The following are ideas for touring the northern half of California. The itinerary assumes using Mountain View as a base. Northern California Best Places is our favorite guidebook which would provide a list of other possibilities. You can often see what locations will look like using virtual tour. The site CA Photo Scout does a nice job describing where you can get some stunning pictures. Additional information can be found on San Francisco orients websites: Yahoo Bay Area, SFGate (Chronicle & Examiner), San Jose Mercury News, and CitySearch SF.
Your first and last day will most likely involve an airline flight and transportation to/from the airport. The San Jose Airport (SJC) is a smaller airport which I have found typically is the easier to get in and out of. The San Francisco Airport (SFO) is the largest airport and typically has the larger number of flights to any given destination. Sometimes fares out of Oakland Airport are cheaper than SJC or SFO. Relative to Mountain View, SJC is 20 minutes, SFO is 45 minutes, and Oakland is around 60 minutes. It is possible to get to Mountain View from SJC via Light Rail (though it's slow), or from SFO via CalTrain. A taxi will typically be around $25 from SJC, and around $50 from SFO.
There are a number of things to see along the coastal side of the peninsula. A nice day would be to take a 45 minute drive down Route 17 to Henry Cowell State Park. There some easy to navigate trails which will take you through red woods and along the San Lorenzo River. The park has a small nature center where you can learn about the parks eco system and wildlife. If it is warm, there are a number of spots where you can wade, and maybe even swim in the river to cool off. Once you are done have a picnic lunch in the park, or eat lunch in Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz has a funky downtown complete with street musicians, a large variety of small stores, restaurants, Bookshop Santa Cruz which is a nice book store, and two of my favorite outdoor stores, Down Works, and the Patagonia Santa Cruz Outlet. Santa Cruz also has an old style boardwalk complete with amusement rides and game arcade, and some sandy beaches. From Santa Cruz drive north up Route 1. There are numerous places you could consider stopping along the ocean. There are two state parks which bear particular attention. The first is Natural Bridges State Beach (old link) just north of Santa Cruz. This is a great place to stop Oct-Jan for the butterflies. Other times of the year you can see the tidal pools, and the interesting geology. Ana Nuevo State Reserve is a bit further north which is a breeding area for elephant seals. Continue to head up the coast until you come to Half Moon Bay. You could check out the beach, walk around the small downtown, and/or have dinner. Or you could just pass through on Route 92 for the easiest route back to Mountain View.
I would recommend taking two days to explore the area around Monterey. If you had a lot of time you could make it a four day leg and continue down Route 1 to Hearst Castle / San Simeon, Morro Bay, San Louis Obispo, and then come back via Route 5 (and listen to the audio travelogue Invisible 5). For additional ideas I would recommend checking out Monterey Tourist Info and Big Sur. George Washington Park in Pacific Grove used to be one of the places that monarch butterflies wintered, but the trees have a disease, so the butterflies haven't been there for a couple of years.
MONTEREY DAY ONE
Under normal conditions, it will take approximately 1.5 hours to reach Monterey from Mountain View. [85 South, to 101 South, to 154 West, to Highway 1 South. If you are going to the aquarium you can attempt to find free street parking, but it's often easier to park in one of the city owned pay for use lots.
Aquarium: I would suggest starting the day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Monterey has what might be the best aquarium in the world. I like it better than the aquariums in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Baltimore, and Maui. It is easy to spend an entire day at the aquarium. Unlike many museums, the cafeteria actually serves reasonably tasty food at reasonable prices. I would recommend eating in the aquarium to maximize time. If you want to eat outside the aquarium remember to get your hand stamps so you can you can return. [We have two guest passes for friends]
Lodging: Once you are done with the aquarium I would suggest getting into a hotel and clean up after your day. There are a wide variety of hotels in the area. The cheapest options in the area are some of the "budget" nation chains how have hotel or motels 10-20 minutes north of Monterey on Route 1 in towns like Seaside. It is also possible to find reasonably inexpensive room in some of the small mom & pop hotels in Pacific Grove. Finally, there is the minimalist but pretty Asilomar. The Four Sisters Inns, The Centrella (Pacific Grove), and Tickle Pink Inn (Carmel) are nice, reasonably priced (for the Monterey peninsula) B&Bs. I would recommend not staying in any of the national luxury hotel chains unless you have a major discount. If you going to spend that sort of money ($250-400/night) I would recommend staying in out of the specialty hotels or high end B&B. Hotel Pacific sometimes has packages which makes it reasonably priced. At the higher end is the Old Monterey Inn, one of the most romantic B&Bs, and the Spindrift Inn which is a small luxury hotel.
Dinner: Enjoy a nice meal in one of the fine restaurants on the area. If you are staying in a hotel in Monterey, I would recommend Stokes Restaurant which is an easy walk from hotel located in Old Monterey. Stokes servers a Californian / Mediterranean cuisine. If you want to go further a field I would recommend, Flying Fish Grill (Carmel, Mexico meets Japan), passionfish (Pacific Grove, Sustainable sea food with a South American influence), Fishwife (Pacific Grove, good prices for good fish), Pacific's Edge (south of Carmel, Continental, great view at sunset, pricy), and Tarpy's Roadhouse (near the airport, American food). Many people like the cozy atmosphere at Fandango (in Pacific Grove) and the food at Fresh Cream. I would skip Roy's at Pebble Beach because it is no where near as good as a Roy's in Hawaii and can be quite noisy. I would also skip Montrio, which as a good reputation, but I found the food un-inspired. Places I haven't tried but would like to visit sometime include French Poodle (Carmel), Cypress Grove (Monterey), Bath House (Pacific Grove).
Evening Stroll: Enjoy the Monterey Coastal Trail which is a flat path which circles most of the peninsula.
MONTEREY DAY TWO
Point Lobos: A trip to the Monterey peninsula would not be complete without stopping at Point Lobos State Reserve, (one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The whalers cabin has a small display tracing the history and often overlooks sea otters playing and eating in the small bay. Cypress grove provides view views of the Monterey peninsula as you wander through a cypress grove. In the winter it's possible to see whale migrating from the high points along the trail.
Lunch: There are several nice picnic spots in Point Lobos if you bring food with you. Otherwise you could backtrack ten minutes the the Crossroads shopping center which has Rio Grill which is a very tasty Californian bistro, or stop at the very kid friendly, but basic diner food of the Black Bear Dinner. The other option is to continue down to Big Sur. In Big Sur I would recommend stopping at Nepenthe for pricy sandwiches with an wonderful view or the Big Sur Bakery which doesn't have a view but does have extremely nice selection of sandwiches, pasta, and wood fired pizza (and wonderful chocolate pudding sometimes).
Big Sur: There are a number of nice day hikes in Big Sur State Park as well as access to cold water beaches. The drive south of Big Sur is quite scenic. Around twenty minutes south of Big Sur is Julie Phiffer State Park which is typically a bit less crowded than Big Sur. There is a nice hike which takes you through some redwoods, past a small waterfall, under Route 1 and eventually gives you a very nice view of the Pacific Ocean.
Carmel: Eventually it time to turn around and head back to the Mountain View. Between Point Lobos and Carmel is a functioning Carmelite monastery. The chapel has a simple beauty. The grounds have a stations of the cross scatter though a modest but well maintained garden. A bit closer to Carmel, around the corner from the Crossroads shopping center, is the Historical Monterey Mission. If you have seen missions before I would skip the Monterey Mission... it's sort of depressing, but you could check it out if you want to see a bit of California history. I normally skip downtown Carmel unless I am stopping for food. but it can be a fun place to stroll around and watch people. Carmel started out as an art colony but has turned into a place filled with rich folk's second (or third homes). You can still find plenty of art galleries, but only extremely successful artists can afford to live in Carmel. You will also find a larger number of high end store, and restaurants.
San Francisco is a beautiful, world class city. There are numerous museums, places of nature beautiful, and well known tourist spots. You could easily spend several weeks exploring San Francisco and only scratch the surface. If I was going to try to stuff highlights of San Francisco into a few days I would recommend the following:
South of Market (SOMA) - Mostly
Take CalTrain to the city. Check out SF Modern Art. Thee are plenty of lunch options around the museum. My favorite place is the Samovar Tea House. The Metreon Food Court is popular with some. After lunch stop at the California Academy of Sciences. If folks are worn out, head home, otherwise consider explore Chinatown and take a cable car ride.
Golden Gate Park
Start by exploring the Golden Gate Recreation Area. There are plenty of options in this area. Golden Gate Req Area (Marin Headlands are beautiful), Muir Woods (great redwoods), Golden Gate Bridge
Alcatraz, Filoli Gardens, The Tech Museum, Stanford (Campus Map), UC Berkeley, Fine Arts Museums of SF, San Francisco Zoo, Exploratorium,
Yosemite is arguably the most beautiful places on earth. I have been then tens of times, and never tire of visiting the park. While the Valley floor can be crowded, it's still worth visiting. For a first time visitor to Yosemite I would recommend staying in the valley if possible. Lodging options range from camping, to tent cabins in Curry Village, to a couple of very nice National Park Lodges. I would recommend spending at least four days in Yosemite. If you like backpacking, I have a collection of links about Yosemite on my Camping / backpacking Destinations page. Yosemite Valley is around 4 hour drive for the Bay Area. A possible schedule might looks something like:
Day 1: Circle the Valley - would recommend a combination of using the free shuttle and walking... or consider using a bicycle you have brought or rent by Curry Village. It is possible to drive around the Valley, but this is discouraged by park officials.
Day 2: Drive toward Wawona. Make sure to stop at the look out just before the tunnel. Continue on to Mariposa Grove and see the huge redwood. There are a number of nice day hikes around the south west corner of the park. Stop at Glacier Point to see the sun go down and hear one of the ranger talks.
Day 3: Take a hike. People who want to push themselves hike Half Dome.. but there are lots of other wonderful hikes.
Day 4: Head up to Tuolumne Meadows. See the high alpine landscape. Take a hike.
If you have the time, cross Tioga pass and head down to check out Mono lake and the area around Devil's Postpile. On the way to Devil's Postpile you will past through the nice community of Mammoth Lakes. The food at the Convict Lake Lodge is quite tasty.
Various Links about Yosemite: Yosemite Online, Park Service, AmTrak Transport, Corbis Photos, Photos by Rich Ellis
Tahoe is pretty... but unless you have a lot of time, I would skip Tahoe so you have more time as Yosemite.
You can get commercial information from NapaValley.COM. If you know what you are looking for, Napa Valley Online is a good online directory. I have found The Best of the Wine Country to be a useful guidebook to the area. Wine is the first order of business. Most wineries offer tasting for a modest fee. Some offer tours or other attractions on site. I would guess there are something like 300 wineries in the area, and I have only visited a handful. My favorites so far are Hess Collection (Napa, decent wine, small interesting modern art museum), Cuvaison (Catistoga, my favorite wine, facility is minimalist), Korbel Champagne (Russian River, nice flower garden), Buena Vista (Sonoma Valley, nice picnic area), Sterling Vineyards (Catistoga, tram to great view - wine not so good), Clos Pegase (Catistoga, some interesting art). Check of napa valley events for seasonal events and activities. There are a number of popular activities in the area: bicycling, hot air balloon rides, mud baths in Catistoga, etc. There are a large number of excellent restaurants. My favorite restaurant is Terra (Southern France+Pacific Rim), followed by Trilogy (Califorian+French), French Laundry (Yountville, French country, super expensive), and Tra Vigne (Tuscan). We will often stop at Mustard's for lunch (Yountville, interesting American comfort food) on the drive up to the area. Numerous people have told me that Auberge Du Soleil is an outstanding place to eat and stay and The El Dorado Hotel looked very nice. There are countless B&Bs in the area Many are mediocre, but there are some which are outstanding. Alas, I haven't visited many of the truly great places to stay because you need to get reservations reasonably far in advance, and I head up to the Napa area more or less at the last minute.
If you have another 3-7 days, head north of San Francisco. There are a number of cute towns along the coast, and the wonderful Redwood State & National Parks region.