Post Summary: The Complete Northern California Road Trip With All The Best Stops
Giant Redwood trees, an insanely beautiful coastline, and several hidden waterfalls… Can you really see all of this in one single trip?
You can, and it’s all in Northern California. This part of the state is unlike the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. It’s wild, raw, and untamed, which is exactly the kind of Northern California Road trip we’re all about!
In this post, we’re sharing the best Northern California Road Trip Itinerary! We’re including everything from our favorite hikes, photo stops, camping tips, and so much more. Let’s get started!
The Best Northern California Road Trip Itinerary
How To Get Around Northern California
The best way to take a Northern California road trip is, naturally, by car. More specifically though, with a campervan or a car that’s geared up to go car camping!
A lot of these Northern California road trip stops are hours away from one another, so it’s in your best interest to rent a car or campervan to get around this part of the state.
You can even go in style, and rent a cool vintage VW Westfalia van from Outdoorsy! Outdoorsy is like Airbnb but for cars, so you can choose your desired recreational vehicle, fully insured, and ready to go have an adventure!
Where To Stay On A Road Trip In Northern California
There are many kinds of places to stay on your North California road trip, and it all depends on your preferences! You can make this trip as bougie or as dirt-baggy as you want, and that’s the beauty of it!
Here are some Northern California accommodations we recommend along your route:
Camping In Northern California
For the majority of our latest road trip in Northern California, we went camping!
We decided on a mix of California State Parks and free campsites. To find free camping spots, we use an app called The Dyrt, which helps us find nearby BLM land to camp overnight on (but only the pro members are able to get this feature!) Try their pro membership free for 30-days when using our code MANDAGIES!
For places that didn’t have a lot of BLM or national forest to use for camping, we reserved campsites in designated campgrounds. Here were some of our favorites:
- Sue-Meg State Park (Formerly Patrick’s Point State Park)
- Mcarthur-Burney Falls State Park
- Jedidiah Smith Redwood State Park
Airbnbs are great accommodations for your Northern California road trip if you crave some creature comforts! There are so many cute mountain cabins, desert dwellings, and simple places with close access to adventure. If it’s your first time booking with Airbnb, make sure to click here and get $40 off your first stay!
We booked a few Northern California Airbnbs throughout our road trip for shower breaks, a good night’s sleep, and easy access to wifi. One of our hosts also let us use their washer and dryer for laundry.
Northern California Lodges
Sometimes, a swanky lodge is a perfect way to treat yourself and unwind!
If you want to splurge on a one-of-a-kind stay, consider places like the Yosemite Valley Lodge, The Stanford Inn by the Sea, Timber Cove Resort, and the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite.
What To Pack For A Northern California Road Trip
Good Hiking Boots: Northern California hiking trails are rugged and fun! It’s important to bring shoes that are comfortable, broken-in, and ideally waterproof. We choose ones with ankle support, to keep us stable on uneven surfaces (like climbing over rocks and tree stumps).
A Good Offline Map: Most of the time on your Northern California road trip, expect to find little cell service. Make sure to download these road trip planning apps to help you navigate gracefully on AND offline.
Light Rain Jacket: Between the marine layer in the mornings to the unpredictable coastal weather, a rain jacket is a must-have. Choose a lightweight one that can easily be stuffed in your daypack!
Day Pack: A good day pack is comfortable for long-term wear, and ideally waterproof to withstand all types of weather! Look for ones with lots of outside pockets (to store snacks!) and hip straps for extra weight support.
First Stop On Your Northern California Road Trip: San Francisco
San Francisco (or Oakland) is a natural starting point for your Northern California road trip for their abundance of resources to begin your journey. This is where you can easily rent a car, stock up on groceries, and make any last-minute errands before you take off. This is the perfect place to begin your journey, as all good west coast road trips should have the chance to drive across this iconic bridge.
If you want to spend some time in the city, try to spend a quick day doing the touristy things like visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, hike Land’s End, and the Mission District for a quick overview of the city.
For your final exit heading out on your Northern California road trip, finish it off by driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to Mount Tamalpais State Park and the Muir Woods!
Mount Tamalpais State Park
Mount Tamalpais State Park is one of the most instagrammable places on your Northern California road trip!
Some of the most iconic places to see in Mount Tamalpais State Park are the East Peak Hike for epic views of the city, Van Wyck Meadows, and Oberman’s Rock / Leaning Tower.
If you want to venture out a little further to see giant Sequoia trees, you can go explore the Muir Woods National Monument, located nearby in Mill Valley, CA.
For an iconic Northern California road trip experience, make sure to photograph the sunset from Bolinas Ridge – bonus if you catch a car winding down those roads!
Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is a protected area north of San Francisco for its elk population, shorebirds, and a huge variety of incredible marshland, rangeland, and ocean headlands!
Come visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse for an opportunity to spot whales offshore, and chat with a park ranger about recent sightings and best times to see them. One of the most popular stops in this area includes visiting the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse that sits on the westernmost tip of the park. You can walk down the 300+ stairs to witness this 1870 structure up close!
Other iconic Northern California road trip stops here include the Cypress Tree tunnel, the shipwrecks in Inverness, and the leaning tree by the coast.
Northern California isn’t exactly known for its golden sandy beaches – that’s more reserved for sunny Orange County! However, the lack of sandy beaches doesn’t mean the coast isn’t worth a spot on your North California road trip itinerary – just the opposite, in fact!
One of the most incredible Northern California beaches we’ve experienced was Black Sand Beach in Shelter Cove, an hour’s drive west from Highway 101. This section of the California coastline is under King Range National Conservation Area, which was designated as protected land in the 1970s.
Here the mountains seem to dramatically dive straight into the ocean. This was an unforgiving landscape for road construction, thus why this area is commonly referred to as California’s “Lost Coast” and the Highway 101 was diverted an hour east. Lucky for visitors like you though, this means you can visit this widely untouched, special part of the coast for a unique stop on your Northern California road trip itinerary.
For those who are brave enough to take the journey on the winding roads to the small community of Shelter Cove (it’s really a serious detour), you’ll likely be greeted with an empty beach all to yourself.
Read More: Black Sand Beach at Shelter Cove, California
Patrick’s Point and The Coastal Redwoods
The Coastal Redwoods are probably the wildest and most unpredictable stop on your Northern California road trip! From the giant redwood trees to the cliffside ocean views, there are many beautiful places to experience in this part of the northern California coast.
Spend the day exploring Patrick’s Point – a 640-acre park with a dense forest of hemlock, pine & fir, all neighboring the dramatic cliffside along the ocean’s edge. We visited Rocky Point for sunset and Wedding Rock and Mussels Beach for sunrise. Both were excellent options for short and beautiful coastal hiking trails.
Camp at Patrick’s Point State Park campground, which is a really great central location for all sorts of activities nearby. From there, you can take the short drive south to the California coastal towns of Eureka, Arcata, and Trinidad. There are several small beaches to explore around there, so pop into anyone that looks interesting to you!
Redwood National Park and State Parks
One of the most iconic stops on any Northern California itinerary is taking in all the views of the Redwood National Park, and State Parks!
Drive through some of the most scenic drives on the West Coast lined with Redwood giants of HUGE magnitude! The most famous route is through the Avenue of Giants (located in Humboldt Redwoods State Park), a 31-mile Redwood-lined drive with tons of history and interpretive signs along the way.
For a more rugged experience, try taking dirt road scenic drives through ancient North California forests – our favorites are through Cal-Barrel Road and Howland Hill Road near Crescent City. Note that RV’s and trailers are not allowed on these roads!
Another amazing Northern California road trip stop to check out is a magical swing that overlooks the cliffs and the Pacific Ocean! To find the iconic swing at Patrick’s Point, park at Trinidad State Beach and follow signs to College Cove to the cliffs.
Trip Tip: Personally, we think you should save your money when it comes to driving “through” those large Redwood trees. They are generally privately owned, over-priced, and a lot more underwhelming than you’d expect!
To finish off your road trip on the Northern California coast (after this you’ll be heading inland!), spend the morning in a magical fern-covered corridor deep in the woods. That’s right, Fern Canyon looks like it came straight out of a fairy tale! Wander down the canyon with 100+ foot tall fern-covered walls and experience the best solitude nature can provide.
Located in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, this is an essential Northern California itinerary stop for any photography lovers and hikers.
It takes a bit of work to get here, though. You’ll need to drive the unpaved, gravel Davison Road for 10 miles until you reach the trailhead. The road is quite narrow and windy, so RV’s and cars towing something behind are not recommended.
Don’t forget to wear water safe shoes! During periods of heavy rainfall or in the springtime, you’ll find yourself crossing many streams. In the summertime, they will place boards across streams to help visitors cross, but they aren’t always reliable. The trail is easy and suitable for all ages, just a simple 1.1 mile lollipop loop trail.
Not ready to leave the coast? Explore our Oregon Coast road trip route and continue north instead!
Mount Shasta, located in the Southern Cascade Range, is one of those unique locations where you feel so far away from civilization, yet it remains extremely accessible along the I-5 corridor.
Hike Yellow Butte for the most incredible but underrated views of Mount Shasta, take the Heart Lake trail for stunning alpine views, or explore the longer trek to the incredible Castle Crags Dome views. There are plenty of places to camp here on your Northern California itinerary so you don’t have to worry about rushing out of here.
Have a few extra days in your Northern California itinerary? Rent a houseboat and float around on Lake Shasta!
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park
McArthur-Burney Memorial State Park probably hosts one of the most beautiful stops on your Northern California road trip – Burney Falls!
This 129-foot tall waterfall feels MASSIVE in real life, with the powerful force of the water and mist totally engulfing you at the base. The falls are part of a really well-maintained area, hosting a campground, day-use area, and even a general store with great ice cream cones!
Access to the falls is $10 per day for parking a vehicle, so come prepared with cash or a California state park pass. Here, you can view the falls from the upper viewing area, or hike the short 0.3-mile paved walkway down to the base. We recommend stopping by both, because they each have their own magic to them!
Note: This is an extremely popular Northern California road trip stop, so expect crowds, or plan your visit early or later in the day!
Want to see more cool waterfalls on your Northern California road trip? Consider adding stops to McCloud Falls (there is an Upper Middle and Lower falls!), Mossbrae Falls, Whiskeytown Falls, and Lion Slide Falls.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is located a 1.5-hour drive from Redding, California.
Only have one day in the park? Take a scenic drive through the main highway, stopping at pullouts that look interesting to you! Driving one-way (30 miles) will take you about an hour, so allot for at least 4 hours to drive and see some sights along the way.
If you only have time for one hike, make it to the Bumpas Hell trail, where you can see a complex hydrothermal system, where molten rock heats up with water above and creates beautiful steaming pools at the surface.
Other popular geothermal pools in the area include Sulphur Works (walkable, near the parking lot) or longer hikes to Devil’s Kitchen, Boiling Springs Lake, and Terminal Geyser.
For a picnic stop, grab lunch at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitors Center located at the south end of the park. Additionally, you can pack a lunch and eat it lakeside, where we recommend North Summit Lake or Manzanita Lake. This way, you can jump in and cool off after lunch on a hot day!
Bonus Northern California Road Trip Stops
Have a few more days to spare on your road trip to Northern California? Here are a few more stops to consider along your route!
For a few more days on your Northern California getaway, extend your trip out to Lake Tahoe – the nation’s largest alpine lake!
Make sure to stop at Sand Harbor and paddleboard to Bonsai Rock. It’s one of the most popular places to reach by boat in the park! Parking at Sand Harbor is $10 for the day, with access to bathrooms and other amenities. You can also park alongside the road (on a narrow pullout) and hike down for access to Bonsai Rock, but the trail is steep!
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the most iconic places to visit in California! It’s home to Yosemite Falls, Taft Point, the Half Dome Trail, and Glacier Peak, but that’s not all! You can also explore Yosemite’s backcountry on their backpacking trails and longer hikes, too.
Currently, the park is open for visitors on a reservation-only basis. Reservations are free, but require some extra steps for planning a trip. Click here to learn more about Yosemite’s reservation system. (Current as of Autumn 2020)
Are you interested in driving down Highway 395 toward Los Angeles and San Diego? Mammoth Lakes is a beautiful destination along the way, with natural hot springs, alpine lakes, and tons of mountain adventures!
Stop by Mono Lake to see the incredible tufas (calcium carbonate rock), and the nearby Bodie State Historic Park to explore a cool ghost town.
If you love hot springs, make sure to stop by Travertine Hot Springs and Wild Willy’s. These are two of the most popular hot springs around, but there are quite a few more if you are willing to search for them! Both have access to BLM land nearby for camping, so you can plan a beautiful sunrise soak!
Other beautiful stops in the Mammoth Lake area include Convict Lake, Rainbow Falls, Devil’s Postpile, and Hot Creek.
Southern Oregon Coast
Are you more interested in planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest? You can venture north and explore Oregon, California’s neighboring state. Almost immediately, there are several amazing stops along the Oregon coast, enough to add a few extra days to your trip!
Some of the best stops on the Southern Oregon coast include Samuel H Boardman Scenic Corridor, Gold Beach, Face Rock in Bandon, and Coos Bay. Come with a camera in hand and water shoes at the ready, and prepare to witness some magical sunsets on the coast!
Do you have any more Northern California road trip ideas? Leave them in the comments below to inspire others too!
Northern California Road Trip Itinerary
Below, we’re sharing an example Northern California Road Trip itinerary – covering all the stops we’ve covered above!
- Day 1: Fly into San Francisco, Stay overnight
- Day 2: San Francisco to Mount Tamalpais
- Day 3: Mount Tamalpais to Point Reyes National Seashore
- Day 4: Point Reyes National Seashore to Shelter Cove
- Day 5: Shelter Cove to Redwoods State and National Park
- Day 6: Redwoods National Park to Shasta Lake (Day Trip To Fern Canyon)
- Day 7: Shasta Lake to Lassen Volcanic National Park (Day Trip To McArthur-Burney Falls)
- Day 8: Lassen Volcanic National Park back to San Francisco
Northern California Road Trip Map
Below, we’ve created a Northern California Road Trip Map to help you plan out all your stops. This is our suggested route, but feel free to modify it to fit your own personal preferences and stops.
Psst: Download this map of our California road trip to help guide your own itinerary and planning! Click on the image to save it on your own Google Maps app for easy referencing!