Retreat to Lake County, San Francisco's Low-Profile Northern Neighbor

Find plenty to do in a relaxing, stress-free environment.

San Franciscans can spend their free days out and about in the city or opt to explore the quiet towns and wilderness surrounding it. If you're in town and plan to take the latter approach—and are set on avoiding tourists and trends—consider a getaway to Lake County.

This rural agricultural area bordering Napa’s vineyards and Mendocino’s redwoods contains the largest natural freshwater lake located entirely in the state of California. Visit its tiny communities, no-frills wineries and hiking trails—all devoid of crowds, and often reliable cell service—to discover yet another side of Northern California.

Clear Lake State Park

Spend Time Outside

Follow the Dorn Nature Trail loop (1.6 miles) at Clear Lake State Park in Kelseyville for lake views and magical moss-covered boulders. Or take a Saturday morning guided nature walk through the wetlands and oak woodlands of Rodman Slough Preserve on the north end of Clear Lake, home to blue herons and other wildlife.

Naturally, much of the area’s recreational activities revolve around its lakes. You can rent a kayak or electric boat; fish for bass, catfish and trout; or even take a pontoon boat tour.

Gyro lunch special at the Saw Shop Gallery Bistro

Enjoy a Meal in Lake County's Best Restaurants 

In Kelseyville, stop at Saw Shop Gallery Bistro for a seasonal lunch or dinner with table service or grab a sandwich for breakfast or lunch from Studebakers Coffee House. In Lakeport, try Park Place Restaurant right by Clear Lake or Chalerm Thai Bistro. Locals also enjoy the pub atmosphere at O’Meara Bros. Brewing Company.

Listen to live music at the Blue Wing Saloon in Upper Lake

Up for an evening out in Upper Lake? Head to Blue Wing Saloon, modeled after the town’s first watering hole from the 1880s, for dinner on the shaded patio and live music often provided by a local blues band. We suggest ordering a burger or the salmon, along with a microbrew or local wine, and fruit cobbler for dessert. If you'd rather call it an early night, the restaurant also serves lunch and Sunday brunch.

Spring in Lake County's Vineyards

Lake County's Tasting Room

Lake County has always sold the majority of its grapes to Napa and Sonoma, but these days the region has over 30 tasting rooms of its own and a reputation for sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. The rich soil by Clear Lake and the volcanic sediment in the higher elevations make for grapes with amplified flavor profiles. Your best chance of trying the local harvest is at a tasting room since most of the wineries don’t produce enough bottles to distribute beyond the county.

We suggest tasting the several excellent varietals made by Gregory Graham, the eponymous founder of the Lower Lake winery and the former head winemaker at Napa’s Rombauer Vineyards. At Boatique in Kelseyville, you can admire the owner’s classic boat collection while you sip. Then mix it up with an olive oil and wine tasting at Chacewater Winery & Olive Mill, where tastings are best finished with the blood orange olive oil poured over a scoop of vanilla ice cream—a treat likened to an orange creamsicle—that's enjoyed outside by the olive grove.

If you fancy antiquing, the old-fashioned towns of Upper Lake, Lakeport and Kelseyville are full of stores like Oliveira Antiques that stock eclectic finds. 

Veranda Room at the Tallman Hotel

Stay the Night

The nicest place to stay in the area is Upper Lake’s elegant Tallman Hotel, first founded by 19th-century pioneers on a Wild West stagecoach line. The building was abandoned for 40 years until Bernie and Lynne Butcher took a gamble and purchased it in 2003. The San Francisco couple devoted the next three years to a painstaking restoration.

Today, it's a 17-room boutique property best recognized by its two-story gleaming white veranda. Guests check in at the sunny parlor lobby, sleep in Victorian rooms decorated with hand-painted accents and toile prints and take breakfast in the period-furnished dining room. If you like the idea of soaking in a Japanese ofuro tub on a private patio, make sure to book a lower garden room.