Here’s an idea for a weekend trip from San Francisco that my daughter and I enjoyed very much. We really skimmed the surface of each place where we stopped; you could easily make it a week-long trip. Nevertheless, it felt like a real San Francisco getaway road-trip: the freedom to travel where we wanted, stopping whenever we felt like it, and the enjoyment of experiencing new places.
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Day 1: Sacramento and into the Sierras
You’ve probably seen it in dozens of cowboy films: a main street lined with wooden buildings, fronted by a wooden sidewalk shaded by a roof. The storefronts say “Bank” or “General Merchandise” in formal, old-fashioned lettering. Cowboys stumble out through the swinging doors of the saloon. Women of ill repute beckon from a balcony…
You get the idea. Our first stop was a place just like this – minus the prostitutes or drunken cowboys. An eight-block section of Sacramento, California’s capital, has been restored to look as it did at the height of the mid-19th-century Gold Rush, when it was a starting point for many gold prospectors on their way into the mountains. They would arrive by boat in San Francisco, then make the relatively easy trip to Sacramento, where they’d stock up on whatever equipment they needed for prospecting. Then they’d set off into the hills to seek their fortunes.
My daughter and I were on our way to visit friends in the Sierra mountains when we stopped in Sacramento. Nowadays it’s mostly gift and sweet shops for tourists, but we enjoyed a stroll along the wooden sidewalks to soak in the old-West atmosphere.
We couldn’t stay long, but if you had the time, it would be worth going inside of some of the historic buildings. The Old Sacramento Schoolhouse is a replica of a one-room schoolhouse. Huntington & Hopkins Hardware is a museum that recreates a shop from the Gold Rush era. And the B.F. Hastings Building was the end-point of the short-lived Pony Express route that connected California to Missouri.
Sacramento has lots of museums to suit a wide range of interests:
- The Sacramento History Museum: right in Old Sacramento
- California State Railroad Museum
- Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum: African American art museum
- Crocker Art Museum
- California Automobile Museum
- California Museum: the state history museum
- State Indian Museum Historic Park: about present and past indigenous cultures in California
- Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park: an elegant 1856 mansion
- Don & June Salvatori California Pharmacy Museum
- SMUD Museum of Science and Curiosity: a brand-new science museum opening late 2021.
Our next stop was Placerville, further up in the foothills of the Sierra. A historic gold-mining town, Placerville is scruffier-looking than Old Sacramento, but distinctly more authentic, in that the shops cater to locals as well as tourists.
Our friends pointed out Placerville Hardware store, for example, which is crammed with just about anything you could name. “If you can’t find what you’re looking for,” I was told, “just ask. Chances are they’ll have it.” And it was true!
There are lots of specialty food stores too: a foodie heaven. We visited Dedrick’s Cheese, which offers a delicious selection of cheeses and other gourmet food items. I’ve never seen an olive oil store before, but there was one: at Winterhill I could even taste a range of their flavored oils. There are many more specialty shops we just glimpsed as we shopped for dinner provisions.
Placerville has two historical museums:
- El Dorado County Historical Museum covers the county’s history, which inevitably means more about the Gold Rush.
- Fountain & Tallman Museum, a.k.a. Placerville Historical Museum, is housed in an 1852 stone soda works building.
If you’re going to stay in the Placerville area, use the map below to find accommodations:
Day 2: Lake Tahoe
We spent the night with our friends who live outside of Placerville. In the morning we headed over to Lake Tahoe for a quick visit, but the fact is that even spending a full day would only mean scratching the surface of the Lake Tahoe area.
The drive through the mountains is absolutely gorgeous, though if you’re the driver, as I was, you won’t see much of it unless you stop often. The road twists and turns and demands constant alertness. When you can, stop to admire the spectacular views over the lake, but please, only stop where there’s a place to pull off the road!
Tahoe is simply gorgeous: a lake surrounded by mountains, already snow-topped in mid-November. Many Californians come here to ski, and we saw plenty of skiers clumping along in their ski boots, carrying skis on their shoulders, on their way to the lifts up the mountain. The most famous ski resorts at Tahoe are Squaw Valley and Heavenly Mountain.
If you visit in the summer, there’ll be plenty of outdoor activities to choose from: boating, swimming, golf, and so on. In the winter it’s mostly about skiing. In spring and fall, I’d recommend taking a hike on one of the many trails in the area. Really it has so many beautiful things to see – beaches, mountains, waterfalls, views – you could stay a week and not have enjoyed all that the Lake has to offer.
Where to stay at Lake Tahoe
We didn’t stay this time, though I’ve stayed there in the past – in fact, my husband and I got married at Tahoe. That was also a weekend trip from San Francisco, where we lived at the time, and we couldn’t afford anything but a quicky Nevada wedding (with a total of four guests!) and a weekend in a bed & breakfast.
Where you stay, in my view, has to do with whether you like to gamble or not. If you like to gamble, stay on the Nevada side. Otherwise, avoid the noise and glitz by staying on the California side.
To book your accommodation, zoom into the map below: west shore for California, east shore for Nevada.
Heading home from our weekend trip
It took a few hours for us to get back to San Francisco, and we took a different route, south of Sacramento. We stopped at the quirky Red Apple Bakery and Fruit Stand outside of Murphys, California, for some quintessential homemade pie on the way, as well as a couple of farm stands to stock up on gorgeous fresh fruit.
We were only away overnight, yet we enjoyed this quick weekend trip from San Francisco and our glimpse of the other side of the state, if only for the lovely fall scenery along the way. Take my advice and make it a longer trip to get a more complete road-trip experience.
Do you have any special short trips that you would recommend from where you live? Add a comment below!
Updated June 2021.