Think of Sacramento as a nucleus of sorts: Within an hour and a half of the state Capitol, you can ski Lake Tahoe peaks, sip wine in the Napa Valley, explore Gold Rush-era towns – and be back in Sac in time for happy hour. Here are five of our favourite day trip destinations for any time of year.
For a close-to-home change of pace, Sacramentans head east on Highway 50 to the Apple Hill region near the historic town of Placerville, 45 minutes away. Apple Hill is home to more than 50 open-to-the-public farms, farm-stands and wineries, all tucked into the rolling Sierra Nevada foothills. During the autumn apple-harvest season, no visitor comes away without a bag of apples, a jug of cider and a steaming-hot pie or two.
Apple Hill is also part of the growing El Dorado County Wine Region, notable for its old-vine zins, hearty barberas and cool-climate syrahs and pinot noirs. For pleasant tasting experiences that won’t take you far off the highway, try Boeger Winery, known for its extensive, terraced picnic grounds and award-winning barbera; or Lava Cap, where you can sip and stroll in the vineyards. If you’re a beer lover, head to Jack Russell Farm Brewery, a lively rural venue specializing in craft beers and barbecue.
Northern California’s favourite playground is just 100 miles from Sacramento, but geographically, it’s worlds apart. Lake Tahoe, North America’s largest alpine lake, is all about pine-scented air, clear-as-gin water, granite mountains, creature comforts and recreational opportunities galore (for starters, think skiing in winter, hiking and beach-lounging in summer).
Frequent visitors gravitate either to “North Shore“ or “South Shore,” accessed by separate highways and imbued – or so the locals say – with separate personalities. South Shore is known for its high-energy casino/entertainment scene, while North Shore, home to most of the lake’s luxury resorts, is considered more relaxed. Of 18 ski areas in the region, Squaw Valley (North Shore) and Heavenly (South Shore) are the most widely known.
Visitors interested in driving the 72 miles around the lake should do it midweek or in the off-season, if possible, as weekend and summer traffic can distract from the awesome views.
Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta
The largest estuary on the West Coast is a jigsaw puzzle of natural and manmade islands outlined by more than 1,0000 miles of rivers and sloughs. A haven for boaters and fishermen, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (often referred to as the California Delta) is also an intriguing region to explore by car.
Head south from Sacramento on Highway 160, the “River Road,” to follow the Sacramento River through a string of small, sleepy towns whose main attractions for tourists are unusual, landmark restaurants like Giusti’s in Walnut Grove and Al the Wop’s in Locke, an early 19th-century Chinese settlement that is almost a ghost town today. In winter, visit the Cosumnes River Preserve to hike, kayak and watch sandhill cranes and other migrating birds swoop in like jets at sundown. Year-round diversion can be found at the Old Sugar Mill, a repurposed sugar-beet processing plant in Clarksburg, just south of Sacramento, that now houses 10 winery tasting rooms and stages many special events.
California Gold Country covers the huge swath of Sierra Nevada foothills that was swarmed by prospectors during the boom years of the mid-1800s. Highway 49, the “Golden Chain Highway,” traces the region from north to south, passing through dozens of small towns with intact period architecture and buckets of charm.
Sutter Creek, Nevada City and Grass Valley are rewarding destinations within easy day-trip distance of Sacramento, but first-timers should start with Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, about 45 minutes away. The gold-discovery story is interpreted here through a museum, outdoor exhibits and frequent living-history weekends in which costumed guides demonstrate various aspects of pioneer life.
The stretch of the American River that flows through Coloma is renowned for whitewater rafting in spring and summer, with numerous commercial outfitters running half-day to two-day trips.
How to “do” Napa as a day trip from Sacramento? Have a plan, or don’t have a plan. Whether you make random stops at wineries that look intriguing from the road or map out an itinerary ahead of time, you won’t be disappointed in the visitor experience or the wine, especially the velvety cabernet sauvignons for which the valley is known.
When it comes to food, however, do make a reservation, especially if you want to sample the fare at Michelin-recognized establishments including the French Laundry, the Restaurant at Meadowood, Auberge de Soleil, Solbar, Bouchon, La Toque, Terra, Bistro Jeanty, Redd Wood, C Casa, Oenotri and Cook. For something a little different, take a mud bath in the spa town of Calistoga at the valley’s far end. Or, take in a cooking demo at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, where professional chefs learn their chops. For gourmet shopping, the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa can’t be beat.
From Sacramento, you can be in Napa in a little over an hour. Our suggestion once there: ditch busy Highway 29 for the more leisurely Silverado Trail, and let serendipity be your guide.
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Have you experienced any of these Sacramento day trips? Where would you recommend visiting while in town? Share your thoughts with us below.