Northern California is known for its breathtaking coastline, towering redwood forests, world-class vineyards, and vibrant cultural scenes. You’ll find a variety of Northern California vacation ideas to explore its coastal beauty, iconic points of interests, and stunning landscapes.
With so many must-see destinations in one state, it can be hard to decide which California vacation idea to do first! All of Northern California has something beautiful and unique to offer visitors.
There’s something for everyone in Northern California: bustling city life in San Francisco, breathtaking beauty of Yosemite National Park, world-famous vineyards in Napa Valley, and the stunning coastline of Big Sur.
We’ve asked our travel friends to share their favorite vacation ideas for visiting Northern California. They provide tips and information for various places to visit and things to do in the northern part of the state.
Grab this free California Bucket List Packet for even more things to see, do and eat all around the state! Simply click the graphic below to get even more vacation ideas for visiting California!
This site contains affiliate links which means WE may receive commissions for purchases made through these links. We only provide links to products we actually use and/or wholeheartedly recommend! As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Read the full Disclosure Policy.
Map of Vacation Spots in Northern California
Northern California is more than just a place on the map, it’s a diverse and exciting destination with something for everyone. Trust us, it’s pretty hard to get bored here.
With this handy map of vacation spots in Northern California, you can easily navigate to the various locations we’ve detailed below!
Northern California Vacation Ideas
Northern California is a melting pot of cultures, lifestyles and landscapes. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, there are countless options for hiking, camping, surfing, skiing and so much more.
If you prefer a more urban setting, cities like San Francisco and Sacramento offer endless opportunities for entertainment, dining and shopping.
Check out our list of Southern California vacation ideas if your vacation plans include visiting this part of the state as well!
Here’s a list ideas for places to visit and things to do when planning your vacation to Northern California! We’re presenting this list in alphabetical order so it’s helpful to reference the map above for the location of each vacation spot.
The Big Sur National Scenic Byway is an iconic road trip to take in Northern California. This scenic drive follows a rugged coastline for some 110 miles from Monterey to Morro Bay. Big Sur is known for its rocky beaches, picturesque bridges, and hiking trails.
It will take you at least half a day to drive through the region and explore the viewpoints. Make sure to stop at Kasler Point, Castle Rock, and Big Creek. These viewpoints are a perfect combination of the coastal scenery and the engineering masterpieces.
Consider visiting Garrapata and Andrew Molera State Parks if you prefer to explore Big Sur on a hiking trail. A $10 per vehicle fee is good for all state parks along this route. Budget more time for hiking and alternative routes if the highway does not reopen after the rockslide.
No trip to Big Sur is complete without visiting McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This stunning waterfall drops 80 feet into a cove of the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the most photographed places in Big Sur and Northern California.(Recommended by Anastasia, Travel Realist)
Where To Stay Near Big Sur
Because of its location on the coast of Northern California, Crescent City has beautiful beaches. However, there are many more things to do and see here. If you do add in a stop to Crescent City, here are the best things to add to your itinerary!
- Take a hike on one of the many walking and hiking trails that wind through the Ancient Redwood giants. Many of these trails are accessible for wheelchairs and strollers as well.
- Visit Fern Canyon, for an experience right out of a movie. If you visit between May 15-September 15. You’ll need a permit to visit this National Park in California.
- When the tide goes out, there are hundreds of beautiful tidepools to explore. Go tidepooling along Crescent Beach or Enderts Beach and find all kinds of sea stars, urchins, and insight into the world that exists underwater
- Be sure to use 4 wheel drive and go for a drive along Kellogg Beach. Be on the lookout for Agates, and stop for a beach picnic.
- Because the waves are gentle at South beach, it is a great spot to get out on the water. Go stand up paddleboarding. You can rent paddle boards and wetsuits from Redwood Rides.
- Eat seafood at one of many delicious restaurants including Seaquake Brewing, Fisherman’s Restaurant, or Marlo’s Greek and Italian Restaurant.
- Go Fishing or Crabbing. Crescent City’s location on the west coast means it’s a great spot for fishing groundfish, salmon, crab, and shrimp (Recommended by Jessica, Next Up Adventure)
Where To Stay Near Crescent City
Half Moon Bay
About an hour’s drive south of downtown San Francisco, you’ll find Half Moon Bay. It’s a hidden gem along the Northern California coast. If you’re into rugged coastlines and an artisanal atmosphere, this place is a must-visit.
Half Moon Bay is chockful of beaches perfect for strolling, lazing and swimming. My personal favorite is Montara State Beach. It’s less crowded than Poplar and Venice Beach and offers killer sunset views. The beginner-friendly waves here can be pretty smooth for those who surf, especially during the summer.
For the avid hikers, the Purisima Creek Redwoods is your spot. The trails range in difficulty and length and are well-maintained with beautiful towering redwoods and lush ferns.
The best place to stay in Half Moon Bay is The Ritz-Carlton. The hotel is the epitome of luxury with its oceanfront views and high-end amenities. But if you’re looking for something more boutique, check out the Beach House Hotel for its cozy, laid-back atmosphere.
Remember, weekends can get busy, so a mid-week trip offers a more relaxed experience if you can. (Recommended by Haley, Cool California Hotels)
Where To Stay Near Half Moon Bay
Lassen Volcanic National Park
About one hour east of Redding in Northern California you’ll find Lassen Volcanic National Park. It features Lassen Peak (10,457 feet), the highest point in the park and one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world. This volcano last erupted in 1915, and now is home to bubbling mud pods, sulfurous pits, clear mountain lakes, and 150+ miles of trails.
Lassen is one of the best California National Parks to visit in the summer. While you could spend an entire week or more, allow at least a day for the park. Begin at either the Manzanita Lake Visitor Center or the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center (open year round).
Drive the highway through the park to stop at scenic vistas at the summit to see what a volcanic eruption looks like 100 years later. The main highway in the park is closed from snow roughly October-May. Check the park website before visiting.
If camping is not in the cards, head west on CA-44 to nearby Redding where you’ll find many hotels and restaurants. After a day of exploring, grab a bite at Trendy’s Diner, a retro diner with many Americana-style dishes. For more variety, head to the food trucks at “The Park” at old Carnegie Park. If you still have any energy after visiting Lassen, walk or rent a bike along the Sacramento River and the Sundial Bridge. (Recommended by Laura, Hi Friends It’s Laura)
Lassen Volcanic National Park Lodging
Nestled amidst the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain range, Mammoth Lakes is truly a gem of a destination in Northern California. And while Mammoth Lakes is famous for it’s incredible winter scene with a world-class skiing and snowboarding destination at Mammoth Mountain, it’s actually a great year-round destination that offers a captivating blend of natural beauty and outdoor adventures.
As mentioned, in winter, Mammoth Lakes transforms into a winter wonderland. This is where the skiing is second to none, and the snowy landscapes are breathtaking. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a first-timer, you can hit the slopes here.
But the magic doesn’t stop on the slopes – the town exudes a cozy, alpine charm, with après-ski spots for cocoa or a hearty meal especially around Mammoth Village.
As the snow melts, Mammoth Lakes springs to life with a different kind of vibrancy. The crystal-clear alpine lakes are perfect for fishing, kayaking, and paddleboarding. Hiking and mountain biking trails offer jaw-dropping views and a chance to get up close and personal with pristine nature and more than a hundred lakes throughout the area!
Oh, and more of the best things to do in Mammoth Lakes include checking out more of the natural beauty and wonders surrounding the area from the otherworldly Mono Lake and the ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where trees have witnessed thousands of years, are both within easy reach. Oh, and don’t forget about all the cool natural hot springs in the area too where you can soak in geothermal baths overlooking the Sierra Nevada mountains.
No matter what time of year you visit, Mammoth Lakes is without a doubt one of the best spots for Northern California vacation ideas! (Recommended by Megan, Bobo and Chichi)
Where To Stay Near Mammoth Lakes
If you’re looking for a gorgeous location for a NorCal vacation, head to the Mendocino Coast about 3 hours north of San Francisco. Here you’ll find some of the most breathtaking coastline in the state.
The quaint Victorian village of Mendocino offers charming boutiques, galleries, and restaurants, but the main draw here is the scenery. Adjacent to town, walk the cliffs of Headlands State Park and admire the stunning views.
This area is loaded with beautiful parks, beaches, and rivers that are perfect for hiking, kayaking, and immersing yourself in nature. Along the coast, keep an eye out for seals, sea lions, and whales. In the forests, deer, wild turkeys, and fox can often be spotted.
You won’t find museums or amusement parks, but if you’re looking for a peaceful place to unwind, there’s no better place. (Recommended by Denise, Chef Denise)
Where To Stay Near Mendocino
Monterey and Carmel
Looking for a Northern California weekend getaway? Look no further than Monterey and Carmel, two charming coastal towns on the California coast.
Start off your adventure at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This world-renowned aquarium is home to diverse marine life, interactive exhibits, and adorable sea otters. Afterwards, take a leisurely stroll along the historic Cannery Row and dive into the rich literary and cultural heritage that inspired John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name.
Or, if you just can’t get enough of the sea otters, head over to Elkhorn Slough where you have a high chance of spotting these cuddly creatures while kayaking through the calm waters of the slough.
On Saturday, make your way to Carmel where you can drive the scenic 17-Mile Drive or hike at Point Lobos State Reserve. As the day winds down, relax on Ocean Avenue where you’ll find plenty of restaurants, Carmel’s famous fairytale cottages, and Carmel Beach within walking distance.
With stunning landscapes and plenty of things to do, Monterey and Carmel ranks at the top of any Northern California vacation list. (Recommended by Jina, By Jina Lee)
Where To Stay Near Monterey
No trip to Northern California would be complete without a visit to the Napa Valley. Wine enthusiasts will love tasting a variety of the best wines in the country like Caymus and Hess Winery.
Napa also features some of the best restaurants in the country like the famed Michelin-starred French Laundry and unique culinary experiences like the 3-D “Le Petite Chef” Dining adventure at the Culinary Institute of America.
While staying at one of Napa’s charming Bed & Breakfasts, visitors can enjoy activities like the Napa Wine Train, ATV Vineyard Tours, and a magical balloon ride through the valley. (Recommended by Sondra, Cuisine and Travel)
Where To Stay Near Napa Valley
Redwood National Park
Tucked along the Northern California coast, Redwoods National Park is home to the tallest living organisms on the planet—-the mighty redwood tree. In its coastal forests, you’ll find massive redwoods, which stretch to over 300 feet tall; enormous primeval ferns; and abundant wildlife, like elk and mountain lions.
Due to its location on the coast, you can plan to visit this California National Park in the winter and avoid the crowds!
The best way to explore Redwoods National Park is on foot, like on the Fern Canyon Trail, where you can hike down a canyon, dripping with lush ferns and rushing waterfalls. Alternatively, the Tall Trees Grove is one of the best hikes to see the most giant trees in a stunning and peaceful setting.
Make sure to carve out some time to explore some of the beaches around the Redwoods, like Gold Bluffs Beach, for some of the most dramatic coastlines on the West Coast. (Recommended by Jessica, Uprooted Traveler)
Redwood National Park Lodging
Russian River Valley
Tucked away in Northern California’s wine country, the Russian River Valley, part of Sonoma County, offers a serene alternative to the renowned Napa. Spanning twice Napa’s size, this region exudes unpretentious charm, perfect for those seeking an authentic wine country retreat.
Wine tasting here is an extraordinary experience, an opportunity to explore winemaking against the backdrop of rolling hills and the meandering Russian River. Diverse vineyards produce not only acclaimed Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but also distinctive Zinfandel, red blends, and sparkling wine. The culinary scene mirrors this diversity with farm-to-table experiences, while towns like Healdsburg and Guerneville add to the area’s understated elegance.
What sets this region apart is the abundance of family-owned establishments. Whether a winery, restaurant, or hotel, these businesses infuse a personal touch, transforming your stay into an intimate experience where you’re not just a visitor but a valued guest. Especially for wine lovers, staying at a vineyard in the Russian River Valley, and waking up amid the vines, is a must-do!
For a Northern California vacation seamlessly blending sophistication with unhurried pleasures, discover the charm of the Russian River Valley — where each glass tells a story, every town welcomes you, and waking up in the vines is a uniquely enriching experience. (Recommended by Goya, GoyaGaleotta)
Where To Stay Near Russian River Valley
One of northern California’s most popular beach towns, Santa Cruz is nestled along the northern end of the picturesque Monterey Bay. Santa Cruz is a lovely destination that offers an exciting mix of seaside activities and redwood escape.
There is plenty to keep you busy in Santa Cruz. For starters, the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers thrilling rides and vintage charm or stroll the Santa Cruz Wharf for adorable seaside shops and fresh seafood. If you enjoy tastings, explore the thriving craft beer and wine scene, offering tastings and tours at local breweries and beautiful wineries.
Santa Cruz is world-renowned for its excellent surf spots for both seasoned surfers and beginners eager to catch the perfect break. For nature enthusiasts, the towering redwoods of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park invite you to wander through a lush, ancient forest.
And don’t miss the chance to take a leisurely walk or bike ride along West Cliff Drive, a picturesque coastal pathway offering stunning panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. (Recommended by Janelle, Make the Trip Matter)
Where To Stay Near Santa Cruz
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Nestled in the heart of Northern California, Shasta-Trinity National Forest offers a captivating escape for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. Towering redwoods, pristine lakes, and rugged mountain terrain create an idyllic backdrop for exploration.
Hiking and backpacking trails wind through the forest, leading to hidden waterfalls, alpine meadows, and breathtaking vistas. Anglers can cast their lines into the crystal-clear waters of Trinity Lake, renowned for its world-class fishing. The forest is also home to various wildlife, from black bears to bald eagles, making it a hotspot for wildlife enthusiasts.
Trinity National Forest boasts ample camping and picnic areas for those seeking solitude, where stargazing under the clear night sky becomes a cherished pastime.
Whether you’re an avid outdoor adventurer or crave tranquility in a stunning natural setting, Trinity National Forest beckons with open arms as one of Northern California’s premier vacation destinations. (Recommended by Victoria, Guide Your Travel – check out these fun California Quotes!)
Where To Stay Near Shasta-Trinity National Forest
For a gorgeous Northern California vacation, head to Sonoma. Visitors will find not only amazing views at every turn, but also so many amazing things to do!
Deep in the heart of wine country means that most visitors build some wine tasting into their itinerary! A few local favorites across the valley include Benziger Family Winery, Ledson Winery (with their beautiful castle!), and Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery. Pack a picnic and plan to take a tour and spend the afternoon.
Head to the Sonoma Coast for some crashing waves and incredible tide pooling at Shell Beach. The hiking paths at Bodega Head offer stunning views as well as tasty saltwater taffy at Patrick’s and delicious chowder from Spud Point.
Downtown Sonoma is filled with California history and tasty places to eat. Check out the Sonoma Mission or General Vallejo’s Home. Pick up some dessert from Wine Country Chocolates and have dinner at the girl & the fig or The Plaza Bistro.
No trip to Sonoma County is complete with a trip to see the beautiful Coastal Redwoods! Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Preserve is a gorgeous forest near the coast with miles of trails. A closer, smaller spot to walk and picnic is just north at Riverfront Park. For an extra special experience, zipline through these trees with Sonoma Zipline Adventures. (Recommended by Sierra, Island and Alpine)
Places to Stay in Sonoma
South Lake Tahoe
With fantastic winter and summer activities, South Lake Tahoe, California is a fantastic getaway year-round.
In the summer, South Lake Tahoe has iconic crystal-clear waters perfect for lake life. The lake and ideal summer temperatures of the high 70s make for a perfect destination for water sports, hiking, and relaxation.
Once winter hits, the town turns into the winter wonderland ideal for skiing and snowboarding. Grab your gear, hop on the gondola, and take in the incredible view of the snow-covered mountains with the lake in the background.
You will be able to find hotels for all budgets in the area. Marriott’s Timber Lodge offers great proximity to the gondola, shops, and restaurants. For a truly fantastic dinner experience, make sure you reserve a table at the Edgewood Restaurant right on the lake.
South Lake Tahoe is a dream 12 months of the year. No matter what season you choose, it will be a wonderful getaway that you will never forget. (Recommended by: Monica Swannie, Maxed Out PTO)
Located on the Northern shore of Lake Tahoe, Tahoe City is a gorgeous mountain town. It’s the central landing point for both locals and visitors alike to engage in many of the incredible activities Lake Tahoe has to offer.
Getting to Tahoe CIty by car from any part of California will require you to take the scenic route of I-80, until you reach Donner Pass, where you will turn onto I-89.
There are many things to do in Tahoe City throughout all seasons of the year! Summer is a popular time to visit Lake Tahoe, where many visitors will engage in water sports, whether on the lake or along the Truckee River. Tahoe City is one of the major towns in Lake Tahoe for boat rentals, paddle board rentals, and raft rentals.
During the winter, Lake Tahoe turns into a winter wonderland when snow falls on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the beaches turn white. There are many things to do in Tahoe in the winter, as well, including skiing, snowboarding, ice-skating, sledding, and snowshoeing!
Whenever your vacation may be, Lake Tahoe is sure to deliver incredible views and endless things to do. (Recommended by Jess, Travel + Tannins)
Where To Stay Near Lake Tahoe
Nestled in the heart of Marin County, California, you’ll find Tomales Bay. This quiet coastal gem is located just an hour’s drive north of San Francisco.
This elongated inlet stretches for miles along the coast, offering a mesmerizing contrast between the rugged hills full of ranches and the serene waters dotted with sailboats.
Whenever I make the trip to Tomales Bay, Tony’s Seafood is always my first stop. They’re renowned for their fresh fish and local oysters, and the dining room perched on stilts right above the water is stunning.
Another fun destination is Heidrun Meadery, a where you can taste biodynamic sparkling mead made from the nectar of local wildflowers.
For cheese lovers, the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company is a must-visit. Their artisanal cheese offerings are a testament to the region’s rich dairy heritage, and is a great way to learn about the area’s history.
Tomales Bay State Park is also a great destination for exploring the outdoors. The calm currents of the watershed offer opportunities for kayaking and paddle boarding, with multiple outfitters along the coast that have reasonably priced daily rentals.
There are also tons of hiking trails in the area, including those within Point Reyes National Seashore, which provide access to dramatic coastal vistas and serene landscapes.
For overnight trips, Olema House is my favorite choice. This charming boutique hotel offers stylish accommodations and a convenient location.
Alternatively, if you prefer to be closer to nature, there are several affordable camping grounds along the bay’s edge, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the outdoor beauty of Tomales Bay. (Recommended by Rose Campau)
Where To Stay Near Tomales Bay
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is a fabulous spot to visit in north California, whether you are traveling solo, as a couple or visiting Yosemite with kids. It is a popular destination in peak season and covers a large area, so you need to plan ahead as to where to stay inside the park and what activities or trails to do.
You can spend anywhere between 2 to 7 days exploring this national park. Spring, summer and fall season at Yosemite are busy seasons. Winter weather can be unpredictable, but the landscape is stunning covered in white snow!
Some of the best experiences to be had at Yosemite National Park include a visit to the Glacier Point. This has stunning vistas and the view of the Half Dome without any hiking whatsoever.
There are several hiking trails in this national park for outdoor lovers: Yosemite Falls and Sentinel Dome hikes can be done with kids. There is the more adventurous hike to Vernal Falls, also known as the Mist Trail. (Recommended by Shweta, Zest In A Tote)
Yosemite National Park Lodging and Tours