The Ultimate San Francisco to Bend Road Trip for Hikers

If you love hiking, and like a lot of people in the US right now, are craving some sunshine and Vitamin D, it’s easy to dream about trips to take in the coming months. I thought the trip I did with Mama Boots in 2019 was a perfect recommendation!

We started in San Francisco, having been in town for a charity event. We flew in, but then rented a car from the airport to make our way home. Depending on how much of San Francisco you’ve already seen, a stop at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with view of the famous Golden Gate bridge, is a wonderful NPS site to start your trip from. Muir Woods National Monument is another NPS site that’s just minutes from San Francisco, with six miles of trails and your first taste of redwoods. Muir Woods has a reservation system in place for those wanting to park there, but there is also a seasonal shuttle that can bring people to the park as well. I advise against ‘winging’ this visit–Know Before You Go.

Do not forget your binoculars here!

If short on time though, I highly recommend pressing onward to Point Reyes National Seashore, about an hour (give or take, with traffic) from San Francisco. This stunning NPS site has day hikes and backpacking treks aplenty, from multiple visitor centers and trailheads. Wildlife abounds here, including elephant seals, elk, and even whale watching. If short on time, do not miss the elephant seal overlook and Chimney Rock trails, and pound your quads with the 313 steps to get down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. The 13 mile trek to Alamere Falls is on my bucket list, but for those wanting something more low-key, don’t forget to get a shot of the Historic KPH Station and Tree Tunnel for the ‘gram.

The famous KPH Station and Tree Tunnel.

Both Muir Woods and Point Reyes can be finnicky with cell service, so be sure to have plenty of maps saved offline, and podcasts downloaded for the car ride. Point Reyes is also limited on services, so be sure to have snacks and a full gas tank before exploring too far from towns. While part of the allure of a road trip can be going where the road takes you, I’d again caution to plan ahead a bit, as both areas can have seasonal closures or permitting roadblocks for hikes, parking, or backcountry camping. I’d recommend one night, if not two, in the Point Reyes area.

A half flight at Russian River (plus one for good luck).

The town of Point Reyes Station is a nice place to stop for a meal or snack on your way further north. It’s up to you if you stay on coastal Highway 1 or go a little eastward to Highway 101 for your next step. However, in 2019 we stuck with the 101, which would take us to my beer mecca, Russian River Brewing Company. Along the way to Santa Rosa, there’s tons of famous California breweries to hit, including the original Lagunitas in Petaluma, Bear Republic in Rohnert Park, and, of course, Russian River, home of Pliny the Elder. Santa Rosa also is home of the Charles Schulz Museum–the author of the Peanuts comic strip. This is also Wine Country, too!

We actually went to Russian River’s second, newer, larger location. Still tons of great beer and merch, and incredible food as well. I was pretty grateful to have a designated driver for the next portion on our trip! The next leg is maybe the longest stretch in a car, a solid three hours, until you reach the true beginning of prime redwood country. The Avenue of the Giants takes you off the 101 and into areas that have been working ton conserve these behemoths since the early 1900s. Stops here can vary from the tourist traps (pay $8 to drive your car through a hollowed-out tree!) to some really stunning hikes. Like Point Reyes and Muir Woods, this area can have spotty service, so again, planning and having offline maps ready will be a lifesaver.

I only did one hike here with our time constraints, but we both regret this and really had to tear ourselves away before night fell. If I went back, I’d definitely allow more time in the area to do multiple hikes. We went with the Drury-Chaney Loop for 2.4 miles of feeling Lilliputian, but there are tons more to do and see. The Grieg-French-Bell Grove and Chandler Grove are two other quick hikes on the avenue.

The June (2019) taplist at Eel River.

From the Avenue of the Giants, you’d be remiss to miss Eel River Brewing Company in Fortuna. The first certified organic brewery in the US, I became a fan of them when trying their Acai berry wheat ale. The brewery is close enough to the north end of the Avenue of the Giants that if you are staying near Fortuna for hikes, you can even have multiple visits! For our visit, we stayed just 20 minutes further north from Fortuna in Eurkea, home of another awesome brewery, Lost Coast Brewery.

The “Big Tree” of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. There are a lot of big trees, but only a few special “Big Trees” that get named.

From Lost Coast, it’s another hour to get to the southern-most part of Redwood National and State Parks. Like Everglades or Saguaro National Park, Redwood is actually multiple separate areas that “make up” the park, with multiple visitor centers, like the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, to help you figure out some stops and potential trails (if coming from the north, your first visitor center would be at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in Hiouchi). We choose trails in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park area, but again, with more time (maybe an overnight stay at Crescent City?) we’d have loved to have done more, like coastal hikes at Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park or Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, aka the Moon of Endor from Star Wars.

I’m not just advising being leisurely through Redwood State and National Parks as a hiking afficiando, but you’re about to have another slog of a drive after, so better to stretch those legs! Between Hiouchi and Crater Lake there definitely are some sights, but it’s hard to compete with redwood forests and the sapphire-blue Crater Lake, so we continued onward.

Crater Lake offers easy hikes and more challenging hikes, but plenty to see for those even on a brief visit. It is worth a pitstop if even remotely in the area to see the lake. If planning a trip for spring, double-check conditions, as the snow causes some road and visitor center closures (and the snow will stick around through spring!).

Even with smoky skies, this was my favorite hike in the park.

With 2-3 hours between the southern end of Crater Lake and Bend, this can be a very long day. We got into Bend well past nightfall, but had multiple nights to see town. South of Bend is the stunning Newberry National Volcanic Monument, with tons of hiking options, but also the High Desert Museum, which enthralled Mama Boots. Then, of course in Bend there’s the Bend Ale Trail, and even more trails to the north, like Riley Ranch Nature Reserve and the mighty-but-punishing Misery Ridge at Smith Rock State Park. With each visit to Bend, I find more to do, there is no shortage of hikes and outdoor activities.

While of course, for those in the PNW, a trip from Seattle to Bend might be more fun,  I loved seeing the different flora and fauna as we drove not just from south to north, but eastward as well. It was so many new places for me to see, critters to watch, and trails to hit. If you ever get a chance to take a trek from San Francisco to Bend by car, do it! Just make sure to have a designated driver if brewery-hopping.

What’s your favorite hiking road trip?

Leave a Reply