San Francisco has always been famous as one of the U.S.’s most iconic cities and the global center of technological innovation. But did you know that it’s also the ideal place to start a national park road trip in central or northern California?
In case you didn’t, here is a little surprise: From the Golden City, you are within driving distance of many incredible national parks. In fact, some of the city’s most fantastic attractions, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, are within one.
Read on, and the Enjoyfuntrip team will guide you on the top 10 most Instagrammed national parks near San Francisco. This list will come in handy when seeking an outdoor escape with plenty of room to roar and no shortage of spectacular scenery!
National Park Near San Francisco – Maritime National Historical Park
- Distance from SF: 8 minutes drive from downtown.
- Admissions: Free.
Let’s begin with the closest park to San Francisco. A visit to the Maritime National Historical Park will take you back to the 1800s Pacific seafaring, with centuries-old ships and boat builders at work.
Here, visitors can take a stroll down the Hyde Street Pier and admire the best collection of rare working boats. Among these historic ships are “Balclutha” – the 1886 famous square-rig sailing ship that appeared in “Munity On The Bounty”; “Eureka” – the world’s largest paddlewheel ferryboat in 1876; and the marvelous lumber schooner “C.A.Thayer”. Although there is no entrance fee, with $5, you can get unlimited access to the Balclutha, Eureka, or Hercules for a week.
Hyde Street Pier
I know you can’t wait to see the lavish Captain’s quarters, but before heading to the boats, make sure to check out the park’s signature Maritime Museum and the Maritime Research Center. They feature over 3,000 maps and charts, 6,000 sea-faring relics, and half a million photographs. This spectacular, informative, and interactive exhibit can blow both adults and children away, and even if history museums are not your thing, you will still be fascinated.
To call it a day, walk around the Aquatic Park Pier to catch striking views of sunset on the bay. You might want to bring your own food and have a picnic with your family or friends on the beach.
National Parks Near San Francisco – Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- Distance from RF: 30-minutes drive from downtown.
- Admissions: Free.
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area lies just across the famous Golden Gate Bridge, yet it feels like a world away from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. This open space stretches across a whopping 82,000 acres of land surrounding the Bay Area. That means whether you decide to make a full-day trip or just spend a couple of hours, there are countless things for you to explore here.
The massive park is home to many of SF’s essential landmarks and historical sites, including the iconic bridge. You will be surprised to know that the spectacular Marin Headlands lies within its boundaries, too. Like many users on TripAdvisor noted, this hilly peninsula is the place to go if you want to get the best view of the Golden Gate. Don’t forget to take a snapshot!
At the 5 historic sites (The Presidio, Fort Point National Historic Site, San Francisco Port of Embarkation, Alcatraz Island, and San Francisco Bay Discovery Site), you can feed your contemplative soul with Spanish colonialism, California’s diverse culture, U.S. military expansion, and the history of the Mexican Republic.
What if you want to have an exciting day out with your family? Enjoy exciting road trips, hike, immerse yourself in the scenic views, or have a picnic. The options are endless!
National Parks Near San Francisco – Point Reyes National Seashore
- Distance from RF: 1-hour drive from downtown.
- Admissions: Free.
Before we are out of the city, it would be a waste not to visit the Point Reyes National Seashore. This stunning coast is located just beyond the GGNRA, about an hour’s drive from downtown.
The vast coastal preserve takes up the majority of the Point Reyes Peninsula, which features lovely sand beaches, imposing cliffs, lustrous green foliage, and numerous species. Being a fertile area on the wildlife-rich Pacific Coast, this has been home to Native Americans for centuries, whose history and heritage you may learn more about at the visitor center.
Of course, visiting the Point Reyes Lighthouse should be at the top of your checklist. Entitled the “most beautiful lighthouse on the California coast,” this incredibly picturesque observatory offers a 360° view of the pristine sandy beach and the headlands.
Point Reyes Lighthouse: Visiting The Historic Light Station
You can drive up to the lighthouse, but I’d suggest hiking to enjoy the jaw-dropping vista along the way fully. Look for birds and whales out in the water, especially in winter and spring!
Yosemite National Park
- Distance from SF: 3 hours and 15 minutes drive.
- Admissions: $35 per vehicle or $70 for an annual park pass.
Boasting an immense natural splendor that’s impossible to put into words, Yosemite surely deserves its title as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is only 170 miles away from SF, so if you leave right after breakfast, you will arrive by lunchtime!
The most famous and picturesque section of the park is Yosemite Valley. This is home to big-name tourist destinations, such as El Capitan, Half Dome, and, of course, Yosemite Falls. For decades, artists, climbers, and nemophilists alike have drawn endless inspiration from this valley. It embodies everything you can imagine about a national park.
Complete Travel Guide To Yosemite Valley
To fully experience Yosemite, it’s always best to take a hike. There are over 750 miles of trails to explore, and you will lose yourself in the jaw-dropping valley vistas, magnificent shear walls, and a kaleidoscope of fall foliage.
Aside from hiking, Yosemite is also perfect for camping or boating. If you are fascinated by space and celestial objects, don’t forget that astronomy walks are sometimes hosted in Tuolumne Meadows. Since the park is far away from the nearest city light, it becomes one of the best places for stargazing.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Distance from SF: 3 hours and 48 minutes drive.
- Admissions: $5 for an individual pass, $10 for a vehicle pass (including all passengers), and $25 for an annual pass.
So this is the first time you’ve heard about the Lassen Volcanic National Park, you say? Well, that’s a point in its favor: Being one of the under-the-radar national parks near San Francisco, Lassen Volcanic is not swarmed all over by an enormous crowd like, for example, Yosemite National Park in the summer.
It doesn’t mean the park is any less attractive, though. Situated at the meeting point of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Cascade Range volcanoes, and the Great Basin desert, Lassen Volcanic National Park will surprise you with natural thrills that you can’t find anywhere else in the United States.
This is the heaven of emerald lakes, meadows flecked with wildflowers, and lush coniferous forests. But the main attraction and namesake of the park is Lassen Peak – the largest Plug Dome volcano in the world, running north through Oregon and Washington. This massive natural wonder is surrounded by various smaller volcanoes, from composite and shield to cinder cones.
Summiting an active volcano like Lassen Peak might sound intimidating, but it will be a one-of-a-kind experience for thrill-seekers and amateur hikers. I would highly recommend it to anyone: The panoramic view of the surrounding area makes all the effort worthwhile.
National Parks Near San Francisco – Sequoia National Park
- Distance from SF: 4 hours and 25 minutes drive.
- Admissions: $20 for a personal pass (pedestrian or cyclist), $35 for a vehicle pass (including all passengers).
Established on September 25, 1980, this is the country’s second-oldest national park. It offers a one-of-a-kind experience for adventurous souls who want to discover some of America’s most impressive natural wonders.
Of course, you will want to head straight to the General Sherman Tree first. It’s by far the world’s tallest tree by volume, standing 275 feet (85m) tall and measuring over 36 feet (11m) in diameter at the base. The tree got its name from the victorious Civil War general, William T. Sherman
Sequoia National Park is also home to Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in contiguous America. You can see it from the Interagency Visitor Center, located on the east side of the Sierra.
Also, don’t miss out on the Moro Rock – a 350-step climb that pays off with stunning views, Crystal Cave – an excellent example of a marble cavern, and Tunnel Log, a fallen sequoia you can drive through.
Redwood National Park
- Distance from SF: 5 hours and 30 minutes drive.
- Admissions: Free.
Why choose between redwoods and sequoias when you can have both in California? The distance from San Francisco to Redwood National Park is approximately 337 miles. If you take the US-101 route, you can arrive in less than 6 hours, but it’s advisable to split your trip into 2 days so you can make some stops along the way.
People come here to marvel at the mighty redwoods, which tower at more than 360 feet and weigh over 500 tons. But trust me when I say, there is so much more waiting for you to discover here.
Aside from the coastal redwood forest, the national park also protects vast stretches of oaks, prairie, wild rivers and streams, and about 40 miles of breathtaking coastline. Chinook salmon and Steller’s sea lions are just some of the abundant wildlife you can see here. This, along with the incredible amount of plants, is the main reason the Redwood National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“The amazing walking paths in the forest make hiking feel like a trip to the wonderland”, user CalBredTB wrote on TripAdvisor. Obviously, classics like hiking and camping are the most popular activities here, but road cycling also makes for a thrilling experience. What’s better? Redwoods is also one of the very few national parks in the United States that allows backcountry mountain biking!
36 Hours in Redwood National Park: Exploring the Best Hikes, Groves and Trees
Hike More And Worry Less!
If you are used to receiving loads of emails, multitasking, or constantly peaking in thoughts, visiting one of these national parks near San Francisco might push you out of your comfort zone. But don’t worry. You will find yourself at peace as you embrace solitude, meditate at a stream, hike through the forest, or even come eye-to-eye with a mule deer.