Are you looking for the best places to visit in Northern California for your big trip? If so, keep on reading!
The north half of this amazing state offers an incredible diversity of attractions, cities, and national parks that will bring the wow factor to your California adventure.
This list covers the must-see places in Northern California, along with many destinations that are perfect for exploring nature.
From the best vacation spots in Northern California to the ultimate road trip stops along the coast, this list has you covered.
Now get ready to start planning your trip, so you can walk the Golden Gate Bridge and trek the hiking trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Best Places to Visit in Northern California
1. San Francisco
San Francisco is the top tourist destination in Northern California and offers a huge variety of things to experience, from world-class dining to historical sites dating back to the Gold Rush era.
Top attractions in the city include touristy destinations like Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can eat fresh Dungeness crab, and Pier 39 for kitschy souvenirs.
San Francisco is known as the city by the bay and is situated on a peninsula connected to the Pacific Ocean, which is best viewed by walking across the Golden Gate Bridge.
For a taste of the city, you can book a food tour in Chinatown or dig into a slice of tiramisu at Stella Bakery in Little Italy in the North Beach neighborhood.
One of the best places to experience the city is to walk the ground of Golden Gate Park, where you can visit the Japanese Tea Gardens, see the swans at Stow Lake, or visit the California Academy of Science.
A visit to San Francisco will leave you with some hard choices of what to do during your visit, as you could spend a lifetime discovering the best this incredible city has to offer.
2. Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods National Monument is located just a short drive across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, making this one of the best places to visit in Northern California to see the giant Coastal Redwoods.
These majestic trees are the tallest in the world and are only found in groves along the west coast.
The park stands in stark juxtaposition to the busy city and allows visitors to the Bay Area to escape and spend some time in nature at this stunning National Monument.
The park is connected by a series of short trails that weave through the giant trees, creating a canopy of protection for the wildlife and plants on the forest floor.
Visitors will cross over small streams as they walk amongst the ferns, while kids can join the junior ranger program, which teaches about flora and fauna in the park.
If you plan to visit Northern California starting in SF, a day trip to the redwoods from San Francisco is the easiest way to experience the state’s beautiful forests.
3. Napa Valley
Napa Valley is best known for its amazing wineries that consistently put out some of the best bottles in the world at each vintage.
This valley is also a mecca for food lovers and those who love getting pampered.
The biggest draw to Napa is to taste wines at the 450 wineries that operate and grow grapes in the 16 individual sub-regions that make up the Valley.
You can go the easy route and book a wine tour, or you can make appointments on your own with add-on options that range from private barrel tastings to picnics in the vineyards.
Napa Valley is also home to countless amazing restaurants that range from roadside burger joints to Michelin three-star palaces of fine dining like the French Laundry.
For the gourmands, make sure to stop by Bouchon Bakery for some sweet treats and head over to Oxbow Market to peruse the gourmet shops.
After a day of tasting and exploring the valley, head up to Calistoga, where you can treat yourself to a soak in the natural hot spring, followed by a spa treatment.
Napa Valley is the perfect destination for anyone looking to treat a loved one to a getaway that offers a perfect combination of luxury and wine-country hospitality.
4. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is the top destination on the border of Northern California for an opportunity to be in nature and surround yourself with incredible natural wonders.
It is also one of the most-visited national parks in the country!
For first-time visitors to the park, the first thing to experience is the waterfalls that pour from heights of up to 2425 feet, like Yosemite Falls.
For a toe-tingling view, bring binoculars and see if you can spot climbers heading up the granite faces of El Capitan and Half Dome.
Yosemite is a nature amusement park with so much to do, so it’s important to book places to stay in Yosemite that are close to all the action so you don’t spend your time driving to the park.
The top viewpoints in the park include tunnel view and Glacier Point, which are outside of the valley and worth the short trip.
Yosemite National Park also offers a chance to get up close and personal with the giant Sequoias, which are the biggest trees in the world, at the Mariposa and Tuolumne Groves.
If you are only going to make one stop on your trip to California, make it Yosemite National Park for an experience you will remember for the rest of your days!
5. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is a two-season destination offering epic winter snow sports and is an incredible place to visit for outdoor recreation and water sports during the summer.
This alpine lake is most famous for its crystal clear blue water, surrounded by beautiful pine forests and granite peaks. It is one of the most gorgeous destinations in the US!
The best way to take in all the fun starts by booking either a charming cabin in the woods or lakefront accommodations with views of the water.
For adventurous types, the lake is surrounded by amazing trails where you can check out hidden coves along the lake or trek up to the surrounding peaks for unmatched views.
Other top attractions include visiting Emerald Bay to walk the shore and see the historic Vikingsholm and Glen Alpine Falls at Fallen Leaf Lake.
Lake Tahoe is surrounded by nature but is also home to plenty of nightlife where you can cut loose at the region’s amazing craft breweries or party it up at the casino of the South Lake Tahoe Strip.
This Northern California mountain lake is an all-in-one destination with opportunities to do everything from waterskiing to lakeside dining with views of the paddle ships in the distance.
6. Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is a bit of a hidden gem, where the rugged California coast meets the protection of Tomales and Drake’s bays.
This area is a top destination for day hikers looking to trek through the hills overlooking the rocky coast.
There are countless amazing trails in the area that range from short hikes in the woods to longer treks through a Tule Elk preserve.
Point Reyes is also home to some secluded stretches of beaches like McClures and Limantour Beach, which provide visitors an opportunity to escape the crowds.
This area is also a hotbed for gourmet food fans as Tomales Bay is home to some of the best oyster farms in the state, where you can eat these delicious bivalves right from the ocean.
Also, some highly celebrated and award-winning cheese makers offer tastings and farm tours, including Point Reyes Farmstead and Marin French cheese companies.
If your dream California includes delicious locally-produced food and some time in nature, make sure to add Point Reyes to your itinerary.
7. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a popular Northern California destination, offering so much more than gorgeous sandy beaches.
This Northern California beach town is a hotbed for surfing and offers a chance for pros and beginners alike to get in the water and enjoy some of the local breaks.
While you may not be a surfer, you can still visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum to learn about the sport’s history in the region.
For nature lovers, head to Henry Cowell Redwoods, where you can surround yourself with the massive Coastal Redwoods while hiking the park’s trails.
This region is also home to the Santa Cruz Mountain wine country, where small boutique wineries offer wine tasting at the vineyards.
The top draw is the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk with amusement park-style rides and carnival games for a fun day with the family.
With plenty of great beaches to choose from and easy access to San Jose International Airport, Santa Cruz will surely be a highlight of any trip to Northern California.
Mendocino is a charming CA town situated on top of a small peninsula, surrounded by the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean.
The area surrounding the town is impossibly green, with ancient redwood groves and ferns covering forest floors.
For a full day out, grab a cup of locally roasted coffee and spend some time walking around the town, where you can visit the small shops and explore the historic buildings.
Plenty of short trails also snake their way along the bluffs and through Mendocino Headlands State Park.
For some time exploring nature, you can head to the Russian Gulch State Park and Marine Conservation Area, where the forest meets the ocean.
For those that love to paddle, Van Damme state beach is a perfect place to learn how to ocean kayak with a professional guide who takes you on a tour of the natural sea caves.
Mendocino may offer plenty to do, but this coastal town is a perfect place to relax and decompress away from life’s stresses.
9. Big Sur
Any road trip down the iconic Pacific Coast Highway in California should include several stops in Big Sur.
This gorgeous stretch of the coastline offers a mix of rocky cliffs that jet right out of the Pacific Ocean and forests with massive Coastal Redwoods.
For those just driving through, there are many stunning viewpoints right off the highway, including Big Creek Bridge, McWay Falls, and Partington Cove.
For visitors that are looking to spend some time in nature, there are several amazing campgrounds that offer easy access to Pfeiffer Big Sur and Andrew Molera State Parks.
Another top draw to Big Sur is the stunning beaches that are not great for swimming but offer a tranquil place to relax and enjoy the turbulent sea.
For a special treat, book a stay at the Big Sur Lodge which offers direct access to some of the best trails in the area.
Monterey is a family-friendly destination that offers an opportunity to experience both its touristy and historic charm.
The first place that most first-time visitors flock to is the famous Cannery Row which is home to lots of kitschy souvenir stores, ice cream shops, and a few historic restaurants.
The number one reason to stop at Cannery Row is to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where guests can view sea life ranging from giant jellyfish to adorable sea otters.
For a taste of the sea, head over to the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can walk out over the sea on the historic boardwalk and sit down for a bowl of clam chowder or a seafood feast.
Monterey is also home to the 17-Mile Drive, which snakes along the coast and offers stunning views of the cypress trees and the Pebble Beach Golf Course.
The California city is also a great beach destination with miles of shoreline to explore, massive sand dunes, and old military installations at Fort Ord Dunes State Park.
11. Redwoods National and State Parks
Redwoods National and State Parks is a top destination for nature lovers that make their way up the California coast to walk amongst the giant trees in these pristine forests.
What helps make this one of the best places to go in Northern California is its location which is five and a half-hour drive from San Francisco.
This distant location keeps the tourist numbers down, and the park stays very tranquil.
When visiting these primordial forests, it feels as if they have been relatively untouched for most of their existence, as many of the trees are thousands of years old.
As the park is fairly remote, most visitors opt to set up a tent at one of the amazing campgrounds along the coast at Patrick’s Point or the Big Lagoon.
If you decide to visit, bring your hiking shoes so you can immerse yourself in nature on the park’s stunning trails, where you might spot some wildlife ranging from tule elk to black bears.
For an ultimate outdoor adventure on California’s north coast, connect this park with Prairie Creek Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks.
12. Humboldt Redwoods State Park
One of the highlights of a visit to this state park is driving down the Avenue of the Giants, which runs through the forest with the massive trees butting right up against the road.
There are countless groves of Coastal Redwoods in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, but a stop at Founders Grove offers easy access to some of the tallest trees in the park.
The park rewards those who love to hike as you can get off the beaten track and have the majestic forest all to yourself.
Some of the best trails in the park include the Rockefeller Loop, the River Trail, and the Bull Creek Flats trails.
Another gem of a hike is the Drury Chaney Trail, which is right out of a fairytale, with fern and clover covering the forest floor.
After a day of hiking and exploring the park, there are several great spots to take a refreshing dip in the south fork of the Eel River, which is surrounded by the forest.
Accommodations are limited in the area, so visitors must either book a campsite or get a room in the towns of Fortuna or Scotia.
This breathtaking destination in Northern California is worth the extra drive to enjoy nature at its best without the crowds.
13. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the unique places to visit in Northern California as it is an active volcano that last erupted in 1915 and is the largest plug dome volcano in the world.
The area is best accessed when most of the park is open during the summer when you can hit the trails and paddle on the lakes.
As the park is far enough north of most major city centers, Lassen seldom gets that busy, making it an ideal destination for those who love quiet time surrounded by nature.
Two of the park’s top attractions include Manzanita Lake and Summit Lake, where you can stroll along the shore or set out your self-powered boat for a cruise on the water.
Lassen offers more than a few amazing hikes, but the trek to Kings Creek Falls delivers a huge payoff when the water is heavily flowing from the snow runoff.
Another great hike is at Bumpass Hell to experience the largest hydrothermal area in the park, where you will discover sulfur springs, mud pots, and steam venting out of holes in the ground.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is a great place to camp, with several options around the Summit Lake area that offer excellent facilities.
14. Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park
These two sister national parks butt up next to each other and offer a diversity of landscapes that will keep you captivated during your entire trip.
Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park are two must-visits in Northern California!
While these massive parks are on the border between the north and south half of the state, they are more than worthy of a visit if you are heading to California.
The parks are best known for the gigantic Sequoia groves that thrive in the park, including the General Sherman Tree, which is the largest in the world.
There are six main sequoia groves to explore, including the Giant Forest and the Grant Grove, but you can find these massive trees in many parts of the parks.
Kings Canyon offers plenty of excellent options for hiking, including the trek up to Moro Rock for stunning views of the valley below.
Another top hike is the short Cresent Meadow Loop, where you will have a decent chance of spotting a black bear.
15. Lava Beds National Monument
Located less than 14 miles from the Oregon Border is Lava Beds National Monument which is a must-visit when heading to the northmost part of California.
The Lava Beds are best described as a grouping of several lava tubes that have formed long cave-like tunnels.
The national monument has 27 marked tunnels to explore, but the main three are the Valentine, Mushpot, and Skull caves.
Bring a flashlight or a headlamp, and check in at the visitor center for a white-nose syndrome to prevent spreading the disease to the bats that call the caves home.
There are several short and medium-length hikes where you can stay above ground to check out the lava beds and spot a cinder cone where pressure from the lava flow would surface.
For an educational experience at the Lava Beds, you can join a park ranger-led tour of the park, where you will learn about the history and ecology of the monument.
Now that you have selected the best places to visit in Northern California, all you have to do is book your trip!
Get ready to pack your bags as you are ready to visit the top Northern California attractions and explore the breathtaking landscapes that draw countless travelers to the Golden State.
Have fun and prepare to fall in love with Northern CA!
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Megan is a travel blogger and writer with a background in digital marketing. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now splits her time between Frankfurt, Germany and Arctic Finland after also living in Norway, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. She has a passion for winter travel, as well as the Nordic countries, but you can also find her eating her way through Italy, perusing perfume stores in Paris, or taking road trips through the USA. Megan has written for or been featured by National Geographic, Forbes, Lonely Planet, the New York Times, and more. She co-authored Fodor’s Travel ‘Essential Norway’ and has visited 45 US states and 100+ countries.