Summer may be over, but adventure is still in the air. And when you need a break from the daily grind, the call to hit the road, commune with nature, and drift wherever the wind may take you can be strong.

But what if you’re low on vacation days or spare cash? With no budget for a hotel or extra days to meander the backroads, making a getaway can seem impossible. The good news is you can make the most of your weekend with a car, a playlist, and a tank of gas. Whatever your heart’s desire, there’s a pocket-sized version that should do the trick.

So this week, we’ll be dedicating all our postings to the best day trips around.  And we’ll start with a spot that’s near and dear to us: our headquarters, San Francisco. Here are 5 Bay Area day trips to make your weekend feel more like a vacation.

1. You’re craving: An escape into the wild
Try: Muir Woods

City life is grand, but now and then, the soul needs a little wilderness. So thought famed naturalist and conservationist John Muir, namesake of Muir Woods, who played an early and pivotal role in establishing our national parks. Tucked into the hills just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods is best known for its most august residents: the redwoods that have been growing there for centuries, reaching staggering heights of hundreds of feet.

When you’re exploring the 6 miles of trails, you can either stick to the wheelchair- and stroller-friendly paved paths or venture onto steeper dirt trails on the canyon walls. Check in advance and you might even get to go on a guided tour.

Whether you opt for a guide or to get delightfully lost on your own, you’re sure to emerge from Muir Woods with lungs full of fresh air and a heart full of courage, ready to face the urban jungle once again.

2. You’re craving: A peek into a haunted house
Try: Winchester Mystery House

The story of the Winchester House begins, like many a haunting story, with tragedy. The beautiful and accomplished Sarah Winchester, who had married into the Winchester rifle fortune, lost her infant daughter to a then-mysterious illness and her husband a decade and a half later to consumption.

Heartbroken by her losses, Sarah consulted a spiritualist, who told her that her misfortunes rooted from the unhappy souls of those killed by Winchester rifles during the Civil War and westward march of the nineteenth century. She could only outrun the curse by moving west herself and building a great house — one that could never be finished — to placate the restless spirits. Sarah settled down near San Jose and hired builders to work around the clock … for 40 years straight.

Though it’s now next to a shopping mall, don’t be fooled by the suburban surroundings. Mrs. Winchester’s house is unique, packed with bizarre features like stairways leading nowhere and doors that open onto 2 story drops.

Take care: legend has it that among the spirits that now haunt the Winchester house is Sarah Winchester herself.

3. You’re craving: A stroll on the pier
Try: Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Ah, the boardwalk. Salt water taffy, stretching sands, the tilt-a-whirl: what could be better? If you can’t get to Coney Island or the Santa Monica Pier, never fear — your beachside dreams are closer than you think (even in the fall!).

Hop on beautiful Highway 1, which hugs the Pacific coastline. Santa Cruz is about an hour and a half away in light traffic, but the drive is half the fun.

Once you’re there, the paths are many. In for nostalgia? Ride the historic carousel, which dates back over 100 years, or the wooden coaster, a crowd favorite since 1924. Follow that up with a round of pirate-themed mini golf. And, of course, don’t forget the fair treats: cotton candy and fried cheesecake await the brave of stomach.

Enjoy as the sun goes down and the lights sparkle on the boardwalk. An American classic.

4. You’re craving: A journey through the countryside
Try: A family farm tour

If the prospect of fresh produce and grazing stock cheers your heart, venture an hour or 2 north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where family farms abound. Just choose your favorite variety of livestock — goats, cows, or sheep — and get ready to make some friends.

Enjoy fields of cows? Try McClelland’s Dairy. Make a reservation for a tour and the good folks there will be happy to show you around, let you pet the babies, and even give you the chance to try your hand at milking a cow yourself.

Goats and sheep more your style? Opt for the farm tour at Toluma Farms, which also includes a creamery tour and cheese tasting.

As a bonus, many local farms play host to pumpkin patches in October, giving visitors plenty of opportunities to enjoy hayrides and corn mazes.

5. You’re craving: A trip to the stars
Try: Robert Ferguson Observatory

Humanity has always been entranced by the night sky. Sadly, light pollution is taking that pleasure away from city-dwellers across the world. In fact, new research suggests that roughly 80 percent of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way. To commune with the cosmos, you’ll have to get creative.

If you’re short on gas and favor education over observation, you can get your celestial fix in the daytime at Chabot Space Center in Oakland, featuring planetarium shows and interactive exhibits (moon-landing simulation, anyone?). But if you want to see the stars for yourself in clearer skies, make the trek out to Robert Ferguson Observatory, located in Sugarloaf Park in Sonoma County. One weekend a month, they throw “Star Parties” for the public. Gaze through their state-of-the-art telescopes, venture outside, and take in some docent lectures to help you navigate the visible universe.

No matter where you’re going, make sure you’re well prepped for the journey. Snacks? Check. Phone charger? Check. Dependable car insurance? Check off that box the smart way with Esurance — and put the money you could save toward your next adventure.

Travel hacks | Destinations


about Lauren

A recovering English professor, repatriated expat and startup geek, Lauren speaks several languages, including Spanish, French, Academese, and Tech Lite. When she isn’t writing for Esurance, you might find her reading, marathoning Netflix, or gathering data to decide which San Francisco museums host the best nightlife events. She has a complicated relationship with the Oxford comma.