When you’ve finished with Alcatraz and the Castro in San Francisco, it’s common to head over the Golden Gate Bridge to wine country for some respite from the bustle of the city and enjoy some downtime in the rolling hills of Napa and Sonoma. But if you’re truly looking to immerse yourself in nature, you can easily visit some of the best National Parks in California – and in fact, the world – within a surprisingly short drive.
The five best National Parks near San Francisco range in drive time from a couple of hours drive for an action-packed day trip, to a half-day drive better suited to an adventurous long weekend. Once you arrive, depending on your chosen destination you might be treated to talus caves, rock pinnacles, waterfalls, volcanoes, beaches or the tallest trees on the planet. Basically, these parks protect everything you’d expect from the state of California. Central and northern California's climate also means you can visit more of these parks year-round, and some even made our list of the best National Parks to visit in winter.
Grab your hiking boots and get out of the city to visit these jaw dropping National Parks next time you’re in the Bay Area. We've listed them by distance from the city, but they're all so wildly diverse that each one is worth a visit when you have time.
Distance from San Francisco: 120 miles / 2 hours
Cruise down the 101 for a couple of hours and you’ll find yourself at the eroded vestiges of a long extinct volcano. The landscape on show at Pinnacles National Park started forming 23 million years ago, when multiple volcanoes erupted on the San Andreas fault 200 miles away and flowed to eventually form spectacular rock spires that are popular today among rock climbers. The pinnacles divide the park into east and west terrain which are connected only by hiking trails and footpaths. Visitors here can explore high rock walls, talus caves that are home to over 13 species of bats as well as excellent bird watching including peregrine falcons and California Condors which are released here. Spring and fall are the best times to visit this park due to the intense summer heat and despite its prime location, it is one of the least visited National Parks in the country so enjoy the peace and quiet here.
Distance from San Francisco: 170 miles / 3.5 hours
Yosemite National Park barely needs any introduction at all, and while you can fly into a closer regional airport such as Fresno or Merced to visit, you might be surprised to discover it’s an easy enough drive from San Francisco. After slowly climbing through California farmland you’ll start to climb through picturesque hills that eventually soar into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Before that though, you’ll find yourself dropping 3,500ft into incredible Yosemite Valley, which is walled by massive granite summits like El Capitan and Half Dome. The glacier carved valley creates some of the longest and most stunning waterfalls you will ever see cascading over the edge of steep granite cliffs. Its 1200 acres are also home to pine trees, tranquil lakes, colorful wildflower meadows and sun-dappled giant sequoia groves. If you leave bright and early, you could turn this into a (very long) day trip, but to do so would be a shame as there is so much Yosemite to enjoy.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Distance from San Francisco: 240 miles / 4 hours
If you’re seeking soaring trees, towering peaks and wandering through the mist of thundering waterfalls, there’s a good chance you’ll make a beeline for Yosemite, but keep driving east of Fresno and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park offers a magnificent escape that shouldn’t be overlooked. Sequoia and Kings Canyon are two contiguous National Parks that are managed as one unit and the entrance to Kings Canyon is closest to San Francisco. Though this park lies in its more popular neighbor’s shadow in terms of popularity, the best hikes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park visit some of the world’s largest trees in the giant sequoia groves, hundreds of caves and the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mount Whitney.
Distance from San Francisco: 250 miles / 4 hours
Most people seeking hydrothermal wonders head straight to Yellowstone National Park for obvious reasons, but believe it or not, volcanoes, boiling pools and bubbling mud pots also abound in northern California. Perhaps even lesser known than Channel Islands, Lassen Volcanic houses the largest lava dome volcano in the world, Lassen Peak, as well as fine examples of all four types of active volcanoes. Drive north towards Mount Shasta and you’ll find huge mountains formed by lava flows, steaming sulfur vents and crystal clear lakes to create an almost surreal and unexpected landscape.
Distance from San Francisco: 500 miles / 6 hours
A longer drive north on the 101 takes you to the most remote park on this list, Redwood National Park where you can wander among the hulking trunks of the tallest living trees on earth. Close to the border with Oregon, you can wander here among temperate rainforests, ancient fern-lined canyons, waterfalls and even along rugged coastline. Redwood National Park encompasses about 139,000 acres and protects almost half of all remaining old-growth coastal redwoods, an evergreen tree that lives 1,200 to 2,200 years or longer and reach up to 379 ft in height and 29ft in diameter. Due to its temperate climate, you can hike here year-round, and the trails are generally flat and rated easy or moderate.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.