This post will show you our Napa Valley day trip by car. We spent a sunny day driving around the valley and looking for top wineries. Here are my top picks for your Napa Valley day trip.
Napa Valley is a scenic wine-growing region one hour north of San Francisco and home to about 300-400 wineries. A day trip to this beautiful valley should be included in any trip to San Francisco and the easiest way to tour the valley is by car.
Napa Valley by car: visiting a Napa winery
Napa Valley: How did it begin?
It started with the early missionaries from Europe that planted the first grapes in the valley. The grew so well that more and more cuttings were imported from Europe. Consequently Napa Valley became the first place on the New Continent where European wines were produced.
The climate of Napa and Sonoma Valleys makes them perfect wine producing areas. The valleys are sheltered by coastal ranges which makes the climate here many degrees warmer and less humid than on the coast.
So during years Napa Valley grew to America’s most famous wine region. The most reputable Napa Valley wines are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay but also most other wines used in America can be found somewhere in the valley.
What is Napa Valley like? First a map so you know the location.
Napa Valley Day Trip by Car: Road Trip Map
This is the part of California where Napa Valley is located and a road trip map. Napa Valley is about 120 km northeast of San Francisco and driving time from San Francisco is a bit more than an hour if you avoid peak traffic times.
The valley itself is about 50 km (30 Miles) long. It’s mostly open countryside with vineyards bu there are also some small towns like St. Helena, Yountville and Calistoga and the biggest community is Napa.
The map shows the whole road trip from San Francisco. For our itinerary in Napa Valley itself you need to zoom in the map.
The City of Napa
Napa Valley drive: the city of Napa
Napa is the capital of the valley with a population of 80 000. It looks like a typical American city, clean and pretty and dotted with historic houses.
What we liked most e in Napa was the river bank walking area and the quiet side streets next to it.
More Ways of Touring Napa Valley
So we are touring Napa Valley by car which gives us a lot more freedom but there are other ways as well, the train and the trolley. That might be a good way to tour the area if you want to stay longer in the valley and want to taste more wines than is good when you are driving.
Napa Valley Train
Mosaics of Napa Valley
This is Alan Shepp’s mosaic fountain in the center of Napa. Alan Shepp’s artwork reflects Napa Valley and its great importance in the American West and one of his works of art, this one, presents a train.
Today the Napa Valley Wine Train looks very different but it’s still an old-model train. You can use the historic train for touring the valley and dining a multiple course meal at the same time.
The train starts at Napa and goes to St. Helena and the journey takes something like three hours. Here’s more information on the train:
You can find the mosaic fountain that tells about the history of Napa on Riverbend Plaza, the city of Napa.
Napa Valley Trolley
Napa Wine Trolley
Another option is to take a Napa Valley Wine Trolley tour.
The trolley looks like a San Francisco cable car and takes you to a number of wineries during the day. If trolley travel interests you, here’s the link for more information:
Napa Valley day trip, Silverado Trail
But as we wanted to see as much as possible in one day we toured the valley by car.
There are two parallel north-south roads through the length of Napa Valley, the busier main road Highway 29 to the west and the more quiet Silverado Trail to the east. Theis two roads are not far apart so you can switch between them as often you want. You can see the two roads on my Napa Valley map above, just zoom in the map.
We took the Silverado Trail up from Napa and the Highway 29 back from Calistoga.
Silverado Trail is less traveled, it is more like a small country road with more curves and much less traffic. This main road offers very scenic views to vineyards on both sides and almost all the way from Napa to Calistoga. Recommend!
Chimney Rock Winery, Napa Valley self drive day trip
Silverado Trail Wineries
We stopped at wineries, examined their gardens and vineyards and talked with the owners. Most wineries offer wine tasting but only until 5 p.m. and there is a small fee for that, about 10 to 20 dollars. For the fee you can taste three to six wines and sometimes you will get a souvenir glass in addition.
This is the gate of the European-owned Mumm Winery. The Mumm Winery is famous for their fresh sparkling wines.
Rutherford Hill Winery, Napa Valley
Close to Mumm, Rutherford Hill is a hillside winery with pretty buildings, a picnic area and great views down to the valley. We didn’t taste their wines, just walked around and enjoyed the place. The wines must be good though since they are aged in long caves carved in to the hillsides.
You can even take a cave tour at Rutherford.
Some more photos on this winery that you can find a short drive uphill from Silverado Trail:
Rutherford Winery garden
Roses of Napa Valley, Rutherford Winery
The main building of Sterling Vineyards, Calistoga
Sterling winery in Calistoga lies on a high rocky hill and overlooks the vineyards and the valley below. The winery building is whitewashed and built in Greek style.
Here you can take a marked self-guided tour and taste different Sterling wines at your own pace. At each stop the staff will tell you about the estate’s history, wine production and wines. About five or six wines are included in the tour starting from this Sauvignon Blanc that became my absolute favourite:
Sauvignon Blanc of Napa Valley
To begin the winery tour you first have to take a gondola up the hill. It’s like a ski lift, but unlike in ski slopes the lift can be used both ways, up and down. On the way up you can see below you a pretty park with a pond and fountains.
And this is the last tasting point, a white tasting terrace with chairs and tables – and fantastic views to the surrounding valley.
Wine tasting in Napa Valley
The small photo on the left shows another tasting point where a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon was offered.
And the view! So pretty, you can see vineyards, the valley and the green wooded hills around the valley.
First of May Wine Tasting
And here are the happy wine tasters. We gave a toast to all our friends back at home! Why?
Napa Valley wine tasting
The day we visited the Napa Valley happened to be the First of May eve that is an extraordinary day at home in Finland. People go home from work earlier and have a party with their family and friends and taste sparkling wine. The First of May doesn’t have to be connected with politics, it’s our spring carnival. A carnival of university students, academics, laborers, all of us!
Napa Valley vineyards
And the Californian spring is an equally great time as well. The vineyards are getting their green color after the winter and everything is in flower. This is the beginning of the summer!
Clos Pegase Winery
Another winery, almost next door
Clos Pegase Winery is almost next door to Sterling Vineyard. It is housed in a huge postmodern building and they also have an art collection. This winery offers free tours and it’s said their wine is very good as well.
Since we were on a one day Napa Valley drive we were forced to skip much of the tastings. But instead we went to see a geyser.
Napa Valley Day Trip: the Old Faithful Geyser
A California geyser
The Old Faithful Geyser spurts hot water into the sky every 30 minutes or so and it takes the water from an underground river.
The geyser has been doing that for ages and when we visited it was active even more frequently, maybe every 10 minutes. There had been a rainy period in the winter and there was a lot of water was available for the geyser to spray around in the air.
The Old Faithful Geyser of California is one of the three faithful geysers in the world. The faithful geysers have earned the title because of their regularity. The other two are Yellowstone, California and Rotorua on the North Island of New Zealand.
The geyser has always been one of the most photographed places in California. Today it has been made a family attraction with fainting goats, llamas, picnic areas and so on.
Here you can read more about the Old Faithful Geyser:
The Petrified Forest of Napa Valley
In the green hills west of the Napa Valley is the Petrified Forest where trees have turned into stone. This is the place where you can see the largest petrified trees in the whole world.
It happened millions of years ago. At that time a volcanic eruption turned all trees to stone. That happened when the whole forest was first covered by ash and mud and the ash and mud then gradually made wood change to silica.
Napa Valley drive: petrified redwood
This huge coastal redwood is called the Queen. It was buried at the age of 2000 years after which it has been petrified for 3,4 Million years, really!
Here is another tree that also more looks like a stone than a tree.
Tree looking like stone
You can hike in the Petrified Forest. At the end of the track you can see an ash fall area where cooled volcanic ash has floated and covered the trees. And at distance you can see the volcano that caused this all.
The Petrified Forest was an educative experience and hiking the track took us about an hour. From here we took the same road back to Napa Valley. Another thing you can do is to continue along the road to Sonoma Valley.
Read more about this interesting forest:
The oldest winery of Napa Valley: Beringer
Beringer is the oldest and probably the most beautiful winery in the whole Napa Valley. The winery has operated since 1876 and Beringer is on the register of National Historic Places. If have to say that this place is so pretty and I’m so happy to tour Napa Valley by car so we can see all this.
Visiting a Napa Valley winery
This is the wine shop where you can taste world-famous Beringer wines, or you can sit outdoors and taste there if you prefer that.
Tasting Beringer wines
They also offer a tour to their long wine tunnels that they have carved into the hillside.
This is their Rhine House where you can sit on the porch or in the garden – and order a flight of their reserve wines.
A Napa Valley wine tasting house
Above in the small photos you can see the pretty garden and a group of wine tasters we met.
Below you can see the porch that continues through all four sides of the old house. It was not crowded at all since we were visiting on a weekday. If you want to see more people, come here on a weekend and you will definitely not be alone.
The beautiful Napa Valley, United States
Here is one more Beringer Estate building behind trees:
Napa Valley self driving tour to wine estates
More information on Beringer Estate:
Then we only had time with one more winery which, too, was a very pretty one:
V Sattui Vineyard
V. Sattui Winery, Napa Valley day trip
Close to Beringer is another very old winery V. Sattui. V. Sattui is an easy one to find: it’s in a central location in St. Helena and by the main road.
The roots of this family are from Italy and that’s why the buildings and everything looks so Italian.
Touring Napa Valley wineries by car
Here you can choose from many different tasting options and also use the outdoor picnic lawns. V.Sattui has a gourmet deli where you can buy your picnic and take it outdoors to the picnic tables.
Wine tasting itself happens indoors in the bar and as the waiter told us their wines are sold only at the winery. This is their Cabernet Sauvignon that was my favourite.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
V. Sattui looks like a very active winery as they arrange both public events and private occasions. Lots of people in small and large groups were visiting when we were there and a wedding was going on in the castle.
You can read more about this winery on the V. Sattui website.
Napa Valley day trip: picnic lunch
End of the Napa Valley Day Trip
Our Napa Valley day trip ends at V. Sattui. We have to start driving back to San Francisco to get there in time. The day out here was fantastic and I’m happy we decided to spend one of our San Francisco days here. We saw and learned a great deal and know the valley offers a lot more we didn’t see.
If I some time in the future will visit San Francisco again I would like to return to Napa Valley as well. I would drive around again, visit more wineries and try one of the hot springs that exist in the area.
Napa Valley day trip, vineyards of the valley
If you want to read more on Napa Valley this is the official valley website: Visit Napa Valley
More on North California Travel:
If you are traveling in California these posts might also interest you:
More San Francisco day trips:
- Exploring the Historic Sonoma
- Day Trip to Muir Woods Redwood Forest
- Coastal Drive from San Francisco to Monterey
Explore San Fransisco:
My all posts on California can be found on the California category page.