There’s good reason why California is the most visited state in the US. CalifornianConstance from The Adventures of Panda Bear shares some fun things to do in Northern California.
California is well-known throughout the United States as one of the most diverse ecosystems. The forested mountains (with beautiful snow in the winter), the desert, grassy chaparrals, and the coastal forests are all within reach in the state. For this reason, Northern California, especially, is known for its beautiful scenic spots both in the cities as well as in national and state parks.
Growing up in Northern California, I’ve gotten a chance to visit some of the popular national parks along with unique, off the beaten path views and cool things to do. This is a compilation of some fun things to do in Northern California beginning in the southernmost point all the way up north where the state borders Oregon. Some of these scenic locations are located along one of my favorite stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway, between Mendocino and the redwood forests.
18 Fun Things to Do in Northern California
1. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is the third largest national park in California with over 1,169 square miles of land. In 2016, Yosemite had over 5 million visitors in 2016, but most tourists tend to stay in Yosemite Valley which is only approximately 5.9 square miles. Yosemite Valley also has insane views of many rock formations, waterfalls, and giant sequoias.
Half Dome is one of the most recognizable rock formations in Yosemite Valley due to its shape. It also happens to be one of the most athletically challenging since you can rock climb or hike up to the top. El Capitan is also a beautiful granite rock formation that is viewable in the valley along with the amazing Bridal Veil Falls.
With 95% of the Yosemite National Park designated wilderness, you can easily spend a week or two camping and hiking in the Yosemite. But if you’re short on time, join this three-day camping trip in Yosemite to explore the national park without lugging your camping gear. If you only have a day, take a day trip from San Francisco to Yosemite and Sequoia with GetYourGuide, or just rent your own car and explore at your own pace.
2. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular destinations in Northern California because it’s just so spectacular regardless of the time of the year. During the winter, it’s the best place in the state for snow sports such as snowboarding and skiing. The Squaw Valley Resort was even home to the Winter Olympic Games in 1960. There are many ski resorts surrounding the entire lake on both the California and Nevada sides that it can be difficult to pick one!
In the spring and summer, horseback riding and hiking are popular activities. With such a large lake, watersports are also great activities, such as jet skiing, paddle boarding, kayaking, and more. The beaches along Lake Tahoe are also super busy on warm, summer days. I would recommend spending at least three days to explore Lake Tahoe as there are plenty of scenic hiking trails and view points; but if you’re short on time, here’s a good day tour of Lake Tahoe to see the highlights in the area.
3. Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco is best known for the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge was built in 1937 and has been featured all over posters and movies ever since. While you could see the bridge from the touristy Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center and walk across it, I’d recommend other methods and vantage points for seeing it. The best way to get see the Golden Gate Bridge is to bike across the entire span. For more relaxing ways to view the bridge, check out the views from Land’s End, Marshall Beach, and Crissy Field.
Another great way to see it is on a Golden Gate Bridge cruise, where you sail under the bridge, along San Francisco’s waterfront and around Alcatraz island. You can also see it on a combined ferry and cycling tour, to pedal across the bridge and around Sausalito.
Book a Golden Gate Cruise!
4. Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is one of the most touristy spots in San Francisco, but there are tons to do in and around the park. For museum lovers, DeYoung Museum is great for the arts. California Academy of Sciences is where it’s at for the science buffs and children.
Floral aficionados will be thrilled to know there are various gardens throughout the park, including Shakespeare’s Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and the Conservatory of Flowers. Rent a paddle boat and see the ducks floating around Stow Lake or observe the bison at the Bison Paddock. There are even a couple of Dutch windmills in the park!
5. Twin Peaks
This is still a secret spot for many tourists and Californians. This elevated point provides the best views in town. Here, you can feast on views of San Francisco’s Financial District, from the Embarcadero all the way down Market Street, the main thoroughfare in downtown. On a clear day, you can even get a clear view of the cities of Berkeley and Oakland across the water, and Mount Diablo in the distance.
The two hills are approximately 925 feet high. Typically most locals drive up to the top, but athletic types have been known to hike or bike up to the lookout. At just a 20-minute drive from downtown, it’s a great area to go for a walk right in the city of San Francisco. More information on how to get to Twin peaks here.
6. Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz is best known for housing some of the most notorious criminals in the history of the United States, including Al Capone and Robert Franklin Stroud, also known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” The ferry ride is approximately 15 minutes away from San Francisco and day trip admission include an audio tour.
I highly recommend combining your Alcatraz visit with a catamaran trip so you can cruise the San Francisco bayfront and explore the prison at the same time. For adventure seekers, a guided Alcatraz night tour can be an interesting way of visiting the prison cells when there are fewer crowds and the atmosphere is more mysterious.
Book an Alcatraz tour!
7. Angel Island
Angel Island is often overshadowed by its smaller and more notorious neighbor in the bay, Alcatraz. In my opinion, it is one of the most underrated destinations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Angel Island is the second largest island in the bay. You can easily book a ferry ride to Angel Island from San Francisco’s pier for $10.
The island was known as “The Ellis Island of the West” because it held immigrants from various countries, primarily from Asia, who waited out their days in the Immigration Station before being accepted into the United States. For this reason, when you visit the museum you’ll see Chinese poetry carved into the walls.
Aside from history, the island also offers a different perspective of the San Francisco Bay. Hike to the top of the hill, Mt. Livermore, and you’ll get expansive 360-degree views of the entire bay. You can also take a tram tour and see amazing views of San Francisco, Marin Headlands, and Mount Tamalpais, but if you do the hike you’ll definitely see wider views at a higher vantage point.
8. Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods is the closest redwood forest to San Francisco so it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area. Though these aren’t the tallest redwoods in the state, they’re definitely some of the oldest. The redwoods within Muir Woods are part of an old-growth forest, with most of the trees between 500 and 800 years old. The oldest redwood in Muir Woods is estimated to be at least 1,200 years old.
The main trail within the park is boarded and accessible to wheelchairs making it a super easy hike to see some of most beautiful redwoods. Unfortunately, that also means this area of the forest is more packed with tourists. For a more relaxing hike, continue from the main trail to the Ben Johnson and Dipsea Trails.
Book a Muir Woods tour!
9. Mendocino Headlands State Park
If you’re looking for gorgeous cliffs dropping into the Pacific Ocean, the Mendocino Headlands State Park to go. Here you’ll hike along some of the most beautiful coasts in Northern California. It consists of 347 acres (1.4 km2) of undeveloped seaside bluffs and islets surrounding the town of Mendocino, two beaches (Big River Beach and Portuguese Beach), and the much larger Big River Unit stretching for eight miles (13 km) along both banks of the nearby Big River.
The hike around the park isn’t too long or strenuous but still comes with amazing views. Be sure to save time to explore the cutesy downtown area of Mendocino afterwards. Ford House Museum, at the eastern end of the town of Mendocino on the headlands side of Main Street, is the park headquarters and visitor center. It offers information and videos about the history and biology of the Mendocino area, including the town’s boom in the logging era, the migration of the gray whales, and a scale model of the town as it was in 1890. Guided walks on the headlands are also available.
10. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg
The origins of this beach shows the faults of previous generations; however, those mistakes have created one of the most unique and picturesque beaches along the California coast.
In the past, plastic hadn’t yet existed so most jars, bottles, and canisters were made with glass. People would throw their trash into the ocean and the waves would tumble and rock the glass into sea glass. The glass would then turn into colorfully rounded rocks and pebbles which were then swept back on shore.
Glass Beach in Fort Bragg is full of aforementioned sea glass, primarily in browns, greens, and whites. The sea glass coats the entire beach and is a beautiful contrast to the blues of the Pacific. I’ve heard that this amazing beach used to have more sea glass and it is now illegal to collect sea glass from the beach. Rangers will come by, check visitors, and enforce fines, so make sure you don’t leave with any!
11. Humboldt Redwood State Park
This is the largest redwood parks in the state and is home to the beautiful Avenue of the Giants drive. This 31-mile drive along the old Highway 101 is the most gorgeous road through some of the tallest trees in the world. There aren’t too many pull off areas along this road, but definitely try to take some photos along this beautiful avenue.
Founders Grove Loop is an easy 0.5mi hike, located off of the Avenue of the Giants. You’ll traipse through the redwood forest and see the amazing root system of the fallen Dyerville Giant. Prior to its crash in 1991, it was considered to be the tallest tree in the park and when it fell, locals heard it from a half mile away.
12. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the coolest areas in California, primarily because it’s got interesting volcanic activity, ranging from bubbling mud pots, to hot springs, and sulfur-scented thermal vents. Aside from the geothermal, you can also climb Lassen Peak and get amazing views of nearby Mount Shasta all from within the park.
Lassen Peak is the largest plug dome volcano in the world and also happens to be the southernmost volcano within the Cascade Range. The area was carved by glaciers, though there aren’t any there anymore, it does have as many as 14 permanent snowfields.
One of the most picturesque areas of the park is Bumpass Hell. It’s known for its geothermal activity as well as its beautiful reds, yellows, and blues.
13. Redwoods National Park
This national park is so amazing it’s made up of 3 state parks: Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. It is also home to some of the most amazing old-growth redwood forests in the world. In fact, the world’s tallest trees call Redwoods National Park home. Hyperion holds this honor and stands at a soaring 379.7 feet tall; however to prevent it from public vandalism and harm, the location of the tree is kept secret.
Still, you can still take in views of beautiful redwoods in coastal fog and hike through Fern Canyon, which is famous for its wall of ferns. The park also hugs the California Coast, if you hike far enough west, you can get sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. You can combine a trip to the Redwoods with wine-tasting sessions at the nearby wineries. If you’re planning a northern California road trip, make sure to make this a stop, along with San Francisco and the Mendocino cliffs!
14. Mono Lake
Just to the east of Yosemite is Mono Lake, one of the most unique landscapes in Northern California. The desert lake located in the middle of the Mono Basin National Scenic Area and is known specifically for its alkaline lake and limestone tufa towers. Mono Lake does not have an outlet causing high levels of salt to accumulate within. The lake is so alkaline that calcium deposits formed and as the lake became more shallow the tufa column were revealed.
There are natural walks led by local guides throughout the year as well as kayak and canoe tours that are only available during the summer. And of course, you can definitely take some hikes in the area too.
15. Municipal Rose Garden, San Jose
If you find yourself in San Jose, make sure to check out this lush garden. This 5.5 acre rose garden in San Jose is typically frequented by locals taking prom or wedding photos, but don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. It’s one of the best off the beaten path spots of the San Francisco Bay Area with over 180 different varieties of roses in all colors. The fountain in the middle of the park is surrounded by benches and a grassy area, is perfect for a relaxing picnic.
16. Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the most beautiful areas along the coast, but it also happens to be one of the most foggy and windy. Nevertheless, there are some cool spots in this area. Be sure to check out the Point Reyes Lighthouse, you can walk all the way down to the lighthouse and learn about its history.
The Cypress Tree Tunnel is also located within the Point Reyes National Seashore and is one of the most insta-famous spots in Northern California. The beautiful cypress trees seemingly form a tunnel along the road.
17. Wineries in Napa & Sonoma Counties
Pretty vineyards and wine, what more could you ask for? The Northern California counties of Napa and Sonoma have some of the largest and most beautiful vineyards in the nation.
There are plenty of places to choose from for wine tasting in California. Cornerstone Winery in Yountville, Napa Valley, has a cute and Instagrammable red chair you can sit and take photos in. Castello di Amorosa is a picturesque wine tasting spot with a Tuscan-inspired castle and breathtaking grounds.
In Sonoma, Jacuzzi Family Vineyards has an affordable wine tasting and they offer olive oil tastings for the designated drivers. If you visit in the summer, I recommend going wine-tasting alongside the beautiful lavender field at Matanzas Creek Winery in Santa Rosa.
18. The Pacific Coast Highway
Technically, the Pacific Coast Highway, or Hwy 1, stretches across the entire state and through to the Pacific Northwest, but the pieces in Northern California are some of the most beautiful sections. The highway hugs over 900 kilometers (600 miles) of California’s rugged and beautiful coastlines. It is one of the most astoundingly scenic roads in the world, meant to be traversed slowly, while gasping at the mountains, towering trees, expansive beaches and endless sky.
You can drive the route from San Francisco to San Diego in a day, but why would you? You can easily make a meal of the Pacific Coast Highway and spend a few days, a week, or longer meandering its length. Many of the aforementioned sights are located just off of this road, including the redwood parks, Point Reyes, and Mendocino.
Rent a car here!
About the Author: Constance
Constance blogs on The Adventures of Panda Bear, along with her boyfriend Jimmy, where they share their travels around the world in experiencing new foods, learning about cultures, and discovering architectural feats. They are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, California where the majority of their weekend adventures happen, but they also enjoy traveling around the world internationally. If you love fun facts about the world, you’ll enjoy their blog. Follow their adventures on Facebook or Instagram.
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