Places to Visit in Northern California: A Local’s Guide

Can you believe its June already? I am still reeling from the fact that we are already halfway through the year. The bright side of this disastrous (read not-at-all-halfway-through-my-resolutions) realization is that summer is here! For all those who love to travel, summer brings a promise of happiness that only beach winds can deliver. And if you are a last minute planner like me, you are bound to be caught between the overwhelming number of places you could (and should) be visiting and what time and budget permits you to plan at the eleventh hour.

Obviously, you will sought the best balance eventually after scouring the internet for hours and reading about half a dozen articles to finalize your trip details. In my experience, the most useful type of articles are those authored by a person local to my travel destination, as their to-do or places-to-see list often includes some unique non-touristy places that I may have otherwise missed.

California is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty stemming from a variety of landscapes including ocean, mountain, desert, lakes, and waterfalls. Needless to say, it is a popular destination for all types of travelers. So, via this post, I am going to be that local and sum up my favorite places to visit and things to do in Northern California.

FYI: The posts are ordered geographically (Northern most first) and not according to preference.

Best Travel Spots and Things to Do in Northern California

Table of Contents

      1. Lassen Volcanic National Park
      2. Lava beds National Monument
      3. Burney Falls
      4. Shasta Caverns & Lake Shasta
      5. Napa Valley
      6. Point Reyes Lighthouse
      7. Ano Neuvo State Park
      8. Sequioa and King’s Canyon National Park
      9. Yosemite National Park
      10. Lake Tahoe
      11. Monterey, Carmel, 17 Mile drive, and Big Sur

Lassen Volcanic National Park

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The Lassen Volcanic National park was formed from a volcanic eruption from Mount Lassen in 1914. The peaks are snow-capped almost all year-round but summers are a good time to visit the park, as most roads are functional.

Hiking enthusiasts might find it a fun challenge to scale up the mountain. If you are not much into hiking, the geothermal activity makes an interesting landscape of fumaroles and steam holes. Visit Bumpass Hell to experience a mini version of Yellowstone national park.

Things to do: Visit geothermal activity spots, hiking, scenic drive

Lava Beds National Monument

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Adding to the list of places formed from volcanic activity, the Lava Beds National monument is an interesting site. When lava flows underground and cools down, it gives rise to these formations inside underground caves. So if you are not extremely claustrophobic (the caves are never too small i.e. you can walk upright), then this might be a great learning and unique experience for you.

Things to do: Explore lava beds in caves

Burney Falls

Perhaps one of the prettiest waterfalls that I have been to, Burney falls is quite the sight. There is a small 1-mile hike around the falls to observe it from all angles. Having done the hike though I can safely say that the best part of a visit here is to just sit close to the rocks near the fall and hear the melodious sound of the water falling on the rocks while the wind blows over tiny water droplets that kiss your face on summer days.

Things to do: Waterfall, Hike (1 mile)

Shasta Caverns

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A boat ride on the Lake Shasta followed by a tour of the Lake Shasta Caverns is an amazing experience. This is perhaps an underappreciated, non-touristy place that I highly recommend. Truth be told it was my first time observing calcite formations inside a cavern and it exceeded my expectations. It’s fascinating to see the different shapes and formations influenced by the water content and surroundings. For instance, smooth rocks are formed by water dripping on them, while the long stalactite-like protuberances occur from slow drip rate of water loaded with calcite that simply dries off before falling to the ground. The deposits keep growing leading to these long structures, developed over thousands of years.

Things to do: Boat ride on Lake Shasta, Explore Shasta caverns

Napa Valley

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Famous for its sprawling vineyards, the Napa Valley region is perfect for wine lovers. Spend a sunny day leisurely exploring vineyards; ride the cable car of Sterling Vineyards for fantastic views of the valley, travel back in time to medieval ages with the stone castle at Castello di Amerosa or enjoy a wine and cheese picnic in the garden of V Sattui winery. Whatever your style, you will always find something suitable.

If you want to make the trip extra special, I highly recommend taking a hot air balloon ride. I had chosen Napa Valley Aloft among the several other companies that offer hot air balloon rides and had a positive experience with them. I won’t go into details of the ride, but two important things: (1) the flights operate early morning, so yes, you will be waking up very early and (2) the views of Napa Valley at sunrise are simply breathtaking and not to be missed!

*I suppose I should also mention the Napa wine train as one of the major attractions in Napa, although I have personally never taken it. Its definitely expensive, but if drinking wine on a train has been your dream, then hey, go crazy!

Things to do: Wine tasting at different vineyards, Hot air balloon ride, Napa train

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Point Reyes Lighthouse

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If you love lighthouses, you will definitely enjoy visiting the Point Reyes Lighthouse. I think the pictures do all the talking here about the spectacular views that this place offers. Plus, you can walk down to the lighthouse to explore it (check the timings beforehand), but remember that you will need to climb your way up which is apparently an equivalent of climbing a 30 storey building. If you are up for the exercise, go for it! If not, soaking in the sea wind and staring at the horizon is anyways unbeatable.

Things to do: Enjoy ocean views, explore Point Reyes Lighthouse, bioluminescent kayaking

Ano Neuvo State Park

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The Ano Neuvo State Park is definitely a destination that would fall under the non-touristy-but-local-recommended category. Lying near Pescadero beach, this state park is home to thousands of elephant seals. Especially from Dec to March, when its breeding season of the elephant seals, the park is full of males, females, and pups. Visit during this time to learn more about these once endangered creatures and watch them live in action. If you are interested in more details, I wrote a blog post about my visit.

Things to do: Guided tour to learn about elephant seals

Sequoia & King’s Canyon National Park

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The US National Parks are one of the most treasured places in the country, and rightly so. Spread out all over the country, each park in each is unique and beautiful. Sequoia National Park, for instance, is well known for its huge sequoia trees. These are the world’s largest trees; for instance, General Sherman, the largest tree there is 275 ft tall with a diameter of 36 ft. Plus, sequoias can live up to 3000 years old, which is more than 10 times the lifespan any other tree, and are resistant to drought and fire. So needless to say being in the presence of these giant trees is a unique experience.

King’s Canyon park which is close to Sequoia Park is an underrated one. It has gorgeous waterfalls and serene river running through it. A wonderful place to hike or camp away from the crowd.

Things to do: Camping, Hiking, Scenic drive

Yosemite National Park

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Yosemite National Park is undoubtedly one of the most popular national parks in the US. The park area encompasses a varying landscape that includes meadows, forests, large granite mountains. Yosemite is famous for its amazing waterfalls: Lower Yosemite Falls, Upper Yosemite Falls, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Horsetail Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls are the pride of this park.

Yosemite is a hikers paradise; it boasts of numerous trails of varying difficulties catering to every type of hiker. Ambitious hikers would enjoy the Half Dome summit and Clouds Rest, while the Mist trail is a popular moderate level hike. The park’s beauty is not lost on non-hikers either. In summer, one can drive up to Glacier point for an amazing view of the serene Yosemite Valley with waterfalls cascading down the white rocks. Viewing areas for several of the waterfalls are also easily accessible by car.

Tip: In February, the perfect angle of the setting sun on Horsetail Falls creates an illusion of cascading fire, a phenomenon called Firefall.

Things to do: Hiking, Camping, Scenic drive

Lake Tahoe

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Lake Tahoe is a huge lake partly in California and partly in Nevada. This place is thronging with visitors throughout the year. Summers are beautiful with plentiful water activities while its an amazing ski destination in winter.

Things to do: Water sports in summer, Skiing in winter

Monterey, Carmel, 17-mile drive, and Big Sur

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The patch between Monterey to Big Sur is definitely one of the most popular and touristy patches of Northern California. Your California dream travel is incomplete without the amazing vistas of Pacific blue that these regions will offer. I have clubbed these places together as they are quite close to one another (refer the map above) along the famous coast Highway 1 and can be completed in a day or two depending on your choice of activities.

Going north to south, Monterey is a good first starting point. Apart from a picnic at the beach, there is lots of fun stuff to do on Cannery row, the main street in this small town. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for instance, is entertaining as well as informative, especially an unmissable spot for kids. If you enjoy mini golf or mirror mazes try out the game arcades on this street or simply enjoy seafood in one of the many restaurants around.

If you are interested in more activity based stuff, whale watching tours are quite popular in summer. Sightings have included grey whale, humpback whale, blue whale, and even orcas; I have only been lucky enough to sight humpback and grey whales though. Also, a word of caution for those who get seasick: whale watching tours last at least 3 hours so prepare yourself mentally before getting onboard.

If you are a daredevil, I would highly recommend skydiving here. Skydive Monterey company offers the highest sky jump in the world from a height of 18000 ft. The free fall is about 90 sec for this one, but you can also choose lower heights of 15000 ft (60-second freefall) or 10000 ft (25-second freefall). I had chosen the 15000 ft option and it was absolutely amazing! I guess the experience of the actual fall is going to be similar anywhere, but the views once the parachute opens are amazing in Monterey and that’s the main reason one might prefer this option over its cheaper inland counterparts.

Just south of Monterey is one of my absolute favorite places in California- the quaint little town of Carmel. With its wonderful cute little houses, restaurants, and coffee shops, this place is right out of a fairytale! There is not much to do in the town itself for more than half a day, but its worth a stopover for trying out the wonderful range of restaurants here or just strolling around for a fun window-shopping session.

Next stop after Carmel is the 17-mile drive, a drive with several memorable (and picture worthy!) vista points. (This patch is privately owned so you pay fees of about 10$ to enter). One of the most popular and not-to-be-missed spots along this route is the lone cypress- a resilient cypress tree that stands alone facing the rough coastal winds for years.

Finally, we move on to Big Sur, a region famous for its rocky cliffs and ocean views. If you want to seep in the beauty at leisure with a drink or food, I would recommend one of the following two restaurants with amazing views: Rocky point cafe and Cafe Nepenthe. I will leave the food judging to you (its expensive at both places for sure) but the cost is primarily for the view, but what a view that is! Just ahead of Nepenthe are the McWay falls, which fall right onto the beach. Also, just ahead lies Pfeiffer beach; although I have mentioned several beaches in this post, this one is extra special. When else are you going to have a chance to see purple sand? Yes, it’s true!

Tip: As fog is a common aspect of these peninsular areas, do check the weather beforehand to ensure good views.

I hope you have enjoyed this little guide of Northern California and hope that you will visit some of these beautiful places soon. I am thinking of making one of Southern California (probably not as a true local, but still) if you find this useful. So, looking forward to your feedback!


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