Northern California is an endless treasure trove of unique adventures, ranging from wandering under the canopies of towering redwood forests to kayaking across picturesque alpine lakes.
While Northern California has plenty of iconic destinations to explore, like Yosemite National Park or Lake Tahoe, there’s so many more under-the-radar places to dive into, like hiking up to the granite spires of Castle Crags State Park or gawking at the Victorian mansions of Mendocino. Here are 47 incredible things to do in Northern California including both bucket list worthy destinations and some of the state’s best hidden gems.
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Table of Contents
- San Francisco
- Muir Woods
- Redwoods National and State Parks
- Lake Tahoe
- Yosemite National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Bodega Bay
- Point Reyes
- Fort Bragg
- Shasta Lake
Best Things to Do in Northern California
Listen, Northern California is MASSIVE, spanning almost 50 counties and over 23,000 square miles. So if we listed ALL of the really awesome things to do in Northern California, we’d be here for, like, a really long time (the Golden State is pretty cool, y’all!).
So, instead, we’ve handpicked some of the very best destinations in Northern California and the coolest things to do there. And while we’ve spent months exploring Northern California, we wanted to call in the big guns for this post, given how huge this area is and how many incredible activities there are here. So we’re getting some help from our friend, Anu from Destination Checkoff, who is a lifelong resident of Northern California.
Visiting San Francisco should absolutely be at the top of your Northern California bucket list! This incredibly unique city is a quirky mix of Silicon Valley tech bros, beautiful Victorian mansions, and Karl, the fog (yup, the city’s fog has its very own name). While you could easily spend a lifetime enjoying its restaurant scene, historic districts, and sweeping bay views, we’d recommend spending at least three days (or more!) in San Francisco to get to know this wonderfully weird city.
1. Stop at the Golden Gate Bridge
Of course, one of the most iconic things to do in Northern California is to marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge. Spanning 4,200 feet, it actually held the title of the world’s longest suspension bridge for over 25 years!
Stop at any of a number of vista points, like Battery Spencer, to admire the famously orange Art Deco structure. If you have enough time in the city, consider walking or biking across the bridge—it offers some of the very best views of the San Francisco Bay.
2. Head to Fisherman’s Wharf
It’s totally touristy, but for good reason! Most of the wharf’s action is centered around Pier 39, where you can see street performers, watch goofy sea lions, and get some delicious food (like mini donuts!). Grab a sourdough bread bowl from Boudin Bakery and live your best tourist life.
3. Stand behind the bars at Alcatraz
Alcatraz is arguably the most famous prison on the planet, due, in part, to its location on a rocky island right in the middle of the San Francisco Bay—I mean, they made a whole Nicholas Cage movie about it! In real life, some of the most famous criminals in the United States, like Whitey Bulgar and Al Capone, spent years behind bars in Alcatraz. Hop on a boat out to “The Rock” and tour around its spooky cells, like with this small group tour or this tour.
4. Ride the iconic cable cars
Since 1873, red cable cars have been hauling passengers up and down the famously steep hills of the city. Ride the Powell-Hyde line along the San Francisco Bay, where you’ll cross Lombard Street, whose claim to fame is being the most crooked street in the world!
5. Enjoy a museum
The city is home to dozens and dozens of museums to explore. Consider making a stop at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the California Academy of Sciences, The Exploratorium, or any of the other 50 museums in the city.
Where to stay in San Francisco:
While you’ll pay a premium for staying here, you definitely can’t get any closer to the action than Fisherman’s Wharf. The Argonaut Hotel is right near the water and puts you in the center of all the touristy action.
Just a short 30-minute drive from San Francisco, Muir Woods offers a tranquil escape into a world where ancient redwoods reach for the skies.
Because of its proximity to the city, this is a POPULAR destination—so if you’re hoping to enjoy a quieter experience, aim to visit either early in the morning or later in the afternoon. These times not only offer fewer crowds but also provide enchanting light that plays among the trees.
And it’s important to note that, due to its popularity, visitors are required to snag a reservation ahead of time.
6. Hit the trails
Muir Woods offers a variety of incredible hiking trails that are suitable for all skill levels. For example, the Main Trail Loop is an easy two-mile path that takes you along an ADA-accessible boardwalk and across several bridges, where you’ll get up close with the tallest trees on the planet. For those seeking a bit more adventure, the 4.7-mile Ben Johnson and Dipsea Trail offers diverse scenery, from dense forests to panoramic views of the surrounding bay.
7. Attend a tree talk
Throughout the day, rangers give 15 minute educational talks, where you can learn more about the tallest living organisms on the planet. Just check the program board when you arrive in the park for times and locations!
Pssst… if you’re visiting San Francisco and don’t plan on renting a car, I’d suggest joining a tour to get to Muir Woods, like this small group tour or this shuttle, where you can explore on your own.
Where to stay in Muir Woods:
The Acqua Hotel in the nearby city of Mill Valley provides beautiful views of Richardson Bay and TONS of incredible perks, like a complimentary happy hours, free snacks that you can grab around the clock, and bike rentals that you can ride across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Redwoods National and State Parks
This is quite the unique park—not only is it home to the largest collection of the tallest trees on the planet, but it’s also the only national park that’s cooperatively managed with a state park system. Redwoods National and State Park sprawls along the northern California coastline, from Trinidad all the way up to Crescent City—and actually contains four different parks (Prairie Creek Redwoods, Jedidiah Smith, and Del Norte State Parks and Redwood National Park).
8. Walk through a massive fallen redwood
Hike through two tunnels cut through massive fallen redwoods along the Karl Knapp Trail, one of the best hikes through the redwoods. This is also an excellent place to hear the sound of bugling elk off in the distance.
9. Stroll under the tallest trees in the world
The aptly named Tall Trees Grove Loop Trail passes through an impressive grove of ancient redwoods. It’s rumored that the world’s tallest tree, the Hyperion Tree, is located near this trail—although its location is top secret and, even if you theoretically knew of its location, it’s actually illegal to hike to it!
10. Watch the sunset at Sue Meg State Park
This incredibly underrated state park offers coastal forests and sweeping views of the ocean. One of the best places to watch the sunset is Wedding Rock—you might even see whales or seals in the water below!
11. Drive along the Avenue of the Giants
Cruise along this 31-mile iconic drive, which is renowned as being one of the most scenic drives in the world.
12. Stroll around downtown Eureka
While the redwoods are the main attraction in this area, don’t miss the city’s beautiful Old Town district. Mosey around the neighborhood to enjoy its restored Victorian mansions, including the colorful Pink Lady and the Carson Mansion.
13. Hike through Fern Canyon
Wander along the Fern Canyon Trail, a stunning canyon whose walls are dripping with primeval ferns. It’s so otherworldly looking it was actually used as a shooting location of A Lost World: Jurassic Park!
Where to stay in Redwoods National and State Parks:
The Lost Whale Inn in Trinidad has been ranked one of the top ten most romantic hotels in the United States, with complimentary seven-course breakfasts(!!!), evening appetizers, and wine. Some of the rooms come with private balconies, overlooking the ocean and all rooms have access to a trail leading down to the beach and a firepit to cozy up to at the end of the day.
If there’s one place in northern California where nature meets adventure, Lake Tahoe—which sprawls over 120 square miles and clocks in as the second deepest lake in the country—would be it. Between its iconically blue waters and location nestled between the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains, this lake offers some of the best things to do in Northern California, regardless of the season.
14. Shred the slopes
In the colder months, the Lake Tahoe area transforms into a winter wonderland—and a snow sports paradise. Resorts like Squaw Valley and Northstar offer top-notch skiing and snowboarding experiences. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, hunt down the perfect slope for you to enjoy some fresh pow.
15. Take to the water
Come summer, the lake itself takes center stage. Go kayaking, jet-skiing, or simply jump in its crystal clear waters for a refreshing dip.
16. Head to Emerald Bay State Park
This beautiful park not only offers stunning views of the lake but also comes with its very own castle! You can either enjoy the park by hopping on a boat cruise in Lake Tahoe, like this two hour option or this half-day private option or, for something a bit more epic, consider flying thousands of feet above the bay in a helicopter tour.
17. Hit the trails
If you prefer exploring on foot, the hiking trails around Lake Tahoe are nothing short of spectacular. Hit the Eagle Lake Trail, a quick 1-mile steep trail that offers breathtaking views of the nearby Eagle Lake. Alternatively, the Rubicon Trail follows along the rim of the lake, passing serene coves and stunning overlooks of the sparkling water.
18. Chow down
Enjoy Lake Tahoe’s dining scene, which is a delightful mix of upscale eateries and cozy lakeside cafes. The Heavenly Village area is a lively place to be in the evening, and Base Camp Pizza Co. is great for dinner.
Where to stay in Lake Tahoe:
Nestled right in the heart of South Lake Tahoe, Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel offers spacious suites and a prime location right on the California-Nevada border.
Yosemite National Park
One of the most iconic things to do in Northern California is explore Yosemite National Park, largely considered to be the area’s crown jewel. It’s seriously like stepping into a larger-than-life Bob Ross painting with granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and ancient sequoias.
19. Chase Yosemite’s waterfalls
Yosemite is known for its waterfalls—it’s actually home to one of the tallest waterfalls in North America! If you’re looking to get up close and personal with this bad boy, head to the base of this 2,425 ft tall waterfall along the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail—it’s especially impressive in the springtime when it’s at its most thunderous.
Or are you feeling more adventurous? Take the Mist Trail to get up close to Vernal and Nevada Falls. Just remember to bring a rain jacket (like this one for men and this one for women)— you’ll definitely experience plenty of mist!
20. Take on El Capitan
Towering at over 7,500 feet tall, El Capitan is hard to miss—and causes supremely sweaty palms for anyone who has ever seen the movie, Free Solo. If you’re a climber, scaling El Capitan is a bucket list item or, for the acrophobes of the world (*raises hand*), you can simply take in the incredible vistas of the monolith and the vast Yosemite Valley at the Tunnel View overlook.
21. Wander under the giant sequoias
Yosemite is home to lots of superlatives, including the most MASSIVE trees on the planet! Stroll along the Mariposa Grove Trail to wander through the largest concentration of giant sequoias in the park. It’s humbling to stand next to enormous trees that have been around for millenia—and there are even a few sequoias that you can literally walk through!
Where to stay in Yosemite National Park:
You can’t get any more convenient than Yosemite Valley Lodge’s location, which is literally in the heart of the park—just steps away from the base of Yosemite Falls. Plus, there’s tons of handy perks, like an onsite restaurant, free bike rentals, and free private parking—which is surprisingly hard to come by in Yosemite!
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic is one of the best hidden gems in Northern California, with a unique landscape that, similar to Yellowstone National Park, is shaped by volcanic activity. In fact, Lassen Peak is still considered an active volcano, given that it’s erupted in the last 100 years. Plus, there’s still plenty of VERY active geothermal features, like bubbling mud pots, hissing fumaroles, and steaming vents, that dot the park’s scenery.
22. Get up close and personal with the park’s geothermal features
Head to the Sulphur Works Trail, an easy paved trail that offers spectacular views of the surrounding vibrantly hued hills, or the Bumpass Hell trail, which is home to the largest hydrothermal area in the park.
Visiting Bumpass Hell is a must in any Lassen National Park itinerary and feels otherworldly, with its vibrant mineral colors and boiling springs. Bumpass Hell was actually named by a hiker from the 1800s that stumbled upon this area, fell into a hot spring, and promptly lost a leg!
23. Gaze up at the Milky Way
Given the park’s remoteness and limited light pollution, it’s one of the best places in the country to see the night sky. So, once the sun goes down, head to a spot with a clear view, like the parking area for Bumpass Hell or Lassen Peak or a spot along one of the lakes’ shores, like Manzanita or Summit, and see the Milky Way in all its glory.
23. Paddle on Lake Manzanita
Its clear waters reflect the surrounding mountain peaks, making it a serene spot for kayaking or even a dip during the summer months (it also happens to be one of the warmest lakes in the park!).
25. Snowshoe through the alpine landscape
Come winter, Lassen gets quite a bit of snow—up to 30 feet, in fact. But if you’re a hearty soul, strap on a pair of snowshoes (like this pair for men or this pair for women) and explore a trail around Manzanita Lake or the Southwest area of the park, where you can actually snowshoe past steam vents and mud pots (move over, Iceland—there’s a new land of fire and ice!).
Where to stay in Lassen Volcanic National Park:
Timber House Lodge is located less than half an hour from the park and offers a variety of rooms, each with a different theme (think “Lumberjack Suite” or “Gypsy Soul”). Plus, it has an onsite brewery and distillery to kick back with a pint after a long day on the trails.
Bodega Bay, a little town nestled along the coast, is Northern California’s answer to those craving salty air, homemade food, and ocean views that stretch on for miles.
26. Enjoy Doran Beach
This is the most popular of the Bodega Bay beaches, and for good reason. The beach offers two miles of soft, white sand and views of mountains off in the distance. Stick your toes in the sand, build a sandcastle, or just enjoy the cool ocean breeze on your face.
27. Take in the ocean views at Bodega Head
This viewpoint, located on a rocky headland, is especially popular during the gray whale migration seasons in winter and offers a prime spot to watch these majestic creatures as they make their 7,000 mile journey from the chilly Arctic waters of Alaska down to the warm lagoons of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. It can be quite windy though, so don’t forget some cozy layers to warm up with!
28. Walk along a coastal trail
If you’re eager to stretch your legs, hit the Kortum Trail, a hike that offers picturesque views of hidden beaches, tucked along the coastline, and countless rugged sea stacks jutting out of the Pacific Ocean.
29. Enjoy fresh, local foods
When hunger strikes, head to The Tides Wharf & Restaurant, an eatery known for its delicious dishes and views of Bodega Bay.
Where to stay in Bodega Bay:
The Lodge at Bodega Bay, located at the edge of Doran Beach, offers cozy accommodations with panoramic ocean views. It’s the perfect spot to wrap up your day, watching the sunset over the Pacific.
Located about an hour’s drive from San Francisco, Point Reyes offers a blend of rugged coastline, diverse wildlife, and a range of hiking trails for all skill levels. This cape is characterized by its varied landscapes, from rugged cliffs and beaches to rolling meadows and dense forests.
30. Climb down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse
Dating back to 1870, this lighthouse is perched dramatically on a cliff’s edge. It not only offers insights into the area’s maritime history but also provides an unrivaled spot for whale watching during the winter season. But be warned—taking the 300 steps down to see the lighthouse is fun, but climbing back up is another story. It’s the equivalent of climbing up a 30-story building!
31. Lace up those hiking boots
The Tomales Point Trail is known for its ocean views and as a great place to spot tule elk.
32. Photograph the Cypress Tunnel at sunset
True to its name, this tree-lined route offers a unique and photogenic perspective, with cypress trees forming a natural tunnel over the road.
Where to stay in Point Reyes:
The Olema House, housed in a historic mansion, offers rooms that perfectly meld quaint charm with modern comforts. Plus, the property is stunning, with a sprawling garden and trails that follow beside Olema Creek that are perfect for wandering around.
Along the Northern California Coast, Mendocino is a historic town with quaint charm and laid back vibes. Thanks to its location on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, it offers some of the best coastal views in the state.
33. Explore Mendocino Headlands State Park
This is is the best place in the area for outdoor adventures, offering several trails that wind along the coastline and breathtaking views of the ocean, hidden coves, and otherworldly rock formations. For example, hit up the easy Mendocino Headlands Trail, which provides stunning vistas of the rugged coastline and some very interesting water features (like a cove that spews water into the air every few minutes!).
34. Wander around downtown Mendocino
This neighborhood is filled with Victorian-era homes, local art galleries, and a variety of shops.
35. Enjoy the local wineries and restaurants
There are so many places to enjoy INCREDIBLE food and drink here. For example, drink a pinot at Toulouse Vineyards. This charming winery has a patio overlooking the surrounding green valley.
36. Go to Russian Gulch State Park
This beautiful park has some of the most dramatic landscapes in the area, with enormous primeval ferns, coastal redwoods, and lush moss. Drive to Russian Gulch Beach to see the famous Russian Gulch Bridge or hit up one of the park’s hiking trails, like Russian Gulch Fern Canyon and Waterfall Loop, to take in the surrounding forest that looks straight out of Jurassic Park.
Where to stay in Mendocino:
Mendocino Hotel & Garden Suites is a historic hotel that dates back to the 19th century, offering a mix of rooms and suites with ocean views.
Located further north along the Mendocino County coastline, the small town of Fort Bragg is a quirky mix of historic military infrastructure, gritty industrial history, and raw natural beauty. Once an old lumber town, it has since reinvented itself as a coastal destination that’s both relaxed and rewarding for visitors.
37. Find sea glass at Glass Beach
This is arguably the most popular spot in Fort Bragg. Over the years, discarded glass has been polished and smoothed by the waves, resulting in a beach covered in sea glass pebbles in a myriad of colors. Hunt down the remaining pieces of seaglass and admire its beautiful colors—just remember it’s illegal to take glass from the beach, so leave it for others to discover as well.
38. Stroll through the Mendocino Botanical Gardens
These beautiful garden offers a diverse range of plants spread overa whopping 47 acres and trails that lead to ocean overlooks.
39. Take the Skunk Train
Since, 1885, this historic rail line has taken passengers on a scenic journey through the lush redwoods. Since 1885, this train has weaved its way through groves of ancient redwoods, over trestle bridges, and through tunnels. If you book your ride on Friday evening, you can actually visit the Glen Blair Bar, a hidden bar that’s only accessible via the Skunk Train!
40. Cruise on a railbike
Ride the rails in a more unique way—with a railbike! You can pedal along the historic train tracks on an electric-assisted open-air vehicle, giving you ample opportunity to admire the towering redwoods above and the surrounding wildlife.
41. Kayak down Noyo River
If you’re anything like me and have dreams of kayaking with otters, paddle down the Noyo River, where you’ll have an excellent chance at seeing these furry hand-holding cuties, as well as other wildlife, like deer and bald eagles.
42. Indulge in the dining options
Fort Bragg has an impressive array of restaurants, like North Coast Brewing Company for craft beer enthusiasts and Piaci Pub & Pizzeria for those craving pizza or Italian dishes.
Where to stay in Fort Bragg:
The North Cliff Hotel offers rooms with ocean view balconies and a gas fireplace to cozy up to at the end of the day. If you’re looking to really up the romance, certain suites even come with a two-person spa bath.
Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in Northern California, is a hidden gem mostly known by the locals.
43. Hit the water
Covering an eye-popping 30,000 acres, there’s so many things that you can do on the water, whether you’re jet-skiing, paddle boarding, or renting a houseboat to drift around the lake and take in the beautiful scenery.
44. Wander around the Lake Shasta Caverns
These jaw-dropping caverns are hidden hundreds of feet inside the McCloud Limestone Mountain Range. You’ll need to take a boat and then a bus ride to reach the caverns, but once inside, this (quite literally!) cool spot will be well-worth the effort. You’ll feel transported into a whole different world amidst the ethereal stalagmites and stalactites.
45. Explore Castle Crags State Park
Take a day trip to this hidden gem in the California State Park system, home to towering mountains topped with jagged rock spires. The Castle Dome Trail is the only hike in the park that will actually take you up to the spires, offering jaw-dropping views of the crags and Mount Shasta, the tallest mountain in Northern California.
46. Hit all the incredible waterfalls around Mount Shasta
There’s dozens of incredible waterfalls in the surrounding area.
For example, hike along an easy loop trail to the base of Burney Falls, with several waterfalls that fall over 120 feet down a fern-covered cliff. McCloud Falls is a series of three waterfalls—you can actually swim at the base of its Middle Falls (just make sure the current is safe and get ready for some COLD water!). And for an off-the-beaten track adventure, Faery Falls is tucked inside a lush forest and has a plunge pool that’s perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day.
47. Enjoy local restaurants
If you get hungry after all of your outdoor adventures, stop by Huff’s at the Bridge Bay Resort. They serve up hearty meals with views of the water. It’s a favorite for both locals and travelers.
Where to stay in Shasta Lake:
For the full Shasta Lake experience, rent a houseboat from Bridge Bay Resort. If you prefer your accommodations not to float, they also offer a cozy lodge, right along the lakeside.
Phew—there’s so many cool things to do in Northern California! Do you have any questions about these awesome activities? Let us know in the comments below!