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Northern California Road Trip: San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Itinerary

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe

Southern California may be known for its plentiful sunshine, but Northern California is an oasis for adventure enthusiasts. Our Bay Area location is perfectly positioned to give you access to everything Northern California has to offer, from the rugged coastline to the majestic high Sierras. In this Northern California road trip, you’ll travel from the busy streets of San Francisco to the pine-clad shores of Lake Tahoe, with stops along the coast, wine country, and California’s most charming mountain town. 

San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Road Trip 

In this Northern California road trip, you’ll travel from sea to summit, starting in San Francisco with stops in Bolinas, Napa, Truckee, and South Lake Tahoe. Pick up your camper van at Escape Camper Vans in San Francisco to start your journey from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe. 

Travel Time from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe and Back

The total travel time for this Northern California road trip is 9 hours and 49 minutes based on our recommended stops. Actual travel time from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe and back, may vary.

We recommend taking 4-5 days to complete this itinerary. This Northern California road trip covers 493 miles. 

Best Time of Year for a Northern California Road Trip 

While this Northern California road trip was designed as a warm-weather adventure full of hiking, biking, and lake dips, it can quickly be done in the winter and make an excellent ski-season road trip. However, not everyone enjoys the sand between their toes, so if you’re looking for another trip out of San Francisco that skips visiting the California coast, consider this epic Yosemite itinerary

Preparation for a Northern California Road Trip

This adventure takes you from the coast to the mountains, so you must prepare for both.

Gear

Sun Protection: The sun is always a factor in California, especially when you’re in the mountains. Bring ample sun protection, including sun hats, sunglasses, UPF clothing, and plenty of sunscreen.

Layers: This itinerary will take you from the coast to the mountain, where the weather can change without warning. The days can be scorching, but the night temperatures can drop quickly as soon as the sun goes down. We recommend bringing a raincoat/windbreaker and plenty of layers.

Water & Food: A camper van lets you take everything you need on the road. There are plenty of grocery stores along your route from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, but it never hurts to preplan your meals. All Escape Camper Vans come with a kitchenette, so consider adding a kitchen kit to your camper van to plan your meals during your journey.

Campsites

Dispersed camping vs. campsites: A van makes dispersed camping easy. You can disperse camp for free on federal and BLM land. Plenty of apps help you find a dispersed camping site on your route. If you’re considering booking a campsite in a national/state park or a private campsite, make sure you book as far in advance as possible, as many campsites book up to six months in advance. 

Navigation

Phones & Chargers: Navigation is integral to your trip’s success. Make sure you bring a smartphone or GPS device and a charger. Since you can only charge your phone when the camper van runs, we recommend packing one portable charger per person. 

Downloaded Maps:  You never know when you might lose service when exploring. It’s good to have downloaded maps of the region offline, just in case.

Northern California Road Trip Stops

This San Francisco to Lake Tahoe road trip takes you throughout Northern California. You will visit from the shores of the Pacific Ocean and one of Northern California’s most beloved beach communities. Afterward, you will travel to the heart of wine country. Lastly, you will experience the altitude of the Sierra Nevadas to visit the pristine waters of Lake Tahoe.

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Stop 1: Bolinas, California

Bolinas is the ultimate coastal getaway just 27 miles north of the city. This charming beach town has a fun surf break, a lively food scene, and an artsy, bohemian vibe that radiates through the community. There are a handful of camping options around Bolinas in nearby state parks. 

Camping in Bolinas, California 

Steep Ravine Campground: Located just south of Bolinas in Mount Tamalpais State Park, Steep Ravine Campground offers cabins and campsites just a stone’s throw from San Francisco. Each campsite has a picnic table, a fire ring, and access to vault toilets and drinking water. Camping at Steep Ravine gives you access to the secluded Steep Ravine Beach, where you can surf and swim your fill. These campsites fill up fast, so book far in advance. 

Olema Campground: Just over 10 miles up the road from Bolinas, Olema Campground offers visitors 187 campsites in the hills of Northern California. With a mix of tent and RV sites, Olema is a great place to bring your camper van. Each site has a fire pit and a picnic table. The campground offers laundry facilities, clean restrooms, and hot showers. 

Samuel P. Taylor State Park: Samuel P. Taylor State Park is located just 14 miles inland from Bolinas, high in the hills. Camp in the shade of redwoods and watch salmon spawn in the stream. Reservations are highly recommended. The park has 51 campsites in two loops– Orchard Hill and Creek. The campsites have access to flush toilets and drinking water and feature picnic tables and fire rings. 

What to do in Bolinas 

Enjoy the surf: San Francisco’s surf scene is a tight-knit community of hardcore surfers that take on massive waves at Ocean Beach. Bolinas, in contrast, is a tranquil getaway with a few fun surf spots. A local surf school offers lessons and rentals, and rideable waves can be found at Stinson Beach and by the jetty. 

Explore the local art scene: Bolinas is home to a vibrant arts community with studios and galleries featuring contemporary and traditional art, handmade crafts, and jewelry. Bolinas Museum is a great place to start. 

Lounge at Bolinas Beach: Bolinas Beach is a quiet local beach near town. If you are up for an adventure, head to Alamere Creek Beach and see the Alamere cascade that rushes down nearby cliffs to the beach. 

Hit the trail: Bolinas may be a beach town, but there’s still a handful of quality hikes to help you explore the coast. One of our favorites is Bolinas Ridge Trail, which follows a 12-mile ridge line and offers stunning ocean views. Tackle the trail for an over 20-mile coastal there and back, or head a few miles in for a relaxing tour. 

Where to Eat in Bolinas, California

Coast Cafe: Coast Cafe is an adorable local establishment that prioritizes serving locally sourced and fresh-caught ingredients. Coast Cafe leans towards fine dining and is a great spot for date night. 

Smiley’s Saloon: Smiley’s Saloon is the oldest operating saloon on the West Coast. While it’s taken on many forms. It has been an old-fashioned saloon, a prohibition-era barber shop, a bait shop, and a pizza shop, it was returned to its original form in 2020. 

Eleven: Eleven is a charming B&B and restaurant in the heart of Bolinas. They offer a diverse food and cocktail menu and source ingredients locally from neighboring farms.  

Stop 2: Napa Valley, California

Nappa Valley is just an hour and a half northeast of San Francisco and two hours from our first stop in Bolinas. Napa is one of California’s most sought-after destinations. Thanks to the hundreds of hillside vineyards that produce some of the world’s finest wines.

Camping in Napa Valley, California

While Napa Valley is known more for its resorts and pricey bed and breakfasts than its stellar campgrounds. There are a few camping options in nearby state parks that will give you the perfect balance between Napa’s wine scene and the abundant surrounding wilderness.

Bothe Napa Valley State Park: If you want to visit Napa without paying for an over-priced bed and breakfast or fancy resort, head to Bothe Napa Valley. Here you’ll find a spacious campground, cabins, and yurts. With over 50 sites available, each with BBQ grills, fire rings, picnic tables, and restroom/ drinking water access, this Napa Campground has everything you need. Reservations are strongly recommended and can be made here

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park: Located just over 15 minutes from Napa Valley, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park offers 47 family campsites surrounded by dense forest and a bubbling stream. With access to shower facilities, clean restrooms, and drinking water, this Napa campground has everything you need to rest easy in wine country. Reservations are encouraged. 

Skyline Wilderness Park: Located just south of town and Napa Valley, Skyline Wilderness Park has tent and RV sites available by reservation. Campsites are a short walk from showers and flush toilets. 

What to do in Napa Valley

Go Wine Tasting: A trip to Napa Valey isn’t complete without sampling the world-famous wine. Napa is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay varieties, but you may be surprised by the region’s diverse wine offerings. Find a winery that suits your taste, or try something completely new. Wine tastings and vineyard tours are easy to book online

Cycle or Run the Napa Valley Vine Trail: The Napa Valley Vine Trail stretches for 47 miles, providing runners and cyclists a safe and convenient path through the heart of wine country. The Vine Trail offers a scenic journey by some of the region’s best vineyards and eateries, so you may want to stop and sample the local fare. 

Paddle Board in the Nape River: Head to Napa Valley Paddle to rent a paddleboard or kayak and explore the calm waters of the Napa River. The water temperatures in the Napa River range from the low 60s to the 70s, so feel free to jump in!

Where to Eat in Napa Valley 

Auro: If you want an authentic fine dining experience, head to Auro. Auro is located within the Four Seasons Napa Valley Resort. It is a Michelin-stared establishment run by celebrated chef Rogelio Garcia.

La Luna Market & Taqueria: While fine dining seems to be the way to go in Napa, it’s not required. This convenience store/ taco shop serves decadent tacos, quesadillas, and more. 

Oakville Grocery Co: Oakville Grocery Co. is a delightful sandwich shop and deli along Highway 29. This Napa eatery has been in business since 1881 and serves delicious sandwiches, wood-fired pizzas, and coffee. 

Stop 3: Truckee, California

Truckee and South Lake Tahoe are two dueling mountain communities separated by the lake, and they each have their distinct charms. While South Lake Tahoe and Truckee offer similar mountain and lake access, the two communities are as different as night and day. Located in North Lake Tahoe, Truckee is a more laid-mountain town compared to its sister town across the lake. While there are places to stay all around the lake, staying in Truckee and South Lake Tahoe will give you access to the areas north and south of the lake and provide contrasting town experiences. 

Camping in Truckee, California 

Truckee has dozens of camping options, from the Tahoe National Forest to commercial RV parks and everything in between. Pick a campsite along the river for unfettered access to the state’s best fly fishing while still having convenient access to the town’s best bars and restaurants. Summer is the perfect time to camp in Truckee unless you’re here to ski. 

Silver Creek Truckee Campground: Located on the Truckee River in the Tahoe National Forest, Silver Creek is the perfect campground for anglers and hikers. Silver Creek offers easy access to Lake Tahoe and the Olympic Valley, as well as well as vault toilets, campfire rings, drinking water, and food storage. 

Donner Memorial State Park: Located just 2.5 miles from town, Donner Memorial State Park offers 154 campsites with picnic tables and restroom access. This campground is open from Memorial Day to Labour Day and gives visitors access to the beach, fishing, and the lakeside interpretive trail. 

Goose Meadow Campground: Tucked between the Truckee River and Highway 89, Goose Meadow Campground is just five miles south of Truckee. The forests shade most campsites, and all are a short walking distance from the river. Each campsite has a picnic table, fire ring, grill, and food storage. Visitors to Goose Meadow have easy access to mountain bikes, hiking trails, and fishing in the nearby river. 

Tahoe Donner Campground: The Tahoe Donner Campground is open from early summer through late fall and near many of the most popular hiking trails. With RV hookups, tent sites, and large group sites, this Tahoe campground has everything you need to feel at home in Truckee. You can even take your dog. Make your reservations here

What to do in Truckee, California

Hit the slopes: If you’re visiting Truckee in the winter, you’ll have your pick of 7 world-class ski resorts within 15-45 minutes from Truckee. Skiers won’t be disappointed with an average annual snowfall of 500 inches per year. Tahoe is Caliofrnia’s premier ski destination, known for its deep powder and picturesque bluebird days. 

Go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing: Beyond alpine skiing, Truckee visitors can access nearby Nordic areas for XC skiing and snowshoeing. Head to Royal Gorge, North America’s largest cross-country ski resort, to explore pristine Nordic trails deep in the Tahoe wilderness. 

Flyfish in the Truckee River: Every summer, anglers flock to the Truckee River to fish in the rushing waters. The Truckee River will deliver if you’re an experienced angler or new to fly fishing. Head to Truckee Creek Outfitters for guiding information, fishing gear, and more. 

Hike the China Cove Loop at Donner Lake: Hit the trail and hike the China Cove Loop for surreal views of the Sierras and Donner Lake. Park at the Donner Lake visitor center and walk west to the lake. Cross the bridge and begin the loop. This easy hike covers 3.1 miles with little elevation change. 

Hike the Mt. Judah Loop Trail: Take a section of the Pacific Coast Trail and hike the Mt. Judah Leep. This 5.5-mile trek rises 1700 feet above Donner Lake, offering panoramic views of the lake and the surrounding mountains. Budget 4-5 hours for the hike and pack plenty of water. 

Where to Eat in Truckee, California

1882 Bar & Grill: Located within the Historic River Street Inn, 1882 Bar & Grill offers a full bar and hearty menu of BBQ-style dishes made from their authentic Texas Smoker. If you’re looking for a filling dinner after a day in the mountains, head to 1882. 

Donner Lake Kitchen: The Donner Lake Kitchen has operated since the mid-1970s, making it one of the oldest establishments in Truckee. They serve breakfast/brunch with a menu featuring classic dinner fare. You can’t go wrong with their huevos rancheros or pancakes. 

Fifty Fifty Brewing Co: No mountain town is complete without its signature craft brewery. For Truckee, it’s Fifty Fifty Brewing Co. Enjoy a burger and a cold beer in a casual setting after an adventure-packed day. 

Great Gold: Great Gold is a contemporary take on classic Italian American Cuisine. Focusing on seasonal ingredients, Great Gold bridges the gap between old and new-school Italian. Chef Brandon Kirksey is renowned for his handmade pasta, but their pizzas are also must-try. Reservations are encouraged. 

Stop 4: South Lake Tahoe, California

Perched high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, straddling the California-Nevada border, Lake Tahoe has long been Northern California’s go-to mountain getaway. Lake Tahoe is a summer destination for boating, watersports, and lazy lake days. However, the action doesn’t stop in the winter, with 14 ski resorts nearby. Regardless of how you want to spend your Tahoe time, on the lake or high in the mountains, is up to you. With hiking, biking, climbing, paddling, and more in the summer and skiing in the winter, Lake Tahoe is Northern California’s year-round adventure capital. 

Camping in South Lake Tahoe

Camp Richardson Resort Campground: Camp Richardson Resort offers cabin rentals and reservable RV and tent sites on the shores of South Lake Tahoe. Enjoy the amenities of the resort for the price of your campsite. You’ll have access to the RV village and tent sites with your camper van. This Tahoe campground offers modern restroom facilities, and campsites each have a bear-proof box, picnic table, and fire pit. 

Emerald Bay State Park: Emerald Bay State Park is located on Lake Tahoe’s southwestern shore and has drive-in, hike-in, and boat-in campsites. In your van, your best bet is Upper Eagle Point Campground, accessible by car. Each site has a bear box, picnic tables, a fire ring, and a grill. Campers also have access to modern restroom facilities. 

Fallen Leaf Campground: Located on the north shore of Fallen Leaf Lake, just a mile south of Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Campground offers 206 campsites open from mid-May to mid-October. Fallen Leaf is a less crowded and lesser-known destination. Still, reservations are required and fill quickly. Each campsite has a bear-proof food storage locker, a campfire ring, a pedestal grill, and a picnic table. Potable water, restroom facilities, and coin-operated showers are available onsite. 

Nevada Beach Campground: Located on the southeastern shore of Lake Tahoe across the Nevada border, Nevada Beach Campground is nested into the pine forest just above Nevada Beach’s sand shores. The campsite offers dozens of campsites for tent and RV camping. Each site has a picnic table, fire ring, and grill. Flush toilets and drinking water are available onsite. 

What to do in South Lake Tahoe

Paddleboard on Lake Tahoe: Lake Tahoe is one of the most scenic paddleboard destinations in the country. With the mountains looming overhead and crystal clear water below, paddleboarding on Lake Tahoe is as good as possible. Zephyr Cove and Emerald Bay are two great spots in Lake Tahoe for paddle boarding. Both locations offer rentals during the summer.

Take a dip in Lake Tahoe: Nothing beats swimming in Lake Tahoe on a hot summer day. While many think the water is too cold. On a hot day, it’s just right. However, the lake is very deep and cold, so stick to the shallow coves where the water is calm. 

Hit the slopes: If you’re visiting in the winter, you’ll have easy access to some of the best skiing on the West Coast. Heavenly Ski Resort, located in South Lake Tahoe, is the only place you can ski from California to Nevada. Just 1.5 hours south, you’ll find Kirkwood, a local favorite. Lake Tahoe has the country’s highest concentration of ski resorts and receives 300 days of sunshine a year. Additionally, add 500 inches of average annual snowfall to the mix, and Lake Tahoe makes a good case for one of the best ski destinations in the world. 

Hike the famous Rubicon Trail: The Rubicon Trail is a well-known and heavily trafficked 16.4-mile out-and-back hike in South Lake Tahoe. The trail is popular for day hikes, backpacking, and trail running. The trail stretches from the Vikingsholm Estate and D.L. Bliss State Park to the north and can be hiked in either direction. 

Places to Eat in South Lake Tahoe

The Divided Sky: If dinner, drinks, and a show sounds good, head to The Divided Sky, a beloved local bar with great food and live music. The Divided Sky is out of the way, just outside town in Meyers, but it’s worth the trip. The menu features standard bar fare, but everything is made from scratch, and locally sourced ingredients are a high priority. 

The Burger Lounge: The Burger Lounge is a South Lake Tahoe community staple. You can’t miss it if you’re driving on Highway 89– a giant sign with a burger and root beer mug is out front. The Burger Lounge offers 16 decadent burgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, salads, and delicious milkshakes. 

South Lake Brewing Co: With dozens of breweries to choose from, beer lovers in Lake Tahoe may be a bit overwhelmed. South Lake Brewing Co. may be one of the newer breweries in town, but they are a must-visit spot for beer lovers. They brew all their beer onsite and offer a relaxed, community-centered atmosphere. With a front patio, a large beer garden, and an indoor tasting room, there’s room for you and your whole crew. South Lake Brewing Co. hosts various food trucks, from pizza to tacos and tapas.

Bert’s Café: Bert’s Cafe has served the South Lake Tahoe community since 1966. Bert’s is an old-school diner that serves a wide selection of classic breakfast and lunch dishes in a timeless setting. 

Why Rent a Camper Van for a San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Road Trip

The perfect blend of mobility and comfort: A camper van gives you an ideal mix of mobility and comfort and allows you to enjoy every aspect of Lake Tahoe. Comparatively, traveling in an RV means you’re limited on where to park and stay. A camper van offers the best of both worlds–camping made comfortable and easy meals on the go. 

Easy to drive: Unlike giant RVs, camper vans drive just like standard cars, fit into regular parking spots, and are easy to use both in nature and in the city. Hence, camper vans are unrivaled when it comes to dispersed camping. They make accessing remote campsites and trails high in the mountains and exploring towns a breeze. 

Flexible Camping: Since camper vans don’t require electrical or sewer hookups, you can camp in tent-designated campsites and remote dispersed sites.  

Convenient and fun: With dozens of add-ons and several spacious models, our camper vans make spending the night in nature easy and enjoyable. Consequently, you can pack everything you need for a multi-day and multi-activity adventure in your van. No more wasting time setting up a tent or looking for RV-designated camping/ parking. 

Easy set up: Skip wrangling with unruly tent poles late at night. Just unfold your bed (or pop it up), and you are good to go! Thus, traveling in a camper van means more time exploring and less time dealing with complicated hookups and easy packing. 

Reserve with Escape Camper Vans for Your Northern California Road Trip

A camper van is the ultimate adventure vehicle for exploring Northern California and the ideal way to explore California from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe. The combination of mobility and comfort is unmatched by any other form of camping. Don’t waste time unpacking and pitching a tent when you have everything you need to camp inside your van. Unlike RVs, camper vans allow you to camp in tent sites, park like a standard vehicle, and drive safely and comfortably up and down mountain roads. Pick up your camper van at Escape Camper Vans in San Francisco to start your San Francisco to Lake Tahoe road trip. 

Explore Northern California!

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