Embark on a great American adventure and discover the most epic things to do in Northern California. Be inspired with these top travel picks
You are sure to strike gold whatever your choice of things to do in Northern California. The huge northern section of the Golden State is a land of epic proportions where everything is seemingly built on a much grander scale, from towering Redwoods, the tallest trees on earth, to the raging Pacific surf and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains.
This is a classic road trip country – there are a few more exhilarating drives than cliff hugging your way along the legendary windswept Pacific Coast Highway. There are literally 101 things to do in Northern California and it’s a near impossible feat to attempt to see and do it all in a single visit. Yet there are those essential bucket list-worthy Northern California experiences that simply cannot be skipped. The famous Gold Rush may be over but there are a ton of riches to discover right across the region. Read on to get the lowdown on the very best adventures that will soon have you California Dreamin’.
If you are touching down from an international flight, chances are San Francisco will be your very first taste of Northern California life. Instagram-worthy vistas abound across the city including the moody, mist shrouded bay and iconic Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Chinatown just for starters. I’ve always found San Francisco to be the most cultured city in the US but it also has a spirited big city feistiness.
It’s a diverse city of hippies, hipsters and Silicon Valley hotshots. Despite the undulating hills, it is one of the few US cities where exploring on foot is a real joy, yet you just cannot skip the downhill thrill of a classic cable car ride. Join the throng of visitors strolling along the piers of cheesy Fisherman’s Wharf and glimpse the resident sea lions basking in the sun. Sure, it’s a tourist trap but an enjoyable one with kids in tow. For a little cultural immersion and history, why not stroll through the iconic Dragon Arch of Chinatown or explore San Fran’s Spanish origins in the colourful murals of The Mission District.
By contrast, Union Square is the city’s multi-faceted hub for fashion, food and live theatre with a 24/7 throng of tourists and locals battling for every single inch of sidewalk space. For American standards San Francisco is a tight knit compact city but still surprisingly green too. Just a short hop away from the seething city hubbub lies Golden Gate Park and the Presidio Trails. Simply hire a bicycle, get pedalling and explore the scenery. Both also boast awesome views over the Bay.
Among the most sought after weekend getaways in Northern California are the rolling verdant hills of the Napa Valley. Of course, for wine buffs it needs no introduction. Just 50 miles from the Bay Area, the sleepy, laid back vibe is a world away from the teeming streets of San Francisco. It is essentially a series of small rustic towns, each with upscale country restaurants (many helmed by celebrated chiefs such as Thomas Keller), and sweeping views of mile upon mile of vineyards.
The town of Napa itself is the main focal point but St. Helena is an Instagrammer’s fave for its charming Small Town America look. Elsewhere, Yountville is a foodie’s haven with a host of top rated eateries. At Calistoga, you can beat the heat with a dip in one of the rustic hot spring resorts. Through the Valley there are numerous places to stay from country inns, motels and uber-luxe vineyard villas, while you are never far from a vineyard offering daily wine-tasting tours.
The Napa Valley is also home to the Old Faithful Geyser of California, a natural phenomenon that has entranced visitors for generations and is definitely worth the short detour to check out. It is just one of three ‘Old Faithfuls’ in the world, erupting on cue like clockwork day in, day out. Old Faithful Geyser of California blasts a plume of 350-degree water skyward every 45 minutes, fuelled by hot magma lurking deep underground.
There is much to see, do and indulge in the Napa Valley, yet it can still be enjoyed in style even on a day trip. For this you have the Napa Valley train to thank. The Wine Train experience takes riders on a journey through a stunning landscape complete with fine wine and food. While you’ll pay top dollar for the experience, it’s a movable feast like no other amid plush leather seating and lavish period interior furnishings.
Immortalised first by the Beat Generation and the hippie movement, Big Sur is as much a state of mind as a destination. Here the wild Pacific Ocean batters the craggy coastline, while towering forests of redwood trees lie beyond in the hinterland interior. In fact there are more than 200 miles of hiking and biking trails to explore.
The classic Northern California road trip cruising along the famous Highway 1 gives you the best vantage point to view the jaw-dropping seascapes. Interestingly, nudism and surfing happily co-exist in Big Sur. Head to secluded Pfeiffer Beach or little known Fullers Beach to strip off, paddle out in search of the perfect wave, or perhaps if you are daring enough, why not combine the two.
Getting back to nature is a breeze and you won’t be short of inspiration with both Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park just two awesome wilderness options. Tramping through huge redwood forests, where endangered California condors circle above in the sky, followed by a refreshing skinny dip in the Big Sur River is a popular choice. When time allows multi-day treks are obviously the best bet and there are numerous campgrounds, B&Bs and luxury lodgings nestled close to all the various trails.
While the obvious gifts of Mother Nature are its main asset, Big Sur has its own very distinctive lifestyle allure as a spot to get off the grid, at least for a few days. You’ll rub shoulders with modern-day mystics, artists and burned-out techies who swarm here for some R&R amid stunning nature. There are a number of retreats, workshops and wellness centres catering to stress-relief in abundantly creative ways. Expect nudist spas, monastic style silent retreats and mindfulness hiking.
Black Chasm Caverns
A short one hour detour from the state capital Sacramento, Black Chasm Caverns is one of those rare natural attractions that tick all the boxes especially with kids. Designated a National Natural Landmark, energetic kids get to scramble over, slither under and slide down weird and wonderful rock formations deep below the surface, and learn all about rare helictite crystals and gemstone mining. In fact if you look closely enough you’ll see the twisted age-old rock, stalactites and stalagmites have almost taken on the shape of strange creatures such as dragons and monsters. Kids can also sift away for gold in the dank, dark surroundings on the fun-filled Labyrinth Tour.
Yosemite National Park
The grand-daddy of the US national parks system, Yosemite is for me the epitome of America’s wild, untamed open spaces and you’d be crazy to limit a stay to just a day. Just consider the mind boggling options – hiking, off-road biking, fishing, white water rafting, rock climbing and gold panning.
Hikers follow the well-worn paths along the John Muir Trail and the Mist Trail, yet a few steps off the trails can easily open up a whole new seemingly untouched landscape with not a soul in sight. Just like the resident brown bears and mountain cougars, virtually everything is on a grand scale from the soaring sequoia trees to humongous granite rock formations, roaring waterfalls and best of all, the jaw dropping panoramic view at must-see Glacier Point.
Skiing in Tahoe
There is much more to Northern California tourism than sunny skies and the surfer lifestyle. The region has some of the best white stuff in the US and you can be carving up the powder in Tahoe just a relatively short cross-country drive from Sacramento. Sprawling along the shoreline of the Californian side of Lake Tahoe there are huge ski stations like Heavenly Mountain Resort offering conditions to suit all from easy baby bump slopes or off-the-grid extreme terrain for the budding pro. Awesome Alpine scenery comes as standard too.
The snow-capped Sierra peaks loom in the distance and the stunning views of Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe itself are immense. Did I mention the glitzy casinos? When a day on the piste is done, you can cruise across the lake into Nevada for a wild night of wagering or simply dive head first into the raucous Vegas-style entertainment scene.
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
While SoCal has Disney, Northern California boasts its own big draw of freefalling, twisting, loop-de-loop thrill rides. These adrenaline pumpers like Superman Ultimate Flight and Tsunami Soaker draw the insanely long lines at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom during sunny summer months but there is also a ton of other fun distractions.
There is a huge animal park with resident African lions, Siberian tigers, playful sea lions and a veritable menagerie of smaller critters and creepy reptiles. If you are seeking at least one day of mindless action, a little tot-friendly fun and wacky toon-like live entertainment, it ticks all the right boxes. Just don’t expect any authentic Northern California culture.
Santa Cruz Boardwalk
While not a typical American boardwalk, Santa Cruz pre-dates many others with a history stretching back more than 100 years. The low brow, low tech vibe is all part of the boardwalk’s charm where old school carousels and cotton candy still reign rather than high-tech VR thrill rides.
Best of all its free to stroll the boardwalk or laze on the adjacent sandy beach and you simply shell out for individual rides or an all-day inclusive wristband. The standout is arguably the wood built Big Dipper coaster which has been a fixture here since 1924. It oozes classic Americana but all those hard-to-impress tech savvy teens may find it a little underwhelming. If it all looks vaguely familiar, you’d be right – the boardwalk was the setting for the 1980s Vampire flick The Lost Boys.
Northern California Food
Food, glorious food. If you think Napa Valley has the monopoly on fine foodie adventures in Northern California, then think again. The real deal is nearby Sonoma which you could almost describe as a mini Tuscany with great locally made wine, cheeses, olive oil and chocolates.
Starting in either Sonoma or swanky Healdsburg, there is a raft of local food walking tours which offer the inside scoop on the farm-to-table foodie lifestyle in the Wine Country. There are usually several yummy tasting stops on each route while you learn a little about the region’s art scene, history and culture. In typical American style, each of these tastings are akin to a full-blown meal so be sure to enough save room to sample all the goodies.
Sure, you can get the all-American staples in Sonoma like burgers and breakfast burritos (invariably with an arty twist) but you simply must try some of the epic specialties ranging from cured meats, smoked trout, duck confit and more. If you are only here for the beer, you are in luck too. There is a big, bustling craft beer scene with numerous top rated microbreweries, brew pubs and taverns to drink yourself into an impending hangover of epic proportions.
Conclusion – Northern California is a land of surprises
An exhaustive hotlist of things to do in Northern California is virtually an impossible task, much like trying to pack it all in during a single, short visit. We’ve highlighted a mix of the must-see attractions and thrown in a couple of lesser known off-the-grid trips, be it for kids, couples or die-hard adventurists.
From bustling city to sprawling natural wilderness, Northern California experiences are larger than life themselves and cover just about every conceivable interest and passion from under the radar things to do near the California Oregon border right down to cultured San Luis Obispo, yet another popular pitstop on the great Californian road trip adventure. Plan ahead for your Northern California adventure but factor in for the unexpected too. In virtually every county or just off every highway there are surprising one-of-a-kind NorCal experiences just waiting to be discovered.
Ray Montgomery is a seasoned travel copywriter and journalist based for more than a dozen years in Southeast Asia. Ray’s big passions are eating, tweeting and constantly seeking the next perfect ocean sunset.