Moon Northern California Road Trips
Drives along the Coast, Redwoods, and Mountains with the Best Stops along the Way
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- Pick Your Road Trip: Find flexible getaways throughout NorCal, like three-day routes through Wine Country, Lake Tahoe, Monterey and Big Sur, and more, or combine them for an epic 21-day driving tour
- Eat, Sleep, Stop and Explore: With lists of the best places for hikes, wine-tasting, water sports, and more, you can take on the steep streets of San Francisco, sample wine at its source in Sonoma, and pitch a tent in the pines of Yosemite. Spot whales in Bodega Bay, hike through towering redwoods or up to the peak of Mount Lassen, and raft down the Sacramento River
- Maps and Driving Tools: Easy-to-use maps keep you oriented on and off the highway, along with site-to-site mileage, driving times, detailed directions, and full-color photos throughout
- Local Expertise: Northern Californians Stuart Thornton and Kayla Anderson share their tips on where to stop and what to see
- How to Plan Your Trip: Know when and where to get gas and how to avoid traffic, plus tips for driving in different road and weather conditions and suggestions for LGBTQ travelers, seniors, travelers of color, and road-trippers with kids
- Coverage of San Francisco, Wine Country, the Sonoma and Mendocino Coasts, the North Coast and Redwoods, Shasta and Lassen, Lake Tahoe, the Eastern Sierra Lakes, Yosemite National Park, Monterey and Big Sur, and Ashland, Oregon
Looking to explore more of America on wheels? Try Moon Southern California Road Trips or The Open Road.
DISCOVER Northern California Road Trips
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
HIT THE ROAD
In Northern California, humankind takes a backseat to nature. This is a region dominated by skyscraping redwood trees, forest-cloaked mountains, driftwood-decorated beaches, snow-frosted peaks, naturally occurring hot springs, and lakes as blue as the sky above. Here, adjectives like “largest,” “biggest,” “deepest,” “tallest,” and “highest” frequently precede beaches and bays and falls and forests. This is California at its wildest, its most elemental, its purest.
Less developed, and less visited, than the southern part of the state, Northern California is where you can experience hours alone on a mountain peak or time in the depths of a silent redwood forest. From cosmopolitan San Francisco, roads wind north through the famous Wine Country, where the hillsides are braided with grapevines. Along the coast, the trees become taller and the crowds become smaller. The California coast bleeds inland into Southern Oregon and the foodie-friendly town of Ashland before bending south into the majesty of Northern California’s inland mountain ranges. The sparkling blue waters of Tahoe, the snowcapped volcanic peaks of Mounts Shasta and Lassen, the high Sierra of Yosemite, and the low desert valleys lie to the east.
The northern coast and the Sierra Nevada are dotted with distinct communities like Mendocino, Arcata, and Trinidad on the coast, Mount Shasta city and Ashland, Oregon inland, and Bishop in the Eastern Sierra, offering an opportunity for exploration off the beaten path. Taste the fruits of this less developed land, from grass-fed Humboldt beef to Tomales Bay oysters to Napa wines and small craft breweries.
Wherever the road takes you, you’ll return home with tales of the wild and rugged land to the north.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Wander Along the Beach: Windy, rocky, and elemental, northern beaches expose the power of the sea along a majestic coastline.
2 Feast on Seafood: The fish and shellfish of the Northern California coast are some of the freshest and tastiest food you’ll find.
3 Hike Amid Redwoods: Crane your neck at the skyscraping redwoods in the Redwood State and National Parks.
4 Circle the Rim Drive: Circumnavigate the rim of a sunken caldera in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park.
5 Explore a Volcanic Landscape: Boardwalk paths lead past boiling mud pots and steaming streams in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
6 Paddle Tahoe’s Waters: Kayak the lake’s cobalt-blue waters to the granite rocks on Fannette Island, perched in the middle of Emerald Bay.
7 Taste Local Wine and Craft Beer: Some of the world’s best wines and craft beers are produced in Napa and Sonoma and in Humboldt County on the North Coast.
8 Admire Fall Foliage: Walk through Lundy Canyon in the Eastern Sierra as the quaking aspens turn from leafy green to brilliant gold.
9 Cross the High Sierra: Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Road passes through an alpine landscape, with stops at Tuolumne Meadows.
10 Cruise the Big Sur Coast Highway: This twisty, two-lane highway follows one of the world’s most dramatic coastlines.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Where to Go
Located on a hilly peninsula between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Add in a renowned food scene, world-class museums, a healthy arts culture, and iconic attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island for a mandatory stop on any serious road trip.
For oenophiles, no trip to Northern California is complete without an excursion to the state’s renowned Wine Country. Though the main draw is sampling wines at their source, Napa and Sonoma Valleys offer multiple ways to spoil yourself, including spas, fine hotels, revered restaurants, and understated natural beauty.
Sonoma and Mendocino
For deserted beaches, towering redwoods, and scenic coastal towns, cruise north along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. Explore Russian history at Fort Ross on the grassy bluffs of the Sonoma Coast, and fall in love with Mendocino’s small-town charm and nearby wineries.
North Coast and Redwoods
Of all the natural wonders California has to offer, the one that seems to inspire the purest and most unmitigated awe is the coast redwood. The two best places to experience extensive wild groves of these gargantuan treasures are Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, north of Arcata and Eureka.
Ashland and Crater Lake
Dipping into Southern Oregon, take a detour to drive up to picturesque Crater Lake and take in views from all angles along the Rim Drive. Drive back down to Ashland and enjoy the eccentric culture and dining near Lithia Park and live performances during the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Shasta and Lassen
The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway connects the dormant Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, acting as route markers between the north and the east, as well as playgrounds for outdoor adventure enthusiasts. For powerful cascading waterfalls, stop by the McArthur-Burney Falls to admire the gushing falls.
Lake Tahoe acts as a reprieve from the smoldering heat of the summer. The refreshingly crisp and blue water attracts boaters, stand-up paddleboarders, and boat cruises on the MS Dixie II or Tahoe Gal. Marvel at this natural environment from the viewpoint at Emerald Bay or the jutting big granite boulders on the East Shore. The dozen or so ski resorts also make it a popular destination in winter.
The drive south through the high desert offers spectacular views, especially when the surrounding mountains are snowcapped. The saline Mono Lake is a sight to see, with hundreds of migrating birds and jagged tufa towers. Bodie State Historic Park is a preserved ghost town from the old mining days. Farther south, Mammoth Mountain is a big draw for skiers and snowboarders in winter and hikers in summer.
Yosemite National Park showcases the stunning Sierra Nevada at its rugged best. Wander amid sequoia groves, granite peaks, and mountain lakes to national treasures like Half Dome and El Capitan.
Monterey and Big Sur
Stunning coastal views will fill your windshield as you drive along a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. Seaside sights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium before the winding roadway hits its peak passing through the mountains of Big Sur, dramatically perched above the ocean.
Know Before You Go
Northern California’s best feature is its all-season appeal. That said, this trip is best in the summer and early fall, when most roads will be open. Be aware that summer brings the most visitors, which will not only add to the crowds at attractions along the way, but also add to the traffic on the highways. Summer crowds are more prevalent in San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Monterey, and Big Sur, while the North Coast gets fewer visitors than other coastal regions. Plan a little extra time to get from place to place anyway.
The easiest places to fly into are San Francisco, Sacramento, and Reno, Nevada. If you’re flying into San Francisco, you can avoid some of the hassle of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) by flying into nearby Oakland or San Jose.
Book hotels and rental cars in advance for the best rates and availability, especially in the summer, which is high season for travel.
High-season travelers should also plan ahead for the big-name attractions. If you have your heart set on visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco or the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, purchase tickets at least two weeks in advance. Reservations are essential at campgrounds in Yosemite and along Big Sur. If you plan to stay at the historic Majestic Yosemite Hotel or dine in its restaurant, make reservations as far in advance as possible.
What to Pack
Bring layered clothing. Summer fog is likely along the California coast, and is pretty much guaranteed in San Francisco, making the air damp and chilly. No matter what, use sunscreen; that cold fog doesn’t stop the rays from burning unwary beachcombers.
Coming to the United States from abroad? You’ll need your passport and possibly a visa.
San Francisco, Sacramento, and the section of US-101 passing through Santa Rosa suffer from serious traffic congestion. Avoid driving in or through these areas during rush hour traffic, typically weekdays 7am-9am and 4pm-6pm, though serious congestion can occur at other times. Of course, special events can create traffic jams on weekends. To view current traffic conditions in the San Francisco Bay Area, visit www.511.org.
Because it’s located in the high-altitude Sierra Nevada, access to Yosemite is dependent on the weather and the seasons. Two of the most traveled roads in the park, Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road, are typically closed November-early June. In recent years, forest fires have occurred in the park and surrounding areas, limiting access in the summer and fall as well. Check for road conditions and closures online at www.nps.gov/yose.
Fires and landslides can also impede a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, especially through Big Sur. Visit the Caltrans website (www.dot.ca.gov) for highway conditions throughout California.
Cell phone reception is limited or nonexistent in large sections of Yosemite and along the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur.
HIT THE ROAD
Northern California Road Trips
Explore Northern California on this 21-day route or break the trip up into multiple getaways that can be combined for one or more road trips. For detailed driving directions for each leg of this road trip, see Getting There at the beginning of each chapter. All mileage and driving times are approximate.
San Francisco and Wine Country
DAYS 1-2: SAN FRANCISCO
It’s easy to fill two days with fun in San Francisco. On the first day, visit the foodie-friendly Ferry Building, then walk down the Embarcadero to the ferry that will take you out to Alcatraz. For dinner, indulge in Vietnamese fare at The Slanted Door or the old-school elegance of Tadich Grill.
On your second day, head west to Golden Gate Park, where you can explore the art of the de Young Museum or the animals at the California Academy of Sciences. Visit the Japanese Tea Garden for tea and a snack before leaving the park. Spend the afternoon at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before dining at its touted on-site restaurant In Situ.
Rest your head at the tech-savvy Hotel Zetta, homey Golden Gate Hotel, or Hotel G with its three dining and drinking establishments. For more suggestions on how to spend your time in San Francisco.
DAY 3: SAN FRANCISCO TO WINE COUNTRY
40 mi/65 km, 1 hr
About 40 miles (64 km) north of San Francisco is the Wine Country of Sonoma, where fine food and wine are served alongside some of the state’s most interesting history. Our journey north begins with a drive on US-101 over San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge to the charming little city of Sonoma. Upon arrival, explore the historic buildings of Sonoma State Historic Park, which includes Mexican-era barracks and the last mission built in California. Make sure to walk over to Sonoma Plaza to check out the bronze statue memorializing the Bear Flag Revolt, the site of an American rebellion against the Mexican government that established a short-lived independent republic for just 25 days in 1846. Then have lunch at the iconic the girl & the fig.
After lunch, drive north on CA-12 to the tiny hamlet of Glen Ellen. Fans of the writer Jack London should not miss Jack London State Park, a 1,400-acre property that was the author’s home in the early 1900s. Hike to Wolf House, the haunting stone ruins of London’s dream house that burned down in 1913 before he even moved in. Swap stories at the nearby Valley of the Moon Winery, itself a historic site where wine has been made since the Civil War era. End the evening with a stay at Glen Ellen’s Gaige House & Ryokan.
DAY 4: WINE COUNTRY TO JENNER
50 mi/80 km, 1.5 hr
The drive from Glen Ellen to Jenner has a few stops that could easily take half a day. Follow CA-12 north along the Valley of the Moon, a scenic wine region on the way to Santa Rosa, Northern California’s largest city. Beer lovers should stop at the Russian River Brewing Company for one of their fabled Pliny the Elder pints and lunch at The Spinster Sisters.
Take scenic CA-116 west as it twists and turns alongside the Russian River on its way to the coast at Jenner. If hunger strikes, make a pit stop in the riverside community of Guerneville for a heavenly biscuit at Big Bottom Market. At the coastline, take in the majesty of the Pacific Ocean from one of the many access points in Sonoma Coast State Park. End the day with a view of the Russian River and a fine meal at River’s End. Spend the night in one of the River’s End’s five rustic cabins or at the more upscale Timber Cove Resort.
DAY 5: JENNER TO MENDOCINO
90 mi/145 km, 2.5 hr
The drive along CA-1 up the coast is winding, beautiful, and time consuming, so be sure to take in the many sights on trip from Jenner to Mendocino. Stop at the tiny but unique Sea Ranch Chapel, mere feet from the highway, and take a more extended break in Point Arena. Snap a photo of the distinctive rocks at Bowling Ball Beach, take a hike in the Point Arena-Stornetta Unit of the California Coastal National Monument, or get a baked good at Franny’s Cup & Saucer.
End the day in the community of Mendocino with a view of the sunset at Mendocino Headlands State Park or a pint at the lively Patterson’s Pub or at the one-of-a-kind dive bar Dick’s Place. Spoil yourself with a night at the upscale B&B Brewery Gulch Inn or The Andiron.
DAY 6: MENDOCINO TO ARCATA
150 mi/240 km, 3.5 hr
Drive north on CA-1 toward Fort Bragg, where the road turns inland to connect with US-101. Hop off the highway for a scenic cruise along the redwood-lined Avenue of the Giants. Get back on US-101 and head north to Eureka. Stop to wander the city’s Old Town and waterfront, then have lunch at Brick & Fire Bistro.
Continue north on US-101 to charming Arcata. Wander through the redwoods of the Arcata Community Forest before sundown, then dine at one of the restaurants surrounding the lively Arcata Plaza and follow it with a craft beer at Redwood Curtain Brewing Company (the delicious Imperial Golden Ale is recommended). Spend the night at the no-frills Hotel Arcata.
DAY 7: ARCATA TO CRESCENT CITY
80 mi/130 km, 2 hr
Start your morning with a tasty crepe from Arcata’s Renata’s Creperie and Espresso before hitting US-101 north on your final day on the coast. North of Arcata, exit to explore the scenic coastal city of Trinidad. Have your camera handy for photos of Trinidad Head and Trinidad State Beach. If you’re hungry, a lunch of creative comfort food awaits at The Lighthouse Grill.
Continue north on US-101 for 26 miles, turning onto Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway to explore Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. If you have the energy, drive out Davison Road to Gold Bluffs Beach, where Roosevelt elk roam the sands. You can continue the dirt drive to stop and hike the Fern Canyon Trail, which passes through a steep canyon draped in bright green ferns.
Return to US-101 and drive 38 miles (61 km) to Crescent City, with a beer, a meal, and live music at SeaQuake Brewing.
A Weekend in Oregon
DAY 8: CRESCENT CITY TO ASHLAND, OREGON
125 mi/200 km, 2.5 hr
From Crescent City, take US-199 north to Cave Junction and stop for a good deal on an unusually sliced pizza at the Wild River Brewing and Pizza Company. Continue north for 30 miles (48 km) through evergreens and burled trees to Grants Pass. Visit the famous Harry & David country store to try some samples, buy souvenirs, and go on a factory tour. From here, detour east on OR-238 through Applegate Valley, stopping by the Applegate Valley Lavender Farm or one of the few valley wineries.
Continue east on OR-238 to Jacksonville and explore the old-time buildings of this gold rush era town. Drive 17 miles (27 km) on OR-238 to I-5 and Ashland. Have a glass of wine and lamb sambousek (fried stuffed pastry) at the Brickroom. If it’s still light outside, walk through Lithia Park and then spend the night at the Ashland Springs Hotel.
DAY 9: ASHLAND AND CRATER LAKE
In the morning, get breakfast at the Breadboard then drive 75 miles (121 km) northeast to Crater Lake National Park. Follow the Rim Drive around the lake for incredible views of the geologic wonder. End at the Rim Village Café and visitors center, where you can have a chicken teriyaki bowl for lunch. Spend the night camping in the park’s Mazama Campground or drive to Medford and stay at the Sovana Inn.
A Week in the Sierra
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