eclectic city with more than 30 miles of shoreline, a number of museums, and plenty of parks. With such gorgeous scenery, Richmond is one city where you’ll want to get outside and explore—but be prepared to take tons of photos! Some of the most popular outdoor spots in Richmond are the Marina Bay Trail, Point Isabel Regional Shoreline, and Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. Perhaps most notably, Richmond is known for its definitive role in the war effort on the American homefront during the 1940s, and the best place in the city to learn about this significant part of the area’s past is at Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park (also known as World War II National Home Front Historical Park).
Due to its waterfront location, Richmond became a booming center for shipbuilding during World War II, and the local Kaiser Shipyards ended up producing nearly 800 ships during the course of the war, making it the most productive shipyard in American history. (And you can even tour the last remaining Kaiser ship, the SS Red Oak Victory Ship!) You can learn all about Richmond’s key contributions to World War II when you stop at the park’s visitor center, which has exhibits, films, and park maps. (Also, don’t forget to visit the Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Marina Bay Park.)
Also in the San Francisco Bay Area is the city of Berkeley, which you might have heard of before, thanks to a little school by the name of UC Berkeley—one of the top universities in the country. Some of the city’s most popular attractions include the Berkeley Rose Garden, the Berkeley Marina, Indian Rock Park, and César E. Chávez Park. At the university campus, you’ll find several more attractions, including Sather Tower the William Randolph Hearst Greek Theatre, and the Lawrence Hall of Science. But if you’re interested in art or film, then you should head straight to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).
With almost 25,000 pieces of artwork and 16,000 films and videos, BAMPFA boasts an extensive collection that’s exceptionally diverse in terms of media, historic period, and culture. Paintings, prints, drawings, and photography are all major forms represented throughout the displays, and film, animation, and video art can all be found throughout its archives. Additionally, BAMPFA proudly maintains the largest collection of Japanese films out of Japan.
When you finally make your way across the San Francisco Bay, don’t pass up the chance to stop on Yerba Buena Island as you’re crossing over the bay. Here, you’ll find a couple of different vista points that will offer you unrivaled, sweeping views of San Francisco—plus, the island has a few parks and historic landmarks, making it a pretty neat place to explore.
The biggest park on Yerba Buena Island is Blue Park, and some of the island’s landmarks include the Nimitz House and the Yerba Buena Lighthouse. You probably won’t feel the need to spend too much time at Yerba Buena Island, but the secluded land is an interesting (not to mention scenic) place to take a short walk before reaching your final destination: Golden Gate City!
San Francisco is among California’s top travel destinations—and with its breathtaking views, mild temperatures, and wide range of attractions, it’s not too hard to see why. Some of SF’s most iconic points of interest include Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, the Painted Ladies, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. But just because so much is waiting for you in San Francisco doesn’t mean that you want to breeze right by everything that’s in between! Take your time exploring California, and make a few stops on your drive from Reno to the City by the Bay—you never know what hidden gems you might stumble upon!