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Sacramento has a ton of things to see and do, beyond government buildings, including art galleries and museums, performance arts venues and historic sites. But if you want to explore outside of the capital city, you’ll have a long list of options for fantastic day trips. Whether you’re up for a longer jaunt or something close by, consider putting any one of these ideas on your itinerary, with something for just about everyone, from wine enthusiasts to history buffs and nature lovers.
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Just two hours east of Sacramento, South Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular year-round destinations in the state. It’s famous for skiing and boarding in the winter, along with a wide range of activities on and in the water during the warmer months. Enjoy everything from boating, kayaking, swimming and stand-up paddleboarding to scenic cruises. There are even 55 acres of beaches for sunbathing while surrounded by the spectacular scenery. Nearby on the Nevada side of the lake, you can test your luck with casino gambling but either side offers plenty of shopping and dining.
Just 60 miles southwest of the California capital, Napa is part of the state’s prime wine country, with the Napa Valley Wine Train one of its most popular attractions. The luxurious, Victorian-era train will bring you through picturesque scenery while dining on a multi-course gourmet meal paired with the region’s tasty wines. There are many other things to do other than drink wine, like hot-air balloon rides, cycling through the countryside, discovering the arts scene, and exploring shops and eateries along the riverfront promenade.
The little historic town of Downieville has a population of under 300, but offers plenty to do just a little over 100 miles from Sacramento. Explore its rich history with a number of historic landmarks like Cannon Point and the Sierra County Sheriffs Gallows, and learn more about it at the Downieville Museum, set within a stone building with original iron doors and shutters dating back to 1852. It’s also a great place to enjoy nature and recreational activities like swimming, fishing, kayaking and hiking, surrounded by the Yuba River District in the Tahoe National Forest. It’s the perfect place to enjoy nature and all its tranquility, including kayaking, fishing and swimming.
Murphys is a former gold mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Calaveras County, about 85 miles southeast of Sacramento. Known as the “Queen of the Sierra,” while it has drawn many over the years to explore its gold mining history and sip drinks at Murphys Hotel bar, which once hosted guests like Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, today it’s become a mecca for wine enthusiasts with award-winning wineries and vineyards. There are over two dozen tasting rooms along Main Street, all within easy walking distance, with antique stores and boutiques in between. Visitors can also enjoy the July vineyard tour and an October Grape Stomp. Murphys Irish Day is one of its most popular, held each year on the third Saturday in March featuring a parade that attracts over 35,000 spectators.
Only about an hour from Sacramento, Nevada City is home to the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad and Transportation Museum which hosts not only the locomotives themselves, but many artifacts that tell a story about the small town and the region. It’s very lively in the summer with lots to do, including theater companies, alternative film houses, and other venues with shows nearly every night. Nearby, explore picturesque Scotts Flat Reservoir or head to Purdon Crossing where you can leap from boulder to boulder while enjoying the river views.
Columbia is one of California’s best-preserved historic gold rush towns as well as a historic park. It was once the state’s second-largest city during the peak of the Gold Rush, but today it’s a place to walk back in time with costumed docents leading tours, living and working here, participating in a variety of period-appropriate shows and trades. Hop on an authentic stagecoach for a ride, watch a blacksmith at work in his forge, try your hand at gold panning, and sip locally-made sarsaparilla soda in an Old West saloon.
About 65 miles northeast of Sacramento in the small town of Oregon House west of Nevada City, Collins Lake is a popular destination for cooling off during the hot summer months by swimming or water-skiing, and for its outstanding fishing. It’s home to big bass and trophy trout with over 50,000 rainbow trout stocked here in the spring and fall each year. There are also native brown trout, small and largemouth bass, catfish, crappie, and more.
Less than 100 miles southwest of Sacramento, the tiny town of Point Reyes Station is home to Tomales Bay Foods which hosts the creamery and tasting room for the famous Cowgirl Creamery, but the main reason to visit is the Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s home to Point Reyes Lighthouse, which dates back to 1870, set atop dramatic cliffs along the rugged coast providing fantastic photo-ops as well as the perfect spot to watch for migrating whales and harbor seals that are often soaking up the sun on the rocks. If you have your own kayak, paddle out for a closer look, or join a tour with Blue Waters Kayaking. There are miles and miles of scenic trails for hiking and lots of wildlife on land to watch for, including tule elk in the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve.
San Francisco is about a 90-mile drive away, providing the chance to cross the great Golden Gate and enjoy a wealth of attractions. Some of the more popular things to do include touring Alcatraz which sits in the middle of the bay, exploring Fisherman’s Wharf, riding one of the famous cable cars up and down the steep city streets, and visiting Golden Gate Park. The park is home to many attractions of its own, including the de Young museum which focuses on North American art and period interiors but showcases exhibits from around the world too. The California Academy of Sciences is also here and hosts an aquarium, the world’s largest planetarium, a four-story rainforest with an incredible coral reef ecosystem, and a natural history museum.
Calistoga is renowned for its hot springs and wineries, located just over 86 miles west of Sacramento. At Indian Springs you can sip local wines right alongside the main mineral pool fed by on-site geysers. While overnight guests get free access, day passes are available too. There are also spas for enjoying everything from massage, facials, scrubs, and mud baths made from thermal mineral waters and pure volcanic ash. This is also where you’ll find Castello di Amorosa, a beautiful Tuscan-inspired medieval castle that has its own winery.
Reno tends to be overshadowed by flashier Las Vegas, but it has plenty to offer, including gambling, nightlife, and family-friendly attractions. Plus it’s just over a two-hour drive from the California capital. The Riverwalk is great for a stroll, lined with restaurants and galleries along the way, while the National Automobile Museum is one of the most popular attractions in the state, with hundreds of race and classic cars displayed, including the personal collection of casino pioneer Bill Harrah and the car from James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause.” There are bike paths, parks, breweries, and plenty of opportunities to test your luck in the casinos.
Bodega Bay is a sleepy fishing town north of San Francisco along the coast about 2.5 hours from Sacramento. It’s the perfect excuse for a scenic drive along Highway 1 and it offers a number of interesting sites as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 avian psycho-horror film, “The Birds.” Fortunately, there are no flocks of bloodthirsty gulls but you’ll still want to keep an eye out on that picnic lunch. Enjoy gorgeous beaches, searching through tide pools, fishing, whale-watching, and plenty of delectable seafood with several eateries downtown.
It’s almost three hours from Sacramento but it’s worth the early morning wake-up call to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park, kind of a mini-version of Yellowstone with terrain marked by boiling hot springs, steaming mud pots, lava flows, fumaroles, cinder cones, and crater lakes while conifer forest surrounds it. Sunset magazine called the park “The West’s most beautiful, least visited wonderland,” and the hike to Lassen Peak has been compared to Half Dome in Yosemite, yet you won’t find the big crowds here.
Located in Grass Valley, Empire Mine State Historic Park is a National Register of Historic Places-listed mine and surrounding park within easy reach of the city, just over an hour’s drive away. The mine is also protected as a National Historic District, preserving one of the state’s oldest, largest, and richest gold mines which produced more than 5.8 million ounces of gold during the 19th and 20th centuries. Learn about the mine’s operations at the park’s visitor center and take a guided tour of the former mine yard to learn about its operations and workers throughout the decades.