Experience the things to do in Northern California that make it one of the trendiest places to visit in the Golden State. Unearth the natural wonders awaiting in the region, home to the world’s oldest and tallest trees and golden sand beaches sloping gently into the Pacific Ocean, the high-elevation Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the Sacramento River, the largest in California. Then, plunge into the NorCal lifestyle through the cultural and tech scenes thriving in San Jose or the laidback coastal village life in Santa Cruz.
Northern California is full of popular road trip destinations, and you’re never far from day trip attractions. Check out a few of the top things to do in Northern California that you don’t want to leave off your travel itinerary!
REDWOOD NATIONAL AND STATE PARKS
Stroll beneath the towering canopy of the Redwood National and State Parks to witness the biggest trees in the world. The vast park complex consisting of one national park and three state parks helps preserve a region home to the oldest redwood forests.
Redwood National and State Parks showcases its diverse landscape with its redwood grove, Fern Canyon, Elk Prairie, and extending to the Pacific coastline. Drive along the 31-mile long Avenue of the Giants trail to see redwood trees reaching heights over 360-ft. Or take hiking trails to landmarks like Hyperion or see tree trunks large enough to drive or walk through!
Read More: 12 BEST HIKES IN REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK (+ 2 NEARBY GEMS)
Stay Here: Berry Glen Redwood Park Loft
California’s rugged coastline holds many wonders like Glass Beach. Located in the MacKerricher State Park, it’s one of the main reasons visitors come to Fort Bragg.
Fort Bragg is situation on the Mendocino Coast in Northern California. Colorful pieces of eroded glass replace the usual sand at Glass Beach in an odd natural phenomenon that you have to see—just don’t take the glass.
Visiting Fort Bragg introduces you to beautiful natural sights like seeing massive redwoods pass your window while riding the Skunk Train through the Noyo River Canyon. Or take a hike along the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail for ocean views.
Stay Here: Mermaid Manor
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE
Named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, the Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic landmark in Northern California. It’s located in San Francisco and is visited by millions of tourists each year to admire the Art Deco architecture.
Golden Gate Bridge grew to prominence as the tallest and longest suspension bridge in the world when it was built. It sits 220-ft over the San Francisco Bay, extending over 8,900-ft long. It’s open for vehicle, foot, and bicycle traffic.
Hike the Lands End Trail route for one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge or venture to the summit at Twin Peaks for a viewpoint overlooking all of San Francisco.
Read More: 47 PHENOMENAL THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Stay Here: Holiday Inn San Francisco – Golden Gateway
Stand on the San Francisco coast, and you can spot Alcatraz sitting isolated in the sea over a mile away from the shore. Hop on a ferry and venture to “The Rock,” known as Alcatraz Island. This island was formerly used as a federal prison but now hosts families on tours of the abandoned facilities.
Alcatraz is the sight of the first lighthouse established on the West Coast, still operational today. But today, guided tours of the former prison are the highlight of the island. The prison was built from 1934 to 1963 and held infamous criminals captive like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.
Stay Here: Hotel Caza Fisherman’s Wharf
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Take a moment to admire views of the massive cliffs emerging from the lush Yosemite Valley Floor. It’s one of the most popular viewpoints in Yosemite National Park, but only the beginning of all there is to do in this park.
Visiting Yosemite National Park is one of the best things to do in Northern California to experience the abundant outdoor landscape spanning nearly three-quarter million acres. First, take one of the 750-miles of trails winding throughout the park to see El Capitan, Half Dome, and other famous rock formations. Then, peer up from the canyon floor to see the mighty Yosemite Falls and try to reach Glacier Point by the evening to see the colorful allure of the sunset over the park.
Stay Here: Evergreen Lodge at Yosemite
Take a day trip from San Francisco to visit Santa Cruz. With an extensive sandy coastline, it’s a popular beach destination regardless of whether you’re planning to get in the water or not.
For water enthusiasts, head straight to Main Beach, where you can enjoy surfing in the refreshing waters of Monterey Bay. Or see the unique rock formations while strolling along Natural Bridges State Bridge.
Tourists not swimming can still enjoy the beach setting. Grab a few scoops at Penny’s Ice Creamery and walk the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Be sure to stop by the Surfing Museum to explore Santa Cruz’s surf heritage. Or see the famous colorful houses lining the beach at Capitola Village for a popular selfie spot.
Read More: 16 BEST THINGS TO DO IN SANTA CRUZ FOR COASTAL FUN
Stay Here: Hyatt Place Santa Cruz
Any time of year is perfect for visiting Lake Tahoe, one of Northern California’s favorite year-round destinations. Gear up for an adventure because Lake Tahoe is a place for enjoying outdoor recreation.
Lake Tahoe straddled the California-Nevada border. During the summer, it is a hub for boating enthusiasts. Kayaking, canoeing, paddleboats, and even sunset dinner cruises happen on the lake. During the winter, the famous Palisades Tahoe (Squaw Valley) becomes a top skiing destination that once hosted the Winter Olympics and offers world-class runs for skiers and snowboarders and a fun ski resort village for family-friendly fun.
Read More: 15 THINGS TO DO IN LAKE TAHOE FOR OUTDOOR-LOVERS | 23 OF THE BEST LAKE TAHOE CAMPING DESTINATIONS
Stay Here: Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge & Spa
MCARTHUR BURNEY FALLS
Water appears to burst through the cliffside at McArthur Burney Falls in a sight revealing one of California’s hidden gems. The waterfall and the surrounding forested acres were designated as California’s second national park and is still popular to visit today.
Visitors can see the waterfall while parking at McArthur Burney Falls, but its beauty can only be appreciated from up close. Hike the easy 1.3-mile loop trail to the foot of the waterfall, where you can truly experience its 129-ft elevation. And on hot days, there are sure to be visitors swimming in the cool waters.
Stay Here: Green Gables Motel & Suites
Read More: 20 Waterfalls in Northern California to Add to Your Bucket List
LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK
Tiptoe the fiery grounds of the Lassen Volcanic National Park. This park designates a region of Northern California dotted with volcanoes and thermal Earth activity.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to over 30 volcanoes, representing each of the four types. Lassen Peak, the namesake volcano, is the largest plug dome volcano in the world and most active, with its last eruption in 1914. Hike to the summit for panoramic views of the landscapes. Exploring the park will take you across wilderness decorated with lava rocks and painted dunes or explore routes like the Bumpass Hell Trail, which cuts through a 16-acres of hydrothermal site.
Stay Here: Best Western Rose Quartz Inn
Indulge in the tastes of the world’s finest spirits in Napa Valley. This famous wine region is home to more than 500 wineries, with many offering tour experiences for visitors.
Late summer to early fall is the best time to see the bustling activity on the vineyards during the harvest season. Visitors can take wine tours at traditional wineries with acres filled with grape-filled trees or unique wineries like Castello di Amorosa, modeled after a medieval Tuscan castle.
One of the best things to do in Napa Valley is take a hot air balloon ride over the scenic region. Another place to enjoy views is tasting the famous Hog Island oysters with a glass of wine at the Oxbow Public Market’s riverside deck.
Read More: 27 FUN THINGS TO DO IN NAPA EVERYONE WILL ENJOY
Stay Here: Blackbird Inn
Northern California is abundant with scenic natural landmarks, such as the Russian River. The river runs through the famous Sonoma Wine Country, where visitors can enjoy the water and wine fun.
The meandering Russian River is a playground for water lovers. Johnson’s Beach and other riverside beaches are the perfect places to sunbathe or go for a swim. In addition, kayaking and other water sports are readily available for rentals.
After, see what awaits in the Russian River Valley by visiting wineries like Korbel Winery that date back to the 1800s and uphold the region’s reputation for exquisite wines.
Stay Here: Russian River Camping Resort Cottage
SOAK IN SOME HOT SPRING
The geothermal landscape of Northern California makes it a hotbed for hot springs. Natural pools with water temperatures surpassing 100°F make it a destination for wellness and relaxation.
You’re never far from one of the premier hot spring experiences in NorCal. Head outside of Mammoth Lakes to Travertine Hot Springs or Wild Willy Hot Springs to soak in pools with mountain views, or let the natural baths at Sykes Hot Springs reward you after a hike.
Read More: Beautiful and Fun Things to Do in Mammoth Lakes, CA in the Summer
Stay Here: Mammoth Lakes Tree House
POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE
Treat yourself to a weekend day trip from San Francisco to Point Reyes National Seashore. This peninsula jutting out from the Pacific Coastline is an excellent detour while cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Tune into the roar of the Pacific Ocean as the waves break against the rugged coast. Visitors can enjoy public beaches secludedly shielded by rocky cliffs. Hike along the coastal trails to spot wildlife like birds and whales. Or explore the natural attractions like Alamere Falls and Bear Valley.
Descend the steps to the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in the 1870s, to marvel at the views of the Pacific Ocean. And drive beneath the distinct cypress tree archway for one of the top photo spots in the park.
Stay Here: Olema House at Point Reyes
MUIR WOODS NATIONAL STATE MONUMENT
The forest floor of the Muir Woods National State Monument is set below some of the largest trees in the world. Established in 1908, this site was donated to protect the redwood trees located throughout the more than 550-acre area.
Muir Woods National State Monument hosts upwards of one million visitors every year. Trek the Hillside Trail to see a ground-level perspective of the giants thriving in Cathedral Grove. Trees reach heights as tall as 258-feet and house diverse wildlife living in the ancient forest.
If the Muir Woods National State Monument looks familiar, it’s because it was used as the setting in Jurassic Park, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and other famous films.
Stay Here: Muir Woods Lodge
See why many of the biggest tech companies have set up their headquarters in San Jose to make it a hub of Silicon Valley. Riding around town is a clash of times as the modern offices of tech giants like Apple and Google contrast with the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture decorating downtown.
In addition to the tech scene, San Jose is an excellent destination for shopping and entertainment. Pass beneath the iconic San Pedro Square sign to shop the downtown farmers market or opt for Santana Row, a modern commercial district with over 30 restaurants and 50 stores.
Read More: 37 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA
Stay Here: Aloft Santa Clara – San Jose North
Limestone structures emerge like castles from the middle of Mono Lake. These peculiar landforms have intrigued photographers and nature seekers.
Bring along a camera because there is ample opportunity for nature photography at Mono Lake. The naturally-artistic formations make the perfect subject for pictures capturing the vast lake surface dotted with kayakers and canoers.
Exit off US Hwy 395, where you’ll first reach the Mono Lake Visitor Center filled with exhibitions detailing the geological history of the lake dating back over 750,000 years ago.
Stay Here: Yosemite Gateway Motel
The picturesque Mendocino Coast offers ocean views everywhere you look. However, between the coastal village and preserved regional landscapes, one day is hardly enough time to experience all it has to offer.
Revel in the postcard-worthy views from the Point Arena Lighthouse, Point Cabrillo Light Station, and other historical lighthouses adorning the Mendocino Coast. Go for a coastal hike in the Mendocino Headlands State Park to discover hidden sea caves and tide pools that reveal themselves to lucky visitors deserving of a swim. Or see the diverse flora, including native species, thriving in the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.
Read More: 45 BEST THINGS TO DO IN ORANGE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
Stay Here: Agate Cove Inn
MENDOCINO HEADLANDS STATE PARK
Established in 1974, the Mendocino Headlands State Park fulfills its role in protecting the rugged coastline outside of Mendocino. Visitors are welcome to immerse themselves in the picturesque natural scenery.
Hike along the seaside bluffs where views of rocky coast extending to the Pacific Ocean accompany you along the entire trek before reaching overlooks offering panoramic views. Discover beaches hidden by seaside cliffs providing a secluded setting for swimming, surfing, diving, and fishing.
Mendocino Headlands State Park covers 347 acres, giving plenty of sights and activities within the park for all ages.
Stay Here: Seagull Inn Bed & Breakfast
LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Lava Beds National Monument is a land of turmoil, both geological and historical. Over the last half-million years, volcanic eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano have created a rugged landscape dotted with diverse volcanic features. More than 800 caves, Native American rock art sites, historic battlefields and campsites, and a high desert wilderness experience await you!
Stay Here: Bonanza Home
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO CALIFORNIA
- YOUR CALIFORNIA VACATION
- MONTEREY: 13 Sensational Things To Do In Monterey
- DAY TRIPS FROM SF: 16 Absolute Best Day Trips From San Francisco
- SACRAMENTO: 25 Best Things To Do In Sacramento, CA
- BIG BEAR: 11+ Adventurous Things To Do In Big Bear
- RV THE WEST COAST: 26 Epic Places to Stop | THE BEST RV CAMPING IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
WHERE TO STAY IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
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