Northern California is one of the Pacific Coast's most striking natural regions, extending northward from San Luis Obispo County to the state's border with neighboring state Oregon. Napa and Sonoma Valleys are among the world's top wine-producing regions, showcasing hundreds of vineyards that can be explored on wine trails or as part of guided wine country tasting tours.
Stunning old-growth redwood and giant sequoia forests are on display at the Redwood National and State Parks system or world-renowned Yosemite National Park. Visitors can also drive the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, which meanders through areas like San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, and the Mendocino Coast and offers stunning ocean views.
1. Napa Valley
Napa Valley is one of the Pacific Coast's top wine growing regions, gaining international prominence following the resounding success of its Chardonnays at the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition.
Located about an hour north of San Francisco, Napa Valley is home to more than 400 lovely wineries today, many of which are located along the acclaimed Silverado Trail.
Wineries like historic To Kalon Vineyard and contemporary favorite Harlan Estate are known for their signature Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals, which can be sampled throughout the week at lovely tasting rooms.
The Napa Valley Wine Train runs vintage locomotive excursions throughout the valley, offering traveling dining experiences year-round. Michelin-starred restaurants serve up delicious Californian cuisine, expertly paired with bottles from top regional and international wineries. Where to Stay
2. Anderson Valley
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Anderson Valley is a beautiful rural region located approximately an hour and a half north of San Francisco, located within western Mendocino County along the banks of Anderson Creek and the Navarro River.
The region, which is named in honor of early pioneer William Anderson, is best known as the home of the Anderson Valley AVA, which rose to prominence in the 1980s and is known for its production of Alsatian grape varietals and sparkling wines.
Visitors can taste wines at delightful winery estates like Roederer Estate and Lazy Creek Vineyards or attend special events such as the annual Pinot Noir Festival.
Scenic drives meander through the region, including winding Highway 128, which traverses the lovely Yorkville Highlands. More trips from San Francisco
3. Año Nuevo State Park
Año Nuevo State Park is a lovely state park encompassing the beautiful Año Nuevo Island and Point in San Mateo County, located approximately an hour south of downtown San Francisco. The park is noted for its unique physical terrain, which spans wetland marsh, coastal terrace prairie and scrub, and dune field habitats and is home to rare animals such as the endangered San Francisco garter snake and California red-legged frog. Visitors can explore natural history exhibits at the park's visitor center or view the remnants of prehistoric indigenous villages and 19th-century ranches. Año Nuevo Point is also known as a prime spot for viewing migratory birds, harbor seals, and Steller sea lions.
Año Nuevo State Park, 1 New Years Creek Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060, Phone: 650-879-2025
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4. Bodega Head
Bodega Head is a charming Pacific Coast peninsular region in Sonoma County, located approximately 45 minutes north of the city of San Francisco.
The peninsula spans four miles along the Bodega Bay and Harbor area, known as the assumed landing site for the seminal 1579 Pacific Coast voyage of Sir Francis Drake. Visitors can swim at beautiful Sonoma Coast State Beach, which is located on the peninsula's southern end, or explore the lovely University of California-Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, which is known as one of the region's best spots for observing migratory whales. A beautiful trail network also offers excellent opportunities for recreational hiking throughout the area.
Bodega Head Map
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5. Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Calaveras Big Trees State Park is a lovely state park near the city of Arnold, located within the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The charming park preserves two beautiful groves of giant sequoia trees, which have been known as a major tourist attraction in the Northern California region since the mid-19th century. Today, the park is considered to be the state's longest continually-operated tourist attraction, home to iconic trees such as the massive Discovery Tree, which was felled in 1853 and measured at a diameter of 25 feet. Though the tree is no longer standing, it has been determined by its ring count to have been 1,244 years old at its felling. The beautiful Empire State Tree, the largest North Grove tree standing today, measures 30 feet in diameter at ground level, while the Louis Agassiz Tree in the park's South Grove measures 25 feet in diameter. Other park attractions include the lovely Lava Bluff and Bradley Trails and the picturequest Stanislaus River. 129 campsites are offered throughout the park, along with six lovely day-use picnic sites.
1170 CA-4, Arnold, CA 95223, website, Map
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Folsom is one of Sacramento's most famed historic towns, immortalized in the iconic 1950s Johnny Cash song "Folsom Prison Blues." The historic town, which is located on the banks of Folsom Lake, is home to a wide variety of natural and historic attractions, including the Folsom Prison Museum, which showcases memorabilia connected to the state's second-oldest prison.
The lovely Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary is a popular family-friendly attraction, while Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park and Folsom Historical Museum preserve the region's history of gold mining and hydroelectric power production. Outdoor recreational opportunities are offered at Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, including great opportunities for hiking and horseback riding. The city's downtown district is populated by delightful art galleries, theaters, live music venues, and nightclubs, along with a wide variety of Californian and international cuisine options.
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7. Fort Bragg
Fort Bragg is a delightful coastal city along California's beautiful Mendocino Coast, located approximately 150 miles north of the city of San Francisco. The charming city is best known as the home of the unique Glass Beach, which is lined with shards of polished glass that have washed ashore, instead of traditional pebbles.
Visitors can explore the lovely nearby MacKerricher State Park, which is known for its native birds and harbor seals. The beautiful Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens showcase native plants, while the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse serves as a navigational aid 15 miles off the coastline.
The city's historic downtown district is home to excellent shopping and dining destinations, along with attractions like the Skunk Train, which offers redwood forest excursions along the Noyo River Canyon.
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8. Humboldt Redwood State Park
Humboldt Redwood State Park is a lovely California state park that is best known as the home of the famed Rockefeller Forest, the largest contiguous old-growth coastal redwood forest in the world. The forest, which is located approximately half an hour south of the city of Eureka, is named in honor of 19th-century scientist Alexander von Humboldt and was originally established in 1921 by the Save the Redwoods League. Today, it is California's third-largest state park, spanning more than 51,000 acres within the Northern California coastal forest ecoregion. More than 100 of the world's known trees over 350 feet are located throughout the park, including the world's fourth-tallest living redwood, Stratosphere Giant. Visitors can enjoy opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, biking, swimming, and fishing throughout the park at sites such as the South Fork Eel River. Over 250 family campsites are offered, along with group camps and trail camps.
\17119 Avenue of the Giants, Weott, CA 95571, (website link)
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Jenner is a delightful coastal town in Sonoma County, located along the mouth of the Russian River at its terminus at the Pacific Ocean. The town is located along more than 20 miles of the beautiful two-lane Highway 1, home to beautiful natural wonders like the 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands Preserve, which protects redwood and Douglas fir forests and offers 14 miles of hiking trails.
Stillwater Cove Regional Park is a popular spot for diving and fishing, while Salt Point State Park offers ample opportunities for hiking and horseback riding. Lovely beachfront areas include Goat Rock Beach, a great spot for whale and harbor seal watching, and Blind Beach, which is known as a top beachcombing area. Visitors can also taste wines at Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery or enjoy organic meals at the charming Cafe Aquatica, which overlooks the river's estuary. Jenner Map
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10. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is one of California's most popular tourist regions, known for its excellent outdoor recreational opportunities throughout the year. The region is best known as one of the Pacific Coast's best destinations for skiing during the winter months, home to top skiing areas such as the Heavenly Mountain Resort, Alpine Meadows, and Palisades Tahoe, the host of the 1960 Winter Olympic Games.
Visitors can hit the slopes or enjoy opportunities for cross-country skiing, snow tubing, snowshoeing, and snowmobile riding throughout the region. During the summer months, the region is a popular area for parasailing, jet skiing, stand-up paddleboarding, and other water sports at areas like Tahoe City and Kings Beach. Each year, the city hosts the prestigious Lake Tahoe Concours d'Elegance, one of the nation's top wooden boat shows. On the region's Nevada side, lively casinos line the lake's North and South Shore regions, including the Calneva, which was once owned by singer Frank Sinatra.
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11. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of Northern California's most unique natural sites, anchored around the volcanic mountain of the same name, which last erupted for three years in 1914. The park is full of hydrothermal features, including boiling pools, mud pots, and fumaroles like those found at sites such as Bumpass Hell and Sulphur Works. Visitors can observe the region's surrounding wilderness and view sites such as the park's Devastated Area, which is home to lava rocks created during the volcano's last eruption. More than 150 miles of day hiking and backpacking trails showcase the region's forest and lake areas, connecting with the nearby Pacific Crest Trail at the park's northern end. Ranger-led programming is offered throughout the year, including nature hikes and snowshoeing programs.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, PO Box 100, Mineral, CA 96063, Phone: 530-595-4480, (website)
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12. The Mendocino Coast
The Mendocino Coast is one of Northern California's most beautiful coastal regions, anchored around the charming town of Mendocino, which has been designated in its entirety as an Historic Preservation District.
In town, visitors can explore Mendocino's lovely Saltbox cottages and Victorian-style homes, which have been converted into bed and breakfasts, art galleries, museums, and restaurants. Nearby, Mendocino Headlands State Park is known for its scenic cliffs and excellent nature photography opportunities, while MacKerricher State Park is home to stunning sand dunes and popular beachfront horseback riding destinations.
Fort Bragg is known around the nation as the home of the unique Glass Beach, which is filled with bits of colorful polished sea glass. Visitors can also explore the lovely wineries and tasting rooms of Mendocino Wine Country, many of which are located along California Highway 101.
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13. Mono Lake
Mono Lake is one of Northern California's loveliest destinations for swimming and water sports, located in Mono County near the edge of the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The ancient saline soda lake, which formed over 760,000 years ago, is unique for its high levels of accumulating salts, which make its waters very alkaline. Because of this, it has no fish and is instead populated by brine shrimp, alkali flies, and millions of beautiful migratory birds. Lake visitors can embark on birdwatching interpretive programs from the lake's visitor center, which showcases exhibits on its one-of-a-kind ecosystem.
Mono Lake's waters make for unusual swimming conditions, with some claiming they have healing properties akin to hot springs. Hiking, boating, and cross-country skiing are also popular at the lake throughout the year, along with camping at nearby Lundy and Lee Vining Canyons.
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14. Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument is a National Register of Historic Places-listed region within Northern California's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just north of the city of San Francisco. The monument, which was declared in 1908, is known for its lovely old-growth redwood trees, which can be explored via hiking trails at sites such as Bohemian and Cathedral Groves. Hiking trails vary in length and difficulty, including the Ben Johnson and Dipsea Trails, which offer lovely hillside views of the nearby Pacific Ocean coastline and Mount Tamalpais.
Tour buses and shuttles travel to the park from nearby areas such as Marin City, Sausalito, and Mill Valley throughout the week, operated by the National Park Service. Special events hosted at the monument throughout the year include the annual Dipsea Race, which travels through the park on its way between Stinson Beach and Mill Valley. More Free & Affordable Attractions in California
Muir Woods National Monument, 1 Muir Woods Rd, Mill Valley, CA 94941, Phone: 415-561-2850
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Occidental is a tiny, quaint community in western Sonoma County, known for its renowned cultural attractions in its lovely downtown district. Though the city's Main Street only extends for two blocks, it is home to a wide variety of renowned attractions, including delicious dining experiences at acclaimed restaurants like the 1879 Union Hotel and Restaurant or the famed Negri's Italian Dinners and Joe's Bar, known for its Italian classics since the midcentury.
Art galleries, boutiques, and cafes also line the district, along with cultural organizations like the Occidental Center for the Arts. At the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, visitors can learn about gardening or explore a 70-acre wildlands preserve as part of guided tours. The city also serves as the starting point for the popular 10-mile Bohemian Highway drive, attracting cycling and car clubs throughout the Northern California region.
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16. Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore stretches for more than 71,000 beautiful acres along Marin County's Point Reyes Peninsula, attracting over 2.5 million visitors each year. The seashore, which is overseen by the National Park Service, is known throughout California for its gorgeous coastal beach, estuary, and headland panoramas, which can be explored via its extensive hiking and backpacking trail system.
Visitors can watch for whales and marine wildlife at the historic 1870 Point Reyes Lighthouse or the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station, the Pacific Coast's last remaining rail-launched lifeboat station. At the Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District and the Kule Loklo Village, visitors can learn about the area's indigenous and European settler history. The Phillip Burton Wilderness also protects over 30,000 acres of the seashore's fir and pine forest and grassland areas.
Point Reyes National Seashore, 1 Bear Valley Visitor Center Access Road, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956, Phone: 415-464-5137
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17. Redwood National and State Parks
Redwood National and State Parks protect some of the world's tallest and most impressive old-growth trees, stretching for more than 40 miles along Northern California's rugged coastline.
The park system, which is jointly overseen by the National Park Service and California State Parks, encompasses the lovely Redwood National Park, along with Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. Together, all of the parks span an area of over 139,000 acres, protecting nearly half of all of the world's remaining coast redwood old-growth forests. Lovely growth areas include picturesque spots like Elk Prairie, Fern Canyon, and Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Visitors can explore the park's 10-mile Newtown B. Drury Scenic Parkway, walk through a river bottom grove at Stout Grove, or view stunning panoramas at the Crescent Beach and Klamath River Overlooks, which serve as great spots for coastal whale watching.
1111 Second Street, Crescent City, CA 95531, Phone: 707-464-6101, Map
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18. Russian Gulch State Park
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Russian Gulch State Park is a lovely California state park in Mendocino County, located just minutes from the cities of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. The charming park stretches over 7,600 feet across the region's rocky Pacific Coast shoreline, accessible via California Highway 1. Visitors can explore the park's 15-mile trail system, which includes five miles of biking trails and explore beautiful sites like the Devil's Punchbowl sinkhole. A gorgeous 36-foot waterfall is showcased along the Fern Canyon Trail, while swimming, scuba diving, and fishing opportunities are offered throughout the year at the park's namesake creek. On the park's northeastern end, a horse camp offers horseback riding trails, staging areas, and corrals. 31 campsites including standard, group, and equestrian sites, available with advance reservations.
Russian Gulch State Park, CA-1, Mendocino, CA 95460, Phone: 707-937-5804
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19. San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the Pacific Coast's most picturesque major cities, located on a stunning hilltop peninsula surrounded by the scenic San Francisco Bay. The diverse, liberal city is one of Northern California's cultural meccas, known for world-class attractions like the DeYoung Museum, the Fillmore Theater, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the War Memorial Opera House.
Visitors can travel across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge or take day tours out to the city's infamous Alcatraz Island, which was home to a notorious federal prison throughout much of the 20th century. Historic cable cars traverse the city's hilly streets and neighborhoods, which are home to some of the nation's top global cuisine dining destinations. More than 82,000 acres of the city's metropolitan region are protected as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the most-visited unit of the National Park system.
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20. The Sierra Nevada Mountains
The Sierra Nevada Mountains are one of California's most beautiful mountain ranges, stretching between the state's Central Valley and Great Basin regions. The mountains are home to three national parks, including the famed Yosemite National Park, which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is known for its gorgeous waterfalls.
Just to the north, Lake Tahoe is home to world-class resorts, casinos, and skiing districts. The contiguous United States' tallest mountain peak, Mount Whitney, climbs more than 14,500 feet above the region's skyline. At Sequoia National Park, visitors can hike through groves of the world's most massive old-growth trees. Famed hiking and horseback riding experiences are offered along the John Muir Trail, a section of the cross-continental Pacific Crest Trail.
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21. Romantic Day Trip: Sonoma County
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Sonoma County is one of the Pacific Northwest's top wine destinations, located less than an hour north of San Francisco's downtown hub.
The region, which is home to charming cities like Santa Rosa, is home to 13 designated American Viticultural Areas and over 425 internationally-renowned wineries, which can be explored as part of wine trail experiences and guided winery tours. Unique Bartholomew Memorial Park showcases exhibits related to the early history of winemaking and agriculture in the region. Visitors can peruse cultural museums like the Pacific Coast Air Museum and the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art or visit living history sites such as the preserved 19th-century Spanish Mission San Francisco Solano, which details the area's Spanish colonial past. Over 13,000 acres of regional and state parks also call the region home, including the Jack London State Historic Site, connected to the famed American 20th-century author.
22. Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach is a lovely pristine beach within the Marin County section of the expansive Golden Gate National Recreation Area, located approximately half an hour from downtown San Francisco and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The beach is known as a top day trip getaway spot in the San Francisco Bay area, accessible via daily beach bus service from Marin City throughout the summer months. Its unique cold water conditions create a scenic foggy atmosphere year-round, enhancing the natural scenery of the surrounding Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods National Monument landscapes. Visitors can swim at the beach's gorgeous bay coastline stretches or enjoy opportunities for fishing and surfing throughout the year. On land, beach volleyball is popular on the beach's shoreline, while ample natural areas make for great hiking sites.
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23. The Pacific Coast Highway
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The Pacific Coast Highway is one of California's most iconic drives, stretching for 600 miles along the state's rugged coastline scenery. The road, which was originally constructed in the 1930s, remains one of the world's most astounding architectural feats today, traversing through towering redwood forest, high mountain, and expansive beachfront scenery. Though visitors can drive the highway start to finish in 10 hours, most take their time along the route, meandering through small towns and stopping at roadside attractions such as the Devil's Slide scenic walking path or the unique Bigfoot Discovery Museum, chronicling the legend of the infamous monster. San Simeon is home to the Elephant Seal Rookery, which sees migrations of more than 15,000 elephant seals each year, while Santa Cruz is home to the historic Santa Cruz Boardwalk, which features roller coasters with Pacific Ocean views. website, Map
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Truckee is a charming mountain town located near Lake Tahoe, historically known as a logging and railroad town throughout the 19th century. Though the city has retained its Old West vibe today, it has reinvented itself as one of Northern California's top arts destinations, designated as a California Cultural District in 2017. Lovely art galleries and studios populate its downtown district, including the Gallery 5830', Riverside Studios, and the Mountain Arts Collective.
Unique stores such as independent bookstore Word After Word showcase carefully-curated goods, while community spots like arts classroom Atelier offer a variety of crafting workshops. In recent years, the town has become a major foodie destination, home to global fusion cuisine, and elite prix fixe menus. Visitors can also enjoy swimming, rafting, mountain biking, and rock climbing experiences at nearby Donner Lake.
25. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the United States' most renowned national parks, located within the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The 1,200-square-mile park is mostly protected as wilderness, known for its giant ancient sequoia trees, some of which are millennia old. Most park activities are contained within an eight-square-mile area within the Yosemite Valley, which is home to stunning landmarks like the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome. Visitors can also trek to iconic Bridalveil Fall at Tunnel View or backpack within the expansive Yosemite Wilderness with backcountry permits. In lovely Yosemite Village, visitors can learn about the region's history and ecology at the Yosemite Museum or view prints by the renowned photographer at the Ansel Adams Gallery.
PO Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389, Phone: 209-372-0200
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