Are you planning a road trip through Northern California and looking for the perfect itinerary? Read on for our guide to road tripping through the California redwood forests, driving through gigantic tree tunnels, exploring Pygmy forests, experiencing volcanic activity, and more in this detailed North California itinerary. Also find recommendations on where to stay, what to eat, and what to do in this NorCal road trip guide. You may also like our post on 10 days in California
Welcome to our Northern California road trip planner!
When most people think about California, they think about the big cities of San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles, the natural wonders of Yosemite and Big Sur, and the desert regions of Joshua Tree and Death Valley.
And off course, Disney. You can’t really separate Disney from California!
Very few remember the northern part of the state and its unique attractions; even fewer visit them.
I myself did not see this area while living in the Bay Area but it visited later when I had seen most of the other attractions in California.
And that’s why on a road trip on empty roads through Northern California you can’t help but feel as if you are on a different planet.
One where prehistoric, gigantic trees reach for the skies and where volcanic activity creates bubbling mud pools and hot springs where you would least expect them!
A Northern California road trip is all about the unexpected.
You will be driving through mist-shrouded forests on the North Coast and visit the mighty Sierra Nevadas. You will see beautiful blue lakes and even find snow and casinos in the Lake Tahoe area.
If you venture into one of California’s most underrated national parks – Lassen Volcanic National Park – you will see breathtaking volcanic domes and evidence of the Earth’s geothermal activity.
On this road trip, you will explore lava tube caves and see geysers that shoot up in the sky.
Northern California is all about nature on a spectacular scale.
For the purpose of this itinerary, we consider the area to the north and east of San Francisco including Yosemite as Northern California.
If you are interested in attractions south of San Francisco including Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and Big Sur, then read our post on Pacific Coast Highway road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
While the main itinerary concentrates on the North Coast and area around Lassen Volcanic National Park, we have also included options to include Yosemite and Lake Tahoe in this itinerary.
You will also find options to do a shorter route – suitable for 3 to 4 days – but still, see all the major attractions in the area.
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“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”
– John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley in Search of America
Northern California Road Trip Itinerary
Time to leave aside the Californian stereotypes of Hollywood celebrities, surfer dudes with bleached hair, and lounging on the beaches, palm trees, and never-ending sunshine.
This road trip takes you up the North Coast along the PCH 1 and down along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.
Here is our itinerary for spending 5 days up to a week on the road in Northern California.
Wherever we could, we have included how much time you will need to experience the attraction and whether the destination is worth spending extra time.
Day 1 – San Francisco
San Francisco is NorCal’s largest and most famous city.
Begin your North California itinerary in this foggy, hip city by seeing the famous Golden Gate Bridge. There are many ways to see the bridge including walking across it, but our favorite is biking the Golden Gate all the way to Sausalito and taking the ferry back.
We have done this without kids as well as with kids – with our 6-month-old in a bike trailer – and enjoyed it equally.
We recommend beginning your road trip in San Francisco for another reason, it’s the closest major airport.
We personally aren’t fans of Bay area airports because they never have good deals for Houston flights but you might get luckier. Apart from San Francisco Airport (SFO), also search for flights to Oakland or San Jose airports to get the best deals.
Other popular things to do in San Francisco include visiting Chinatown and eating dumplings, driving down Crooked Street, seeing the sea lions at Pier 39, seeing the view from Twin Peaks, taking the cruise to Alcatraz Island, shopping in Union Square, and eating Mexican food in the Mission District.
Also, don’t forget to ride the iconic cable cars while you are exploring the city. For dessert time, visit Ghirardelli Square and slurp on their brownie sundaes.
If you have more time, we would recommend spending 2 to 4 days to experience San Francisco’s top attractions.
Read our San Francisco posts now to plan this part of the trip:
San Francisco 3 to 5-day itinerary ideas
17 Best Things to do in San Francisco on your first visit
Another popular attraction is the Muir Woods National Monument. This is the closest redwood forest to San Francisco and hence, is always crowded. Besides you need a shuttle to reach Muir Woods.
We would suggest skipping Muir Woods in favor of the Redwoods National and State Parks that you will visit on the North Coast. Also, the redwood trees further up the coast are bigger than the ones in Muir Woods.
Check out our other California articles:
San Diego to Joshua Tree: 10 Best Places to add to Southern California Road Trip Itinerary
2 Day Los Angeles Itinerary: Explore the highlights
10 Days California Road Trip Itinerary: From the Pacific to the Redwoods
Day 2 – Point Reyes National Seashore and Mendocino Headlands State Park
On Day 2, follow Highway 1 north from San Francisco up to Point Reyes.
After seeing Point Reyes, continue north to Mendocino while stopping at Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay. You can take a detour to the Russian River (see below).
Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is absolutely stunning and one of the highlights of the North Coast.
It is conveniently located along Highway 1 and is quite popular with Bay area locals. In some ways, Point Reyes reminds me of Big Sur – only it is foggier and less rugged.
Point Reyes is incredible for wildlife watching.
Bring along a pair of binoculars and you will spot sea otters, whales, elephant seals, elks, seagulls, and other seabirds.
The Point Reyes Lighthouse is a must-see attraction while in the area.
Usually, the lighthouse and nearby visitor center are open to visitors from Friday to Monday but the lighthouse is currently undergoing restoration and is currently closed.
When it is high season for whale watching, you may need a shuttle to reach the lighthouse. For exact opening dates and times, check here.
While driving towards the lighthouse, you will pass the famous Cypress Trees tunnel in Point Reyes.
Point Reyes also has many hiking trails. You can get a hiking map either at Bear Valley Visitor Center or the Lighthouse Visitor Center.
Point Reyes is also great for biking, kayaking, beach-combing, and camping.
Also Read: Best Beaches to Camp in the USA
If you are short on time, we recommend photographing the lighthouse, watching for wildlife, hiking a short trail before heading to Mendocino.
If you have more time, you can easily spend a couple of days in Point Reyes National Seashore.
After Point Reyes, you have two options.
You can either drive north along Highway 1 or take a detour to the Russian River along Highway 101.
If you don’t have much time, we would recommend the drive along Highway 1.
You will be driving along the coast and see beautiful views along the shore – maybe even spot wildlife, especially if you are traveling during the whale watching season.
Tomales Bay area is famous for oysters.
Since the Bay is shallow and under 10 feet in many places, it is an excellent environment for shellfish farming.
Some of the best places to eat oysters in Tomales Bay include the Hog Island Oyster Company and Tomales Bay Oyster Company.
Also, stop in the Tomales Bakery and buy a few pastries for the road. We would recommend stopping here for lunch.
For an excellent off the beaten track attraction, stop at Bodega.
This tiny village is famous as the filming location of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, ‘The Birds’.
You can easily find the buildings featured in the movie: Potter Schoolhouse and St. Teresa of Avila Church. While you can’t visit inside, we would suggest taking some pics for the ‘gram!
If you have more time, then consider the detour to the Russian River. You will need to leave Highway 1 and take the Bodega Highway to Guerneville.
Russian River at Guerneville
Russian River is a river in North California that flows to meet the Pacific.
It is located in Sonoma County and accessible either by Highway 101 or Highway 1 from Point Reyes.
The area is popular for excursions along the river. If you have the time, you can kayak, canoe, or simply float down the river in a tube.
The towns of either Guerneville or Forestville make excellent bases to explore the Russian River.
The area is also great for viewing wildlife and bird watching.
After leaving Russian River, you can either take CA-128 to Mendocino or backtrack to Highway 1 for a stunning drive along the coast.
Mendocino is a small village on the scenic North Coast.
You can’t help but fall in love with Mendocino – it has charming Victorian cottages and seems to belong more in Maine than in California.
You will find lots of eateries, wineries, and romantic bed and breakfasts all around Mendocino.
A stroll anywhere through the town will inspire you with dramatic views of the Pacific.
In case you are wondering – the homes average about $700,000. For a wild moment, even we thought of retiring here – it’s that kind of place.
While the village of Mendocino is undeniably charming, the main attractions are the 3 state parks of Mendocino Headlands State Park, Russian Gulch State Park, and Van Damme State Park for its Pygmy Forest.
It is not possible to see everything that Mendocino has to offer in a day, so we recommend staying in town and visiting Mendocino Headlands State Park on your first day and the other two on your second day in Mendocino.
Mendocino Headlands State Park
Mendocino Headlands State Park has short, unpaved trails that allow you to stroll along the rocky coast and experience the surf from above.
Be on the lookout for wildlife – you can easily spot whales and more.
The state park is also a great place to take photos of Mendocino. Big River Beach is great for lounging, sunbathing, and making a sandcastle.
During spring and summer, the buffs will be carpeted with wildflowers, making the area more gorgeous.
If you hike along the trails at sunrise or sunset, you will be treated to spectacular views.
Day 3 – Russian Gulch State Park, Pygmy Forest, and Glass Beach
Use this day to explore the rest of Mendocino, before visiting the Glass Beach at Fort Bragg.
Russian Gulch State Park
Located about 2 miles to the north of Mendocino, Russian Gulch State Park is the one with the photogenic Panhorst bridge and a waterfall.
If you want to camp, this park has the best camping spots in Mendocino.
The Headlands Trail will take you along the coast – expect to see stunning views of the ocean, the bridge, and a sinkhole called Devil’s Punchbowl. This trail can be done in an hour.
For a longer trail, hike the Fern Canyon and reach the 36-foot long waterfall, for a total of 3 hrs.
Van Damme State Park
This park is most popular for its Pygmy Forest.
This forest is comprised of stunted trees that are hundreds of years old and only a few inches in height.
The soil under the trees is so old and subject to unique ecological conditions that it lacks nutrients needed for the plants to reach their full potential.
As a result, all the trees and plants you see here are bonsai versions of themselves.
While the Pygmy Forest sounds very cool, in reality, it was a lot taller than I anticipated. It is still cool nevertheless and the trail has interpretative signs explaining the ecological factors.
This state park also has a hike through Fern Canyon and it is a beautiful walk.
Fort Bragg, located just 20 minutes and about 8 miles away from Mendocino, is popular for its Glass Beach.
California’s Glass Beach is famous throughout the world for its unique story. The sea glass comes from pottery and glass objects dumped in the trash sites along the beach.
The waves broke down and ground the objects into colorful round glass pebbles creating a glass beach.
The beach is located in MacKerricher State Park in Fort Bragg and looks pretty and colorful – it is one of the most visited and photographed sites in North California.
However, the glass beach is depleting at a fast pace as no new glass is now dumped on the beach and tourists pick up the existing glass pebbles as souvenirs.
Currently, it is banned to remove any of the glass pebbles from the beach in an effort to conserve this unique attraction.
Just remember whenever you see a piece of sea glass that it probably took 7 to 10 years to turn from trash to treasure!
Also worth visiting is the nearby International Museum of Sea Glass where you can get to know the process of sea glass creation and see samples.
After you have seen the Glass Beach, drive on towards Humboldt Redwoods State Park and stay in the nearby area for the night.
If you have less time, we would recommend choosing one state park in Mendocino and exploring it before heading to Fort Bragg.
If you spend just an hour or so at each destination, you can squeeze in Point Reyes, Mendocino, and Fort Bragg in one day.
You can also skip the Glass Beach as it’s depleting really fast and sometimes the beach doesn’t live up to people’s expectations.
Day 4 – Avenue of the Giants, Eureka, Redwoods National, and State Parks, Crescent City
After you leave from Fort Bragg, Highway 1 will hug the coast for about 25 miles till Rockport and then turn inwards to join the 101 at Leggett. This is the official end of Highway 1 or the famous PCH 1.
This area where there is no major road along the coast is called the Lost Coast. Your only options to explore it are by hiking or backpacking or driving a 4WD vehicle on dirt roads – but it is not possible on a short road trip.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park And the Avenue of the Giants
The Avenue of the Giants, located in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, is a 32-mile long drive through the magnificent Redwoods.
This is one of the best places to see the coastal redwood trees in northern California.
Drive the Avenue of the Giants and you will understand why everyone is so fascinated by these gigantic trees.
Did you know that the redwood trees existed even in the time of the dinosaurs?
It is amazing to see trees so tall that sunlight can hardly penetrate through them. The Redwoods grow in groves and coming upon one on the road is a delight.
The Avenue of the Giants looks especially enchanting when the mist rolls through the trees.
There are a lot of parking lots and picnic areas located along the Avenue – so take your time exploring this wonder. Some of the attractions along the way include the Immortal Tree (250 ft), the Drive-thru Tree ($8 extra), etc.
We also recommend stopping by the Visitor Center where you can see an entire RV built from a single redwood log.
Also, hike the Founder’s Grove Nature Trail to see some of the biggest trees in the park including the fallen Dyerville Giant (372 ft) and the Founders Tree (346 ft).
There are also many areas along the Avenue of the Giants as well as within the state park where you can have a picnic lunch amongst the redwood groves.
While in the state park, whichever way you go – you will encounter the majestic trees and big groves, so it is an amazing site to just wandering around.
From the road, you will also see beautiful views of the Eel River.
We would recommend spending about 2 to 3 hrs along this scenic route. Also remember, that there’s almost no cell phone service on the road or in the park – so carry a GPS.
After seeing the area, consider stopping at Loleta for lunch as well as in other northern Californian coastal cities of Eureka, Arcata, Trinidad, and Crescent Springs.
Each of them is charming and offers something unique from the cheese factory in Loleta to Carson Mansion in Eureka.
Also between Trinidad and Crescent Springs, you can hike in Fern Canyon which is popular as the filming location of Jurassic Park: The Lost World.
All of these attractions include the Avenue of the Giants is located along the scenic Redwoods Highway.
Loleta is a charming little village with lots of historic buildings and makes a perfect pit stop after the Avenue of the Giants.
The main attraction here is the Loleta Cheese Factory – it is located in a rundown building but has a big collection of local cheeses as well as a cafe selling grilled cheese sandwiches and soups.
We would suggest eating lunch here in their gardens.
They have a nice garden with cozy enclaves, lots of flowering plants, and seating at the back if you have kids, grab a sample of their garden scavenger hunt!
The Loleta Cheese Factory is open 7 days a week so you can drop in any day.
If they are making cheese, you also get to tour the factory and see firsthand how cheese is made – kids especially love this.
Oh, and did we mention that you get to sample over a dozen different types of cheese?
On the way, don’t forget to buy some cheese and other goodies for a picnic by the coast.
The Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex is also located in Loleta and is good for an easy post-lunch walk and to spot migrating and resident birds.
Eureka is popularly known as the gateway to the Redwoods. It is located near the Redwoods Highway and in close vicinity to Redwoods National and State Park.
The famous Carson Mansion built by the lumber baron, William Carson is located in Old Town and is a must-see attraction.
This beautiful building was constructed in the Victorian style of architecture in 1885 and is one of the most photographed buildings in northern California.
We think that Carson Mansion resembles a fairytale castle. It is not open to the public so you can view only the exterior.
Old Town Eureka also has beautiful buildings but has recently been rundown – so we would suggest not staying in this area but just visiting for a quick look at Carson Mansion.
Eureka Visitor Center located in the Historic Clarke Museum is also worth a visit.
In Eureka, you will also find cheap places to stay as well as many local attractions including the small but interesting Sequoia Park Zoo and the magnificent Sequoia Park garden which has many big trees.
Eureka also has lots of breweries and taprooms including the Humboldt Cider Company, the Booth Brewing Company, the Lost Coast Brewery, etc. Eureka also has plenty of places serving good seafood.
The Humboldt Bay has a vast shipbuilding industry in earlier times and you can experience all about the nation’s history in the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum, located close to Eureka.
You can also cruise the Humboldt Bay on the historic ship Madaket, America’s oldest ferry. The cruises depart in the high season from May to October.
If you love off the beaten path places, check out the two covered bridges on Elk River Road: Berta’s ranch bridge and Zane’s ranch bridge. These are two of the remaining covered bridges in California.
The road is very pretty during wildflower season from April to June.
Located just a few minutes away from Eureka, Arcata is a charming little beach town.
Spend an hour or so exploring Arcata’s historic buildings or look for clams in Clam Beach County Park or walk through the sand dunes on Humboldt Bay in Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Arcata is a college town and is nicknamed Hippie Haven for its distinctly bohemian vibe.
For a romantic stay along the route, consider spending the night at Trinidad. This seaside village is located on a bluff overlooking the sea.
The village is surrounded by the massive redwood trees and the coast is rocky and foggy – perfect for intimacy and romance.
Patrick’s Point State Park and other beaches in Trinidad are full of tidepools – discover the tide pool creatures at low tide and go whale watching by high tide.
For the most photogenic views of Trinidad, hike the Trinidad Head Lighthouse trail or visit the Trinidad State Beach.
Also visit the Memorial Lighthouse, which is a replica of the original lighthouse in Memorial Park.
Redwood National and State Park
Redwood National and State Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and protects the tallest trees on earth: the coastal redwoods.
Unlike other national parks, Redwoods National and State Park doesn’t consist of just one location but of several smaller parks and areas where the redwoods are concentrated.
The park headquarters is located in Crescent City while areas of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park are also included in the National Park.
For the purpose of this itinerary, we recommend visiting only the Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek State Park.
After the Avenue of the Giants, the best place to experience the majesty of North California coastal forests is in Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
You can hike both the rim of the canyon as well as the inside, but you can’t get a really good look into the canyon from the rim since it is deep.
Hiking inside Fern Canyon is really cool: you will be hiking between 50 feet high walls of native ferns and mosses.
If you feel like you have stepped back in time to when dinosaurs roamed the planet, you are not alone.
Steven Spielberg was similarly inspired by the Fern Canyon and hence used it as a filming location in Jurassic Park: The Lost World.
This has contributed a lot to the popularity of fern canyon. It is an awesome place to take dinosaur crazy kids.
The dense ferns and dappled sunshine give the canyon a particularly eerie feel and you can’t help but watch out for an imaginary predator.
Along the canyon floor runs Home Creek, which makes for a very wet hiking experience in winter.
We recommend checking with park rangers at the visitor center or checking here for trail and access road conditions during winter or if it has rained previously.
The hike is a mile long and easy enough for smaller kids in the summer.
However, you will often have to step into the creek so ensure that everyone is wearing waterproof hiking shoes/sandals and carrying spare socks.
On the way to the Fern Canyon trailhead, you can often spot an elk herd on Davidson Road.
Crescent City is aptly located on a crescent-shaped stretch of the coast just 20 miles away from the California-Oregon border. This will be your last stop along the coast.
Popular things to do in Crescent City include visiting the Battery Point Lighthouse at low tide and seeing the 360 views from above, walking along the Crescent City waterfront, seeing the enchanting animals at Ocean World Aquarium, and beachcombing for agate and other minerals on Pebble Beach.
Day 5 – Medford and Klamath Falls, Oregon
After seeing Crescent City, head towards Lava Beds National Monument. The road will take you through Medford and Klamath Falls area in Oregon.
It’s a bit confusing – I’m pretty sure when you were planning a NorCal road trip, you weren’t thinking of visiting Oregon.
What happens is that the only road connecting Fern Canyon / Crescent City to Lava Beds / Mt. Shasta region goes through Oregon. It’s a 5 hrs drive but the road is beautiful.
The change of scenery on this stretch is really intense.
After getting used to the gigantic trees and the wild coast, you can’t help but miss them as they grow smaller in the rearview mirror.
But what lies ahead is equally magnificent: the peaks of the Klamath mountain ranges tower above you while the earth below quakes with every form of volcanic activity.
Here is your chance to see volcanic domes of all kinds, explore through tunnels carved by molten lava, heal in mineral-rich hot springs, and experience hot geysers shooting up from the ground.
For school-age children, this is the best way to experience Planet Earth on a field trip.
We recommend staying in Klamath Falls, Oregon for the night. Klamath Falls is about 1 hr 15 minutes (~55 miles) away from Lava Beds National Monument.
Day 6 – Lava Beds National Monument, Mount Shasta, and Redding
Lava Beds National Monument
Lava Beds National Monument is located in an area of intense geothermal activity.
The monument is located near Medicine Lake Volcano and is a great place to see diverse volcanic features, the most unique being lava tube caves.
The park has over 700 of these caves and many are open to visitors.
You can borrow helmets and flashlights at the visitor center but need to wear good hiking shoes to go down in the caves.
Also, the caves can get quite cold so dress in layers. You can explore the caves on your own or they also have occasional guided tours led by park rangers.
We would recommend visiting the visitor center and asking for easy / beginner level caves and a map for your group. Most of the developed caves with well-defined trails are located along the Cave Loop Road.
Some of the popular caves with high ceiling and easy trail are Skull Cave, Mushpot Cave, and Big Painted Cave.
If you are physically fit or have teens who are up for an adventure, then try hiking in some of the moderate or challenging caves. These will require you to stoop, crawl, or twist. For more information on the caves, check here.
Lava Beds National Monument is also a good place to learn the history of the Modoc Indians and the Modoc War.
The Modoc Indians lived in the area in the 1859s. They fought an ongoing war with the US Army, which is known as the Modoc War. Many of the battle sites are within the national monument.
The Modoc Indians also left behind many relics including petroglyphs in the lava tube caves. You can see some during your visit to the Big Painted Cave.
Lava Beds National Monument also has hikes but we would recommend exploring just a few lava tube caves and heading to Mt Shasta and MacArthur-Burney Falls and spending more time there.
After leaving Lava Beds, take the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway to Mount Shasta.
The city and the volcano are both called Mount Shasta.
The views all around the city are beautiful and there are lots of things to do in the area, including hiking, biking, fishing, etc.
Hiking is especially popular with visitors who want to climb up to the dome; however, you will find trails for all difficulty levels.
The nearby Lake Siskiyou has a nice beach area and stunning scenery.
Castle Lake is another pretty Alpine lake with excellent views. In the city, Mount Shasta City Park is great to have a picnic and relax.
Your next stop is the city of Redding and Lassen Volcanic National Park. On the way, consider a detour to McArthur-Burney State Falls.
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
Burney Falls is a 129-foot high cascading waterfall that looks most spectacular when Burney Creek flows full in spring.
The1.2 mile-long Falls Loop trail is a fun and easy hike and great for kids.
The park is often filled to capacity on weekends from April to October and entrance is closed.
So we recommend reaching here early or revisiting an hour or two before sunset if traveling in peak season.
Next stop at the scenic Shasta Lake before heading to Redding for the night. The lake is located just 15 minutes off I-5.
This is the largest man-made reservoir in the state and visitors can visit the dam and visitor center.
Most popular lake activities include swimming, tubing, and boating. You can even rent a pontoon or kayak to spend some time on the lake.
There are also lots of wildlife sightings around the lake and you can see deer, eagles, etc.
You can also rent a houseboat and stay on the lake.
If you haven’t had enough of the lava tubes at Lava Bed National Monument, then Lake Shasta caverns are also worth exploring.
We would recommend stopping in Redding for the night and exploring the popular Turtle Bay Exploration Park. This park has everything from an arboretum and a museum but the highlight is the Sundial bridge.
Built across the Sacramento River, Sundial Bridge is a suspension bridge that is also a working sundial.
The bridge has a glass-bottom walkway from where you can see the water below. The bridge is very photogenic and an icon of Redding.
Day 7 – Lassen Volcanic National Park and Sacramento
Lassen Volcanic National Park
In Lassen Volcanic National Park, you will find everything from volcanoes and hot mud pots to Alpine lakes and wildflowers.
It is essential to stay on established trails in the park as the solid ground can melt into a boiling pool of water without warning.
To explore the park, we would suggest driving the 30 miles long Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway through the park.
Along the way, stop at points like Sulphur Works, Bumpass Hell Overlook, and Lassen Peak viewpoint.
There are several trails along the drive including the Devastated Area loop trail and Lily Pond loop trail which allow you to understand the area’s geology and history.
You can also rent boats or other watercraft and spend time on the mountain lakes inside the parks.
We would recommend spending 3 to 4 hours inside the park.
Sacramento is the capital of California and is a vibrant city.
While visiting the city, you should definitely check out the beautiful State Capitol building built in the neoclassical style of architecture.
There is a free State Capitol Museum inside the building that is a great place to learn about California’s history.
The city also has many other museums – kids love visiting the California State Railroad Museum, located adjacent to the Capitol.
Another must-visit is the Leland Stanford Mansion – home of former Governor of California and founder of Stanford.
Old Town Sacramento is also must visit – the area still looks like the Old West.
Many of the original buildings are still standing, making it easier to imagine the prominence of Sacramento in gold mining days.
Beneath their outdated exterior, most of these buildings are home to trendy cafes and restaurants.
Other popular attractions in Sacramento include the golden Tower Bridge built in the art deco style of architecture across the Sacramento River, Sacramento Zoo, and Fairytale Town in William Land Park.
After seeing Sacramento, you can do the roughly 1 hr 30 mins drive back to San Francisco. On the way, consider a detour to Calistoga.
Calistoga was once a Wild West frontier town that is still trying to change its image. In Calistoga, you will find historic buildings, trendy wineries, as well as hot springs.
Calistoga’s two main highlights include the Old Faithful Geyser (not the Yellowstone one!) and the Petrified Forest, similar to the one in Arizona. The geyser erupts regularly every 20 to 30 minutes.
You can also see a historic mill and a 36-foot water wheel at the Bale Grist Mill Historic State Park and visit the romantic Castello di Amorosa winery.
That’s it. Soak in the memories of the awesome 7 Day Northern California road trip while you return to San Francisco.
What if you have less time?
The giant Redwoods are so enchantingly beautiful that I won’t mind living here.
The real question then is how much north do you need to go?
The scenery is much the same: beautiful tall trees that twinkle in the sunshine, look dreamy in the fog, and are downright scary at night!
That’s why if you are short on time, after having your fill of the Redwoods on the Avenue of the Giants, you can turn away from the coast towards Mt. Shasta / Lava Beds National Monument.
That way you won’t need to drive all the way up to Oregon and can save a day or two.
To save even more time, you can skip both Mt. Shasta/Lava Beds and head directly to Lassen Volcanic National Park.
You still get to experience the geothermal activity and can complete the road trip in 3 to 4 days.
Another option is to complete just the Northern California Coast Road Trip up to Fern Canyon and Crescent City.
You can leave the route along Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway (Lava Beds, Mount Shasta, and Lassen Volcanic NP) for another time and another road trip.
This will allow you to enjoy the Redwoods and the magnificent coastline at a leisurely pace and still complete the trip within 3 to 4 days.
What if you have more time?
If you have more time, instead of visiting Sacramento, you can continue along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway and then drive to Lake Tahoe.
From Lake Tahoe, you can drive to Yosemite National Park. On the way, you can stop at Mono Lake.
The whole trip will take you anywhere from 10 to 15 days depending on how much time you spend at Lake Tahoe or Yosemite.
Lake Tahoe, located in the Sierra Nevadas, is California’s favorite getaway throughout the year.
In summer, Lake Tahoe is perfect for hiking, biking, and water activities while in winter it is perfect for skiing.
The lake shimmers a brilliant blue and looks stunning framed by the forests and mountain peaks.
The lake is pretty big and a road trip around Lake Tahoe takes about 3 hrs. That’s why we would suggest concentrating on one area if you have just a day at Lake Tahoe.
Emerald Bay State Park, located on the west shore, is a great way to start your trip at Lake Tahoe. The state park has spectacular views Bay as well as many hiking trails.
You also must see the Vikingsholm Castle on the shore. It can be accessed by an intermediate difficulty mile-long trail and has beautiful Scandinavian architecture.
Before you leave, visit Inspiration Point for bird’s-eye views of Emerald Bay.
Other things to do in Lake Tahoe include hiking along the lakeshore, boat cruise on the lake, hiking to see waterfalls, lounging on the beach, and skiing and sledding in winter.
Mono Lake is unique in most respects: this saltwater lake was formed millions of years ago and has many limestone columns called tufas.
Mono Lake has no outlet which causes a large concentration of salts as well as high salinity and alkalinity.
The calcium carbonate-based salts get deposited on the lake floor and continued accumulation has resulted in the formation of tufa towers.
The tufa towers look otherworldly, especially at sunset and sunrise, and make for some of the best photos of Mono Lake.
We would recommend spending an hour or two to explore Mono Lake.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country and together with Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Park, called the Big 3. Yosemite is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yosemite National Park is famous for its stunning landscapes formed by glacial erosion.
While the park covers many acres, the most photographed picture is that from Tunnel View – you can see the Yosemite Valley with the famous granite domes of Half Dome and El Capitan in the background.
Some of the best things to see in Yosemite include Yosemite Falls, the romantic Bridalveil Falls, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, Tuolumne Meadows, etc.
Yosemite Valley is the best place to start your Yosemite trip. Most of the park accommodations, restaurants, and visitor centers are located in the Yosemite Valley.
Guided tours of the valley also begin here.
We would also recommend driving on the scenic drives of Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road – both are open only in summer.
Yosemite also has many hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.
If visiting in winter, many of the higher elevation roads will be closed.
The whole area is covered with snow and looks spectacular. Winter activities in Yosemite include skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding.
Past Lake Mono and Yosemite, drive to Sacramento and then end your road trip in San Francisco.
If you have more time in San Francisco, consider spending a day or two in Napa and Sonoma wine countries.
Did you like our itinerary for the ultimate 7 Day Northern California road trip through the famous redwood trees? Let us know in the comments.