This loop tour through the northern half of the state takes in 10 of the region’s favorite destinations, including San Francisco, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and the towering redwoods along the wild and scenic north coast.
Sparkling Bay, Magic City
It may measure less than 50 square miles/130 square kilometers, but San Francisco justly ranks as one of the greatest cities in the world. Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, the “City by the Bay” is the perfect place to start any adventure.
For a novel way to explore “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a park, or head into Golden Gate Park to visit museums and row across a secret gem, Stow Lake. Continue along the flat Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf and the Exploratorium science and learning museum.
Return your bikes and hop a cable car to ride over the hill to the high-end shops and enormous Macy’s, NikeTown, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus around bustling Union Square, with a stop for Italian pastries and cappuccino at Emporio Rulli right in the square. Nearby, stroll boutique-lined Maiden Lane—pedestrian only thoroughfare during the day, when cafes set up tables and chairs right in the street. Nearby Westfield Mall, a dazzling complex on once scruffy but now spiffed up Market Street, glitters with even more stores, including an deluxe food court on the lower level. At night, catch a show in the theater district, or head to North Beach to see Beach Blanket Babylon, a raucous and irreverent San Francisco institution. For more nightlife and dining, stroll Valencia Street in the Mission, a trendy and eclectic hotbed of restaurants and bars, and awesome late-night scoops at Bi-Rite Ice Cream.
From the Bay Area, drive across the Central Valley to climb into the Sierra, home of California’s first national park, Yosemite. You can access the park via several routes—accessing appealing Gold Country towns, like Oakhurst and Mariposa, and the historic High Sierra town of Groveland.
Unforgettable Beauty, Plunging Waterfalls
Nothing prepares you for that first view of Yosemite Valley—the soaring monoliths and cascading waterfalls seem almost surreal in their beauty and size, a giant’s version of paradise. Any drive into the valley is beautiful, but the Tunnel View, accessed via Highway 41 from Wawona, on the park’s south side, is perhaps most legendary—and photographed. But Yosemite Valley is just a piece of this national park, California’s first, and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Yosemite attracts 4 million visitors each year—with good reason. Nearly the size of Rhode Island and covering more than 1,100 square miles/284,899 hectares, it features unforgettable natural beauty, from the sheer walls of Yosemite Valley to the alpine beauty of Tuolumne Meadows.
Among Yosemite’s many bragging rights, its waterfalls rank high. In the list of the world’s 20 tallest waterfalls, Yosemite Valley scores three spots for Yosemite Falls, Sentinel Fall, and Ribbon Fall. Yosemite Falls holds the undisputed title of the tallest waterfall in North America. It’s a challenging hike to the top of the 2,425-foot/729-meter falls, but fortunately it’s an impressive view from the base to—an easy and scenic 1-mile/1.6-km loop that should be on everyone’s bucket list. An easy walk to 620-foot/189-meter Bridalveil Falls takes you to an overlook point below its billowing cascade. A more demanding hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls ascends granite steps to the brink of two massive drops, where you can watch the entire Merced River plunge over the rocky ledge. (Adhere to all safety signs and stay behind all ropes and signs.)
One of the most photographed regions of Yosemite, Tuolumne Meadows is a wide, grassy expanse bounded by high granite domes and peaks. At elevation 8,600 feet/2,627meters, pristine meadow extends for more than two miles/3.2 km along the Tuolumne River, making it the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada. From its tranquil edges, hiking trails lead in all directions—to the alpine lakes set below the spires of Cathedral and Unicorn Peaks, to a series of roaring waterfalls on the Tuolumne River. (Note the access to Tuolumne is limited; roads generally close due to snow mid-November to June.)
Follow Yosemite’s Tioga Pass (Highway 120) over the Sierra crest to Lee Vining. Enjoy a quick visit to excellent visitor center at Mono Lake—the salty remnant of a once-vast inland sea—then continue north on U.S. 395 and Highway 50 to the Sierra’s turquoise-blue gem, Lake Tahoe.
Majestic Peaks, Bucket-List Essential
Blue as a topaz and circled by majestic peaks, this High Sierra gem straddling the California-Nevada border is a bucket-list staple, a place where the air is “very pure and fine…it is the same the angels breathe,” according to author Mark Twain. Lakefront towns dot the shoreline, each with their own appeal. Winter and springtime snow lets you carve it up at world-class alpine resorts. Summer brings out the water toys—sailboats, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and almost anything that floats. Fall paints the hills with golden aspen leaves.
Lake Tahoe lays claim to some of the country’s top alpine resorts. On the north shore, Squaw Valley, Northstar California, and Alpine, the sister mountain to Squaw, are top draws, especially on powder days. On Tahoe’s south shore, Heavenly—one of the world’s biggest ski resorts—offers jaw-dropper lake views from runs as wide and bump free as freeways. Heavenly has also bumped up the fun even if you don’t ski or board, with on-mountain zip lines, tube runs, scenic gondola rides, and a party-like atmosphere on and off the mountain. Tahoe is also home to lower-key resorts—Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch, Homewood, Sierra at Tahoe, Soda Springs, Sugar Bowl, Tahoe Donner. You can also head out on groomed cross-country and snowshoe trails at Royal Gorge or Kirkwood. For a real treat, get your mush on with a sled dog ride near Squaw Valley, Kirkwood, or in Hope Valley, just south of Lake Tahoe.
In summer, many of these same resorts—especially Northstar, Heavenly, and Squaw, offer summertime fun such as mountain biking, hiking, and scenic tram or gondola rides—a great way to get high up in the mountains without a lot of effort.
From Lake Tahoe, continue northwest to a different type of mountains—volcanic ones. Your next stop is Lassen Peak, protected as national parkland, and filled with safe-to-see volcanic features.
See where the earth still steams and boils
Steaming sulphur vents, splattering mud pots, boiling springs—these lively features show that the earth is not quiet in this fascinating park in the state’s wild northeast corner. The park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, last blew its top in May 1914, and its volcanic outbursts continued for three years. Today, things have settled down, and trails and overlooks let you safely see and learn about volcanic activity. Plus, there are miles of lush forests and sparkling lakes to explore too.
Spend some time learning about California’s volcanoes at the outstanding Kohm Ya-mah-nee Visitor Center on the park’s west side, then head out to explore some of the park’s remarkable and safely accessible features, such as the colorfully named Bumpass Hell. Here you see geology in action—16 acres/6.5 hectares of boiling springs and mud pots, hissing steam vents, and roaring fumaroles.
Early pioneer Kendall Vanhook Bumpass was the unfortunate explorer who stumbled—literally—upon these hydrothermal features in the 1860s: the discovery included stepping into a boiling pool and burning his leg.
No such worries for visitors today. An easy, well-marked trail travels to the geothermal site (3 miles round-trip and worth the effort). Along the way, a short spur trail leads to a stunning panorama of peaks—actually the remnants of a massive volcano called Mount Tehama, which exploded some 500,000 years ago.
Continue due north from Lassen through sparsely populated ranchlands to visit one of California’s most beautiful (and remarkably undiscovered) sites, Burney Falls, in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park.
Visit a booming cascade nicknamed the “eighth wonder of the world”
One of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Western U.S. is this 129-foot-tall, fern-draped cascade seems to come out of nowhere. Located 60 miles northeast of Redding, in an area that from a distance looks like a rumpled collection of weathered cinder cones and broad plains under a cloud-free sky, Burney Falls is one of California’s biggest surprises. It’s no wonder 26th President Teddy Roosevelt dubbed it “the eighth wonder of the world.”
Follow a short path to the main overlook in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. You’ll have to raise your voices to talk (or be happy in silence)—the broad wall of water faces you head on—booming over a mossy ledge, splashing down the fern-covered face, tossing gushers and shards of rainbows left and right—finally plunging so hard and fast into a clear pool that you can see flumes of air bubbles reaching deep below the surface. The main falls originate at the top of the cliff, but icy gallons of snowmelt also gush from the sieve-like volcanic rock face. Continue down the path to the pool—where you are likely to look but only briefly touch: the water never goes much above 42 degrees. Fishermen don’t seem to mind the chill; the big pool at the base, and Burney Creek above and below the cascade, are popular for catch-and-release fly-fishing.
The tour of California’s volcano country now leads you northwest to unforgettable Mount Shasta, one of California’s highest mountains.
Experience wildflower meadows, year-round snowfields, and a New-Age-y vibe
Topping out at 14,179 feet/4,322 meters high, this magnificent volcano seems to scrape the turquoise-blue sky, a totem from almost anywhere in the northern part of the state. And while some mountains climb gradually, this one rises from surrounding flatlands in such perfect, cone-shaped, snow-capped majesty that it seems almost unreal—the perfect projection of a child’s fantasy of what a mountain should be. (Famed naturalist John Muir wrote that his “blood turned to wine” when he first caught sight of the majestic peak.) Summiting the mountain is for the hardiest of climbers; ask about guide services at The Fifth Season outdoor store in the town of Mt. Shasta, a New Age-y enclave on the mountain’s west side. (Get the town’s vibe at The Crystal Room, a prism-filled visual feast.)
Fortunately, you don’t have to bag the peak to enjoy this alpine paradise. Easy paths loop through wildflower-filled meadows and into cool forests. One of the prettiest trails, a mellow two-mile path along the McCloud River on the mountains south, leads to a trio of waterfalls—all beautiful, though Middle Falls is the real head-turner. There’s camping, caverns, and world-class fly-fishing too. Most winters, there’s skiing too, at low-key and local Mt. Shasta Ski Park, on the mountain’s western slope.
From Shasta, you leave behind California’s volcanoes and head west through the vast forestlands of the Trinity Mountains, ending at the lush and fertile North Coast and one of California’s crown jewels, Redwood National Park.
Big Trees, Lush Lands
This World Heritage Site protects nearly half of the world’s tallest trees. This spectacular network of national and state parks has dozens of soft paths letting you walk among soaring coast redwoods, which grow over 350 feet/107 meters high. Learn more about the region, and get great tips from knowledgeable rangers, by starting your visit with a stop at the outstanding Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center, on a sandy bluff on the south end of the parkland. Ask about ranger-led walks through emerald-green Fern Canyon, or where to see majestic (and big) Roosevelt elk graze in grassy prairies. (Our tip: head to appropriately named Elk Meadow, or to the dunes of Gold Bluffs Beach, both in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. For a novel way to explore, consider a guided horseback ride with the Redwood Creek Buckarettes, or ride mountain bikes with Redwood Adventures. Camping is popular here, especially in summer, with sites in lush groves, sheltered bluffs, or wild beaches; reservations strongly advised.
Insider tip: The region is green for a reason: annual rainfall, which normally falls from October through April, averages 60 to 80 inches/152 to 203 centimeters, so bring raingear and sturdy, nonslip shoes.
Next stop takes you south to the largest city between San Francisco and Oregon, a vibrant mix of fishing boats, logging trucks, artists, college students, and nature lovers.
Nature and culture merge in an art-fueled Victorian seaport
This lively seaport town, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, has split-personality charm: a sense of history in the handsomely restored, Victorian-era Old Town district, a still-working seaport where crusty fishing boats chug in and out of a protected harbor, logging trucks rumbling through town, and an eco-conscious college vibe thanks to Humboldt State, in the nearby town of Arcata. Hundreds of ornate 19th-century homes, like the Carson Mansion, a paragon of Queen Anne architecture now housing a private club at the end of Second Street, reflect the prosperity of Eureka’s formative years, when lumber was king. The entire city is a state historic landmark, a captivating mix of nature and culture with a small-town feel.
Start your visit along the waterfront, where a pretty esplanade provides nice views of the harbor and adjacent Humboldt Bay. Visit the small maritime museum, then board the MV Madaket, a snug ferryboat plying the bay since 1910, for 75-minute guided cruise. In adjacent Old Town, beeline to the outstanding Eureka Visitors Center, where you can sample local wines, beers, and local oysters, ask for tips on nearby galleries, gift shops, and eateries, and book guided tours and adventures.
Continue south along the wild coast (plenty of turnouts for photos) to Mendocino, one of California’s most romantic hamlets.
Art and culture merge with Mother Nature in this fairytale village by the sea
This charming hamlet, perched on a wave-carved headland, is sandwiched between thick forests and a restless sea. With fewer than 1,000 year-round residents and this remote location, Mendocino offers tranquility in a spectacular North Coast setting. Mendocino’s dramatic location is a natural magnet for artists, and you can often see them, easels propped and paint palettes out, capturing the scene on their canvases. Mendocino is meant for walking, so stroll the little streets with shops selling local artwork, then pop in for a coffee and chat with the locals. Take a walk along the bluffs, especially at sunset on fog-free evenings. The region’s wild natural setting and isolation have also drawn alternative thinkers and environmentalists, and the word “organic” pops up on many a menu. Victorian-era homes, converted into B&Bs in every level of poshness, look like gingerbread houses come to life. Mendocino also knows how to throw a good party, especially when it comes to food, and annual festivals celebrate mushrooms, wine, and crab, as well as the region’s largest inhabitants, whales.
Given Mendocino’s Pacific-out-the-window location, it’s little surprise that restaurants here excel in seafood. Salmon, albacore, rock cod, Dungeness crab, and abalone are some of the ocean delicacies you can enjoy at area restaurants, some with dress-up fancy ambiance, others kick-back-with-the-locals relaxed. For a special meal, consider Trillium Cafe for fresh seafood in farm-to-table preparations, (chock-full ling cod bouillabaisse, local wild king salmon with creamy pumpkin seed pesto). The Grey Whale Bar and Cafe, housed within elegant MacCallum House B&B, also features nightly seafood specials.
If you see people walking by with crumbs on their shirts, they’ve probably been to Goodlife Cafe and Bakery, where locals have been known to describe pastries, such as the seasonal huckleberry Danish, as “insanely good.” Wholesome, organic, and fair trad are all buzzwords here.
Insider’s Tip: Want a really fresh catch? Consider booking space on a local fishing charter and see what you can snag.
Keep following the rugged coast, with stops at historic Fort Ross (a former outpost for Russian hunters searching for sea otter pelts) and Jenner, the village at the mouth of the Russian River. Then reach your last stop, a towering grove of coast redwoods just north of San Francisco.
Cross the Golden Gate Bridge to the land of the giants
Tucked into an ocean-facing fold of Mount Tamalpais, the signature peak just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, Muir Woods National Monument protects the last stand of uncut old-growth coast redwoods in the Bay Area, where loggers had all but denuded the region by the late 1800s.
Originally established as a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it was named in honor of the revered naturalist John Muir, who declared the site was “the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” Even on busy days in summer, there is a remarkable hush here, especially if you arrive in early morning. Follow raised boardwalks, built to protect the redwoods’ sensitive root structure, to see the arrow-straight redwoods, some over a century old, soaring 250 feet/76 meters overhead. For an unforgettable experience, check the park’s activities calendar to go on a guided walk at dusk.
Keep in mind that the road to the park is twisty and narrow, and parking lots often fill up early in summer and on weekends. (Miss a spot in the lots and it can be a long, long walk to your car.) Your best bet is to take the public Muir Woods shuttle (March through October) from nearby Sausalito, or book a tour with a local shuttle service or tour operator.
To continue to San Francisco, drive south roughly 15 miles/22 kilometers and across the Golden Gate Bridge.