There are so many fun things to do in Northern California. The pull of the area’s national and state parks, architecture, and food culture grows steadily each year.
The prime way to experience the best that Northern California has to offer is with a California road trip. The more time allotted to exploring the area, the more top California activities and excursions you can squeeze in like Alcatraz Island and Redwood National Park.
As a Cali girl myself, I’ve explored Northern California extensively. Here are my top 29 picks for the best activities to do in Northern California:
Table of Contents
- 29 Best Things to Do in Northern California
- Yosemite National Park
- The Golden Gate Bridge
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Lake Tahoe
- Russian Gulch State Park
- The Sierra Nevada Mountains
- Russian River
- June Lake
- Golden Gate Park
- Glass Beach
- San Francisco Bay
- Napa Valley
- Santa Cruz
- Redwood National Park
- Devils Postpile National Monument
- Kings Canyon National Park
- Mammoth Mountain
- Sequoia National Park
- Alcatraz Island
- Winchester Mystery House
- Hearst Castle
- Bodie State Historic Park
- Muir Woods National Monument
- Pinnacles National Park
- Lava Beds National Monument
- Sacramento River
- Explore San Jose
- FAQs About What to Do in Northern California
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29 Best Things to Do in Northern California
Yosemite National Park
Hike iconic waterfall trails, climb up granite rock faces, or camp under the giant sequoias
The state’s most popular national park, Yosemite is the epitome of peak California scenery. The grand topography of this top national park reinforces a sense of transience to the visitor. The unrivaled beauty and vast areas of protected wilderness draw millions to the park year after year.
A trip to Yosemite National Park should be on every California itinerary. Visit famous landmarks like Half Dome and Yosemite Valley or hike epic Yosemite trails like North Dome or Clouds Rest. A favorite activity of mine is watching rock climbers scale the granite walls of the treacherous El Capitan through my binoculars.
Hiking is the main attraction in the national park but non-hikers also find entertainment in the visitor centers, the easy nature walks, and the park lodge restaurants. Visitors from different walks of life leave Yosemite National Park satisfied.
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The Golden Gate Bridge
Marvel at the huge golden-red structure or go for a bike ride over the bridge
Visit the postcard landmark of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge. Easily one of the most popular things to do in Northern California, the Golden Gate Bridge is also the most photogenic site in town.
The remarkable stature of the bridge is reason enough to visit. Once the longest bridge in its heyday, the Golden Gate Bridge’s towering presence is sure to be your favorite Northern California activity.
To truly grasp how magnificent the structure is, I suggest either walking or biking across the bridge. Rent a bike in town and cruise on the pedestrian lane high above the water to the charming seaside town of Sausalito on the other side.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Visit 4 different types of volcanoes on the same day
A lesser-known national park, Lassen Volcanic National Park is worth the visit next time you’re in Northern California. Home to the largest dome volcano in the world, it is also one of the few places that house all four types of volcanoes- cinder, stratovolcano, shield, and plug dome.
There are many things to do in this popular California National Park like hitting the hiking trails, soaking in hot springs, and visiting fumaroles. Ridge Lakes Trail is one of the top hiking trails in the park and is suited for all fitness levels at only 2 miles roundtrip.
The window to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park is very short, as the roads are closed from the first snow of the year until the late spring thaw. The best time to visit this geologically-rich national park is in the summer when everything is operating in full swing.
Adventure throughout the Sierra Mountains. Hike, camp, bike, ski, boat, fish, and more in this mountain town
A trip to Lake Tahoe is one of the top things to do in Northern California. This Sierra Nevada Mountain town is home to the largest alpine lake in North America, arguably the most beautiful in California.
3 hours Northeast of San Francisco, Lake Tahoe is one of the best places for skiing in California. The high elevation of the town provides perfect snow conditions for hitting the slopes.
Lake Tahoe is an outdoor enthusiast’s playground. There are hundreds of hiking trails, mountain biking trails, rock climbing locations, fishing opportunities, and more. Some Tahoe visitors do enjoy the peace of the quiet mountain environment but most visit the town with adventure in mind.
👉 Pro Tip: Lake Tahoe frequently exceeds below-freezing temperatures in the non-summer months. Be prepared for the coldest weather possible and pack your warmest layers. This Arc’teryx Cerium Down Hoodie is my go-to to stay warm in cold conditions.
Russian Gulch State Park
View marine landmarks or hike in the nearby redwoods
Located in coastal Mendocino County, Russian Gulch State Park is a beautiful nature area with gushing waterfalls and a scenic bridge overlook. Enjoy the pristine beaches of the state park or hike in the forest among redwoods, mosses, and ferns.
Devil’s Punchbowl is a major attraction of the state park. View the collapsed sea cave from overhead and watch the waves crash into the center. Make sure to bring a rain jacket because onlookers usually get splashed from this area.
This park is located near Fort Bragg 4 hours north of Sacramento and is a good pitstop on a California road trip along the coast.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains
Hike through some of the most beautiful scenery California has to offer
Stretching along the eastern edge of California, the Sierra Nevada Mountains extend into the neighboring state of Nevada. The Sierra Nevada Mountain range proudly claims the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney.
The Sierras illustrate the best beauty California has to offer. There’s magic in every season in the high sierras from changing fall leaf colors to glaciated peaks in the winter and super blooms in alpine meadows in the spring.
Mount Whitney is my favorite hike in the Eastern Sierra Mountains but there are hundreds of other amazing hikes in California. The Big Pine Lakes trail offers the most beautiful alpine lake views in the state and White Mountain is a good conditioning hike to get acclimatized to 14,000 feet.
🛎️ Need a Hotel? The Dow Villa Motel offers exceptional views of the Eastern Sierra mountains from every room and is budget-friendly.
Explore the small American towns that line the mighty river
Enjoy a relaxing cruise down the Russian River. This Northern California area offers much more than just swimming and paddling. Visitors will also find hiking trails, delicious eateries, and relaxing spas in the towns along this water source.
The Russian River snakes through the lush wine country and has carved out the defining landscape. Small towns line the meandering river like Cloverdale, Geyserville, and Healdsburg. They offer visitors tasty home-cooked meals and small-town hospitality.
Relaxing on the Russian River when you visit Northern California is guaranteed to be crowd-free. The small towns along the river receive few visitors, giving you an authentic local experience.
Fish or boat on the giant alpine Mammoth County lake
June Lake is the perfect mountain getaway and is one of the best things to do in Northern California. The forested area is home to the high Sierra Mountains and the huge alpine recreational lake.
June Lake is ideal for travelers who like to fish or enjoy water sports. There is also hiking around the lake that is suited for all fitness levels. A popular activity to do in the June Lake area is driving or biking the scenic June Lake Loop.
This loop trail takes visitors around the perimeter of the lake, past forest cabin lodges, and circles back past Mono Lake. I cycled this 16-mile loop when I visited June Lake and with 1,000 feet of elevation gain, this ride was the hard workout I needed on vacation.
Golden Gate Park
Have a picnic, wander around a museum, or entertain yourself in the tea garden
Golden Gate Park is one of the best free things to do in San Francisco. There are many attractions in this area and it is the perfect way to spend an idle day in the big city.
There are 1,017 acres of recreation space at the park, making it one of the largest in California. Enjoy attractions at the San Francisco Golden Gate Park like the Japanese Tea Garden, the California Academy of Sciences, a buffalo sanctuary, the De Young Museum, and the Conservatory of Flowers.
Many visitors pay the park a visit during their trip to San Francisco for endless entertainment options. This is also a good area to sit and read a book during lunch break.
Photograph thousands of shards of sea glass at this protected state beach
As the name implies, Glass Beach was once overly abundant with sea glass shards on the sandy beach. This was a result of dumping garbage at a nearby Fort Bragg dump. Now a state park, it is illegal to collect glass at Glass Beach in an effort to preserve the remaining shards.
Located on Pacific Coast Highway, Glass Beach is a fun attraction to visit with the family while on a road trip. This is a great stop along the Pacific Coast Highway and is in the perfect location to stretch your legs before driving onward.
San Francisco Bay
Cruise the waters of the bay on a boat tour near the Golden Gate Bridge
Set sail on the iconic San Francisco Bay. A boat tour under the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the best things to do in Northern California. The tour takes visitors around a scenic cruise of the bay, showing off San Francisco resident boats and mansions on the water. This boat tour is one of the coolest San Francisco activities.
There are great views of San Francisco Bay from anywhere in the Fisherman’s Wharf area or the Embarcadero area of San Francisco. You will also see a spectacular view of the bay from the famous Coit Tower.
The huge San Francisco Bay comprises the whole coast of San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland. This prominent water source also drains water from approximately 40 percent of California. Not only is the bay a scenic attraction, but also a highly important local California water source.
Go wine tasting in Wine Country USA
Most every California resident has been to or plans to vacation in Napa Valley. This is the ultimate romantic destination getaway and one of the best things to do in Northern California for wine connoisseurs.
There are hundreds of wineries across the rolling hills of Napa Valley, all with their own unique flavors and style. Although there are activities to do in Napa Valley for the whole family, this location is best experienced as an adult-only trip.
Domaine Carneros is one of the top wineries in Napa Valley. Its French-style courtyards and grand architecture make guests feel like royalty. Artesa Vineyards & Winery is another popular winery in Napa. You must try their perfected cabernet sauvignon selection.
Play games on the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk amusement park
Santa Cruz is a fun beach town in California. The coastal town is quirky and caters to college students of the nearby UC Santa Cruz.
The magnetism of this location is the Santa Cruz Amusement Park. Located on the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, this is the biggest beach amusement park in California and allows visitors of all ages to reawaken their inner child.
The Santa Cruz Boardwalk Amusement Park is one of the best things to do in Northern California with children but it is also a fun activity for adults or couples on date night. Win a carnival game prize and munch on a delicious funnel cake at this perfect beach spot.
Redwood National Park
Soak in the views of the tallest trees in the world
The Northernmost national park in California, Redwood National Park is a tree lover’s paradise. The tallest trees in the world are the home residents here along with vast prairies, wild rivers, oak woodlands, and a rugged Pacific Ocean coastline.
Great biodiversity exists in the forests of Redwoods National Park. Keep an eye out for noteworthy flora and fauna like the California black bear, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, gray whales, rare species of ferns, and more.
Hike under the towering giant tree canopy in this national park for the best experience possible. There are dozens of trails that weave in and out of old-growth redwoods, so don’t forget to bring your hiking boots or biking helmet.
If you’re considering an overnight trip to the park, you will find this guide on where to stay near Redwood National Park immensely helpful.
Devils Postpile National Monument
Take photos of perfectly-geometric basalt column rock formations
This U.S. national monument is located near Mammoth Lakes California. The unusual rock formation of basalt columns fits together perfectly like a sculpted art piece in the Louvre Museum.
Devils Postpile is a geologic wonder and the upright columns, some of which are over 60 feet tall, display striking symmetry. The pristine mountain scenery and the nearby Rainbow Falls Trail make this area a top destination in the Mammoth Lakes area.
This monument is typically open between mid-June and mid-October when the roads are clear of snow and ice. Be sure to pack all of your essentials in your backpack and don’t leave any food in your car, as Mammoth receives heavy bear activity.
Kings Canyon National Park
Visit one of the oldest trees in the world
Adjacent to Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon is a top national park in California with world-famous Sequoia trees. The most notable feature of Kings Canyon is the General Sherman Tree, the largest known living single-stem tree on Earth.
The giant Sierra Nevada valley, towering sequoia trees, and granite canyon walls make this national park one of the best things to do in Northern California. Follow winding hiking trails to the Kings River or take a drive to the Roaring River Falls for the most pleasant Kings Canyon experience.
Visitors who wish to stay in Kings Canyon National Park overnight have 14 campground options. There are three that are open year-round but keep in mind freezing temperatures and icy roads if you wish to camp in the winter months.
Ski down unforgettable slopes in one of the biggest ski resorts in California
Skiers and snowboarders in all of California dream of hitting the slopes of this top California ski resort. One of the biggest in California, Mammoth Mountain is one of the most popular activities to do in Northern California in the winter.
Only an hour north of Bishop CA, Mammoth Mountain has 25 chair lifts and 3,500 acres of skiable terrain. The ski area has a summit elevation of 11,053 feet, making it the ideal location for retaining perfect compact snow during the ski season.
With an average of 300 days of sunshine per year, Mammoth Mountain is the perfect vacation spot in Northern California. While you’re in the area, combine a trip to Mammoth Mountain’s ski slopes with a day trip to Devils Postpile and June Lake for the perfect Mammoth Lakes area trip.
Sequoia National Park
Camp in the midst of giant Northern California trees
Explore the diversity of Sequoia National Park, one of the best things to do in Northern California. Also known as the site of the tallest trees in the world, this national park should be at the top of your itinerary.
There are fun activities to do in the park during every season of the year. Enjoy short informative trails or a picnic by the river next time you are in Sequoia National Park. Backcountry wilderness permits are also available for extended backpacking trips throughout the sapling giants.
There are 5 lodging options available inside the park and a few primitive campgrounds that offer only pit toilets. Campgrounds are available via reservation on Recreation.gov beforehand.
Wander through an old state-of-the-art penitentiary that housed world-famous criminals
Explore San Francisco with a trip to Alcatraz Island, one of the top things to do in Northern California. This old water-locked penitentiary housed famous criminals like Al Capone and is now an interactive museum in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
This was my favorite activity in San Francisco growing up and is the perfect Northern California excursion for the whole family. Take a boat from the mainland to this attraction near the Golden Gate Bridge and begin your tour of the old inmate cells.
Winchester Mystery House
Get lost in a maze of rooms and doors that don’t quite make sense
Be on your best behavior at the Winchester Mystery House, or you may just open the wrong door. This famous Northern California attraction holds the world record for the longest continuous house construction: 38 years.
The massive estate is quite puzzling. There are doors that lead to brick walls and others on the second story that plummet right to the floor of the grand foyer. The construction of this house is a true mystery but wandering around the architectural maze makes it a fun attraction for the whole family.
Guests who are interested in all things spooky can opt for the Haunted Walk with Spirits tour for a spooktacular experience.
Take photos at one of the most luxurious establishments in California
This historic estate is located in San Simeon and dates back 100 years. Famous for its opulence, Hearst Castle is the most luxurious property in California, if not the entire U.S.
This is one of the best things to do in Northern California and is a great stop on a Northern California-bound road trip from Southern California. With over 127 acres of gardens, fountains, and pools, this grand estate will leave you feeling inspired.
Various tours are available at Hearst Castle including a grand rooms tour, an upstairs sweet tour, a cottages & kitchen tour, a holiday twilight tour, and more! This is also one of the best spots for a photo shoot in California, so visit Hearst Castle in your best dress.
Bodie State Historic Park
Roam about old Western mining buildings that have since been abandoned
California is laden with old historic ghost towns. Bodie State Historic Park is one of the best things to do in Northern California for history lovers.
Walk the deserted streets of a once-booming gold mining town in the Sierra Nevadas. Remnants of the old historic town remain with some goods in situ. There is no food available for purchase but an informative museum with a bookstore.
Channel your inner Doc Holiday with a visit to this old American West deserted ghost town. This town is frozen in time and is sure to leave you feeling nostalgic.
Muir Woods National Monument
Follow informative walking trails through redwood tree groves
A part of the San Francisco Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument is home to old-growth redwood trees. This is the best thing to do in Northern California after you’ve spent a few days in the big city and want a change of pace.
Follow footpaths to Cathedral Grove and Bohemian Grove or have a picnic at Redwood Creek. You can also opt for a trail that leads to a view of the treetops and the distant Pacific Ocean via the Ben Johnson and Dipsea paths.
The 558-acre monument preserves one of the last ancient redwood forests in Northern California. Some of the trees at the Muir Woods National Monument area are over 1,000 years old and over 250 feet in height, making this a top day trip from San Francisco.
Pinnacles National Park
Watch for California natives like the condor and bald eagle while hiking
A less explored California national park, Pinnacles is one of the best things to do in Northern California for nature lovers. Not only is it almost always clear of crowds, but it also has one of the most diverse landscapes of any other national park in California.
This area is a hotspot for wildlife including the California Condor, Bald Eagles, and foxes. Besides sightseeing, one of the main attractions of the park is hiking. There are hikes suited for all fitness levels like the 4.3-mile Juniper Canyon Loop trail.
There is no lodging inside the national park but there are plenty of places to stay on the outskirts. There is a primitive campsite inside the park for visitors who don’t mind rustic lodging.
Eat delicious, fresh-caught seafood on the waterfront of this sleepy fishing town
A seaside town on the rugged California coast, Monterey is one of the most romantic getaways in California. It’s only 2 hours from San Francisco and is the perfect quiet vacation destination.
The colorful waterfront homes catch the eye and the scent of freshly-caught seafood excites the senses. Chart House is the best seafood meal in town. Located on the famous Cannery Row in Monterey, this restaurant sources all its dishes locally.
Favorite Monterey activities include biking along the beachfront path, surfing in the Pacific Ocean, renting a sailboat and cruising the harbor, and taking the little ones to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
🚗 How to Get There: Take the US-101 S from San Francisco to the CA-156 W and exit on the CA-1 Fremont St. in Monterey. Without traffic, this trip should take less than two hours. If renting a car, Discover Cars have the most reliable availability in Northern California and are highly recommended.
Stroll through the cobblestone streets of this romantic storybook village
A fairytale-like village, Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the top things to do in Northern California away from crowds. This quaint town is not for visitors who love big metropolitan amenities but prefer a slower pace of life and local, family-run establishments.
Only 2 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area, Carmel-by-the-Sea can be an extended day trip or an overnight adventure. I recommend staying at one of the many storybook accommodation options in town. The Hofsas House Hotel has an old European charm and is the perfect option.
Lava Beds National Monument
Explore pitch-black lava tube caves created half a million years ago
Located in the Cascade Mountains of Northern California, this famous national monument sits on the Oregon border and is shared by the two states. It is a little out of the way to get to but the views at the site make the drive worth it.
Past volcanic eruptions have shaped the rugged landscape and created over 800 caves as a result. Explore the geologic wonder of the Lava Beds National Monument and head into the darkness of the lava caves on site.
There is also Native American rock art in the area, historic battlefields to explore, and campsites. This outdoor playground of lava tube caves is accessible in all seasons and beckons adventurers at heart.
Visit California’s largest river and take a dip for free in the hot summer months
California’s most prominent river, the Sacramento River, is the largest in the state. It runs from the Klamath Mountains in the north 400 miles south to Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay.
This river provides 31% of the state’s surface water runoff. Also known as “The Nile of the West,” the river is a top tourist attraction in Northern California.
Sand Cove Park is the best place for swimming and fishing in the river. You will find hundreds of Northern California residents here on a hot summer day, the perfect way to make new local friends while in the area.
Explore San Jose
Visit the technology capital of California
San Jose is the technology capital of California. The city is business-oriented and is the place where many small-town Americans head to make it big.
San Jose’s Silicon Valley is home to major companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google. You will find many families in San Jose, one of the best places to live in California. Visit San Jose for a glimpse of how local businessmen live in California.
During your exploration of San Jose, be sure to check out the Rose Garden neighborhood and admire the 19th-century architecture. The Alameda neighborhood is another highly sought-after historic neighborhood that is known for its tasty restaurants.
FAQs About What to Do in Northern California
What is Northern California best known for?
Northern California is known for its rugged coastline, redwood trees, and the Golden Gate Bridge. South Lake Tahoe and Yosemite are also popular Northern California destinations.
Is Northern California worth visiting?
There are so many things to do in Northern California, making it worth the trip. The best way to view all of the great sites this area has to offer is by an ultimate Northern California road trip. From beaches to charming cities to old-growth redwood forests, Northern California has stunning beauty not seen anywhere else in the U.S.
What is the number 1 tourist attraction in California?
The number 1 tourist attraction in California is Disneyland. Located in Anaheim, the theme park receives millions of visitors a year and is the premier family destination in the golden state. Disneyland is home to rides, games, food, shows, and other forms of entertainment. See my Disneyland tips to plan like an insider.
Why should I visit Northern California?
There are many things to do in Northern California and some of the top tourist destinations in the entire U.S. are here as well. San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Santa Cruz, and Monterey are top destinations that should not be missed.
The vast area of Northern California offers visitors a multitude of things to do and it should not be missed on your next California trip. If you’re a traveler on a budget like me, then you’ll find this San Francisco on a budget guide helpful next time you’re in Northern California.
I hope I’ve helped you find the best things to do in Northern California for your trip!
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