This is a guest post by Anu Agarwal.
Northern California, with its diverse landscapes, historic charm, and vibrant cities, offers a myriad of experiences waiting to be explored. From the breathtaking beauty of Yosemite National Park and the shimmering waters of Lake Tahoe to rugged coastlines and towering redwoods, this region has a lot to uncover.
Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast looking for adventure, a solo traveler seeking new experiences, or just someone wanting a quiet getaway in nature, Northern California promises a treasure trove of destinations that captivate, inspire, and linger in memory. Join us as we uncover 10 top spots in Northern California that you won’t want to miss:
1. San Francisco
In bustling San Francisco, the iconic “City by the Bay,” you will find a vibrant blend of history and innovation. From its famous Golden Gate Bridge to the busy streets of Chinatown, it’s a city of contrasts. Once the epicenter of the Gold Rush and later the heart of the counterculture movement, today it stands as a tech hub, all while retaining its unique charm.
The famous Golden Gate Bridge stands tall (and red), and it isn’t just a marvel of engineering but also offers some of the best views of the city and bay. If you only have one day in San Francisco, you should definitely make time to visit the bridge and maybe walk across it!
Alcatraz Island, once the country’s most notorious prison, is another very popular attraction now open to the public for tours. We recommend taking a bay cruise from Pier 39, which will give you excellent views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. Better yet, take it at sunset time and see the city skyline slowly lighting up in the distance.
While at Fisherman’s Wharf, catch a ride on the historic San Francisco cable car and enjoy the journey up and down the steep streets. Sit on the outside for the best views and hold on, as there are no seat belts! Once done, try the signature clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, which is a must. Later, visit Ghirardelli Square to try some delicious ice cream.
Staying at Fisherman’s Wharf will put you at the center of everything; Argonaut Hotel, with its nautical-themed rooms and proximity to major attractions, is a great choice. Plus, the views of the bay are a bonus.
2. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe, nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California, is renowned for its crystal-clear blue waters and stunning mountain backdrop. It’s a favored destination year-round, what with its pristine beaches and watersports in the summer and world-class ski resorts in the winter.
Emerald Bay State Park in South Lake Tahoe can’t be missed, and the Vikingsholm Castle in Emerald Bay is a hidden gem (there are tours in the summer months; you can buy tickets at the castle office itself). You can only reach Emerald Bay by boat or by hiking down the Vikingsholm Trail. The views of the bay with Fannette Island in the center are some of the most iconic sights in Tahoe.
Kayaking, paddleboarding, jet-skiing, and parasailing are popular sports on the lake in the summer months. There are also numerous hiking trails in the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe; my favorite is the Eagle Lake Trail, a steep but short one-mile hike through rocky terrain to a beautiful lake, as well as Mount Tallac, a stunning day hike or a multiday adventure, depending on your preference.
Tahoe is a winter sports paradise, too, with numerous ski resorts, such as Heavenly and Northstar. Many resorts offer lessons, so begeinners shouldn’t be too shy to give it a go. The Heavenly Gondola is worth riding up even in the summer for panoramic views of Lake Tahoe.
The surrounding towns, like South Lake Tahoe, offer a rich mix of dining and shopping experiences. Enjoy a meal at one of the many restaurants at Heavenly Village, like Base Camp Pizza Co., or perhaps cozy up in a café or ice cream shop.
For your stay, consider the Edgewood Tahoe Resort. This luxurious lakeside lodge with a golf course offers impeccable views and is an ideal base to explore both the natural and lively sides of Lake Tahoe. There are plenty of other boutique hotels and adorable Airbnbs to choose from as well.
3. Yosemite National Park
If there is any place in Northern California that can beat Lake Tahoe’s timeless beauty, that’s Yosemite National Park. Set within California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, it is a testament to the raw power and beauty of nature.
Yosemite is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, given its deep valleys, ancient giant sequoias, vast meadows, and imposing granite cliffs. The park’s landscapes inspire awe and offer endless opportunities for exploration.
The best place to start exploring is at Yosemite Valley at the heart of the park, which offers views of its most famous landmarks. Start your day early to avoid parking hassles during peak times. During the busy summer months, you can also ride the two-hour Valley Floor Tour and get an overview of all the best sights, including El Capitán, Half Dome, Tunnel View, and Yosemite Falls.
Yosemite is popular among hikers for some epic hikes, like the 17-mile round-trip Half Dome Trail, which is very challenging and requires a permit. There are also many easy hikes, like the lower Yosemite Falls one; the falls are best seen during May and June, when the snow melt sends down more water.
Yosemite Valley Lodge has a food court for your meals and even a Starbucks! Curry Village also has a restaurant with hot meals.
Staying within the park is the best way to explore more of it. Yosemite Valley Lodge is in the center of everything, while the Ahwahnee Hotel offers a luxury stay amid the wilderness. Curry Village in the park is popular for camping with canvas tent cabins and has an ice skating rink in the winter!
4. Bodega Bay
Serene Bodega Bay, known for its stunning views and tranquil beaches, is where the rugged beauty of the Pacific coastline shelters quiet inlets and tidal pools. Take a stroll or enjoy a picnic on the two-mile-long crescent-shaped Doran Beach, or check out Salmon Creek and Wright’s Beaches.
The bay serves as a migration path for gray whales between December and April. Head to Bodega Head, a huge headland, for the best vantage point. There is a hiking trail along the perimeter for some excellent coastal views.
Another excellent hiking opportunity nearby is the Kortum Trail, an almost flat path along the coastline offering unparalleled ocean vistas. Pack a light jacket, as it can be very windy here.
After the hike or beach fun, try some delicious seafood at a restaurant in town. Fishetarian Fish Market is a local dining spot in a relaxed setting.
For a weekend getaway, The Lodge at Bodega Bay, in a prime location next to Doran Beach, offers luxury accommodations and rejuvenating spa services.
5. Point Reyes National Seashore
Located just a short 1.5-hour drive from San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore is a coastal preserve known for its stunning lighthouse, untouched coastline, and dramatic ocean bluffs.
Check out the Point Reyes Lighthouse for a glimpse into maritime history and sweeping ocean views. To reach it, you have to climb down a series of steps, which is easy — it’s the climbing back up those 300 steps that will give you a good workout! You can also get panoramic views of the lighthouse from the observation deck at the top. It can get very windy here, so dress accordingly.
On the way back from the lighthouse, stop at the Cypress Tree Tunnel, a striking corridor of Monterey cypress trees and an iconic photo spot, especially during morning fog.
Tomales Bay State Park nearby has an extensive trail system. The Tomales Point hike, famous for its Tule elk sightings, is highly recommended. Once you reach the point, you will be rewarded with 360-degree ocean views and might even see some whales during the winter.
Drakes and Limantour Beaches are excellent for strolling along the coast and admiring the rock formations. Make sure to check the tide reports as you venture out to these remote areas.
6. Muir Woods
Muir Woods National Monument, located just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, is a unique place to see old California nature up close. In this serene oasis, you will find ancient redwoods, with some towering giants reaching over 250 feet and dating back more than a millennium.
The best way to explore Muir Woods is to walk its many trails for every type of hiker. The relatively easy, relatively flat Main Trail loop is the first trail you will encounter on the forest floor and goes over a series of bridges and gives you a good glimpse of the magnificent redwoods. There are many other hikes, like the moderate Fern Creek Loop and the strenuous Dipsea Trail, for a canopy view of the redwood forest.
Check out the Muir Woods Visitor Center and consider attending one of the ranger-led programs. These sessions provide rich insights into the park’s captivating ecology and history.
When hunger strikes, the Muir Woods Trading Company Café, inside the park, offers a range of organic and locally sourced dishes.
7. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Did you know that California has its own volcanic park, complete with boiling mud pots and sulfur vents? Lassen Volcanic National Park in northeastern California is one of the most underrated national parks, lesser known even among the locals. But it showcases the dynamic power of geothermal forces and is truly stunning.
The best way to experience Lassen is to drive from the south entrance to the north entrance via Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway 89, which stretches for about 30 miles. This winding route is more than just a road; it’s a scenic drive through the park’s top geological features, like Sulphur Works, the Devastated Area, and Lassen Peak.
Bumpass Hell Trail is the most popular hike in the park, a boardwalk that lets you safely explore the hydrothermal areas. You can witness boiling springs and mud pots and will surely get a whiff of the pungent smell of sulfur here. If you are looking for a more strenuous hike, climb the Lassen Peak for panoramic views.
Note that Lassen National Park is snow-covered from October to June, and most trails are only accessible in the summer months. The park’s high elevation and remote location make it perfect for stargazing and night-sky viewing.
Manzanita is one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the park, and you can walk along its entire perimeter in around an hour. The reflection of Mount Lassen in the water is picture-perfect. The lake also has a campground if you would like to stay overnight in the park, though you would need prior reservations.
8. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, with its iconic boardwalk, surf spots, and artsy spirit, stands out as one of the requisite destinations in Northern California for those seeking fun and relaxation in equal measure. The city is best known for its Beach Boardwalk. This historic amusement park, with its vintage rides and roller coasters, vibrant carnival games, and ocean views, is very popular among tourists as well as locals.
At the heart of the city’s attractions is Santa Cruz Beach. This expansive stretch of golden sand is not only an ideal place to sunbathe or enjoy a leisurely stroll but also a backdrop to the historic boardwalk.
Surfing is another big draw, and the waves at Steamer Lane offer challenges for both beginners and seasoned surfers. If you’re just starting out, Cowell’s Beach is known for its gentler waves and surf schools, making it a perfect place to learn.
Just a short drive from Santa Cruz you’ll find the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, whose towering ancient redwoods and hiking trails for all levels offer an escape from the busy boardwalk.
For a bite to eat, head downtown. The Walnut Avenue Café offers a delightful brunch menu, while Laili serves up a fusion of Mediterranean and Afghan cuisine. As evening falls, consider tasting some local brews at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing.
When it comes to laying your head down, the Dream Inn, right on the beachfront, offers both comfort and iconic views of the beach and boardwalk.
Monterey, a highlight of the Pacific coastline, offers an enriching blend of marine experiences, historical landmarks, and outdoor adventures.
It’s hard to talk about the city without mentioning the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. Situated on historic Cannery Row, it provides unmatched insights into marine life, from playful otters to mesmerizing jellyfish.
For a memorable outing, take 17-Mile Drive. This scenic route unveils some of California’s most stunning coastal vistas. Dramatic cliffs, the iconic Lone Cypress, and panoramic ocean views make this drive unforgettable. Time your jaunt to catch the sunset; the golden hues against the rugged coastline are picture-perfect.
Just a stone’s throw away is the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, known for its fairy-tale cottages and artistic community. It’s an excellent place to explore art galleries or just relax by the beach.
When it comes to dining, Monterey offers a bounty of the sea. For a casual setting with views of the harbor, the Sandbar & Grill is hard to beat. For a night’s rest, the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa offers comfort with views of the tranquil bay.
10. Shasta Lake
Shasta Lake is one of the largest reservoirs in Northern California, formed by the Shasta Dam. It is an underrated destination, known mostly by locals, that’s excellent for boating and water-based recreational sports.
Additionally, the lake’s reputation as a leading freshwater fishing destination draws anglers from near and far. The presence of Mount Shasta nearby enhances the lake’s visual appeal, making it a frequented location for nature enthusiasts.
Lake Shasta is also one of the best places in California for houseboat vacations. You can rent a houseboat and leisurely cruise the lake. Book well in advance for peak summer months.
One of the top places attractions is Lake Shasta Caverns, a network of beautiful and huge limestone caves. To take a guided tour, you have to first ride a boat to the foot of the mountain and then take a bus to reach the caves. The caves are well worth the journey.
Don’t forget to visit Shasta Dam, a marvel of modern engineering. There are guided tours that detail its construction and significance. You can see the snow-covered peak of Mount Shasta from the road on the top of Shasta Dam.
For overnight stays near the lake, the Bridge Bay at Shasta Lake resort offers a range of accommodations, from lodge rooms to houseboat rentals.
Northern California is certainly a mix of natural wonders, like national parks and peaceful lakes, as well as vibrant cities and towns. As you plan your trip, remember that there’s a lot to discover and many memories to make exploring its beauty.
About the author: Anu Agarwal is the founder and content creator of vacation travel blog Destination Checkoff. A Northern California resident and a regular nine-to-fiver, she loves to vacation with her family at destinations all over the world, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Asia, for which she is obsessed with doing endless research. On her blog, she is excited to share her itineraries and vacation travel guides and help readers check those dream destinations off their bucket lists!
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