We’ve been all over northern California and I can honestly say that a road trip is our favorite ways to explore it. You can really only go to one or two destinations in the north if you don’t do a road trip because things are so spread out. So trust me, a road trip is the best way to see as much as possible.
This trip covers 1,000 miles. I realize that’s a long way to go. But it can be split into separate legs to make it shorter or to fit your interests. If you can’t devote 2 weeks to this road trip, maybe just plan to do 3 different trips over time.
» Check out these 9 National Parks in California and put one on your itinerary.
PRO TIP: You can purchase a California State Parks Pass in advance. Most parks charge $8-10 a day for parking. If you plan to visit many parks, it might be more economical to buy the pass for $125.
» Enjoy your road trip with these 46 Best California Road Trip Songs.
Highlights of the Northern California Road Trip
- San Francisco is a great city to explore on its own. Take a day to see the sights before starting your journey.
- Learn all about volcanoes at Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Explore the most beautiful waterfall in California: Burney Falls
- Climb through the lava tubes at Lava Beds National Monument
- See Redwoods National and State parks where you can drive through a tree and stare up in awe at these giant trees.
- Stop in Sonoma wine country for some wine tasting
- Enjoy the coastline and beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore
The road trip starts and ends in either San Francisco or Sacramento, as these are major hubs for national and international flights. You can fly in, rent a car, and get started on the road trip immediately. Of course, you can also start anywhere along the way, if you want.
The itinerary begins in San Francisco (or Sacramento, if you wish) and will take you to Lassen Volcanic National Park, Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Lava Beds National Monument, and over to Redwoods National & State Parks.
It’s a total of 1,000 miles driven, which can be really overwhelming so be sure to leave yourself a lot of time to do it in. If you don’t want to drive that far, I would suggest trying to fly into Redding to start instead and skipping everything south of the Avenue of the Giants. This will result in a 500-mile itinerary.
This Northern California road trip is best done in two weeks. The driving distances between each stop are relatively long (California is a big place), so you will need time to explore the destination and drive on to the next stop, all without overwhelming yourself.
You can do this road trip in either direction, but I do recommend the counter-clockwise route, because then you get the longest drive out of the way at the beginning of the trip. The last part is all gravy.
The Northern California Route
Starting Point: San Francisco
San Francisco is one a vibrant and picturesque city, with a significant number of cultural attractions and world famous landmarks, surrounded by impressive natural beauty.
The sights in San Francisco are as diverse as its history. I would suggest spending 2 days in San Francisco at the beginning of your trip, to see all the top sights, which I’ve listed below.
- Explore Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39: Start your trip with a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. It is touristy, but it has spectacular views of the Bay, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Don’t miss the famous sea lions lounging on the docks. For a truly local experience, try clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl.
- Ride a Cable Car: You have to ride the historic cable cars. It’s a very unique way to see the city’s hilly streets without walking up them yourself. Head to the Powell Street station for a ride.
- Visit Alcatraz Island: Book a ferry to Alcatraz Island, once a notorious federal prison, now a fascinating national park. Be sure to get the audio tour of the cellhouse. Remember to book your tickets in advance as they sell out quickly.
- Golden Gate Park: This vast park is a green oasis with gardens, museums, and winding paths. My favorite parts are the Japanese Tea Garden and the de Young Museum. If you’re up for it, rent a bike to cover more ground.
- Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge: This is the best photo opp in the city. It’s a 1.7-mile span and is breathtaking.
- Chinatown: San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of North America’s oldest and most vibrant. Don’t miss the historic Dragon’s Gate at the entrance on Grant Avenue. We also always go shopping for unique fabrics and dresses, and eat Dim Sum.
»» Where to Stay: We often stay at Hyatt Regency San Francisco on the waterfront.
DISTANCE TO NEXT STOP: 235 miles = 3:45
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the national parks that no one ever talks about. Why is that? I think it’s one of the most unique treasures in California. It’s choke full of geologic wonders that you can’t see everywhere, including mud pots, steaming fumaroles and unique volcanic structures. There are also gorgeous lakes, waterfalls and mountain peaks, everywhere you look.
The thing to do here is to drive along the scenic main highway, which is about a 30-mile drive. It takes about an hour to drive the length of it without stops. But there are numerous stops you’re going to want to make – some that require getting out for a bit of a hike – so plan for at least 3-5 hours.
If you only have one day, focus on a few key sights like Bumpass Hell and Manzanita Lake, with drives that offer stunning views of the park’s diverse landscape.
- Lassen Peak: This is a plug dome volcano and the main feature of the park. The hike to the summit is strenuous but rewarding, with great views. It’s about 5-miles round trip and takes approximately 4-5 hours, depending on your fitness level.
- Bumpass Hell: This is the largest hydrothermal area in the park, with hot springs and mud pots. A 3-mile round trip hike is the best way to see it. Plan about 2 hours for this hike.
- Manzanita Lake: The loop around the lake is about 1.5 miles and has some stunning views of Lassen Peak. You can also go for a flat hike or even go kayaking.
- Cinder Cone: The ascent to the top of this volcanic cone is where you can get spectacular views of the Painted Dunes and the surrounding volcanic landscape. The hike is strenuous, about 4 miles round trip and takes 3-4 hours.
- Sulphur Works: This area provides a quick view of some of the park’s hydrothermal activity and is easily accessible from the main road.
Note: There is a $30 7-day pass fee (high season).
DISTANCE TO NEXT STOP: 70 miles = 1:40
McArthur-Burney Memorial State Park
McArthur–Burney Falls Memorial State Park is the second oldest state park in the California State Parks system. As the name suggestions, the magnificent thing to see here is Burney Falls, a 129-ft high cascading falls.
The falls were once called the Eighth Wonder of the World by President Theodore Roosevelt. The water comes from underground springs above and at the falls, and provides an almost constant flow rate of 379 million liters per day. It’s gorgeous.
There are also some incredible hikes to do here. The best is Burney Creek Trail, a 1-mile easy trail that takes you to the falls. Another easy trail is the 2.5-mile Burney Creek Headwaters Trail, with slightly steeper grades, that also takes you to the falls. You can expect all of these trails to be quite busy.
Note: It costs $10 for parking.
»» Where to Stay: McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park Campground or there are a couple of motel-style places within about 8-15 miles like Shasta Pines Motel or Green Gables Motel
DISTANCE TO NEXT STOP: 50 miles = 1:10
Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Your next stop on the road trip is Shasta-Trinity National Forest. This National Forest encompasses an enormous 2.2 million acres with an almost infinite amount of wilderness walks available. The centerpiece of it all are the picturesque twin peaks of Mt Shasta and Mt Shastina.
You might want to play in the water at Lake Shasta, go on a tour of the Lake Shasta Caverns to see incredible displays of stalagmites and stalactites, or head to Castle Lake for a hike. For a moderate challenge, the Heart Lake trail is a 3-mile round trip that leads to beautiful views of Mount Shasta and the iconic lava cone known as Black Butte in the distance.
The Castle Lake Trail is one of the longer hiking trails in the Mount Shasta area at about 11 miles round trip. It’s a more strenuous hike but has uninterrupted vistas of Mount Shasta and the Klamath Mountains.
»» ACCOMMODATIONS: While disbursed camping is free all around the vast National Forest, if you need hookups or showers/toilets, Fowlers campground is located along the hiking trail between the lower and middle McCloud waterfalls. See hotels in Redding | Mount Shasta
DISTANCE TO NEXT STOP: 116 miles = 2:15 travel time
Lava Beds National Monument
Even if you’ve never heard of it before, Lava Beds National Monument is definitely worth a visit. The monument lies on the northeastern flank of Medicine Lake Volcano and has the largest total area covered by a volcano in the Cascade Range.
I think this park is one of the best kept secrets in the National Park System. When you arrive, you need to grab a cave permit (it’s free) from the visitor center. The rangers will give you all the info you need, as well as a flashlight which you’ll need to explore the caves. Then you can head off to explore on your own.
There are a vast range of easy to difficult caves all within a mile or two radius. In fact, there are up to 500 known lava tube caves within the boundaries of Lava Beds National Monument. You can go inside the easy caves for a look around, or if you’re fully prepared with the right gear, you can go exploring in the more difficult caves.
DISTANCE TO NEXT STOP: 239 miles = 4:45
Redwoods National & State Parks
This is the start of the California coast part of the road trip. You’ll be on the iconic Highway 101 at this point all the way back to San Francisco. It’s a unique road that hugs the ocean and has great views.
Redwood National Park is home to the world’s tallest trees and old-growth redwood forests. Many of the trees in the forest are over 300 feet tall and 2,000 years old. You will be astounded by the size of these trees!
Redwoods is actually a complex of one national park and three state parks: Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek. It’s $30 to get into Redwoods National park. Online advanced permits are needed for most of the state parks and there’s a cost of $12 for a day-use pass. If you’re staying at the campground or have a pass, it’s free.
At Jedediah Smith, Stout Grove is one of the most majestic and photographed groves of redwoods. In Redwoods National Park is the famous Lady Bird Johnson Grove. Redwoods Creek Overlook is also nearby.
Fern Canyon is a 1-mile loop with an elevation gain of 150 feet, taking about 30 minutes. The trail takes you through a canyon with two-story walls of ferns. You will get your feet wet! Gold Bluffs Beach nearby is a remote beach where you can spend the day at the beach, have a picnic, and enjoy the natural beauty. There’s also a campground.
As you drive south away from the Redwoods National Park, you can’t miss the Avenue of the Giants – a 31.5-mile drive through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. There are tons of things to see along the way, so prepare for a lot of stops as the mood strikes you.
»» ACCOMMODATIONS: Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, Elk Prairie Campground, or for a hotel try the Holiday Inn Express Arcata/Eureka
DISTANCE TO NEXT STOP: 192 miles = 3:30
Sonoma County & Napa Valley
I never pass up an opportunity to sip delicious wine in the best wine regions in the world. You shouldn’t either. Sonoma County and Napa Valley both have has some seriously good wine tasting options, as well as lots of other things to do. I think this area deserves at least a day and an overnight, if not more.
You can do wine tasting in any of the many AVAs from Geyserville down to Santa Rosa or from Calistoga down to Napa. You don’t need a reservation at many of them, and since you’re only there for a day (or two, if you stretch it), you can just stop where ever you see signs for wine tasting.
My favorites are Kendall Jackson, Rodney Strong, J Vintners, and the many small tasting rooms in Healdsburg. We also love the Oakville Grocery for picnic supplies.
» Try this tour: Sonoma Wine Rides — Sonoma County Wine Tasting Tours
DISTANCE TO NEXT STOP: 35 miles = 1:00
Point Reyes National Seashore – California Coast
Point Reyes National Seashore is a vast expanse of protected coastline north of San Francisco. There are thunderous ocean breakers crashing against rocky headlands, expansive sand beaches, open grasslands, brushy hillsides, and forested ridges.
For beaches, there are 80 miles of shoreline, including dozens of miles of sandy beach, like Wildcat Beach, that you can explore and enjoy. There are seemingly endless hiking possibilities, including forest and coastal hikes of all different length and ability level. Out on the rocky point is the 1870 Point Reyes Lighthouse.
Two of our favorite hikes are the Tomales Point Trail, a moderate hike offering opportunities to see tule elk and the Bear Valley Trail, which leads to the spectacular Arch Rock. As a major bird migration route, the area is fantastic for bird watching, with over 490 bird species recorded.
»» ACCOMMODATIONS: Olema House at Point Reyes or Coast Campground and Sky Campground
DISTANCE TO NEXT STOP: 24 miles = 0:45
Mount Tamalpais State Park
Just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is Mount Tamalpais State Park. The primary feature of the park is the 2,571 feet Mount Tamalpais. It’s a very picturesque place that is definitely worth of a stop to take some photos. We like to stop there for a picnic and a short hike.
The mountain is easy to access. You can drive nearly all the way to the top. Once you get there, a few short trails take you up and around the mountain.
The park has over 60 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy strolls to challenging climbs. Trails like the Matt Davis or Steep Ravine trails offer breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, and the surrounding hills.
DISTANCE TO NEXT STOP: 15 miles = 0:35
Back to San Francisco
California Road Trip – More Options
- The Perfect Big Sur Road Trip
- Best Stops of a San Fran to Yosemite Road Trip
- 46 Best California Road Trip Songs
This Northern California road trip likely totally wore you out and you’re ready to head home. After 7-14 days driving around in this beautiful state, seeing all the beauty, I’m sure the experience will never leave you. You’ll need to come back for another road trip very soon.
Laura is a travel fanatic who loves seeing and doing new things. She lives in Ventura, CA, and spends a lot of time exploring California’s cities, beaches, and national parks.