Salt & Wind Travel

Top 8 Enchanting Northern California Towns to Explore (2024)

If you’re looking for a destination that is rich in history, natural beauty, and charming small towns, Northern California has it all. From the rugged coastlines of Mendocino to the Gold Country foothills, Northern California towns are some of the most picturesque in the United States.

Northern California covers a large area of the golden state, reaching from the coast to the mountains. In each region, several standout towns will make you want to take the pitstop on any road trip.

Northern California Towns
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Why Visit Small Northern California Towns

Whether planning a romantic getaway or a family vacation, these eight Northern California towns will surely win you over. A few of these are wonderful overnight destinations. Places like Mendocino, where you can visit the historic downtown, peruse art galleries and shops, and dine at restaurants. It makes for the perfect weekend getaway from the Bay Area.

I myself was raised in the small Northern California town of Auburn in Gold Country. Now residing in Sacramento, my favorite weekend adventures are in towns like these. We wake up early, hit the road, and often go to these towns for an unplugged time in nature. 

These Northern California towns are a must-visit for anyone looking to explore the beautiful region and learn about its rich history. Of course, the best way to visit is by road trip, so why not include a few of these on your trip?

FAQs About Northern California Towns

Some must-visit towns in Northern California include Auburn, Ferndale, Healdsburg, Mendocino, Nevada City, Placerville, Point Reyes Station, and St. Helena.

Northern California towns are rich in history, natural beauty, and offer charming small-town vibes. From the rugged coastlines of Mendocino to the Gold Country foothills, they are some of the most picturesque in the United States. They are perfect for romantic getaways, family vacations, and road trips alike.

In Mendocino, you can stroll along the town’s main street, visit art galleries, craft shops, and dine at local restaurants. Additionally, you can explore the Mendocino Headlands State Park or Russian Gulch State Park, hike along the cliffs, and watch whales and sea lions in the Pacific Ocean.

A purse, coffee, and small bites on a table

Northern California Towns Road Trip Tips

You can venture a few ways when visiting Northern California. If you stay along the coast up Highway 1, you’ll have access to small coastal towns like Point Reyes and Mendocino. If you head toward the direction of Lake Tahoe on Highway 80, you’ll be close to Northern California Gold Country towns like Auburn, Nevada City, and Truckee.

Locals often pick either the direction of the coast or the mountains, as the freeways give easy access. The best part is you have several options with either choice, and you could consider combining both.

8 Northern California Towns You Must Visit 

Auburn | Day Trip

A popular stop-off for those headed to Tahoe is the Gold Rush town of Auburn. Set in the Sierra Nevada foothills, it’s a quaint pitstop for a few hours. This Northern California towns gem has a few spots you may consider stopping for.

The first is downtown, where you’ll find the mercantile boutique Martin Mattox. It’s filled with various curiosities like vintage finds, apothecaries, and curated clothing. Down the street, pop into The Pour Choice — your all-day watering hole for craft coffee to beer on tap. Come night, try to snag a reservation at the newly-opened Restaurant Josephine for exquisite French cuisine set in a charming restaurant.

Ferndale | Day Trip

An unexpected find in Humboldt County and not far from the iconic Lost Coast is the Victorian town of Ferndale. The ornate and beautifully preserved buildings line the historic Main Street, where you can take in the architecture.

For those looking to grab a quick bite, head to Ferndale Meat Co for the town’s best sandwich. Across the street, Mind’s Eye Manufactory & Coffee has your caffeine needs, the choice drink in hand for a stroll along Ferndale’s main street.

Ferndale’s location is also a great pitstop for those going to Redwoods National Park. It’s only about an hour south of the main park entrance. Along the way, you could stop off at places like Moonstone Beach or Trinidad State Beach in the Trinidad area. This section of the Northern California Coast has incredible sunsets, whale watching, and coves. Once in Redwoods, the famous Black Sands Beach near Shelter Cove is one place to save to your list.

Healdsburg | 2 to 3 nights

Nestled in the heart of Sonoma County wine country, Healdsburg is a charming Northern California town perfect for food and wine enthusiasts. The town has over 100 wineries and various farm-to-table restaurants serving local produce and meats. 

Explore the town’s charming downtown, where you’ll find shops and tasting rooms. The town also has several events throughout the year, including the Healdsburg Jazz Festival and the Healdsburg Wine & Food Affair. There are several hotels to choose from on the Main Square, which we recommend for easy access to tasting rooms.

Bridge with trees, water, and woods in Mendocino California

Mendocino | 2 to 3 nights

Perched on the coast, Mendocino is one of the most picturesque Northern California towns with Victorian-era homes and breathtaking ocean views. Head north over the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco to reach this destination. Once there, stroll along the town’s main street, which is lined with art galleries, craft shops, and restaurants.

For a closer look at the town’s natural beauty, head to Mendocino Headlands State Park or Russian Gulch State Park, where you can hike along the cliffs and see whales and sea lions in the Pacific Ocean.

You could continue north to see more seaside towns like Fort Bragg afterward. Fort Bragg is known for its iconic Glass Beach with tide pools. At low tide, they come alive and are so fun to explore. The sunsets are also quite magical here, so consider hanging around for that.  

Nevada City | 1 to 2 nights

Nevada City is one of the idyllic Gold Rush-era Northern California towns along historic Highway 49. Known for its Victorian architecture and lively arts scene, it’s one of the top getaways in Northern California. Stroll through the town’s charming downtown, where you’ll find a variety of shops and restaurants, as well as several art galleries. It’s no wonder it has been voted one of the most beautiful towns in the nation.

This town is an ideal base for those who want to get outdoors. You can swim in the nearby Yuba River and hike or bike in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. Several restaurants on Broad Street cut through the heart of Nevada City. However, one that may take you by surprise is Sushi in the Raw — a Japanese restaurant that offers an “omakase” menu centered on sustainability and seasonality. 

Book a room at the National Exchange Hotel in the heart of downtown Nevada City. This historic hotel from 1856 received a significant renovation last year. Preserving the art of the Gold Rush Era, it transports you back in time, but with today’s modern amenities.

Placerville | Day Trip

Placerville is a Gold-Rush town that is a quick stop off Highway 50, perfect for those en route to South Lake Tahoe. This historic town has a few restaurants and shops on the main street. Cheese lovers will adore Dedrick’s Main Street Cheese for a wonderfully curated selection of local and imported cheese. You can stock up on a variety of pantry goods here too.

You’re close to the Apple Hill region, an area rich in farms and wineries. This would be a wonderful afternoon in the area, time in downtown Placerville combined with a visit to one of the many apple farms in Apple Hill.

Exterior of a shop in Pt Reyes Station California

Point Reyes Station | 2 to 3 nights

Point Reyes Station is one of the small Northern California towns along the Point Reyes National Seashore. Untouched natural landscapes surround this charming West Marin town, including beaches, forests, and wetlands. Explore the national seashore, go birdwatching, or visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse while visiting.

The town also has a variety of shops and restaurants, as well as a farmers’ market on the weekends. Be sure to hop in the car and get fresh Tomales Bay oysters at spots like The Marshall Store or Hog Island (both only 15 minutes drive away). Point Reyes Station is one of the best weekend trips in Northern California.

If you’re looking for another beach south of Point Reyes on your way back to San Francisco, consider stopping at Stinson Beach. While many tourists pop in here, it’s still a local’s favorite for surfing.

The rustic Olema House outside town is the most popular choice. It’s a proper inn with a sprawling backyard that leads into the forest. Head north to book a waterfront cottage at Nick’s Cove on Tomales Bay for a more intimate stay.

St. Helena | 2 to 3 nights

Set in the iconic Napa Valley, St. Helena is a favorite stop in this robust wine region. While there are several small Northern California towns like Yountville and Calistoga, St. Helena has it all. The downtown has several tasting rooms like Erosion Tap House Winery & Brewery, upscale boutiques like Carter and Co, and incredible restaurants.

For those wanting to taste wine, this is one of the top wine regions in California. We can help you choose the right winery for your visit, then afterward, head to the historic downtown of St. Helena for a stroll and bite.

There are several resorts and quaint inns to choose from nearby. If you’re looking for a bigger hotel, the Alila Napa Valley is a beautiful choice near the downtown.

Extend Your California Road Trip

Extending your time in California is never a bad idea; you can easily tack on a few more days of visiting. After exploring these Northern California gems, these are a few routes to choose from:

Go South: Big Sur and Beyond | 3 to 4 nights

If you’ve used San Francisco as a starting point to explore, the next easiest place would be the Big Sur area and Monterey Peninsula. The central coast of California has lots to offer, from the Paso Robles wine region to adventure in Big Sur.

Stop into Santa Cruz, a beautiful coastal town with a boardwalk and beach area. In Monterey itself, the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row is a great stop for road-tripping families. It has a lot of conservation and education for marine wildlife woven into the experiences inside the aquarium. And just down the corner, the quaint coastal town of Pacific Grove — is great for an oceanside stroll.

This part of California has some of the most scenic coastlines; you can add a few of these Highway 1 towns to your visit.

Go East: Yosemite and Beyond | 3 to 4 nights

Yosemite National Park is a top must-see for our clients. It’s quite easy to reach from the Bay Area and Northern California. There are several access points, and this Fresno to Yosemite Itinerary is the best way to explore the area.

Have Us Plan Your California Trip

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, whether you’re starting in San Francisco or even Los Angeles.

Photo Credit: Opening photo by Gabriel Ostapchuk all other photos by Jessica Wright

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