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Planning a road trip? These 10 post-pandemic destinations are within 5 hours of Sacramento

Sacramento Bee logo Sacramento Bee 6/11/2021 Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee

Jun. 11—More from the series


Sacramento Reopening Guide

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For thousands of Northern Californians, this will be the summer of the road trip.

Tired of being pent up during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not quite ready to fly, they're hitting the road for shorter vacations and day trips, many focused on a safe outdoorsy experience.

Where to go? Yes, there's Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, Napa and Carmel. All of those are nice ... and crowded.

Here are 10 other getaways within a five-hour drive of Sacramento that are delightful, each in their own way, and a little less congested.

On one of these trips, you can find yourself nearly nostril to nostril with wild bison in a hidden spot in an urban setting. On another, you'll be serenaded by a tartan-clad bagpiper as the sun sets over coastal dunes. And, on a third, you'll stroll among angled light shafts inside one of the most historic and beautiful covered wood bridges in the country.

Warning for late deciders: Make your reservations before you take off on these trips. Even "lesser-known" corners of the state, such as the lake district in "The Lost Sierra" of Plumas County, are, in fact, well known to their fans. And service industry businesses, notably restaurants, have struggled this summer to hire enough staff.

1. Coastal Marin County

Vacation theme: Wear wool in July!

Nutshell: When it's sweltering in Sacramento, you can be 'sweatering' in cool coastal fog. This can be a single-day trip, or an overnighter. Your circuit may include: Stinson Beach, Mt. Tamalpais, Point Reyes Station, Tomales Point, Petaluma, Mill Valley, Muir Woods, Sausalito.

Travel time: On a good day, it's less than two hours to Stinson Beach from Sacramento.

Hiking: Mountain and beach hikes abound north of the Golden Gate, including the epic Dipsea Trail which takes you across the grassy flanks and wooded ravines of Mt. Tam between Mill Valley and Stinson Beach.

Pubbing: The Pelican Inn, perched behind a hedgerow like a proper English countryside way station, has a quaint pub and restaurant, offering a cozy landing spot after hikes in the Muir Beach and Tennessee Valley areas.

Beaching: Statuesque Stinson is a great beach for strolling. Bolinas Lagoon at the north end is a scenic site for bird and seal watching.

Muir Woods: The park requires reservations for parking, which costs $8.50, but thankfully guarantees you a spot. The shuttle bus from remote parking sites is grounded due to COVID-19 until June 19.

Food: The Sand Dollar restaurant in Stinson Beach was closed as of early June. But the Parkside Cafe, next to the beach parking lot, is open. In Point Reyes Station, plenty of shops and eateries are open, including the legendary Bovine Bakery, the Side Street Kitchen, Cafe Reyes and the Cowgirl Creamery barn.

2. Lands End, San Francisco

Vacation theme: A walk on the wild side

Nutshell: Hike along San Francisco's west edge wilderness amid wind-bent cypress trees above wave-dashed rocks on trails between Sutro Baths, Point Lobos, Lands End and China Beach. Farther north, trails take you along bluffs overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

Travel time: It's about two hours to the Lands End parking lot at the west end of Geary Boulevard. The trailhead is at the north end of the parking lot. It's about 1.5 miles to the Eagle's Point lookout, where you get an oceanside view of the bridge.

Legion of Honor: You might then walk a short mile up the hill to contemplate Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" in the colonnaded courtyard of the Legion of Honor Museum. The museum itself is a work of art, and small enough for an easy visit.

Sutro Heights: For an elevated ocean view without a hike, the Sutro Heights bluff looms above the Cliff House across Point Lobos Avenue from the Lands End parking lot. There also may be easy parking on 48th Avenue.

Bring your bike: For now, the Great Highway section south of Golden Gate Park is bicycle-pedestrian only (currently being called the Great Walkway), as are several streets inside Golden Gate Park. Those areas are a bit south of the Lands End parking lot.

The bison!: In keeping with the "wild San Francisco" theme of this trip, go visit the bison herd that lives in Golden Gate Park. Their meadow enclosure is on JFK Drive, west of 36th Avenue. If the bison are grouped at the north end of the paddock, walk along the trail up there for a close encounter.

Food: Try the Beach Chalet restaurant on the Great Highway for reasons that go far beyond food. You get great ocean views via the picture windows on the second floor. The first floor has striking WPA-era art murals on the walls and a large diorama of the park.

3. Hope Valley, Alpine County

Vacation theme: Rustic comfort

Nutshell: The tiniest California county has a blue sky as big as Montana, mountain meadow hiking trails, lakes and streams for fishing, hot springs for soaking, curving highways for motorcycling and yurts for glamping. Fall is good for the beautiful Aspen leaves.

Travel time: It's one and one-half hours to the valley and two hours to Markleeville via highways 50 and 89. The more scenic route, Highway 88, takes two and one-half hours..

To do: A popular Carson Pass hike includes a section of the Pacific Crest Trail across mountain meadows to Fourth of July Lake. If you want to soak in Grover Hot Springs, it's best to make reservations two days in advance, but they allow walk-ins if they haven't reached their COVID-19 capacity. Picturesque Cutthroat Brewing Company resides in the 121-year-old Alpine Hotel in Markleeville.

To stay: Wylder Hope Valley resort (formerly Sorenson's Resort) offers cute cabins, or a yurt or even a redone "Spartan" silver metal trailer.

Be aware: Some roads in the area will be closed or partially closed on July 17 for the Death Ride bicycle event.

4. Mono Lake, Mono County

Vacation theme: Archaeology 101 in an other-worldly setting.

Nutshell: Head back to the Old West in this secluded nook east of the Sierra, where you can canoe or kayak among the briny lake's amazing tufa towers and visit Bodie State Historic Park, an Old West ghost town.

Travel time: Four hours to the town of Lee Vining via Highways 50, 89 and 395.

Bodie: The historic park and old west ghost town is largely open now, and should be in full operation by June 15.

Tufa towers: Take a guided kayak or canoe tour to learn about the lake's unusual ecosystem. Walk the trail down to the lake from the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center. Also, visit the Mono Lake Committee information center and bookstore.

Bonus: You can link this with a Yosemite visit. Take scenic Tioga Road over the backside of the Sierra to Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite National Park.

5. Columbia, Tuolumne County

Vacation theme: Old West fun for the family

Nutshell: This is three stops in one, starting with Columbia State Historic Park. Unlike Bodie, Columbia has a theme park feel, but that makes it enjoyable for families with younger children. The look of the place is authentic, even with touristy stores, activities and restaurants.

Travel time: Slightly less than two hours.

For the kids: You can ride a stagecoach through picturesque terrain. And you can pan for gold.

For the parents: The nearby town of Murphys, on Highway 4, is pleasant for strolling, with wineries, restaurants and boutiques, and several underground caverns in the area to tour.

Big Trees: A little up the road from Murphys is Calaveras Big Trees, another family-style locale, where you can park and immediately be strolling amid majestic and inspiring Sequoias.

Cavern tours: Nearby Moaning Caverns announced in May it has reopened for tours. Mercer Caverns reported, as of late May, it was still closed, though.

6. Bridgeport Covered Bridge, Nevada County

Vacation theme: Photographers' delight.

Nutshell: The Bridgeport Covered Bridge in the South Yuba River State Park is the longest single-span, wood-covered bridge in the United States. The shingled span with massive timber trusses is a gorgeous piece of architecture and a wonderful historic remnant of early California.

Travel time: One and a half hours from Sacramento via Highway 70. This could suffice as a day trip. There are nearby hikes on the Yuba River. Or, it can be combined with an overnight stay in the picturesque Nevada City and Grass Valley area a half-hour away.

To do: The bridge and the cobbled river serve as excellent photo subjects worthy of enlarging and hanging on your wall at home. There are a few swimming holes nearby.

Important warning: Don't visit quite yet! Put this trip on your "future to-do" list. The bridge is closed and partially disassembled for now as the state finishes up a years'-long refurbishing program. The state and local residents essentially are saving the bridge from collapse, using most of the same historic timbers and construction techniques. There will be a grand reopening later this year, possibly as early as September. For updates, go to the state park bridge project page.

Hog crossing: The bridge was on the Virginia Turnpike wagon trail to and from the silver mines of Nevada. A one-horse buggy paid $1 to cross. Horse riders paid 50 cents. People on foot paid 25 cents. Hog owners paid 5 cents per hog.

7. Pacific Grove, Monterey County

Vacation theme: Relaxed sophistication.

Nutshell: Wedged between Monterey and Carmel, Pacific Grove is the more classic laid-back California coastal town of the three. Here, you get butterflies at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary, at least on a good year. You can visit otters in the bay and be visited by a bagpiper on the dunes. You can walk the Asilomar Coastal Trail, and play wind-blown links-style golf courses.

Travel time: Three-plus hours. Interstate 5 to Santa Nella is one route to avoid East Bay commuter traffic.

Tunes on the dunes: Have a drink at the outdoor patio and fire pits at the Inn at Spanish Bay. Be there by 5:45 p.m. That's when the bagpiper marches up over dunes on the golf course to offer you a bit of Scottish entertainment.

Links-style golf: Play golf at the Pacific Grove Golf Links, which has a links-style back nine at a lot lower price than fancier nearby places such as Spanish Bay and Pebble Beach.

Go to sea: Rent a sea kayak and paddle out to the kelp beds to watch otters in the wild. The ocean, just off of Monterey's Cannery Row next door, is often placid and enjoyable, even for beginner kayakers.

8. Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo County

Vacation theme: Decompression, pure and simple.

Nutshell: This is the longest drive in the bunch, at 4 hours, 30 minutes, but it plants you on the Central Coast of California, which just feels different from both the state's north and south coasts. Come here if your agenda is little more than reading books on the beach and toasting the sunset with a glass of wine.

Central coast vibe: Avila Beach is laid-back and quite tiny. You can also hole up in a rented bluffside house in nearby Cambria, buying your provisions in the town's vibrant Main Street. Or you may find Cayucos, Pismo Beach or Morro Bay your style.

All of these areas offer that distinct vibe that says yes, it's OK to just do nothing.

Stay: The Inn at Avila Beach is across the street from the beach with rooms overlooking the ocean. Nearby, tucked in the hills, is the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa. Then there is the eclectic Madonna Inn and its assortment of unique, themed rooms.

Outings: You are a one-hour drive from Hearst Castle in San Simeon. The college town San Luis Obispo is 15 minutes away. Drive an hour south, and you'll explore Santa Ynez Valley wineries and the distinctly Danish town of Solvang.

Alternatives: For those who just want to plant themselves on a patio overlooking the beach, but don't want to drive that far: Pajaro Dunes north of Monterey offers a similar zen-style, curl-up-with-a-book vacation. Farther north, Dillon Beach in Marin County is a rustic and secluded beach getaway.

9. The Lost Sierra, Plumas County

Vacation theme: Mountain air.

Nutshell: This area, hidden way up north above Truckee, is called The Lost Sierra. A mile high, the Graeagle and Blairsden areas of Plumas County are untrampled compared to the Tahoe Basin, but the granite-studded area claims 50 mountain lakes for recreation.

Travel Time: It's a 2.5 hour drive, with a stop in old town Truckee for food and shopping.

Golf: Plumas Pines is the most challenging course. But there are plenty of others. While you hunt for birdies, you're liable to see an osprey hunting for fish.

The Lakes Region: This secluded mountain area is popular for camping, boating, hiking.

Hikes: Sierra Buttes Lookout Trail is a thigh-buster with the requisite impressive views from the top. A popular and very easy hike, more of a stroll, is the mile path to Frazier Falls.

Food: The Iron Door restaurant in Johnsonville is described as "refined rustic." The Brewing Lair near Blairsden has craft beers on tap on a timbered hillside with musicians playing on the dog-friendly patio on summer weekends. A few miles west of town, the Gray Eagle Lodge just reopened for overnight stays. Make reservations for old-school dinners above the creek.

10. Lassen Volcanic National Park, Shasta County

Vacation theme: Volcano adventure experience.

Nutshell: This is Northern California's version of Yellowstone National Park, with hot hissing sulfurous fumaroles in places with atmospheric names like Bumpass Hell, Devils Kitchen and Boiling Springs Lake.

Travel time: It's slightly more than three from Sacramento to the parking lot at Lassen Peak.

Camping and lodging: Sites open for reservations on a daily basis online.

Drakesbad Guest Ranch: This out-of-the-way nook offers a family getaway from all things electronic. There are cabins and camping sites. Drakesbad has a chef who makes very good group meals daily. The hot-spring swimming pool was closed during COVID-19, with no firm opening date yet set.

Summit the volcano: You can hike 2.5 miles to the summit of Mt. Lassen, an exhilarating top-of-the-world type of experience. The switch-back hike is usually relatively easy for seasoned hikers, but it can be challenging for some, given the altitude, and tricky if there is snow is on the trail. Bring hiking poles for stability, especially on snowy sections, and a parka in case of cold winds at the top.


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