Salt & Wind Travel

6 Epic Northern California Road Trips to Plan Now (2024)

Embarking on a Northern California road trip is one of the best things to do in the Golden State and a memorable way to get outdoors. And, to be honest, Northern California and road trips are the perfect pair. You can’t have one without the other, in large part because of the region’s size. 

Having been born and raised in California and working as a travel expert, I’ve spent much time embarking on road trips throughout this region. I’ve spent weekends in Lake Tahoe, experienced the Sonoma and Napa Valley wine country, and explored small towns. Northern California continues to inspire me, so I’m always looking for the next road trip to embark on. 

Northern California Road Trip
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Road Trip in Northern California

Luckily, you’ll want to consider several epic destinations in the Northern California region. The most challenging part of a road trip is deciding where you will go first! As a Northern California native, I’m partial that this part of the state has some of the most unique and beautiful places to visit. 

The endless options provide something for everyone, from long, rugged coastlines to iconic national parks. As a weekend warrior, I find it easy to head out on a road trip for the day or a quick overnight.

Food on a table with Big Sur view in background

6 Northern California Road Trips To Book Next

Whether it’s your first road trip or your hundredth, look at our diving tips for your next California road trip. It will help you gear up and get you set for your trip. Ready to start getting inspired? These are the six epic Northern California road trips to take this year.

Highway 1: Big Sur to Monterey 

When it comes to Northern California road trips, Highway 1 is a California classic. Whether you’re making the jaunt up from Southern California or taking a weekend trip from the Bay Area, Monterey County is where it’s at. 

As you journey up the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll pass through San Simeon, home to the famous Hearst Castle. It’s an iconic pitstop to make before continuing.

Once in the town of Big Sur, there are endless things to do, so overnight if you can — a range of accommodations are available for every budget. Pop into COAST Big Sur for one of the most epic dining spots on the coast with a view, and usually less busy than Nepenthe up the highway. From hiking trails to beaches in coves, the adventure is yours to choose from there — check out this travel guide to Big Sur to plan your time. 

Continue on to Carmel-by-the-Sea. A quaint town that’s like a fairytale village and home to many things to discover. While in town, choose from more than 10 of the best restaurants in Carmel-by-the-Sea to eat locally. Enjoy wine tasting downtown, or drive to Carmel Valley to visit the wineries

For a final stop, stop in downtown Monterey for a stroll along the iconic Old Fisherman’s Wharf. You’ll find restaurants, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and other curiosities.

Northern California Road Trips FAQs

Some of the recommended road trips in Northern California include Highway 1: Big Sur to Monterey, Gold Country to Tahoe, Yosemite National Park to the Eastern Sierra, Highway 1: Jenner to Mendocino, Humboldt: Redwoods National and State Parks, and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Northern California offers a diverse range of destinations, from long, rugged coastlines to iconic national parks. The region's size and the variety of unique and beautiful places make it a perfect destination for road trips.

Before embarking on a road trip in Northern California, it's essential to check road conditions, especially during winter months, ensure your car is prepared, download Google Maps for offline use, and plan your trip ahead of time.

Gold Country to Tahoe

Tahoe bound? Consider these stops along the way. Tahoe is a year-round destination (easily reached from the Bay Area) for skiing and sun. While you’ll want an early start to avoid rush hour, there are a few stops along the way.

Your first stop on this Northern California road trip should be in the historic Gold Rush town of Auburn. You may recognize it as the last In’N’Out on Highway 80 before Tahoe, but a few other local foodies stops are much better! Pop into The Pour Choice for your all-day watering hole for craft coffee and brews. Stop into Ikeda’s for fresh local produce, and pick up a pie. I’m all about supporting the local businesses here. 

As you get into the greater Tahoe region, one more town to stop off at is Truckee. It’s very quaint, and the historic Main Street has boutiques and restaurants. The perfect end to a day before arriving in Tahoe.

Yosemite National Park to the Eastern Sierra

Head east in Northern California to arguably the best national park in the state, or rather one of the most visited! For a good reason, Yosemite National Park is an adventure-packed gem in the high sierras set for an iconic road trip. You can access the park a few ways, pending on where you are coming from. If you’re coming from Fresno to Yosemite, this itinerary is for you. 

Once in, spend time on the valley floor, and explore the hiking trails to places like Nevada Falls, Yosemite Falls, or Glacier Point for views of Half Dome. Remember that snow may impact where you can hike, depending on the time of year, so some planning is in order. 

After, depart via the Tioga Pass to continue your adventure into Mammoth Lakes and the Eastern Sierra. There is so much to do in this corridor of Northern California, from hot springs to skiing and hiking. You could easily take a full week to complete this Northern California road trip. 

View of a cove along Elk Coast in California

Highway 1: Jenner to Mendocino

For those wanting to go north of San Francisco and spend time on the coast, do a Northern California road trip up Highway 1 from Jenner and beyond. This is a long-haul stretch of coastline, quite remote and rather untouched. Along the way, quiet towns, incredible accommodations, and fresh seafood are to be found.

Starting in Jenner, fill up at Cafe Aquatica, one of the best cafes. You can continue the journey to Salt Point State Park — one of the best coastal areas to walk, almost always empty. Pro tip: state parks in California are just as beautiful as the national parks, don’t skip them!

Further north, stop off in towns like Gualala or Elk. Along the way, one place to consider staying overnight is the Harbor House Inn. A quaint hotel set above a cove with a two Michelin-star restaurant on the property. It’s one of the best restaurants in Northern California right now. For more casual takeaway, the Elk Store is my favorite spot for a deli sandwich. 

Your final stop to visit is the artisan town of Mendocino. It’s a delightful, Victorian town on the bluffs over the Pacific Ocean. Stroll the streets, pop into any restaurants (partial to Cafe Beaujolais), and spend time outdoors in state parks like Russian Gulch. 

Woman on empty sandy beach with rocks in background

Humboldt: Redwoods National and State Parks

The coastal redwoods of Northern California are quite something. You know how mighty they are if you’ve ever stepped foot underneath one. So, for those wanting to be in the redwood forests of Northern California, this is the trip for you.

Begin your journey in Humboldt Redwoods State Park with a scenic stop-off and drive through the Avenue of the Giants. The historic Highway 254 winds through the towering giants, almost parallel to Highway 101. You can stop or continue driving north. 

The final destination is the area of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Along the way, you’ll pass through towns like Eureka and Trinidad, all worthy of a stop if you have the time. Trinidad is a favorite for its laidback vibes, yummy Beachcomber Cafe, and nearby beaches like College Cove Beach. It’s my first choice to overnight before continuing on to Redwood National Park. 

Once in Prairie Creek, the adventures here are endless. Hike the trails from the visitor center to visit Atlas Grove, watch for native elk, and enjoy nature.

Car driving empty road through pine trees

Lassen Volcanic National Park

If you’re looking for a single destination Northern California road trip set in nature, consider Lassen Volcanic National Park. It’s one of the most overlooked and underrated places in the state. For me, it’s the ultimate Northern California road trip destination to get reset in nature that still feels rather untouched. 

As you make your way there, this is where you’ll want to be sure to fill up on gas before arriving and have your maps saved offline. There are a few accommodations here, though the main form of stay is camping within the park itself at the preferred Manzanita Lake Campground. 

In the park, you’ll find a lot of geological activity, lakes to enjoy, waterfalls, and epic hiking trails. Stop at Lake Helen to admire the aquamarine colors with Lassen Peak in the background. Continue on to hike King’s Creek, a short trail that loops down to a bustling waterfall. And finally, do make the journey to hike Cinder Cone Volcano. This Lassen Volcanic National Park Guide breaks down everything to know for your time there.

Women among greenery in forest

Helpful Tips for Your Northern California Road Trips

When you embark on a road trip in Northern California, you’ll want to do a bit of planning for your time. The prep upfront will help ensure a smooth trip and avoid any mishaps. 

Check Road Conditions

Especially in the winter months, it’s important to know the current road conditions in wintery destinations. Tahoe, the Sierra, and Yosemite National Park often have road closures and require chains. Check the Caltrans website to confirm anything you need to know beforehand. 

Ensure Your Car Is Ready

If you’re headed out further afield, you’ll want to ensure your car is ready to go. Consider fueling up ahead of time, having a spare wheel, and that the car is all set. 

Download Google Maps Offline

You may be considering some more remote destinations to visit, and having access to cell service can be limited. I always download my maps offline on Google Maps to ensure I can navigate. It’s helpful when in national or state parks that tend to have limited cell service. 

Luxury Boutique Hotels California

Luxury Boutique Hotels California

Now that you know where to head on a Northern California road trip, you’re likely wondering where to stay. Check out our curated list of the top 25 luxury boutique hotels in California including legendary Northern California spots like Cavallo Point, Sea Ranch, and The Inn At Newport Ranch. 

Plan Your Trip Ahead of Time

Did you know we’re also a boutique travel agency specializing in California vacation planning? If you want to plan a trip to California, our California trip planner services are here to help you plan your perfect itinerary.

Photo Credit: Photos by Jessica Wright of Bontraveler

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