If you are on the hunt for the perfect Northern California road trip itinerary, I have you covered!
Road-tripping along Highway 101 and then down through the Cascades is the perfect way to see some of the best landscapes California has to offer.
Some of the best spots while driving through Northern California include:
- Mount Tamalpais
- Point Reyes National Seashore
- Avenue Of The Giants
- Fern Canyon
- Mount Shasta
- McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
I had an amazing time on my North California trip with my boyfriend and want to share all the cool places we visited plus some tips.
For this California road trip itinerary, I am not specifying an amount of time so you can make the drive as time allows for you. Also, feel free to modify it to focus on your top interests.
Don’t forget to check out my road trip packing list before heading out!
Let’s dive into the best places to visit in Northern California!
Table of Contents
Northern California Road Trip Map
If you want to see exactly what this Northern California road trip looks like on paper, check out the map of my itinerary below!
You may have to modify your road trip in California based on weather, road closures, and time!
Bucket-List Northern California Road Trip Itinerary
Stop 1: Start Your Northern California Road Trip in San Francisco
Start your road trip in the quintessential Northern California city: San Francisco!
I suggest flying in here and then exploring either on foot or by utilizing the city’s public transportation. Rent your vehicle when you are ready to leave so you do not have to drive in the traffic-filled city.
Spend anywhere from an afternoon to a few days exploring San Francisco depending on what interests you. There are so many things to see in San Francisco!
Of course, you need to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and explore some of the many overlook points.
I love the view from Marin Headlands as you get a view of the bridge and the city. The waterfront near the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center makes for wonderful views as well!
While you are in San Francisco, head to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 to see hundreds of cute sea lions barking and sunbathing on the docks. This is truly a highlight of visiting San Francisco!
You can also eat at one of the many yummy restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf or take the boat to Alcatraz.
You must take time for a retro cable car ride up and down the steep streets of San Francisco. Make sure to buy a ticket and start at either end if you want to hang from the outside of the cable car.
Finally, make sure to pop over to Chinatown, one of the best in the world, to experience authentic Chinese cuisine and shopping.
Book Here: San Francisco: Golden Gate Bay Cruise
Where to Stay in San Francisco:
As a major city, there are a ton of places to stay in San Francisco. Whether you are on a budget or want to enjoy a luxury hotel, there is something for you.
Mid-Range in a Great Location: Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Fisherman’s Wharf. Check Rates: Booking.com
Stop 2: Hike Mount Tamalpais
On your way out of San Francisco, be sure to stop at Mount Tamalpais State Park. It is located on Highway 1 just north of the Bay Area.
You can drive almost to the top of Mount Tamalpais and we found easy driving directions here.
Once you drive as far as you can, you will have a half-mile hike to the top which, all things considered, is pretty short to get to the top of a mountain!
At the top, you will be rewarded with epic vistas and, if you are lucky, a ton of fog below you!
Mount Tamalpais is a favorite for photographers and nature lovers because you are actually above the clouds that blanket the San Francisco Bay Area.
The view from above makes you feel like you are in another world and it is a magical place to capture a sunrise or sunset!
Where to Stay Near Mount Tamalpais:
Mount Tamalpais is remote and there are not many hotels close by. There are also some campgrounds in the area if you want to try camping.
Stop 3: Point Reyes National Seashore
Located less than an hour and a half north of San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore is an absolute must-see in Northern California!
You can make it a quick stop, but I highly recommend spending 1 to 2 days exploring the area. There are so many things to do in Point Reyes!
A great starting point is the S.S. Point Reyes Shipwreck. It is easily visible from the road behind a shop in the small town of Inverness. You can also walk to the shipwreck to see it up close and personal.
Next, head to the spooky Cypress Tree Tunnel. This is a popular Instagram spot on a road leading to the historic Point Reyes Receiving Station.
No matter what time of day you visit, you will be amazed at the beauty of these trees. Park your car in the parking lot at the RCA building and walk to each end of the driveway.
From the tree tunnel, drive south to the end of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Here you will find some of the best overlooks on this Northern California coast drive.
Enjoy epic views of wildlife, crashing waves, and stretches of sand from the Sea Lion Overlook and South Beach Overlook. You will also want to pause to snap a photo of the famous Leaning Tree.
At the end of the peninsula is the Point Reyes Lighthouse which offers a scenic coastal walk. There is also a visitor’s center open on the weekend.
There are also many hikes in Point Reyes which is why I recommend making it a multi-day stop when planning a trip to the northern California coast.
Exploring this slice of nature is one of the best things to do in the USA!
Where to Stay Near Point Reyes National Seashore:
There are plenty of hotels and vacation homes dotted along the outskirts of Point Reyes.
Stop 4: Wineries in Santa Rosa
Santa Rosa and the entirety of Sonoma County are famous for wineries and the production of wine. If you have never been to a vineyard, now is your time to make the stop!
The area surrounding Santa Rosa is stunning and the vineyards are picturesque. The wine drinking is a bonus too!
Some of the top wineries in Sonoma County are:
- Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery
- St. Francis Winery & Vineyards
- Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards
- Iron Horse Vineyards
Santa Rosa is the urban center of Sonoma County and offers many delicious places to eat featuring locally sourced ingredients and, of course, wine!
If you are a Charlie Brown or Snoopy fan, visit the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. It is the largest collection of original Peanuts comics in the world and pays homage to Charles M. Schulz.
When you road trip from San Francisco, Santa Rosa is a must before moving onto the wilderness that dominates the northern half of the state.
Where to Stay in Santa Rosa:
As one of the biggest cities on this North California trip, you have many options for places to stay in Santa Rosa.
Stop 5: Drive Avenue Of The Giants
Officially called State Road 254, the Avenue Of The Giants is a 31-mile stretch of road running adjacent to Highway 101 in Northern California. The drive from San Francisco to the Redwoods is so pretty.
During your California road trip, you won’t miss the Avenue Of The Giants as many signs will point you in the direction of where to start the drive.
Although it is 31 miles long, you don’t have to do the whole thing if you are on a time restriction. There are plenty of options to just drive 5 miles or so and then get back on Highway 101.
I chose to drive the whole thing because the route is spectacular! The towering trees are a sight to behold!
The Avenue Of The Giants is located in and around Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It winds through the park and on both sides of Highway 101.
In addition to driving Avenue Of The Giants, Humboldt Redwoods State Park is a wonderful stop for hiking or camping.
There are so many trails to wander, backroads to drive, and even a tree you can drive through! This is one of the best stops on a Northern California road trip for nature lovers!
Stop 6: Fern Canyon and Redwoods National Park
Fern Canyon will easily be one of the best places to visit in Northern California. It is magical!
Located in Redwoods National and State Parks on the coast of California, the entire canyon is dripping with dreamy ferns. Interestingly, it was a Jurassic Park filming location!
Please note that the drive from Highway 101 to Fern Canyon is quite difficult and I do not recommend doing it with a large vehicle!
There are rivers to drive through, massive potholes, and very narrow and winding mountain roads.
After the crazy drive, the hike to Fern Canyon is just 0.1 miles long. You will be transported from a dusty parking lot to a fern-covered wonderland in just moments!
I highly recommend wearing waterproof shoes or boots to avoid getting your feet wet.
Part of the fun of visiting Fern Canyon is forging the shallow rivers about ankle deep and spending time among the ferns and fallen logs.
This might turn out to be your favorite stop on this itinerary!
Where to Stay Near Redwoods National and State Parks:
There are a handful of campgrounds, hotels, and vacation homes to the north and south of Redwoods National and State Parks.
Stop 7: Pacific Coast In Northern California
During your Nothern California road trip, make sure to drive up through Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and through Crescent City to visit the far North California coast.
The coast will be a good change from all the green forests and wineries you have been seeing. Plus, the sea stacks are beyond impressive.
Make sure to take some time to walk around the sea stacks and rocks, especially when the tide is low. This will allow you to find tidepools where a variety of marine animals live.
This is a serene activity, but make sure to never touch or step in tide pools to protect the wildlife.
This is also the perfect time in your California road trip itinerary to stop and take a breather and enjoy the ocean breezes and the stunning Pacific sunsets before continuing.
As you road trip the North California coast, you will love your time on the water since it is just a gorgeous area!
Where to Stay in Crescent City:
Crescent City is one of the bigger towns you’ll come to after leaving the Santa Rosa area. There are a good amount of hotels and vacation homes to pick from.
Stop 8: Mount Shasta
For the next stop on your road trip in North California, head inland to Mount Shasta.
First drive up through Grant’s Pass, Oregon, and then down I5 to Mount Shasta. This volcano, surrounded by multiple mini volcanoes, is located in the southern Cascade Mountain range.
When I arrived at Mount Shasta, I was blown away by how massive and impressive it is! While seen from many miles away, it only gets more majestic as you get closer!
Take the hike up to Heart Lake for stunning alpine views! Drive your car to Castle Lake and then follow the Heart Lake Trail which loops clockwise around Castle Lake from the parking lot.
The hike is roughly 1 mile and uphill the whole time, so make sure to rest along the way. Take is slow and it is very doable.
The view from Heart Lake showcases the lake itself and also provides a view of Castle Lake below and Mount Shasta in the background.
The two towns to stay in to best explore Mount Shasta are either Weed or the town of Mount Shasta. There are also plenty of campgrounds in the area and camping is popular when exploring here.
Where to Stay in Mount Shasta:
Mount Shasta is a cute small town with lots of great hotel options for your road trip.
Stop 9: Burney Falls
McArthur-Burney Falls, or more commonly just Burney Falls, will be one of the most spectacular waterfalls you ever visit! I have seen epic waterfalls around the country, and I was still impressed!
Burney Falls is located about 1.5 hours east of Mount Shasta.
When visiting McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, you will feel like you are on an island in the South Pacific instead of a remote part of Northern California!
The water is so super clear and blue. The waterfall cascade is a style that isn’t normally found in North America with multiple streams on a mossy cliff.
Photos do not do Burney Falls justice! You have to visit to see how massive this waterfall is!
Burney Falls can be viewed from above, but I recommend taking the 0.3-mile paved walk down to the base of the falls. From here, you can appreciate the size and scale of the falls.
I did Burney Falls as a day trip and did not spend the night. However, I spent almost four hours hanging out around the waterfall so budget plenty of time here.
Whatever you do, don’t skip this waterfall on your driving itinerary for Northern California!
Where to Stay Near Burney Falls:
If you want to stay the night a McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, there is a massive campground. There are not many hotel options nearby.
Stop 10: Lassen Volcanic National Park
The last stop along this Northern California road trip itinerary is Lassen Volcanic National Park. It is just under an hour’s drive south of Burney Falls.
This is one of the lesser-known national parks in the United States but quite impressive to visit. If you want to see volcanoes, crystal clear pools, mud pots, and boiling water, then this national park is for you!
There are over 150 miles of trails in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Explore steam vents and pretty meadows.
The official national park drive is quite a good way to experience Lassen Volcanic National Park as well if you don’t want to hike. Exploring by car is one of my favorite ways to experience national parks.
Luckily, there are plenty of pullouts and easy hikes and walks to experience the beauty of this remote wilderness.
If you want to tick off all the U.S. national parks, this is one of the best things to do in Northern California!
Where to Stay Near Lassen Volcanic National Park:
You have the option to stay in a lodge, tent, or cabin if you want to stay on-site in the national park. The nearest hotels are south of the park in Mill Creek.
Stop 11: Fly Out Of San Francisco
From Lassen Volcanic National Park, it is a four-hour drive back to San Francisco, completing the loop of this California itinerary.
You can fly home right away or spend more time exploring the city.
With so many things to do in California, you can do a San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip next time!
How Long to Spend on This Northern California Coast Road Trip
I suggest a minimum of 7 to 10 days for Northern California road trips.
However, I am an advocate of slow travel so if you have the chance to add more time, you should. If you can schedule more than 10 days, you will not be rushed and have time to explore each location fully.
This is one of the top West Coast road trips so you do not want to miss anything!
If you prefer to stick to nature, you can also easily skip over San Francisco and hit the road right away to save a day as well.
Best Time to Visit Northern California
Personally, I suggest you road trip Northern California in either spring or fall. As the shoulder season, this time of the year has fewer crowds than summer as well as great weather for outdoor adventures.
Spring means wildflowers while fall is beautiful with fiery foliage. The temperature during both seasons reaches highs in the 80s F.
Summer is the busiest time with tourists flocking to the national parks and other popular spots. Expect more traffic and higher prices for car rentals and accommodations. Temps average in the 90s F.
Winter in Northern California is cold, rainy, and snowy sometimes leading to poor road conditions. It is not the best time for hiking or visiting vineyards, but winter sports are popular.
There are so many things to do and see during a Northern California road trip! I hope you have as much fun as we did!
If you love your coastal California road trip, you should check out my Oregon road trip itinerary next!
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