Top 10 Things to Do in Northern California (Bucket List Level)

I’ve mentioned many times how much we love traveling in California. While all areas of the Golden State are fascinating, I’ve always felt that Northern California usually doesn’t get the attention it deserves by most travelers.Top 10 Things to Do in Northern California (Bucket List Level) Sure, most people visit San Francisco, and some may vacation in Lake Tahoe. Both are fantastic destinations (and covered here in this guide), but how about the Redwoods? Or Lassen National Park? Or maybe the gold rush area of Jamestown and Sonora?

We’ve spent several weeks exploring the northern part of California, and here’s my bucket list for the top 10 places you should visit there –

  1. San Francisco
  2.  Monterey and Monterey Bay
  3. Sacramento
  4. Lake Tahoe
  5. Napa Valley
  6. Highway 1 from San Francisco to Fort Bragg
  7. Redwood National Park
  8. Lassen National Park
  9. Lava Beds National Monument
  10. Sonora & Jamestown (Gold Rush area)

Curious? Want to know more about visiting these places. Great! Grab a coffee and let’s elaborate some more.

1.  San Francisco

Located on the San Francisco Bay, the city is known for its iconic Golden Gate Bridge. It has become a custom to walk the bridge. In addition to the colorful, old Victorian homes in San Francisco, there is the prison of Alcatraz that sits in the bay, beckoning history buffs. Don’t forget to ride a cable car or trolley.

 San Francisco

Save an afternoon to check out Chinatown. Outdoor enthusiasts may enjoy hiking the ruins of the Sutro Baths. The original building has burnt down, leaving only the ruins and tidal saltwater pools.

Artwork abounds in the foggy city, not all of it in museums, as you may view the art on the Balmy Alley Murals or on the walls of the Coit Building. At the top, enjoy a 360-degree view of the city.

2. Monterey and Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay
Fisherman’s Wharf

The city of Monterey is located on the coast of California amidst a rugged beauty. What were once canneries and factories are now seafood restaurants and shops. If you choose to visit Monterey, don’t miss Cannery Row or Fisherman’s Wharf. Children are sure to love the large park of Dennis the Menace. Adults are sure to love the Monterey wine tastings.

Monterey Bay

There are five museums to check out, two of which are the Monterey Museum and the more whimsical Selfieville Museum but the one place not to be missed is definitely the Aquarium.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a great opportunity to see jellyfish, sharks, penguins and countless varieties of marine animal and plant life. It’s one of the large facilities of its kind in the world and a great way to learn more about California’s ocean habitat.

Kelp Forest, Monterey Bay Aquarium, California, USA
Kelp Forest, Monterey Bay Aquarium, California, USA | Photo by Ed Bierman

Hours & Fees

You’ll be able to beat the crowd by showing up as the Aquarium opens for the day at 10:00 am. Folks often report spending three hours. The Aquarium closes at 5:00 pm. Fees for adults are $49.95 and children are admitted for $29.95 up to age 12. Children under three are free. Students from ages 13 to 17 and Seniors are admitted for $39.95.

For more information about the Monterey Bay Aquarium, check out the website here.

Considering visiting this lovely location? Don’t forget to check out our posts –

Best Things To Do In Monterey, CA (A Complete Visitor’s Guide)

10 Awesome Self-Drive Day Trips Around Monterey, CA

3. Sacramento, CA

Sacramento California

Sacramento is the capital of California. With a nice mix of the old and the new, Sacramento can be a draw to children and history buffs alike. Children will enjoy the Sacramento Zoo while adults will drink in the history of the gold rush days, perhaps visiting the railroad museum as well. Small children may enjoy Fairytale Town while adults may find Sutter’s Fort of interest with its mansions and gardens.

Beautiful Flamingos at Sacramento Zoo
Beautiful Flamingos at Sacramento Zoo

 

There are several parks for picnics along the rivers where businesses hustled and bustled in the old days.

4. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe lies along the California state line. With several reasons to visit the Lake Tahoe area, tourists can choose to enjoy the northeast side of the freshwater lake to visit Sand Harbor Beach, go hiking along the edge or visit Emerald Bay State Park.

Vikingsholm, a nordic-style mansion built in 1929, can be toured in the summer. If visiting the Lake Tahoe area in the winter, you may enjoy the many ski trails down the mountain. On the southern end of Lake Tahoe is El Dorado Beach. Also, casinos dot the area for those who wish to try their luck. Some seek out the 22-mile Rubicon trail for areas of off-roading and camping.

Lake Tahoe

Whatever the season, there are many things to be enjoyed in the area, and there is something for everyone. If you’re traveling to see the lake during summertime, make sure you read this post first – What To Pack For Lake Tahoe In Summer? Not sure how to get there? I’ve created a useful guide that offers a selection of itineraries from Los Angeles: Los Angeles To Lake Tahoe Road Trip Ideas (Including Itineraries And Pictures!)

5. Napa Valley

Napa Valley

Located north of San Francisco, the Napa Valley region produces many vineyards. In fact, the Napa Valley Wine Train, a vintage locomotive, travels the area as a restaurant for locals and visitors alike to board and enjoy wine and a meal. In addition to producing world-renowned wines, the area is known for the beauty of its rolling hills. Visitors enjoy wine and scenery along with the gourmet meals that many restaurants serve in the area.

Napa Valley

You can often find art on display where the wines are sold. The wine and food are not the only lure, however. A new cultural tradition – started in 2011 – also draws crowds: The Napa Valley Film Festival began and has proven to be a success. In addition, the Oxbow Public Market offers goods local to the area. Guests enjoy the natural geyser in the area which spouts regularly.

Napa Valley

6. Highway 1 From San Francisco to Fort Bragg

If you’re traveling up Highway 1 from San Francisco to Fort Bragg, you may as well add some of these destinations to your list. Whether summer or winter, the Muir Beach Overlook is a great place for photo ops. It’s lovely in summer and provides a chance to watch the whales migrate pretty much throughout the year (with different species showing up during the year). If you’re looking for a great picnic stop, carve out time in your schedule to at least make a stop at the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Even a short visit is better than none, though many spend a few hours exploring. Those of you that have been to Big Sur, (or have read our article), may be reminded of that trip by the highway stretch from Salmon State Park to Jenner.

The coastline is as rugged and has water views to accompany you along the way. Be sure to start early enough so that you’ll reach the Point Arena Lighthouse and Museum before closing at 4:30 pm. Fee is $7.50. The view from the top of the lighthouse is stunning. You’ll find yourself reaching Mendocino next. Be sure to take a map with you on this trip as the GPS may not always be available through certain areas.

7. Redwood National Park

Redwood National Park

When many think of Redwood National Park, the large redwood forest comes to mind. People may be surprised to know they can also enjoy prairie land, rivers, oak forests and several miles of wild coastline.

It’s great to find that such a beautiful place has no charge to tour it. The exceptions are the day areas of Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods, and the Jedediah Smith State Parks. Passes are accepted at these three parks, however, if you wish to see Fern Canyon, which is located in a day use area, the fee is $8 per car.

There are no fewer than five Visitor Centers in the National and State Redwood parks. These are excellent places to stop at the beginning of each day. Park rangers can give advice. Often there are booklets of activities for children, as well as books and other items for sale. The Junior Ranger booklets for children are fun to fill out during the day. When they turn the booklets in at the end of the day, the children receive a badge.

This is a personal favorite for our family. We’ve visited the Redwood National Park twice already and have a very detailed guide for you right here:

Our Redwood National Park Visiting Guide (With Pictures!)

8. Lassen National Park

Lassen Park is pretty amazing. It’s a bit out of the way (as most places in Nothern California are) so not enough people know about it. Let’s change that!

Lassen National Park

This park offers spectacular mountain scenery with a touch of Yellowstone-like geothermic activity. There are 150 miles of trails for hiking enthusiasts to choose from. Plan to spend at least one full day in the park. More is better, especially if you want to hike. We’ve put together a list of the must-do attractions here, including the top trails, visitors centers and more –

Top 10 Things To Do In Lassen National Park, California

9. Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds State Park offers caves, trails, and camping with the attractions open year round. If outdoorsy fits your description, you’ll find no end of activities at Lava Beds. Even less adventurous visitors will enjoy sitting around the campfire, listening to the tales.

The highlight of this park is taking one of the ranger-guided cave tours. Plan ahead and try to reserve your spots in advance, especially during summertime. We were there in September and had no problem with joining a tour on the day but if you want to play it safe – call ahead or at least check their website.

Spelunking (cave exploration without a guide)

Located in a two-mile loop, the caves in this area are developed with trails and ladders at the entry point. Explorers may walk into Valentine Cave only. All others require the use of ropes or ladders. Mushpot Cave displays exhibits with lighting in the area.

Indian Rock Art

Petroglyph Point highlights the cultural history of the area, with the age of the petroglyph carvings possibly surpassing 6,000 years. Another form of art discovered in the area are the pictographs, ancient paintings on rock. If you’re a history buff, this is the area for you.

To find out more about Lava Beds National Park, click here.

10. Sonora and Jamestown

Sonora Pass
Sonora Pass

These two towns are located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, not too far from Yosemite National Park. They are historical towns from the days of the California Gold Rush, which boomed into existence once the motherlode of gold mines was discovered in the area in the mid 19th century. Both are well worth a visit and you could combine them into a single day of sightseeing.

Sonora

If you’re visiting Sonora, California, you might have difficulty deciding which activity to do first. The Dragoon Gulch is a great first stop. You’ll enjoy the beautiful hike in the oak woodlands. Refresh yourself afterward with a stop at the Indigeny Reserve to try their cider and quench your thirst.

Sonora CA USA
Sonora CA USA | Photo by Vayne

If you time it right and happen to be in Sonora on the second Saturday of the month, you’ll have the opportunity to view local art accompanied by live music and drinks. Families with young children might enjoy stopping at the Columbia State Historic Park. There, among thirty buildings, costumed re-enactors show how life was during the 1850s with stagecoach rides and panning for gold. For more information, check out this website here.

Jamestown

Jamestown
Jamestown, California, USA | Photo Bobak Ha’Eri

Jamestown may only have 3,044 residents, but that doesn’t mean people should pass it by. High on families’ favorites is the Jim Town Gold Mining Camp. Kids love going out and panning for gold. If you find you really have an interest, you can visit Wood’s Creek where you can try a second chance of success at panning for gold. While you’re enjoying the outdoors, try hiking on Red Hills Road or horseback riding.

Be sure to note your way as the trail isn’t marked all that clearly. If you’re ready for indoors entertainment, visit the Chicken Ranch Casino to try your luck at winning “gold” through games and slots. Jamestown is a tiny town, but big on activity.

What are your favorite destinations in Northern California?

Now that you have my list, I’d love to get your feedback. If you’ve visited the region, what were your own personal favorites? And if you’re just planning out your trip, which of these would you include in your itinerary? As always comments and questions are very welcome!

Top 10 Things to Do in Northern California (Bucket List Level)

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