Our research is editorially independent but we may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Northern California offers a wealth of top attractions and natural splendors, home to everything from famous cities to charming small towns, wild beaches, soaring redwoods, and majestic mountains. If you plan to visit, these are some of the best places to put on your itinerary.
Mendocino is an artists’ colony that sits atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is the only one on the California coast that’s designated as a historical landmark. Founded in the 1850s, its streets are lined with grand Victorian buildings and saltbox cottages, which may look familiar if you’ve ever watched the TV series, “Murder, She Wrote.” Due to its New England flavor, Mendocino doubled as Cabot Cove in the popular show. It doesn’t just offer jaw-dropping beauty, however, it’s home to tons of fun attractions, including outstanding eateries, a museum, book stores, unique boutiques and romantic B&Bs. The Elk Cove Inn & Spa is among the best places to stay in the area, with its luxurious, ocean-view accommodations and European-style spa. At the edge of the town, Mendocino Headlands State Park offers trails to wind down to secluded coves and beaches.
Located on the edge of Point Reyes National Seashore about an hour north of San Francisco, this small, unincorporated town is home to just 350 residents and serves as the hub for a magnificent stretch of coastline that hosts miles and miles of scenic hiking trails and a healthy oyster fishery. The Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in 1870, offers some of the best views of the rugged coast, lined with dramatic cliffs and even a few waterfalls. Harbor seals can often be seen lounging on the rocks, and by paddling out in your kayak or taking a tour with Blue Waters Kayaking, you can get a close-up look at these adorable creatures. In town, the Station House Cafe offers fantastic meals featuring local, organic ingredients, while Tomales Bay Foods – located in an old hay barn, serves as the creamery and tasting room for the famous Cowgirl Creamery.
Redwood National and State Parks, located just south of Crescent City, offers the chance to gaze up at soaring old-growth redwoods, some of the tallest trees on the planet. The area also boasts gorgeous beaches like Enderts Beach, where visitors can explore tide pools filled with a host of multi-colored creatures and, in the winter, watch for gray whales that pass by during migration. In the meadows just off Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Roosevelt elk can often be spotted grazing.
Yosemite National Park is one of America’s most scenic national parks, with its dramatic mountains and steep granite cliffs that offer a chance to enjoy outdoor activities. As vehicles are discouraged to prevent traffic and pollution in Yosemite Valley, the best way to explore it is by getting out on the over 800 miles of trails, with hikes available for every level of fitness in every season. Many of the treks offer the chance to view spectacular waterfalls, like Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls and Wapama Falls. If you visit in February and have luck on your side, you’ll see Horsetail Falls burst into a fiery glow that appears as if a fire is tumbling down the cliff. By traveling to lesser-known areas of the park, you can enjoy the scenery that’s just as magnificent, minus the crowds, like Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake, a stunning High Sierra Lake, surrounded by granite domes, lodgepole forests and vast wilderness areas.
Dunsmuir is a small railroad town that sits near the snow-capped peaks of Mount Shasta and features a historic downtown with buildings that date back to the early 20th century. It’s an ideal place to wander, browse interesting shops and enjoy a bite to eat along with a peaceful ambiance. Most visit Dunsmuir for its access to outdoor adventures, including everything from world-class fly fishing to skiing, mountain climbing, mountain biking and hiking. One of the region’s most scenic waterfalls can be accessed nearby, magnificent Mossbrae Falls which can be reached by taking just a mile hike along the Sacramento River and the Pacific Union railroad tracks.
Most people don’t realize that California even offers its own miniature version of Yellowstone National Park. Lassen Volcanic National Park has been called “The West’s most beautiful, least visited wonderland,” and is one of the few spots in the world that boasts incredible hydrothermal features along with four types of volcanos. Several groups of hot springs and fumaroles are remnants of former volcanic activity, and there are also jagged peaks, clear alpine lakes and lush wildflower-filled meadows. By taking the 30-mile stretch known as Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, you can see many of its highlights, including Sulphur Works, a roadside steam vent, boiling mud pots and the famous Bumpass Hell Overlook.
Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, stretches across the border of California and Nevada. It’s not only one of the world’s most beautiful lakes, with its picturesque coves and turquoise waters, but it’s also a year-round vacation paradise offering hiking, mountain biking, diving and sailing in the summer, along with some of the world’s best skiing and snowboarding in the winter. The area is also popular for hosting live entertainment, including big-name concerts, casino gambling and a wealth of outstanding eateries. During the warmer months, you can look forward to live music and sunset BBQs on the sand as well as embarking on lake cruises, all with awe-inspiring views of the surrounding Sierra Nevada and the glistening lake waters.
While Napa Valley gets all the headlines, Sonoma offers a more intimate experience. Along its Wine Road, there are over 400 wineries that are open to the public for tastings as well as the chance to buy wines that are difficult, or impossible, to find elsewhere. More than 60 of them offer free tastings too. In the downtown area, there is a lovely square with a park at its center, along with a number of noteworthy Spanish colonial sites like Mission San Francisco Solano. Sonoma also happens to be home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, with rugged cliffs overlooking golden sands – and, in the spring, you might just see the gray whales that are heading south from Alaska to Mexico. Before heading to one of them, pick up some of your favorite picnic ingredients at the Sonoma Cheese Factory.
Located in California’s Gold Country region, Murphys is often referred to as “The Queen of the Sierras,” and has been making a frequent appearance on lists of the state’s very best small towns. Its tree-shaded historic main street is lined with many period businesses, including Murphys Hotel, founded during the peak of the Gold Rush. Some of its famous guests have included everyone from Mark Twain to President Ulysses S. Grant. In recent years, it’s become increasingly popular for wine enthusiasts who note that it feels like stepping back into the Napa Valley several decades ago. Visitors can enjoy tasting with winemakers and sampling award-winning small production estate wines. The surrounding area offers opportunities for outdoor adventure too, including cave tours, hiking, cycling, rafting and more.
Santa Cruz is the place to go if you’re looking for beach excitement during the summer. This is where all of the action is, particularly around the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which hosts thrilling rides like the Giant Dipper, one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the country, running for over 90 years now. It’s also a fantastic spot for listening to live music while soaking up the sunshine and the sand, as well as paddling among the sea lions and otters on a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard. For a romantic excursion, don’t miss the chance to take a sunset sailboat ride, and if you like to shop, the Pacific Garden Mall is an outdoor mall where you’ll not only be able to shop for bargains at consignment stores and thrift shops but enjoy some incredible people watching too.
There is practically an endless number of things to do in San Francisco – even those who live there usually don’t see and do it all. You’ll find everything from iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, to Alcatraz, vintage streetcars, magnificent parks, historic sites and amazing cuisine. Walk or bike the 1.7-mile Golden Gate, or capture the perfect shot of the bridge from Baker Beach at The Presidio, a former US Army base that protected the Bay Area from enemies during the Civil War to Vietnam. Other highlights include the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Named one of the “New Wonders of the World” by Conde Nast Traveler, it features an aquarium, the largest planetarium in the world, a four-story rainforest with an incredible coral reef ecosystem, a natural history museum, and more.