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10 Best Things to Do in Northern California

Northern California is a place imbibed with beauty and wonders. There are several epic things to do in Northern California from splendid waterfalls to volcanoes, and lava tube caves to mountains, forests to cities.

Northern California is the northern part of the U.S. State of California. Northern California is an incredibly diverse region that is rich in culture, cuisine, history, and natural beauty.

10 Best Things to do in Northern California

Hence, numerous places and activities are there to do in Northern California. But have a look at the 10 best things to do in Northern California.

1. Visit Yosemite National Park

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Yosemite national park is an iconic national park in California offering breathtaking natural views. This park spreads across thousands of acres with huge granite cliffs, waterfalls, and Sequoia trees to explore. It is bliss to nature lovers and visiting Yosemite National park is one of the must things to do in Northern California.

Yosemite national park has various hiking trails ranging from easy walks to challenging trips with popular landmarks like the Half dome, El Capitan, and Cook’s meadow. Cook meadow is a flat hike with spectacular views of Half dome.

Go hiking from the canyon floor to Lower Yosemite and upper Yosemite falls hiking trails which are surrounded by trees and lead to beautiful Yosemite falls in between mountains.

Reach Glacier point at the top in the evening to admire the beautiful colorful allure of the sunset over the park. You can also enjoy rock climbing, horseback riding, and river rafting at Yosemite national park.

Accommodation and camping areas are there inside the park and numerous lodges are also available in the surrounding region. Guided tours are also available here.

2. Look at the Redwood National Park and Redwoods State Park

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Redwood national and state parks are home to the world’s tallest trees. This park is within driving distance from Northern California’s popular spots like San Francisco Bay area or Napa Valley.

A road trip to Redwood national park and Redwood state park should be the priority on the list of things to do in Northern California. The giant Redwood trees enveloping the park are picturesque and spread across thousands of acres. This park has many trails surrounded by trees and ferns, prairies, beaches, and old-growth forests with some worth visiting.

Here in Redwood national and state parks you can explore the area by foot, bike, or car. Enjoy camping, picnicking, birdwatching, and forest steam train trip here.

2.1. Muir Woods

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By: My Good Images/Shutterstock

Muir woods national monument is a protected area of old-age growth coastal Redwood trees, with some trees 600-800 years old. Muir woods is the highlight of Redwood national park. You can admire the beauty of Redwood forest trees here

The Muir woods has a visitor center offering educational programs about the Redwood ecosystems and has a small café to kill your hunger too. You can also enjoy hiking, picnicking, and birdwatching in the woods.

2.2. Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Humboldt state park is home to redwood towering trees. You can reach here by Avenue of the Giants. Avenue of the Giants is a long winding road lined with giant Redwood trees on both sides. A drive down this beautiful road is a splendid experience just like a fairytale.

At Humboldt state park you can see and explore Redwood trees. You can walk along or climb on the roots of some of the fallen trees. The visitor center will help you to learn about the Redwood trees and multiple trails among these. You can also enjoy camping here and spend your weekend.

3. Spend Time at Fort Bragg and Glass Beach

They are located in the coastal mountains about a 3.5 hours drive north of San Francisco.

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Fort Bragg is a small town with beautiful beaches, fishing and crabbing docks, shops, and restaurants. Visit the sea glass museum downtown, Noyo Headlands park, and Pomo Bluffs park in the city.

The famous Glass beach is located on the Northern end of Fort Bragg and houses the world’s largest sea glass collection. The name Glass beach alludes to the colorful bits of eroded glass and thick layers of sand which together reflect your image as you walk across it.

Earlier this beach used to be a dumping ground for local, and regional industries. After decades of being exposed to nature and its elements due to some odd natural phenomenon, sea glasses are eroded.

This Glass beach is now a marvelous beach with beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean smooth, colorful sands, and glistening glass pebbles. You can just relax and search for sea glass in the sand and can take beautiful photographs.

4. Explore Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is situated in the Sierra Nevada mountains and borders both Nevada and California, hence it has several different names like ‘America’s lake’ too.

things to do in northern California at lake Tahoe
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Lake Tahoe is a freshwater lake with panoramic landscape views from San Francisco to Desolation valley.

During summer, visit Lake Tahoe from June to September, when precipitation is less. Enjoy some of the best freshwater boating in the world at lake Tahoe. You can also do hiking, biking, paddle boarding, and kayaking here.

South Lake Tahoe is located on the southern shore of the lake. South lake Tahoe is popular for its natural beauty, casino gambling, and shopping restaurants.

During winter, the area is transformed into a winter wonderland. Popular Palisades Tahoe (Squaw Valley) becomes a top skiing destination. Visit here from January to March to enjoy skiing, snowboarding, and ice skating. Don’t miss the skiing event at Heavenly ski resort while visiting lake Tahoe in winter.

5. Plan a Visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic national park is a paradise for nature lovers who want to escape from hustle and bustle of city life and want to spend some quality relaxing time.

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Photo by 12019 on Pixabay

Lassen Volcanic national park designates a region of dotted volcanoes and thermal earth activity and hence preserves some best parts of Northern California. Winter is a suitable time to visit this place.

Lassen Volcanic national regions have over 30 volcanoes categorized into 4 types. Lassen Peak, the namesake volcano is the world’s largest plug dome volcano and is most active, it last erupted in 1914.

There is a visitor center at the park where you can get to know about the different types of volcanoes through an educational movie and different things available at the Lassen volcanic national park. Explore the wilderness decorated with lava rocks and painted dunes.

Hiking is quite popular and one of the famous things to do in Northern California at Lassen Volcanic national park. Hike to the summit and admire panoramic landscape views as per your choice. Different scenic hiking trails like Broke off the mountain, King Creek falls, and Cider cone is there. Bumpass Hell Trail cuts through a 16-acre of hydrothermal site. In winter you should have snowshoes and cross-country skis.

Several ranger-led programs are offered here over the year, check the schedule before your trip if interested in it. The Lassen volcanic national park has hydrothermal areas and caves to explore too. You can enjoy camping, fishing, picnicking, backpacking, and horseback riding-like activities here with scenic beauty.

6. Go to Lava Beds National Monument

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By: Geartooth Productions

Lava beds national monument is located near the border of Oregon, about 120 miles north of Lassen volcanic national park. Exploring Lava Beds national monument is one of the unique things to do in Northern California.

Volcanic eruptions for over half a million years, on the Medicine Lake shield volcano, have created a rugged landscape dotted with diverse volcanic features. Numerous lava beds present at this monument is its most iconic feature. Volcanic cider cones shield volcanoes, native American rock art sites, historic battlefields and campsites, and desert are other attractions of this place.

There are almost more than 20 caves to explore. Some are Sunshine caves, Hercule’s leg, and Juniper caves. The visitor center gives information about the caves and areas. You should take precautionary measures like a helmet, headlamps, and knee pads before your trip into the cave. Hot springs are also located around the area.

7. Click Pictures at Golden Gate Bridge

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Golden gate bridge is named one of the seven wonders of today’s era. Golden gate bridge is a popular tourist attraction and visiting this bridge is one of the best things to do in Northern California.

Golden gate bridge is located near San Francisco Bay and this grandeur bridge connects two islands in the same bay. Visit the golden gate bridge and admire its beauty and marvelous modern engineering. It was the tallest and longest suspension bridge in the world when it was completed. It is 220 feet tall and 8,900 feet long.

Enjoy the stunning views of the bay and cityscape from the pedestrian walkways on the Golden gate bridge. You can take a bike ride across the bridge too. You can see Alcatraz Island, Sausalito, and downtown San Francisco from here. Golden Gate Bridge is free of cost and is always open. You can also visit Golden gate park nearby.

8. Explore the City of San Francisco

San Francisco - City Video Guide

San Francisco bay area and downtown San Francisco are the most popular places to visit in your list of things to do in Northern California. This city is full of places and choices for all types of people.

San Francisco is a city full of different types of spots, museums, and choices for all types of people. It is an expensive city, so arrange a San Francisco city pass for your tour across the city for your convenience. BART commuter train is the best mode of transport to travel through the city.

Justin Herman Plaza, De Young museum, SFMOMA, and Palace of Fine Arts are some of the must-visit places in the San Francisco bay area. These are either free or have a nominal entry fee.

If you are a sports lover or going with a family, you can attend a San Francisco giant game, and visit sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown. For nature and outdoor-loving persons, a visit to Ocean Beach, Golden gate park, Mission Dolores park, Pier 39, and the botanical gardens are a must.

San Francisco has a lot to offer, here are some must-visit places in the city—

8.1. Mission District in San Francisco

This district is full of vibrant culture and history. This was founded by Spaniards in 1776 and was home to families at that time. Now it is home to techies of Silicon valley and start-up founders.

The main attraction for tourists is the walls of the neighborhood featuring colorful art and streets lined with European-style homes. Visit this district’s iconic Mission Dolores park and eateries like Tartine bakery and Dandelion chocolate.

8.2. Alcatraz Island

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Alcatraz Island is over a mile away from the San Francisco coast. You can get to the island by ferry. Alcatraz island was formerly used as a federal prison. This was built from 1934 to 1963 and held captive some infamous criminals.

A guided tour of this abandoned facility with fascinating history is its main highlight and is one of the unique things to do in Northern California. It is also the site of the first lighthouse established on the west coast, which is still operational.

8.3. Twin Peaks

Twin peaks are one of the tallest points, sit high above San Francisco, and give splendid views of Alcatraz Island, and downtown San Francisco. There are great views during sunrise and sunset time.

8.4. San Francisco Museums

Some of the best museums in the country are in San Francisco.

  • The Museum of Modern Art- offers knowledge of arts.
  • The California Academy of Sciences- you can look at its planetarium, and aquarium, and learn about its natural history.
  • Walt Disney family museum- it is a unique museum offering you chronicles on the life and work of one of the most important figures in animation history.
  • San Francisco botanical gardens or Conservatory of flowers- it is a living Museum.

8.5. Golden Gate Park

Golden gate park spreads over 1,000 acres area and is full of attractions for all ages and types of persons. Some popular places are the Conservatory of Flowers, Stow lake, and the de Young Fine Arts museum.

9. Relax at San Jose

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Editorial credit: Mihai-Bogdan Lazar /

San Jose is an affluent city that embodies a laid-back vibe and is a great place to relax. This city is known for its mild climate, diverse culture, and various activities. There is a clash of times as the modern offices of tech giants like Apple and Google are there in contrast with the Spanish colonial Revival architecture decorating downtown.

Start your day trip by visiting the Midtown region of San Jose which houses various cafes. The most popular eateries are O’Flaherty’s Irish pub, The Table. You can head to local tourist spots like the Winchester Mystery House, and the Rose botanical garden which has 200 types of roses on display. Alum Rock park has hiking trails with scenic views.

Visit museums like Tech Interactive, the Children’s Discovery Museum, and the San Jose Museum of Art. Downtown San Jose is good for brewery hopping with friends. Do shopping at Santana Row, a modern commercial district. You can wrap up your trip at night with dinner at the San Pedro Square market.

Sports are quite popular in San Jose city. It is home to three professional sports teams- San Jose Sharks in the National Hockey league, the Earthquakes (professional soccer team), and the San Francisco 49ers.

10. Get Into the Russian River and Russian Gulch State Park

Russian River is located west of Santa Rosa city and runs through the famous Sonoma County. It is a place where you can enjoy both water and wine together.

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Russian River is famous for its wine, beer, and water activities. Russian River has great Redwood forests to explore, with hiking and biking trails. You can relax at Johnson’s beach with beautiful views. You can also do kayaking, canoeing, and rafting on the river. Fishing is also popular here. You will get fish like trout, salmon, and steelhead.

Russian gulch state park is a beautiful park, away from city life offering you a stress-free, calm, natural relaxed environment.

Russian gulch state park features tall Redwood forests, clear rivers, and cascading waterfalls. A creek is running through the park and a trail at the back end with beautiful beaches with splendid views. Hiking trails are there for some adventure hiking and having fun while crossing the gorgeous Russian gulch bridge.

Some Other Things to Do in Northern California

Northern California is the ultimate tourist destination. The state is bursting with culture, history, and cuisine making it perfect for adventure and nature lovers too. 

1. The Golden Coast in Northern California

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By: Chris LaBasco/Shutterstock

A Northern California road trip through the pacific coast highway is the best way to explore the area. Drive through the Golden coast in Northern California and see parks, beaches, and camping spots with bustling metropolises stops

2. Visit Mendocino

Visit Mendocino and explore the picturesque beauty of the coastal town. Enjoy the Big River beach, Mendocino look, Mendocino coast botanical gardens, sea sides cafes here.

3. Napa Valley

Relax at downtown Napa and Napa Valley also known as wine country and offers you great food, wine, and wine stating. Admire the landscape beauty of the city by walking and visiting its art galleries, eateries, First Street, and Napa Riverfront.

4. Big Sur

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Indulge yourself in the scenic beauty of the coastal city of Big Sur by slow driving here, and explore hiking trails, and beaches.

5. Santa Cruz

Spend your day in the pretty city of Santa Cruz with scenic shorelines, beautiful beaches, and lush green Santa Cruz mountains. Visit Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, streets of downtown Santa Cruz, and Natural Bridges state beach.

6. Carmel-By-The-Sea

Capture the beauty of Carmel-by-the-sea, a stunning fairytale town that is famous for its rustic charm and oceanic views. You must slowly take a walk across the city to admire its picturesque beauty. Visit Pebble beach golf course from here.

7. Point Reyes National Seashore

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Visit Point Reyes national seashore for sweeping views of the Pacific coast and Pacific ocean. Point Reyes national seashore is named the UNESCO world heritage site. Do visit point Reyes lighthouse for some amazing pictures. From point Reyes national seashore you can visit the Cypress tree tunnel.

8. Sausalito

Take a ferry ride to the waterfront city Sausalito from the San Francisco bay area and enjoy some stunning views.

9. Sacramento

Take a tour of Sacramento the capital of California. It has various tourist spots and activities to do. Visit iconic landmarks like Old Sacramento Historic District, the State Capitol building, museums, parks, and a riverboat cruise on the Sacramento river.

10. Santa Rosa

Visit the historic wine city Santa Rosa with its pleasant climate, beautiful landscape, and friendly people.

11. Sierra Nevada Mountain Range

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Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Take a ride in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that offers you a marvelous landscape and diverse wildlife and enjoy outdoor recreational activities.

12. Silicon Valley

Visit Silicon valley in Northern California, the tech capital of the world. The region encompasses smaller cities like San Jose, and Santa Clara and famous corporate offices like Apple and Google. Take a tour of the Computer History Museum and Tech Interactive.

13. Crescent City

Enjoy a trip to Crescent city, a city with crescent-shaped sandy coastlines with beautiful views. 

14. Monterey

Visit the beautiful city of Monterey with stunning Pacific ocean views, rich history, and activities to do. Don’t forget to see Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, and Old Fisherman’s Wharf.

15. Sonoma County

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Relax at the wineries and natural beauty of Sonoma county. This place has several wineries, breweries, and hiking trails with stunning scenery.

The Footnote

Northern California is a vast country with multiple things to explore and do. Your visit to this city will be a worthy one due to an enormous list of various things to do in Northern California with friends as well as family. 

As you have read this place is packed with natural wonders and exciting attractions. It is a great vacation destination offering several interesting things for everyone. Explore the other parts of California also and indulge yourself in its captivating beauty. 

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Last Updated on March 8, 2023 by jyoti