Beautiful things to see and trees to hug
September 8, 2016 11:17 AM   Subscribe

I’m in DC, and going to San Francisco for a half marathon in early December. What National Parks and beautiful, nature-y things can I see out West that time of year, and how do I get to them?

Apologies if this sounds like a loaded question as I’m much less familiar with navigating the Western US rather than Eastern, and I know weather is a tricky thing that time of year.

Here’s what I’m working with:
- I have about a week (probably Wednesday-Wednesday)
- I’d like to be in SF for 3-4 days or so
- Don't have a plane ticket yet - a stopover on the way/way back is fine
- Ideally I wouldn’t have to drive myself - I can drive, but I'd be by myself and in unknown territory (and weather conditions?) so would rather not

I’d LOVE to see the Sequoias, though I don't know how feasible it is from SF (and planning how to get there, where to stay) in early December. I want to go to Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, see all the things, do all the things, but I know it's not possible. I would love any and all realistic suggestions on seeing some incredible natural beauty.
posted by raztaj to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Armstrong woods is one of the easiest places to get get to from SF to see cool big trees.
It tends to be swarmed with tourists for that same reason, so unless you go early on a weekday morning, you will likely not get a serene/natural experience. But it is awesome, and popular for a reason, so it's a good place to start thinking about.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:54 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Maybe other people have different experiences but I don't know of a non-exhausting, relaxed way to get to the National Parks you list and back in the 3 days in December without renting a car (and you'd probably want an SUV that time of year.) Its just a short amount of time, too, regardless of the time of year.

If your are thinking beauty, focus on the water, the Bay and Ocean. You could visit coastal towns south of the Bay, like Santa Cruz, Capitola, Monterey. You can take the Caltrain and get there in about 3 hours (to Santa Cruz anyway) and probably there are tour buses you could look up, too.

Also, you can get to Muir Woods north of SF very easily by bus its a beautiful place.
posted by RajahKing at 12:12 PM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

A tiny tree primer: California has two species of notable trees that both can be commonly called "sequioas." Sequoia sempervirans is also called the coast redwood. These are the tallest trees in the world, and they're native to the Northern California coast, stretching from Big Sur all the way up to the Oregon border. Sequoiadendron gigantum, also known as giant sequoias, grow on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range that runs down the eastern edge of the state. They are the largest species of tree on earth by volume.

They are both richly worth hugging! The former species is going to be a lot, lot easier to hug for you on your trip, and the one I recommend going for. (The Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias at Yosemite is closed until spring 2017, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park is kind of a pain to get to even in summer; I would not go by myself in winter.)

Muir Woods is a very fine spot to see old-growth (600- to 800-year-old) coast redwoods, especially on a weekday morning in early December. The terrible crowding happens mostly on weekends and during the summer and fall. There are definitely organized tours; you can also get there by public transit, but it involves switching buses, I think. (I have not done it myself.)

There are some others: Armstrong Redwoods up north is very nice. And the coast along Highway 1 running from San Francisco to Santa Cruz has spectacular views and some nice places to dip into redwoods (most of them are not old-growth, but they're still pretty darn big trees.) That would require a car, though.

So, honestly, if I were you, I think I would stay based in San Francisco the whole time, and if you like do day trips to:
- Muir Woods
- Lands End, a spectacular bit of coast that's actually still in San Francisco
- Golden Gate Park, a remarkable urban park with a lot of interesting wilderness. I love the Conservatory of Flowers and San Francisco Botanic Garden, but I am a plant dork. The Academy of Sciences and de Young are also fine museums in the park itself.
- Maybe a whale-watching trip. The gray whales should be in full force then, and the trip out past the Golden Gate Bridge is unforgettable. My favorite tour unfortunately is only out of Half Moon Bay in December. (Unless you get seasick, in which case it is a nightmare and disregard.)

San Francisco, for a city, has a lot of spectacular natural beauty. The whole northwestern edge is rugged and gorgeous and worth walking around the coast: The Marina, Crissy Field, Ocean Beach are some names to get you started. Even on the northeastern edge of the city: My family walked around the Embarcadero area near the Ferry Building last weekend and were just knocked out by San Francisco, as we always are.

If you wanted to stay in a second location, I'd suggest either going south to Santa Cruz, which has a nice collegiate-hippie seaside vibe (I think the easiest non-driving way to do this may be to take BART to the airport, SFO, and then an airport shuttle to Santa Cruz) or head north. Even going to Sausalito, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge — especially if you stay someplace somewhat splurgy like Cavallo Point or Inn Above Tide — will feel sufficiently different from San Francisco proper that it might be worth it. (But it will still be possible to get to and from SFO without tearing out your hair.)

The weather in San Francisco and environs is likely to be cool (lows in the 40s, highs in the 50s) and misty. If you decide you want to drive out to Yosemite, I think that in most years you'd be fine from a snow perspective, although I do not make the weather myself, so no guarantees of course.
posted by purpleclover at 12:58 PM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I know you don't want to drive but I'd suck it up fly into SF then drive to Yosemite. You're pretty much going to have to drive if you want to maximize your time. Weather wont' be much of a problem that time of year (ergo having a Marathon in early Dec)

Alternatively I'd head south to Big Basin, Santa Cruz (both beach and woods) and Monteray which can be beautiful even in the rain.
posted by bitdamaged at 1:11 PM on September 8, 2016

if i was to be in that neck of the woods i would do everything in my power to get out to point reyes
posted by lescour at 2:03 PM on September 8, 2016

Except for (possibly) Muir Woods, you're almost certainly going to have to drive. The worst weather you're likely to encounter is rain, and it's unlikely to rain for the whole week, so if it's possible, I would be flexible. If you know it will be dry for a couple of days, go then. Your choices for National Parks in the area are:

* Golden Gate National Recreation Area (20 minutes, and partially in San Francisco) - Encompasses a huge area. The Marin Headlands are a good bet here, especially for the postcard view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
* Muir Woods (~45 minutes and maybe 20 miles from San Francisco). Famous for coastal redwoods in its foggy forest. Definitely do this.
* Mount Tamalpais (~60 minutes) - This is a State park, not a National Park, but the Dipsea Trail is just spectacular. Mount Tam is just past Muir Woods. The view from the peak is excellent, and there's forested hiking all over the mountain.
* Point Reyes National Seashore (1 hour 20 minutes) - Fantastic lighthouse and views of the ocean and craggy Northern California shoreline. There's a waterfall that drops onto a beach here, though access isn't easy. You might see elephant seals here. You can get fresh, right out of the water oysters along Tomales Bay right nearby.
You could easily do the above four parks as a multiday (or multiple single day) side trip.

* Pinnacles - (~2 hours 30 minutes) - Spectacular rock formations, a bat cave, another cave you climb down into and through, and if you're lucky, you'll see a California Condor.
* Yosemite - (3 hours 30 minutes) - Obviously world famous. This is the most spectacular of your choices. Highly recommended. Will be very quiet in December. Snow is possible at its 4,000 feet elevation, but not common. I wouldn't worry about having AWD or 4WD unless you're specifically going in the snow. You can see the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias here, but be aware that the elevation is significantly higher, so there might be snow at that elevation (and in the grove).

Yellowstone is too far to drive from San Francisco (~15 hours). There are also a number of State parks south of San Francisco (1 hour 15 minutes) that have lovely forests (Big Basin, Castle Rock, etc.) Views from Mount Diablo (1 hour 15 minutes) in the East Bay are pretty great as well.
posted by cnc at 2:21 PM on September 8, 2016

Things out here are far apart, and a car is really the easiest way to see the more nature-y bits, especially the national park bits, so you don't have to spend all your time figuring out bus routes and being restricted by bus schedules and then still possibly finding yourself some miles from the things you actually want to get to.

When you said Yellowstone I assume you meant Yosemite? Even with its higher elevation, it's unlikely to be snowy in December, especially in the valley. It is spectacular and you should rent a car to get there and get around once you're there.

Ordinarily I'd say drive south to Big Sur and see the redwoods there, especially in Pfeiffer state park, but things there are currently on fire (49 days, 60% contained, 100K+ acres burned) and it's not clear what things will look like in a few months. Probably not as beautiful as they did 50 days ago.

Pinnacles is amazing and December is an excellent time of year to go as it's much cooler then, and you can maybe see California condors! And yes yes to Point Reyes.
posted by rtha at 5:58 PM on September 8, 2016

I really recommend focusing on the Bay Area. Give yourself the chance to really experience what is there at hand. You may be surprised where weather is concerned - the ocean currents along the Northern California coast generally warm up during winter and spring, making the winter weather milder than you would expect. Remember Mark Twain's remark, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."

I grew up in Sonoma County and lived for almost 20 years in the east bay. I spent a lot of time in San Francisco.

Fort Point was built during the civil war and the Golden Gate bridge was built over it, necessitating an arch on the SF end of the bridge. The views from there are fabulous. I spent a night there with my daughter's class on an environmental field trip. It was the damned dampest place I have ever been, including Atlanta and Tampa. Imagine a wet sleeping bag....

Golden Gate Park has been one of my favorite places for 50 years. There are so many things to do there. The California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden...

East.Across the bay, Briones Regional Park is an underappreciated wilderness jewel straddling the hills across Alameda and Contra Costa counties. You can get there via public transit. Also, Mount Diablo is amazing.

South. The peninsula - between San Francisco and San Jose has some surprises nature-wise. More than 25% of the peninsula is undeveloped - nature preserves and parkland, etc. A couple of highlights include watching the sunset from Russian Ridge, and the redwood groves in Sam McDonald Park, an alternative to Muir Woods. Lots of public transit.

North. I would recommend Humboldt Redwoods State Park if you want a beautiful drive with an overnight stay. I love the Benbow Inn near Garberville, and there are lots of other choices. Also, Jack London's Wolf House near Glen Ellen is a great one-day trip with a car.

As far as non-nature things to do, my two favorite things in San Francisco are the Exploratorium and the Musee Mechanique. Eclectic, my tastes.

So that's my two cents worth.
posted by Altomentis at 8:11 PM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

When I was in SF for a weekend layover in February, I joined a single day mini-bus tour to Yosemite. It was much too short, but still worth it. I am sure you could negotiate with the tour company to drive you there one day and pick you up a few days later. Getting to the giant sequoias would still be a challenge, but they're worth it. The coastal redwoods are impressive but the giant sequoias are far beyond that.
posted by Akke at 11:48 PM on September 8, 2016

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