Best Things to Do in Northern California

May 6 2021, 8:31pm

Northern California is famous for its outdoors, wineries, sports, and more. It’s one of the leading travel destinations in the state to discover a diverse region that’s fun for everyone. Many of California’s major cities are located in the region, including San Francisco and San Diego, but there are also many things to do outside of the cities.

Discover some of the best things to do in Northern California. Whether you’re looking for adventure in nature or exploring the forgotten ghost towns, NorCal has it all!

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Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is always one of the favorite places to visit in Northern California. It’s the most visited national parks in Northern California with over four million visitors every year. Established in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it showcases the preserved, diverse landscape with natural features, including giant trees, waterfalls, mountains, and glaciers.

The national park is a popular place for outdoor recreation and sightseeing. It’s open all year round. You can venture on the trails to see some of the natural landmarks like El Capitan and the Half Dome cliff. The park also hosts nature walks and guided tours.

Stop by the visitor center when you arrive to learn everything to know for a fun visit.

Redwoods National Park

The environment of the Redwoods National Park seems otherworldly. You’ll get a chance to walk amongst the Earth’s giants – it’s home to many of the largest trees in the world. The national park is an excellent place for sightseeing in one of the most unique places in the US.

Redwoods National Park covers nearly 140,000 acres, predominantly old-growth forest. It was established to prevent cutting down the Redwood trees. Today, the old trees remain untouched and have heights over 380-ft for the tallest.

Go for a hike below the canopy and see what kinds of rare flora and animals you’ll encounter.

humboldt redwoods

Humboldt Redwood State Park

The mind-boggling height of the trees inside the Humboldt Redwood State Park makes it one of the top things to do in Northern California. It’s one of the largest state parks in California, which also contains the famous Rockefeller forest, the largest old-growth forest of Coast Redwoods in the world.

There are over 100 trees taller than 350-ft, and many of them are older than 1,000 years old. Take a scenic drive on the Avenue of the Giants. It’s a 32-mile drive through the park to see some of the largest trees.

It’s also a fun place to go for a hike or camping in designated areas.

Lava Beds National Monument

The entire Lava Beds National Monument landscape was formed over half-million years to create a unique environment. It’s open to the public to explore the different volcanic features.

The site is located adjacent to the Medicine Lake Volcano. Frequent eruptions in the past created much of the volcanic formations. You’ll see volcanic cinder cones like the Hippo Butte or Gillem Bluff, a large volcanic field as you hike the numerous trails.

One of the unique experiences is walking through the lava tubes. You’ll get to see the intricate system where volcanic lava once flowed. Inside reveals structures made from cooled lava.

golden gate bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

It’s not hard to figure out how the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most photographed in the world. The sheer beauty of the bridge makes it one of the must-see places to visit in Northern California. It’s recognized all around the world.

The Golden Gate Bridge was built in 1937 to cross the strait. It’s nearly two miles long and designed as a suspension bridge. Today, it’s an iconic image of San Francisco. There are many viewpoints to get the best photos, including in Golden Gate Park. The bridge also has pedestrian and bike lanes for leisure crossing.

Glass Beach at Fort Bragg

Glass Beach isn’t the typical California beach you’d imagine. In fact, swimming isn’t even one of the main activities that people do at the beach. It’s one of the most unique beaches that was at one point entirely covered with glass.

Glass Beach gets its name from the abundance of glass pieces covering the beach. In the past, it was an issue with garbage dumping. It resulted in a lot of waste build-up at the beach. Today, the glass is disappearing due to collectors, natural erosion, and no more garbage dumping.

Take a close look at the sand, and you’ll find lots of colorful glass. Although it’s not regulated, it’s recommended to leave the glass on the beach.

lake tahoe from ski resort

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is one of the favorite Northern California attractions to visit. It’s a year-round destination that offers some of the best lakeside activities in the country. You can easily spend a few days hanging out at the lake.

Lake Tahoe is one of the largest lakes in the US and the second deepest in the country. It’s a freshwater lake tucked in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, so you’ll have scenic mountain views from every angle.

For a summer getaway, you can hike the famous Tahoe Rim Trail or rent a boat to take out onto the lake. In the winter, you can visit one of the many ski resorts.

Alcatraz Island

Take a tour of Alcatraz Island to witness one of the most famous military prisons built in the US. It’s where notorious criminals like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly were held. The prison is no longer in operation, but guided tours will take you around to explore many of the former facilities.

Alcatraz Island is located just over a mile offshore of San Francisco. Take a ferry from the mainland to reach the island. Tours take you to see abandoned cells, one of the oldest lighthouses in California, the recreational yard, and more.

point reyes

Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the most scenic stretches of coastline in Northern California. The park was established to protect the seashore of the Point Reyes Peninsula. Preventing urbanizations creates a place full of natural beauty and resources.

Millions of people come every year to take advantage of the park’s attractions. Point Reyes National Seashore has some of the best beaches in California, thanks to the cleanliness. There are lots of beach walks and hiking trails along the coast.

It’s also a great place to see marine life. You can spot whales swimming near the Point Reyes Lighthouse during migration season or see the community of Elephant seals on Chimney Beach.

UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

You can see plants from around the world without even leaving Northern California. Visit the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden for one of the best gardens established in the US.

UC Berkeley Botanical Garden is a scenic garden on the University of California Berkeley campus overlooking the San Francisco Bay. It includes 34 acres, arranged by the geographic region where the plants originate.

Take a stroll through the garden to see areas dedicated to plants from Africa, the Mediterranean, Asia, the Americas, and more. There are tens of thousands of plants, including endangered, exotic, and rare species.

napa valley wine

Napa Valley Wineries

NorCal is one of the best wine countries in the United States. Visit a region like Napa Valley to experience the incredible flavors from the area.

Napa Valley is known for its wineries. The wineries are open to the public to visit and get a behind-the-scenes look at how they operate. Walk the vineyards before settling down to sample the fresh-tasting wine.

The best time to visit is between August to October, when it’s harvest season. A few of the best wineries to visit are V. Sattui Winery, Inglenook Winery, Luna Vineyards, and Artesa Vineyards. Most locations offer wine tasting and some even offer tours.

Sutter’s Fort

Sutter’s Fort is one of the best North California attractions to learn about history. It’s a 19th Century fort included within the Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. It’s the only original structure in the park.

Visitors can take a tour of the fort to see how life was back in the 1800s. You’ll walk around with a knowledgeable volunteer to explore the grounds and enter restored rooms. If you’re lucky, you’ll time your visit with one of the live reenactments. See the fort come to life with actors in period costumes reenacting different fort activities.

pacific coast highway

Scenic Drive on the Pacific Coast Highway

You always hear about road trips that cross the country to end in California. Well, a stateside road trip ranks as one of the best things to do in Northern California. Go for a drive on the California 1 Highway to discover why it’s nicknamed the Pacific Coast Highway.

California Highway 1 runs along the state’s Pacific coast. It’s over 650-miles long, but you only need to ride a segment to appreciate its beauty. You’ll have incredible views of the coast. There are several places to go in Northern California along the highway, including San Piedras Beach, Bixby Bridge, and the scenic observation points.

Trees of Mystery

Nature is full of wonder, and the Trees of Mystery attraction is a fun place to discover it. Stop by the roadside attraction while driving along US Route 101 to see unique tree formations that are hard to explain.

Trees of Mystery takes visitors on a trail walk through a redwood forest. The trails lead to notable trees like the Cathedral Tree, the Elephant Tree, and the Candelabra Tree. There are also artistic sculptures. 

Hike the trail to see tree carvings telling the story of Paul Bunyan. You can’t visit without taking photos of the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues.

mount lassen volcano

Hike the summit of Mount Lassen

Visit the Lassen Volcanic National Park for a chance to hike Mount Lassen. It’s unlike any other hiking experience because it’s still an active volcano. The surrounding park is a frequent outdoor recreational destination.

Lassen Volcanic National Park includes Mount Lassen and the Lassen National Forest. Mount Lassen is Earth’s largest lava dome volcano at over 10,000-ft tall. The summit gets lots of snowfall during the year.

The summit views makes it one of the awe-inspiring things to see in Northern California. The park is also popular for climbing, kayaking, skiing, and backpacking.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

The famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is one of the favorite amusement parks to visit in NorCal. Ever since its opening in 1907, it remains the oldest active park in California. With thrill rides and incredible oceanfront views, it’s an excellent time for everyone.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk features 35 rides, including a few roller coasters and a water ride. There are also plenty of games you can play to win prizes. It’s a place for all ages. Kids can play in the arcade while adults try their luck in the casino.

ghost town

Visit a Ghost Town

Ghost Towns aren’t just in old Western films. There are tons of places to visit in Northern California to discover some of the abandoned towns and villages. Take a tour of one of the regional ghost towns to walk through the town ruins, see preserved structures, and learn about its history.

Many of California’s ghost towns emerged after gold rush towns were abandoned when the mines emptied. The towns have many of the same features like homes, a general store, saloons, and old mines.

A few of the best ghost towns are preserved as state parks – Shasta Historic Park, Empire Mine State Historic Park, Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park.

Lombard Street

There are lots of natural attractions, but how about one of the unique man-made North California attractions? Lombard Street is one of the cool places to go in Northern California for the quirkiest example of civil engineering. It’s a famous street block that you can drive along and stop off for photos.

Lombard Street is considered the “crookedest street in the world.” The road has a curved design to reduce the elevation while driving on the steep hill. The result is a winding road with eight switchbacks.

The road gets millions of visitors – thousands of cars per day, many of which are there for tourism. There might be a wait time to take the fun drive down the block.

elephant seals

Año Nuevo State Park

The regional wildlife is always one of the things to see in Northern California. Año Nuevo State Park is one of the favorite parks in Northern California. It’s a fun destination for recreation, and the local visitors might also accompany you.

The park includes Año Nuevo Island and Año Nuevo Point. The park designation keeps the sites preserved in their natural state for visitors to enjoy. You can explore the forest and wetlands landscape via hikes.

One of the best times to visit is from December to March when seals gather on the shores. Guided tours are available, or check out the natural history exhibitions in the visitor center.

Black Chasm Caverns

Explore the depths of a popular cave at the Black Chasm Caverns. Designated as a National Natural Landmark, cave tours were established to give visitors a walk through to see the rock formations. 

The first stop at the Black Chasm Caverns is the visitor center, where you can reserve a spot on an upcoming tour. Tours last 45-minutes, where you’ll climb the stairs to descend into the cave chambers. The guide will tell about the stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations.

The tour groups have all ages and bring a jacket since the cave can get chilly.

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