Road trips through California are part of the nostalgia of the Golden State. We’ve talked about Southern California road trips recently. Now we’re exploring road trips in Northern California. Home to five national parks, wineries and lots of activities, it’s an excellent place for short road trips. Here are some of our suggestions for best road trips in Northern California.
Note: due to COVID-19, some attractions may be closed. Be sure to check their websites for updated hours of operation. When visiting California, please be sure to travel responsibly and follow the travel tips that Visit California has put together.
Best Road Trips in Northern California
Pacific Coast Highway (San Luis Obispo to San Francisco)
Distance – 255 miles
The second section of the PCH takes your road trips of Northern California up the coast where you can view world-famous cities, tour mansions, eat a variety of food, and explore the coastline.
San Luis Obispo
Start this leg of the road trip in San Luis Obispo, where you can venture out for winery tours, visit distilleries and breweries, eat at amazing restaurants or take a trip to a spa. Take a trip to one of the lakes in the area for fishing or water activities. Explore one of the city’s museums. And don’t forget to keep an eye out for whales, sea lions, dolphins, and birds that call the Pacific Ocean their home.
Be sure to make a stop in San Simeon to visit Hearst Castle. It’s an iconic California spot that is a celebration of architecture and art. Home to wealthy businessman William Randolph Hearst, it was initially located on over 200,000 acres. With 42 bedrooms, 127 acres of gardens, pools and at one time the largest privately-owned zoo, it’s a must-see.
Another 65 miles up CA-1 is Big Sur. With mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Big Sur is an outdoor lover’s paradise. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park has a campground and also offers hiking. Looking to go to the beach? Pfeiffer Beach is a great place to experience tide pools or view the sunset. There are plenty of unique restaurants, inns and resorts in the area as well.
Originally the location of the nation’s sardine fishing and canning headquarters, the historic Cannery Row area is reborn with shops, restaurants, galleries and more. Stay along the coastline at the gorgeous Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa as your home base for exploring the area. One morning we set out on an ocean kayaking adventure, and another day we took a drive to nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea. Famous Pebble Beach Resort is also nearby with its world-class golf courses.
And don’t forget to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Home to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, this city is excellent for kids (and those who are kids at heart!). In addition to the boardwalk, there’s the main beach, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, the Santa Cruz Wharf (which juts out into the Pacific Ocean and a great place to see wildlife) and the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.
What can be said about San Francisco that hasn’t been said already? Not a lot. As a former resident, I know its charm and how much there is to do. You definitely need a few days to experience the city’s flavor.
But don’t forget other treasures in the city like The Painted Ladies, The Walt Disney Family Museum or the GLBT Historical Society Museum. There are also some of the best restaurants in the world scattered throughout all the neighborhoods of San Francisco.
San Francisco to Medford, OR
Distance – 380 miles
From San Francisco, it’s not too far from the California state line. About 30 additional miles on this road trip through Northern California and you’ll be in Oregon for outdoor adventures and plenty of wineries to visit and enjoy.
30 miles outside of San Francisco, make a stop at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. With 15 thrill rides, family & kid rides, animal encounters and entertainment, there’s something for everyone. Not into rides? They currently have an option to purchase access just to the Marine World Experience.
After a day at the park, head 50 miles north to send the night in Napa. The center of the Napa Valley wine region, it’s a perfect place to relax for a day or two. Wine tours, breweries, golf, and food are all parts of the area. There are also art museums such as the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art or tour the Ca’ Toga Villa. Or even consider taking a bike tour of the Valley to get a close up look at the vineyards that make the area famous.
A few hours north of Napa is Redding. Plan on spending a few days here to explore the outdoors and take some time to relax. Located about an hour from both Lassen Volcanic National Park and Mount Shasta, the are provides plenty of hiking and backpacking opportunities. Whiskeytown National Recreation is also close by and has four waterfalls, a lake for kayaking and a campground. All that outdoor activity will make you hungry. With plenty of dining options and breweries and wineries in the area, you’ll find something to suit your tastes.
Just 31 miles north of the California/Oregon state line, Medford offers mountain views, wineries and outdoor adventures. Visit Table Rocks for hiking, explore one of the 88 wineries in the surrounding area or take the kids to see waterfalls. There’s so much to do. It’s a fun way to end your road trip.
Sacramento to Death Valley
Distance – 425 miles
Death Valley. The name alone can cause scary thoughts. Don’t let the name fool you, though. Death Valley is a place that’s worth a visit. Be sure to use some caution during the summer months, though.
The capital of California, Sacramento is about 90 miles northeast of San Francisco. Spend time visiting the Sacramento Zoo, tour the state capitol and explore the California Automobile Museum. Also, be sure to learn about Native Americans who lived on these lands for thousands of years at the State Indian Museum.
Make a stop in Stockton to enjoy some of the fresh fruits and vegetables harvested from the surrounding area. Also, don’t miss the Cambodian Buddhist Temple for beautiful statues throughout the grounds.
Yosemite National Park
1,200 square miles of park, majestic waterfalls and beautiful views – there are many reasons why Yosemite is one of the top 5 visited national parks in the United States. Founded in 1890, Yosemite National Park is home to bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain lions and over 260 species of birds. Don’t miss the giant sequoias at various groves around the park.
Looking to stay inside the park? Make reservations at Yosemite Valley Lodge. Book early though – since it fills up quickly, you’ll want to make reservations 12 months in advance.
On the way to Death Valley, stop for a visit at Keough’s Hot Springs. There’s a hot pool kept at 104 degrees for relaxing and a deeper pool at lower temps for pleasure and exercise. The groundwaters pumped in contain over 25 minerals. Pools are emptied and cleaned every week. There are water aerobics classes held several times a week and onsite camping is available.
Death Valley National Park
Located in the northern Mojave Desert, Death Valley is the lowest elevation point in North America. Native Americans have lived there for thousands of years. Gold was discovered there in the 1800s, as was borax. A dry, arid place, Death Valley is still an exciting place to visit.
In addition to guided ranger tours, you can hike, mountain bike, go trail running or explore the night sky. Are you a Star Wars fan? There are self-guided tours that show where scenes from the movies took place. And don’t worry about lodging. There are places to stay inside and outside of the park and camping facilities are available. There are several restaurants too.
When traveling through Death Valley, be sure to plan and taking safety precautions. Drink and carry enough water. Hiking is not recommended during the summer months. And remember, your cell phone might not work everywhere in the valley, so be prepared.
Pacific Coast Highway (Olema to Crescent City)
Distance – 360 miles
The last portion of the Pacific Coast Highway goes from north of San Francisco to the state line. This leg is one of the road trips of Northern California on the PCH that doesn’t stick to the coastline – parts of it go through national conservation areas that take it slightly in-land. It’s still one of the most scenic road trips in Northern California due to the giant redwoods.
Make a stop in Olema to visit the Point Reyes National Seashore. With over 150 miles of trails, backcountry camping and beaches, it’s a great place to get outdoors. Depending on how much time you spend there, you can see the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, the Morgan Horse Ranch or one of the three visitors centers at the park.
Mendocino provides a place to spend a night or two and explore the area. With activities like whale watching, visiting the beaches, fishing and exploring the nearby forests, there’s plenty to do. And don’t miss the Ford House Visitor Center & Museum for history buffs in the family. Or the NOYO Center for Marine Science for your fans of the ocean.
Book a room at one of our favorite lodges in the Mendocino area. The Brewery Gulch Inn is a sweet boutique hotel with just 12 rooms, overlooking the rugged coastline. With 65 rooms and expansive ocean views, The Little River Inn includes a delicious restaurant, 9-hole golf course and wooded areas for hiking and exploring.
Make a stop in Leggett to visit the Drive-Thru Tree Park. Open since 1922, the park features a coastal redwood tree that has an opening wide enough to drive your car through. It’s one of those places you have to get a picture of.
A port city, Eureka has lots of do. Take some time to go on a tour with oyster harvesters to learn more about the area’s ecoculture. Kayak the bay. Go birding and discover some of the local wildlife. Explore Old Town where there are over 100 Victorian buildings, some which are on the United States Historic Register of Historic Places.
Redwood National and State Parks
Home to the tallest trees on the planet, Redwood National and State Parks offer great drives, hiking, biking and camping. You also might get to see some of the wildlife that lives there, including black bears, whales, seals and elk.
Relax in the last stop on the northern point of the Pacific Coast Highway. Crescent City is a small town on the water. Visit Crescent City Harbor – you’re sure to see plenty of sea lions sunning themselves. Take a tour of the Battery Point Lighthouse. And explore the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Full of mammoth trees, you can hike, kayak, fish and camp at this park.
What Are Your Best Road Trips in Northern California?
Do you have your own list of best road trips in Northern California? Are there any locations we should add?