The bay’s driving roads
San Francisco is not a city known for its good driving. It has countless wonderful sights to see, but there are also steep hills, crowded streets, and limited parking spots. Even Lombard Street’s legendary curves are a pain to navigate in a car — it has stop-and-go traffic and tourists crowding the intersection below. In the surrounding Bay Area, however, there is a wealth of excellent driving roads and stunning scenic cruises that are not to be missed.
The hills and ridges that ring the bay contain easily accessible roads with stellar views and technical twisties. If you’re visiting San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, or anywhere in between, cruise over to one of these roads to put your zippy car to the test. And who knows? You might stumble onto something interesting along the way.
Skyline Boulevard (Route 35)
Skyline is a favorite for Bay Area natives. It begins in the Southwest corner of San Francisco, then cuts over and runs along the ridge of the San Francisco Peninsula nearly all the way to Santa Cruz. Its rolling curves and tight turns meander through redwood forests and tufted hilltops and are a joy to blast through.
Be sure to stop at Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside where Skyline intersects with Route 84 — on any given day you’ll see the parking lot full with motorcycles, exotics, and vintage sports cars. Going south from Alice’s is perhaps the best stretch of Skyline Boulevard. Many of the next miles offer views of the bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.
Highway 1 to Santa Cruz
California’s Highway 1 makes for a legendary cruise no matter which part of the state you’re in, but the 60 coastal miles from San Francisco to Santa Cruz are some of the best. The Pacific will be out your passenger window for the entire drive, and there are dozens of beaches and hiking areas to stop and explore. This is one of the least crowded parts of the entire Bay Area, so you should be able to miss the traffic that plagues the rest of its highways. Take your pit stops in Half Moon Bay and Pescadero on the way down for a true Northern California experience.
Just across the Golden Gate, the hills of the Marin headlands offer a welcome respite from the bustle of the bay. After crossing the bridge north on 101, turn onto Highway 1, then take Panoramic Highway to Stinson Beach. Panoramic skirts along the ridge above the majestic Muir Woods, then turns down towards the coast with some tasty turns and switchbacks. It’s a relatively short stretch, but once you hit Stinson Beach you can head either direction along the coast on Highway 1.
While you’re up there on Panoramic, try Ridgecrest Boulevard before driving down to the beach. It’ll take you to the top of Mt. Tamalpais, which has unrivalled views of San Francisco and the bay on a clear day. Head back down the mountain a bit, but turn north on Ridgecrest for a lovely jaunt across more ridgelines. After some tight hillside snaking, Ridgecrest will eventually spit you back out onto Highway 1.
Wildcat Canyon Road
In the hills above Berkeley, Wildcat Canyon Road winds eastward through the eucalyptus and pine groves of Tilden Regional Park. After a few calming turns, stop off at the parking area for Inspiration Point, which offers expansive views of the San Pablo Reservoir and accompanying hills. Try any of the nearby hiking trails or simply pause for a picnic. Just remember to watch out for the cyclists on the way up.
To extend your drive, take Grizzly Peak Drive along the ridge of the East Bay hills. You’ll get great views, fun turns, and more views. Connect to Redwood Road towards Hayward if you still haven’t had your fill of corners.
17 Mile Drive
Though not technically in the Bay Area, 17 Mile Drive is just too good to leave out. The famously scenic route runs along 17 miles of glorious Monterey Peninsula coastline through world-renowned golf courses and incredibly exclusive neighborhoods. Monterey is two hours south of San Francisco and is easily worth a weekend visit. 17 Mile Drive has plenty of pull-out areas to soak in the dramatic rocky shores and windswept cypress trees, but go in the morning to avoid tourist traffic.
For my money (a $10.25 toll without a resident’s grill plaque), the southbound drive starting in Monterey’s Pacific Grove neighborhood is the better direction to go. Exiting 17 Mile Drive’s southern terminus next to Pebble Beach will leave you in picturesque Carmel-By-The-Sea, a perfect place to grab lunch, peruse art galleries, or walk along the beach.
Tunitas Creek Road
Tunitas Creek Road is a beautiful creation of man. It connects the peninsula’s Skyline Boulevard to the Pacific Coast Highway with nine remote miles of snaking asphalt. In the dense redwood forest, banked s-bends lead to tight technical corners and even a couple hairpins. It’s extremely narrow. It has blind corners. It has occasional cyclists. The slightly perilous nature of Tunitas Creek Road makes the ride that much more exhilarating, but do take caution. Much of the road is no wider than a single lane and there are sheer drop-offs without guardrails. If you’re going downhill towards the ocean, it’s a good idea to take a car whose brakes can withstand the abuse.