Northern California has got it all. The diverse landscape of NorCal is dotted with wild, rocky beaches, lush redwood forests, majestic mountains and breathtaking national parks. A road trip is the best way to enjoy the scenic sights along the California coast. We recommend going north to south with the ocean on your side for the best experience.
What are some Northern California road trip packing essentials?
Hiking Shoes -You’ll undoubtedly be doing your fair share of hiking and walking during your northern California road trip. And wading through mud and dirt and stepping over rough terrain. And so much more. A great pair of broken in, waterproof hiking boots are therefore a must pack for your trip.
Maps - You cannot bank on a steady internet connection when you are climbing along wild trails and horseback riding over off the beaten roads. But you will definitely need maps to find your way back to your parking or camping spot wherever you land. To make your northern California road trip more seamless, make sure to download a few offline maps.
Raincoat - You will definitely come across unpredictable weather and temperature changes on your northern California road trip. For cooler, wetter weather along the coast to hotter temps more inland, a raincoat or light jacket will be your best bet for keeping warm and dry.
First Aid Kit - You can make your first aid kit as elaborate or as simple as possible. A few basics that you should definitely have in your kit-bandages, headache medication, anti nausea and Emergen C tablets. You never known when you might need to quickly bandage a scrape or minor wound incurred during a hike. Or pop in an Emergen C tablet or two to boost your immunity
Car Chargers -Whether you are travelling alone or with friends and family, you need to be sure that your phones and devices are constantly charged. You never know when you might need to make an emergency call or use the phone for some urgent navigation. Get a car adaptor with USB ports that will make sure you never run out of critical phone juice on your northern California road trip.
Pillow - Yes, yes you may be a roughing it expert. But carry a comfortable pillow along on your northern California road trip anyway. You’ll thank us later when you need take a quick nap after a long day of driving and your head needs some support.
Blanket - You might decide to sleep in your car/van or camp under the stars. But whatever you decide to do, you will need a blanket to cozy up under and prevent night chills. Your northern California road trip will be incomplete without a blanket or two to cuddle under after a long day of exploring.
Flashlight - Always keep a flashlight around and you will find a use for it during your northern California road trip. It could be as simple as needing to retrieve your lost keys from the floor of your car after a long night on the road. Or for finding your way to the camp bathroom in the dark.
Jumper Cables -We pray you will never have use for these. But keeping some packed on your northern California road trip will make sure never have to worry about being stranded in the wilderness.
Car Fluids -Car fluids like oil and antifreeze are absolute essentials, especially if you are taking a northern California road trip during the winter months.
Food and water - Always have a water bottle on hand for those long northern California road trips. For longer trips where you want to completely avoid having to stop for essentials, keep a sturdy 5 gallon water storage in your car or van. Also don’t forget to carry snacks. For some reason, hunger cues are all over the place when travelling. And a hangry driver is best avoided, especially when you don’t know when you’ll be able to get a chance to replenish store again.
What’s the best time for a Northern California road trip?
The weather in California is a little hard to track. Expect San Francisco to be pretty cold and foggy from June to August. The rest of the Nor Cal coast has mild weather year around. December to March is the peak winter season in Northern California, spring lasts from April to May, Summer, from June to September and Fall, October to November.
Each of the seasons has its unique advantage and depending on your itinerary you can travel along the coast really any time of the year. The snow capped landscape of Lake Tahoe makes for a truly picturesque sight worth visiting in the winter months. And you’ll also get the best price for a trip down to wine country in Sonoma during this less touristy season. Summer is a busy time in the area and you might feel like you are jostling crowds the whole time. The weather also gets pretty hot so the outdoors become much less appealing. April to May and September to October are our best recommendations for your northern California coast road trip.
What’s the ideal duration for your Northern California road trip?
This is such a common question that all first time road trippers or even seasoned travelers ask before setting off. And the truth is there is no clear answer. Northern California is such a vast, diverse area that even a month might seem like too short a period to see it all. If you want our suggestion, two weeks is the perfect amount of time to spend along the state’s roads without getting affected by cabinfever.Start off on your trip from San Francisco and spend a day or two exploring the Golden City. Once you’ve exhausted yourself on all there is to see in this vibrant metropolis-stock up on supplies, get your car rental in order. And get ready to officially begin your norcal road trip.
Check out our guide for the must-see spots along the scenic drives in northern California.
San Francisco is a great first spot on your northern California road trip. Aside from visiting the iconic Golden Gates bridge, use your time when in San Francisco to check out touristy but worth it spots like Fisherman’s Wharf and the Mission District. Make it a longer stay and really explore. For a family friendly spot, check out the California Academy of Sciences museum with your kids. For a taste of history, check out Alcatraz, the famous prison located on a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Take a ride on a cute cable car and visit the Castro neighborhood, the hub of LGBT life in the city made famous by activist Harvey Milk.
2.Mount Tamalpais State Park
Mount Tamalpais State Park is located in Marin County, California and filled with redwood and oak forests. The gorgeous Mount Tamalpais State Park has some iconic hiking spots like the East Peak Hike and Leaning Tower making it a picture perfect stop on your northern California road trip. Some other spots worth visiting in the park include the Cushing Memorial theater- an open air amphitheater built in the 1930s. For a sighting of the majestic sequoia tree, you can visit Muir Woods National Monument located in Mill Valley. There are a variety of adventure opportunities available for travelers to the park. Aside from hiking, there are great areas for road cycling, horseback riding and even hand-gliding.
3.Point Reyes National Seashore
This protected area is a great spot on your northern California road trip for sighting a variety of sea birds like elk and ocean headlands. You can also check out the Point Reyes Lighthouse, an 1870 structure for some excellent whale spotting. Also worth visiting is the Cypress Tree tunnel. There are many scenic paths for beach walks in the Point Reyes National Sea Shore and you can spot ancient ship ruins in Inverness. Check out Tomales Point Trail for some great views of the ocean. When in Point Reyes, you can also visit Kule Loklo, a recreated Native American village
The lands around Shelter cove once housed the Native Americans also known as the Sinkyone people. The stunning Black Sand Beach in Shelter cove is just an hour’s drive away from Highway 101.The dramatic landscapes and untouched wild beauty is worth making a stop on your trip.This area is covered under the King Range National Conservation Area.
5.The Coastal Redwoods
Whether it is majestic redwood tress or ocean views, there is so much to awe over in the Coastal Redwood. Spend time exploring Patrick’s Point. Also visit the gorgeous Rocky Point and Mussels beach.
Big Sur is such a common must do on every best of California list that it would be crazy not to include it in this list too. Just a friendly tip- you’ll need more than a day or two to seriously cover the area. For a great hiking spot, check out Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Also Instagram worthy is the turquoise cove. Just outside of Big Sur,you can make a stop at the beaches of San Simeon.
7.Redwood National Park
The Redwood National Park and state parks have some excellent vistas worth visiting. These parks are comprised of a network of parks including the Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The Avenue of Giant is one of the more well known known routes for spotting gorgeous redwood trees. You can also check out Cal Barrel Road and Howland Hill Road near crescent city through ancient Californian forests.The fairytale like Fern Canyon located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is a great spot for sightings of 100 foot tall fern covered canyon walls. Photography lovers and hikers will have much to love about this area.
8.McArthur Burney Falls
The 129 foot tall Burney Fall inside Mc Arthur Memorial State Park is quite a sight for sore city eyes. With a campground and even a general store, you can make this a longer layover
9.Lassen Volcanic National Park
There are a bunch of different things you can do on your Lassen Volcanic National Park spot. Check out the Bumpas Hell trail for sightings of steaming thermal pools. Or check out Sulphur Works, Devil’s Kitchen which are other well known pools in the area. Lassen Volcanic National Park is located a short drive from the the town of Redding, California. Check out North Summit Lake for a great relaxing spot and take a dip in the crystal clear waters after.
The country’s largest lake, Lake Tahoe is a must visit spot on your northern California road trip. Stop at Sand Harbor to pick up a paddleboard. There are many water sports options in this gorgeous area.
11.Yosemite National Park
The iconic Yosemite National Park should not be missed on any northern California road trip and there is so much to do within the park. Some must see within the park are the Yosemite Falls and Glacial Peak. The park is also great for backpacking and hikes.
Driving down Highway 395, you’ll come across the beautiful Mammoth lakes. This area has natural hot springs and beautiful mountain lakes.Check out Mono Lake for the incredible sight of calcium carbonate rocks called tufas.Another great spot in this area is the Bodie State Historic Park, a former gold mining town that is now recognized as a National Historic landmark
13.Half Moon Bay
This sleepy beach town along Route 1 is a cute little short pit spot with a nice beach for those Instagram snaps. Check out the Half Moon beach, a wide stretch of golden sands great for beach walks or picnics.Since the water here is freezing, it’s not quite ideal for swimming but the surf definitely makes up for it with its mesmerizing views.
14.Carmel & Monterey
This quaint Carmel by the Sea is a beautiful destination filled with cute cottages, art galleries and famous beaches. Check out the iconic Pebble Beach and the Montrey Bay Aquarium. Carmel and Monterey also has a stunning coastline for long walks and touristy sights. Some well known landmarks you must visit include the Lone Cypress and Spanish Bay. Also worth visiting is the Point Lobos a state preserve with hiking trails galore.A great family friendly area with wildflowers and tide pools this area will enchant both kids and adult. VisitWilliam Randolph Hearst’s Hearst castle, a quirky European inspired American castle just a short drive from Monterey. And take a guided tour to truly get a feel for the place.
Lake Shasta is so off the beaten path that you’ll feel you’ve arrived in a different world. Located in the Southern Cascade Range, Lake Shasta is an incredibly unique landscape worth stopping on your northern California road trip. You can hike Yellow Butte for expansive views of Mount Shasta or take a trek to the Castle crags dome.
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