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How To Plan an Unforgettable Northern California Road Trip

We have been lucky to call Northern California home for over a decade at this point. Alysha has spent her whole life here, minus four years in college, and Matt’s a relative newcomer with just under 10 years at the time of writing. There is such an incredible amount of things to do, see, and explore in Northern California that we’re STILL discovering new places despite having been all over the northern half of the state over the time we’ve lived here together.

Northern California is a very special place for us. We met in San Francisco in 2014, and lived there for almost a decade together, including three years living together and getting married. Over the course of that time, we took as many weekend trips as we could to explore the wealth of natural beauty that Northern California has to offer. 

Since we moved out of San Francisco, we’ve actually found ourselves doing more exploring on the Northern California coast, since we do an annual San Francisco to Seattle road trip to visit Matt’s family and often take the coastal route up through California. 

That stretch of coast between Point Reyes and the Oregon border is now at the top of the list of our favorite places in California because it has it all. Spectacular coastal beauty, wide sandy beaches, and towering coastal redwoods steps away from said beaches. It’s WILD. And we love it, which is why it’s featured so prominently in this Northern California itinerary. 

In this guide, we’re going to give you all of our local knowledge – and we do mean all of it, this is a long one! – in an effort to help you plan an amazing Northern California road trip. We have opinions. Lots of them! And you’ll find them all below. From the best hikes, to which redwood groves to explore, and some cool places to stay, you’ll find it all in the guide below. 

Grab a coffee (and maybe some Bailey’s?) and let’s get planning!

P.S. We even have a longer road trip recommendation that takes you over to Lassen National Park and Lake Tahoe if you have some extra time on your hands – but we’d recommend having at least three weeks to do all of that.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post, like hotel links, are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, we make a little bit of money if you click through and book. That being said, we would never recommend something to you that we don’t stand behind 100%.

How Many Days Do You Need For This Road Trip?

We think you need a minimum of 7 days to do the entire stretch of coast from San Francisco to the redwoods near the Oregon border. 10 days would be even better. 

With 3-5 days, we’d recommend staying in and around San Francisco and exploring the city doing a couple of day trips from San Francisco to places like Point Reyes, the Marin Headlands, and Muir Woods. 

At the bottom of this guide, we have itinerary examples for 7 and 10 days to give you a starting point for planning your own trip. 

The Road Trip Route

Let’s talk about the route we’re recommending.

We’d strongly recommend that you stay relatively close to the coast, and we think the most unique part of Northern California is the stretch from San Francisco north to the Oregon border. 

You’ll experience towering coastal redwoods, never-ending sandy beaches, wine country, and more. It’s our favorite part of Northern California, and the best part is that it’s basically accessible year round. 

There are more than a few places in Northern California that are inland that are worth a visit, sure, but it’s a LONG way from the coast to areas like Lassen, Yosemite, or Lake Tahoe. 

With anything less than 14 days, we’d focus on the stretch between San Francisco and Redwood National and State Parks (basically the Oregon border). It’s going to take you 4-6 hours to drive from the coast to Yosemite or Tahoe, and it’s not worth the time and effort unless you have three weeks or more. 

If you’re lucky enough to have three weeks, we’d add on a weeklong trip to Tahoe and Yosemite, but that’s almost a completely different Northern California trip than the one we’re talking about here. We have details on how to add those two spots at the very end of this guide.

We’d start by heading north up the coast along Highway 1, stopping along the way at places near San Francisco like the Marin Headlands, Mount Tamalpais, and Muir Woods. 

Continue north along Highway 1 allllll the way to the Oregon border, where you’ll find some of the best redwoods in the state, and then make your way back south to Mendocino. 

From there, end your trip with some well-earned wine country relaxation. Cut inland from Mendocino through the Anderson Valley – our favorite wine country in California, sorry Napa – and hop on 101 to Healdsburg, which is a super charming little town in Sonoma for even more wine. 

Drop off the car (if you’re renting one) and end with a day or two in San Francisco before heading home. 

Here’s what that route looks like in map form.

As you can see, that’s 16 hours of driving (and with stops, it’s going to be longer). 

For that reason, if you only have 5-10 days, we’d focus on the stretch from SF to Mendocino, and save the northern redwoods for later, which cuts out about 8-9 of those hours. There are plenty of redwoods to be explored in and around Mendocino, don’t worry!

Do You Need a Car for This Road Trip?

Yes. 100% yes. There is really no way to do this road trip without a car. Public transportation is basically nonexistent. 

However, we do have an important consideration for you to think about. 

Parking a car in San Francisco is a nightmare. We like to say that you’re going to be paying for parking one way or another, whether it’s through a garage or parking tickets for the various restrictions and street sweeping around the city. 

If you’re renting a car, we’d strongly, strongly recommend that you either pick it up after staying in San Francisco, or drop it off before your time in the city. If you can’t do that, our next recommendation is to park it in a garage and leave it there. You won’t need it when you’re in the city, and it will often end up being more of a hindrance than a help. Use public transportation or rideshares like Lyft to get around within the city. 

Trust us – we lived there for nearly ten years and both of us decided to get rid of our cars because parking was such a nightmare. 

11 Amazing Stops for Your Northern California Road Trip Itinerary

Now, let’s get into our top recommendations for stops to make on your trip. 

One thing we do want to make super duper clear is that there are absolutely stops in between the ones in this guide that you’re going to love. Think of this as our top picks, and be sure to leave time to discover a favorite or two that we don’t have listed here!

A great example is the stretch along Highway 1 between Bodega Bay and Mendocino. Along the way, you’ll pass Jenner, Timber Cove, Gulala, and more. And they’re all amazing! But if we included literally ever stop, this guide would be five times as long. 

Some places – like the Marin Headlands – are best as stops on your way to your next overnight stay. For those, you’ll find a section with background on the place and our favorite things to do and see nearby. 

Some places – like Mendocino – are worth an overnight (or two), and for those you’ll find a deeper dive into things to do and see and a section on places to stay. 

You’ll find some information on San Francisco – like what to do and where to stay – as the last stop on this itinerary, mostly because we prefer the relaxing city time to be at the end of a road trip, rather than the beginning. 

Important Note: These stops are roughly in the order you’d encounter them on a 7-10 day road trip that loops from San Francisco to Trinidad and back again. You might need to rearrange them depending on what your particular trip will look like.

The Marin Headlands

Drive time from San Francisco International Airport: 40 minutes / 22 miles

The Marin Headlands are the area just across the Golden Gate Bridge, known for rolling hills and coastal bluffs which result in fantastic views of the bridge and the ocean.

It’s worth a half day or so spent exploring (though there’s plenty to do and see to occupy an entire day trip from San Francisco) before heading north along the coast to kick off your road trip in earnest. 

Here are a few of our favorite stops. 

Battery Spencer and Battery Wagner: Possibly the two best views of the Golden Gate Bridge in the headlands (though the top of Hawk Hill is a close second), they’re close enough for you to walk between them. Be prepared for a parking nightmare though. 

Kirby Cove: From Battery Wagner, walk down the trail to Kirby Cove, which is another excellent view of the bridge, this time from the water-level. There’s also a great campground down here that is EXTREMELY competitive (like, books up six months in advance competitive – the kind you find at nearly every California campground these days), but is worth looking into. 

Point Bonita Lighthouse: The southwestern-most point in the headlands is Point Bonita, where you’ll find a cool lighthouse that you have to cross a narrow hanging suspension bridge to access. The hike from the parking lot to the lighthouse is about a mile round trip, and is mostly flat.  

The Coastal Trail / Miwok Loop: If you’re in the mood for a great, longer hike, head to Rodeo Beach (which is worth a stop in its own right) and do this hike up to the top of the bluffs overlooking the ocean, then down around the backside with a stop at an old radio (?) tower with great views. For a shorter version that just focuses on the coastal views, this shorter trail would be a good alternative. 

What about Muir Woods? As we were putting this guide together, we decided that we don’t think Muir Woods is worth a stop for a couple of reasons. One, the permitting system (you need an advance reservation these days) makes things more complicated and time consuming. Two, it’s the busiest redwood grove in California, so you’re not going to get the serenity and tranquility we associate with the redwoods. Last, you’re going to multiple MUCH COOLER redwood groves further north on the coast. So, with all that in mind, we’d skip it here. It’s a great, easily accessible option for people not going up further north on the coast, but if you’re following this road trip, that’s not you!

Mount Tamalpais

Drive time from the Marin Headlands: 30 minutes / 18 miles

Looking for a stop on the way to Point Reyes from San Francisco? We recommend a stop in Mt. Tamalpais State Park! Grab some coffee and take a quick hike to stretch your legs before continuing on your drive.

We love to stop at Equator Coffee for a quick coffee before a morning hike. There are actually a couple of locations near Mt. Tamalpais – one along Highway 1, and one in the heart of Mill Valley – we love the surf shack along Highway 1, and it’s a beautiful drive from there up to Mt. Tam. 

We wouldn’t stay overnight here, but it’s a good stop on your way out of the city up the coast, and there are two hikes here worth doing. 

  • Hike to the East Peak: There are two ways to do this hike. The short version is a quick 0.6 mile hike from the parking lot that’s perfect for getting out of the car, getting some fresh air, and stretching your legs for a few minutes. You’ll be rewarded with gorgeous city and bay views! The second way to do it is to park at the Mountain Home Inn along the Panoramic Highway and hike up to the East Peak from there, which is more like a four mile hike.

  • Cataract Falls: The Cataract Falls Trail is a more moderate hike that is about 3.3 miles long. Because of the beautiful waterfall at the end, it can get a bit busy, so be ready for crowds during peak times or on weekends.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Drive time from Mt. Tamalpais to the Lighthouse: 1 hour 15 minutes / 39 miles

About 30 miles north of San Francisco, Point Reyes is a gorgeous cape that brings together forested ridges and rolling hills. It’s a natural sanctuary with miles of gorgeous drives and hikes to be explored.

Things to Do at Point Reyes

Hikes in Point Reyes: Here are three hikes in Point Reyes to tackle while you’re in the area. If you’re looking for incredible coastal views, do the hike out to Tomales Point (it’s out and back, so you can just stop and turn around when you’re ready to head back). 

  • Alamere Falls (13 miles): Deep in the Phillip Burton Wilderness, you’ll find a stunning 40-ft tall waterfall that spills right on the beach before flowing into the Pacific Ocean.

  • Tomales Point (9.7 miles): For a chance to see Tule Elk and sweeping coastal views.

  • Summit of Mt. Wittenberg (4.1 miles): Moderate hike with a decent elevation gain (1,299 ft.) and plenty of shade.

Cheese at Cowgirl Creamery: We’ve managed to go this far without mentioning cheese, but it’s time! If you’re a fan of artisan organic cheese do not miss Cowgirl Creamery. When you stop in, you’ll find more types of cheese than you knew existed, and each one is more delicious than the next. Try their Mt. Tam – it’s a fan favorite for a reason. Locals and tourists alike love it.

Try Some Mead at Heidrun Meadery: Don’t know much about mead? It’s wine made from honey instead of grapes. Delicious, right? Heidrun Meadery is a former dairy farm that has been turned into a bee forage oasis with beautiful pastures, gardens, and a greenhouse. Heidrun Meadery produces unique Champagne-style mead that is light, dry, delicate, and refreshing.

Bovine Bakery: Bovine Bakery is a perfect post-hike stop to, you know, refuel. Or something. Make a stop in here to try the pastries – like their bear claws. They are Alysha’s favorite and we think they’ll be yours too (NOT GLUTEN FREE!).

Shuck Your Own Oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co: Looking for a unique experience? At Hog Island Oyster Co., you can purchase oysters to shuck yourself! Even better, bring some wine (or mead!) and make a picnic of it.

Explore Limantour and Drakes Beaches: Point Reyes has multiple nice sandy beaches for you to explore – plan for fog by wearing some warm layers and you’ll be able to enjoy the beauty of this coastline. Limantour Beach is a narrow beach where you can view wildlife while walking along the sand. Harbor seals often hang out just offshore and shorebirds feed along the beaches in the fall. Drakes Beach is located up against white sandstone cliffs and has a Visitors Center and a bookstore on site.

Cypress Tree Tunnel: The Cypress Tree Tunnel features Monterey cypress trees that were planted in 1930 and now create a tunnel that you can drive through. It’s a quick stop to take a few pictures on the way to or from another activity.

Visit the Lighthouse: Built in 1870, the Point Reyes Lighthouse was used to warn mariners of the Point Reyes cape as they navigated the waters at night. It’s been retired since 1975 but is a scenic destination for visitors. It can get windy and chilly out by the lighthouse, so make sure you bring extra layers.

Learn More: What to Do in Point Reyes

Where to Stay in Point Reyes

Our top choice here is going to be the Olema Inn (though a nice vacation rental in the woods would be amazing too, like this rustic gem in the woods). 

We have a whole guide to help you find a perfect place to stay in Point Reyes – which is just a half hour away from where Alysha grew up. 

Mendocino & Fort Bragg

Drive time from Point Reyes Station: 2 hours 50 minutes / 136 miles

Mendocino, on the Northern California coast, is peak California coastal beauty. Highway 1 passes right through the center of town, and on one side of the highway you’ll find the towering redwood groves of Russian Gulch State Park, and on the other, a series of coastal bluffs with impressive coastal vistas. 

In other words, it’s magical. 

The towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg themselves are also fun. 

Mendocino is at least 72% bed and breakfasts, but there are some nice places to eat and drink in town, a bunch of fun shops from plants to local art and home goods, and there’s a beautiful headlands trail that leaves right from the edge of town. 

Fort Bragg is significantly less charming, but don’t let that fact dampen your resolve to visit. It has plenty to offer in its own right, and is arguably more fun than Mendocino thanks to breweries and coffee shops and a much more down-to-earth vibe. 

What to Do In and Around Mendocino and Fort Bragg

There’s a diverse range of things to do and see in Mendocino, from wine tasting to coastal hiking, so you’ll need to carefully pick and choose from the list below depending on your interests. 

Russian Gulch State Park: There are essentially two halves of this state park – the coastal half, where you’ll find an excellent trail that takes you around the point out on the headlands, and the redwood section, which is on the other side of the highway. We like the short four mile hike to the waterfall, where you’ll find an impressive 36-foot waterfall. This hike descends steeply down into a canyon with many varieties of ferns surrounding the trail and towering redwoods overhead. There’s also a nice beach – Russian Gulch Beach – right under the bridge that is worth a stop. If you’re looking for a longer hike, the Fern Canyon Trail takes you on a loop through the redwoods, to the aforementioned waterfall, and back along a different fern-laden trail. 

Point Cabrillo: You’ll have to walk about a half mile or so to get to the lighthouse with a red roof that watches over this stretch of coast, but it’s worth it. There’s a funny series of informational signs along the way that were pretty clearly made to keep kids busy and interested along the walk. The lighthouse itself was built in 1909, and today it’s automatic, which means that you can actually stay in the keepers quarters, which is a fun twist. There’s a gift shop on the ground floor of the lighthouse where you can find things like postcards and souvenirs. In the spring and fall, this is a great place to spot gray whales from the shore (in the summer, the coastal fog makes it a little bit tricky on most days). 

Ten Mile Beach: It’s not just another Northern California beach! Ten Mile Beach is a rugged wildlife preserve that is home to over 90 species of birds, seals, and river otters. It’s 10-15 minutes north of Fort Bragg, but it’s worth the journey. 

Walk the Mendocino Headlands: Mendocino Headlands State Park is a 7,400-acre wildlife corridor of unreal seaside bluffs, ocean views, and beaches. Big River Beach is a popular spot for picnicking and surfing, but there are also many trails to walk and explore. Here’s the main one, which we’ve done and enjoyed. 

North Coast Brewing Co: Beer lovers, we haven’t forgotten about you! North Coast Brewing Co serves barrel-aged beer, a menu of delicious food with huge portions, and even has live Jazz during peak times. 

Breakfast at the Good Life Cafe: Looking for a place to stop in for breakfast? Good Life Cafe serves fair-trade coffee, juice, and organic bites to eat with plenty of gluten free and vegetarian options. You can enjoy your breakfast on the outdoor patio or take it to go for a morning picnic on the beach.

Glass Beach: While you’re in Fort Bragg, make sure you check out Glass Beach, a beach covered in beautiful sea glass. Keep in mind it’s illegal to take any sea glass home with you, but it’s still worth a visit to this unique beach that was actually created due to years of dumping garbage near the coastline.

Where to Stay in Mendocino

The first thing to know here is that staying in Mendocino is expensive. Like, really expensive. 

Which leads me to the second thing you should know. Staying south of Mendocino along the coast near the town of Little River is both equally beautiful and usually cheaper. 

Here are some good options both in and around Mendocino and down near Little River. 

If you’re looking to stay right in the middle of Mendocino, we’d opt for the Blue Door Inns, a modern hotel (most of the B&Bs in Mendocino are going for the “lived-in, old timey” charm, and this place is decidedly more modern) with 19 rooms spread across three properties in Mendocino. Included in your stay are breakfast delivered to your room and an afternoon wine and cheese picnic. Of the three properties, we’re most drawn to the JD House and the Packard House, which feel a little more casual and laid back. 

If you’re okay with staying just outside of town, we’ve got two great options for you. 

First is Mendocino Grove, which is glamping at its finest (and has been on our list for years, but we’re always passing through in the winter on our annual Seattle to San Francisco road trip, which means they’re closed for the season). They have a bunch of platform tents (most sleep 2, some sleep 4-6) clustered in “neighborhoods” with outdoor common spaces to share between them.

Some tents are dog-friendly, and all come with their own fire pit for roasting marshmallows. In common areas, you’ll find things like bocce ball and hammocks for the down time when you’re not out exploring. 

There’s a bathhouse too for hot showers, in case you like the idea of camping, but not the part where you’re greasy. 

As two people who spent most of 2020 and 2021 on a never ending road trip around the Western US, we came to appreciate shower availability as a key amenity after several two week periods with no showers. 

Second is the Brewery Gulch Inn, which is just south of town perched atop a bluff with great coastal views. It’s a little different than most places, with more communal spaces like a dining room and living room (with a sweet four-sided fireplace!) with ten rooms built around those areas. Rooms are spacious and comfy, with seating areas and fireplaces. It’s expensive (like, really expensive), but it’s a cool take on a coastal inn. 

If you’re on a budget, consider staying further south around the town of Little River

We’ve stayed in the area, and it’s a perfect blend of close to Mendocino, but dead silent at night (unless you count the roosters in the morning).

Our two picks here are the Seafoam Lodge, which was recently renovated and has both hotel-style rooms and standalone bungalows waiting for you, and the Andiron Seaside Inn and Cabins, which is a similar idea, but make it on a farm. 

Another good option in Little River would be a vacation rental, though some will have a two night minimum which could be problematic for shorter road trips. 

Eureka

Drive time from Mendocino: 3 hours / 145 miles

On your way up to Trinidad, which we think should be your next overnight stop, you will pass through the town of Eureka, which is peak Humboldt County in our minds. 

This is your last chance for most amenities – there’s a Costco (and a Costco Gas, which is the cheapest gas in town), a Safeway, and other things of that nature. 

Plus, when you’re in Eureka, there are a few places that you definitely shouldn’t miss. 

Humboldt Cider Company: Excellent – and we really, really mean that – hard cider. We’d argue it’s some of the best in California. We make sure to stop here every time we drive through the area. They have a taproom in downtown Eureka, which we stopped at on our last trip and has an incredible selection of their ciders on tap (along with some local beers that are hard to find elsewhere), and a cider garden up the hill outside of town, which is weekends only at the time of writing and has a great outdoor space. 

Lost Coast Brewing: For the beer lovers, this is a famous California brewery up on the northern coast. They do brewery tours (see their website for details, which are ever changing at this point in time). 

Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate: A discovery on our latest foray into Eureka, this place is magical. It’s an oasis for chocolate lovers, with a great selection of different chocolates from around the world alongside their own chocolate, which you can watch being made through the window to the production facility right there in the tasting room. They also have hot chocolate and sipping chocolate at the bar, though the chocolate chai was the clear winner for us (the sipping chocolate was great too, but that chocolate chai…YUM). Plus, free samples! 

Incredible Murals: Eureka is known as a haven for artists, and when you walk around town that fact becomes pretty apparent. There’s a great collection of street art in Eureka, mostly on the sides of buildings, and if you’re up for a little walk to stretch your legs, we’d recommend this self-guided tour of Eureka’s murals

Trinidad

Drive time from Eureka: 25 minutes / 20 miles

Although Trinidad is a tiny little seaside town about 25 minutes from Eureka, there is plenty to do, including some of the best beaches on the Northern California coast.

We think it’s a better home base for the Northern California coast than Eureka, too, because it’s about 30 minutes closer to the parks that make up the complex that is Redwood National and State Parks.

Here are some of our recommendations:

Trinidad State Beach: A good stop to combine with the above trail, this is walkable from that same trailhead and is a nice sandy beach with Oregon Coast vibes thanks to the many towering sea stacks jutting out of the ocean just off the coast. Pewetole Island is the biggest and most impressive.

College Cove: This is a secluded stretch of beach just north of Trinidad State Beach with views of tree-covered Pewetole Island. You have to do a quick and easy little hike to get there, which dramatically cuts the crowds when compared with other nearby beaches. Dog friendly.

Sue-Meg State Park (Formerly Patrick’s Point State Park): This is a very small park (1 square mile) with tidepools and plenty of beautiful plant life with a chance to see seals, sea lions, and whales. It’s definitely worth hiking the rim trail, which takes you around the exterior of the head where you’ll find several stunning views. Don’t miss the climb to the top of Wedding Rock, which was probably our favorite view in the park.

Approaching Wedding Rock on the Rim Trail

Moonstone Beach County Park: This is a popular spot for surfers and families because kids can safely play in the slow river current. 

Trinidad Head Trail: This is an easy 1.7 mile loop trail with breathtaking views of the coast from its many spurs that take you out to points where you’re overlooking the ocean and Trinidad State Beach. 

Views from the Trinidad Head Trail
Views from the Trinidad Head Trail

Where to Stay in Trinidad

We stayed at the View Crest Lodge in Trinidad, which is close to the redwoods and the beach and has cute cozy cabins for rent (we loved it, by the way). Rooms are spacious, some have full kitchens, which we appreciate because we’re usually cooking for ourselves, and our room had a deck with an ocean view. Plus, we could hear the barking sea lions from our bed!

The view from our deck at the View Crest Lodge
The super comfortable bed at the View Crest Lodge

We also looked at the Emerald Forest Cabins, which are just north of the city of Trinidad and were our second choice. 

Prefer a vacation rental, so you have more space?

Click here to see all of your vacation rental options in Trinidad.

Redwood National & State Parks

Drive time from Trinidad to Crescent City (northernmost point): 1 hour 20 minutes / 60 miles

This part of the California coast is pretty special. On our last trip, where we were coming from a road trip on the Oregon Coast back to San Francisco, we were driving along a stretch of 101 just south of the Oregon border, winding our way through the towering trees. We came around a bend at the bottom of a long hill and BOOM. There was the ocean. 

In this less-visited (mostly because it’s kind of hard to get to) part of Northern California, you’ll find towering redwoods that are several thousand years old that are tucked away just off the beautiful California coastline. It’s incredibly unique, and is well worth an overnight stay.

So what exactly is covered under “Redwood National and State Parks?” It’s a complex that falls under the National Park Service, but includes a couple of different California State Parks, including Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, among others. 

These parks were brought under the NPS after activism by the Save the Redwoods League, who fought to preserve the best example of coastal redwoods in the state against the desire of logging companies. 

It’s worth remembering that these lands belonged to Native Americans in the past. For thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers, several tribes in Northwest California called this area home, and the Yurok and Tolowa both have ancestral lands within the boundaries of the parks. 

The British explorer Jedidiah Smith, for whom one of the state parks is named, was the first European to explore the northern coast. A subsequent gold rush in the 1850’s brought conflict to the Native American tribes in the area, and led to the removal (and murder) of thousands of people so that the newcomers could peacefully search for gold. 

Not a great look, America. 

Remember that as you are exploring the incredible natural beauty here. 

With all that said, here are some worthwhile stops in Redwood National and State Parks.

Things to Do at Redwood National and State Parks

The truth is, you could probably spend a full two weeks exploring the Redwoods. But since we’re working through a full itinerary, we’ve compiled the best destinations below, at least according to our experience. 

We just spent a couple of days exploring the redwoods in this neck of the woods (see what we did there?) for basically the first time, and it was breathtaking despite the fact that it was pouring the entire time.

UPDATE 2022: We just spent another few days up here, and we can confirm that it’s still spectacular!

Fern Canyon: One of the most unique, picturesque locations in the redwoods, Fern Canyon is exactly what it sounds like: a mini-canyon covered with ferns. Note: 4WD / high clearance vehicles are best here – there’s a few spots in the road that are going to be a bit of a stretch for a sedan. You can park at Gold Bluffs Beach Campground and hike around, connecting to the Fern Canyon Trail via the Miner’s Ridge trail, which is roughly a 7 mile hike.

Big Lagoon: Great for sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, swimming, and camping. 

Trillium Falls: 2.6 mile long trail that circles through old-growth redwoods with a waterfall.

Howland Hill Road: 10 mile long dirt road where you can drive through the redwoods. Allow about one hour to take this scenic drive.

Stout Memorial Grove: A short but spectacular 0.9 mile loop along Howland Hill Road. Return of the Jedi and Jurassic Park: A Lost World had parts filmed nearby – look out for ewoks!

Where to Stay at Redwood National and State Parks

There are also some incredible campgrounds here – like Gold Bluffs Beach Campground, a small campground on the beach, and Elk Prairie Campground, which is adjacent to an open field that elk tend to congregate in. These spots take reservations, but you’ll need to book in advance because they fill up QUICK. 

If you’re not camping, you’ll want to stay in Trinidad as a home base for exploring this area, because it has the best selection of hotels and other amenities.

We loved the View Crest Lodge, where we stayed on our latest trip. A nice vacation rental in Trinidad is another good option. 

Avenue of the Giants

Drive time from Trinidad to the northern end of Avenue of the Giants: 1 hour / 55 miles

The Avenue of the Giants is a 31 mile scenic stretch of highway that will take you through Humboldt Redwoods State Park along old Highway 101. It is the most magnificent display of the massive redwood groves in Northern California.

After you’ve tackled Avenue of the Giants, it’s worth taking a little time to explore the rest of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. 

In particular, we enjoyed the Bull Creek Westside Loop, which is a relatively easy three mile hike through fern-covered forest floor, passing under towering redwoods.

It’s a nice break from the drive, and gives you a chance to stretch your legs, see some gorgeous trees, and have a snack break (or lunch, which is what we did here). 

The Anderson Valley (Philo & Boonville)

Drive time from the southern end of the Avenue of the Giants: 2 hours 20 minutes / 124 miles

We’ve been to the Anderson Valley a few times now, and every single time we come away discussing between the two of us whether this is the best wine region in California. It’s a valley between Highway 101 and the coast, and as soon as you leave 101 and hop on the winding road into the valley, you’ll start to see why. 

Giant oak trees smack dab in the middle of vineyards. Rolling green (for at least three weeks a year these days) hills in the background with wineries scattered across the valley floor. 

There are two “towns” – and I use that term loosely because they’re more just a collection of buildings along the road – Philo and Boonville. Boonville has more going on, and would be a nice place to stay, but the area around Philo is without a doubt in our minds the best part of the Anderson Valley. 

If you can swing it, we’d highly recommend a night in the valley. 

What to Do in the Anderson Valley

Here are some of our favorite things to do and see in this relatively hidden gem in Northern California. 

Wine Tasting in the Anderson Valley: If you’re up for some wine tasting, you know there’s plenty of vineyards around to do just that!

  • One of our favorites is Navarro Vineyards near Philo, a family-run vineyard that has been making wines and grape juices since 1974. Their gewurztraminer and dry riesling are staples in our household, and we always bring back a bottle or six for Penny, a family friend who loves both of those wines.

  • We also love Roederer Estate and Scharfenberger because bubbles are the best. Both are known for sparkling wines, and Scharffenberger is better for people on a budget (which is where we gravitate towards). Get a flight to try five different bubbly wines, and don’t miss the rose!

Hendy Woods State Park: There’s a lovely redwood grove right in the middle of the Anderson Valley, near the town of Philo. Big Hendy Grove is the real highlight here, and you can do a nice little hike (P.S. – I really love that website and have it bookmarked for all of my future redwood hikes) through the grove. There’s also Little Hendy Grove, which is accessible via a longer trail but is much less interesting than the bigger version. There’s a nice day use area right at the trailhead for Big Hendy, where we spent some time soaking up the warm sun. The campground here is particularly nice, shaded by redwoods, and would be a perfect place to stay if you’re up for camping. It’s a California State Park, so entry is $8 for the day. 

Hendy Redwoods – specifically Big Hendy Grove – is a spectacular display of redwoods

Boonville: At the eastern edge of the valley in and around Boonville, don’t miss three spots. Beer lovers should hit Anderson Valley Brewing, who have a nice taproom in town that is currently being transformed into a “beer park” complete with outdoor seating, an 18 hole disc golf course, and a small music venue. Pretty cool! Second is Pennyroyal Farm, which serves wine but is really a stop for the goat cheeses and farm tour. It’s a real life farm, which means there’s tons of outdoor space and farm animals. Last, but not least, is Disco Ranch, a hip wine bar in the heart of Boonville known for bringing in a wide array of local and international wines for you to enjoy. They’re served alongside snacks like canned fish and cheese plates, which is fun! We heard about this place from a friendly tasting room associate, and she highly, highly recommended stopping by if you love wine. 

Apples and Cider: We’re big cider fans – much more so than wine – and the Anderson Valley is home to one of the oldest apple operations in California, Gowan’s. They have a roadside stand that is chock full of all kinds of apples in the fall, and they also make their own apple-forward ciders that we really enjoy (“one of each!” is what my mother-in-law requested on our last visit). It’s $15 to try six different ciders, or you can get them by the glass. Their “tasting room” is nothing more than some adirondack chairs set in a field populated by apple trees that are more than a century old. Which is…perfect. The Apple Farm also has a little farm stand out on the way to Hendy Woods where you can find homemade jams and farm-fresh apple juice. 

The Bewildered Pig: There’s not much in terms of bars and restaurants around here, but the Bewildered Pig is our favorite – we went there for my birthday several years ago, and it was fantastic. It’s fancy with a tasting menu and all that jazz, but it’s really not that fancy (and the food doesn’t feel overly fancy, if you know what I mean). It’s 10-15 minutes west of Philo, towards the coast. 

Where to Stay in the Anderson Valley

Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of places to stay in the Anderson Valley. It’s pastoral, which means no big chain hotels (which to be honest, is not a bad thing at all). There are three places that stand out in our minds. 

The Apple Farm: Want to stay in the middle of an apple orchard? This is the place to do it! It’s a little expensive, but it’s going to be an unforgettable experience. They have a collection of cottages – some cozy, some a bit bigger – right in the middle of their apple orchard. Reserve well in advance, if you can. They also do a fun “stay & cook” experience, but it’s currently on hold. 

The Indian Creek Inn: Relatively new and in a fantastic location in the valley, this is a nice place to spend a night. They have 15 rooms, each with access to a shared kitchen (which we appreciate, because we often cook for ourselves on the road). It’s set back from the road, so you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the peace and quiet that comes with the valley. No TVs in the rooms, which we think is a good thing, but some might disagree. 

The Madrones: This place is like an estate straight out of Italy in terms of architecture and general vibe. The location is fantastic – walking distance to a couple of places (including Scharffenberger, if you’re up for a little bit of a walk along the road). It’s half hotel-style rooms, part standalone cabins (they call those “the Brambles”), and it would be a lovely home base (though they do require a two night stay, in some cases). 

Healdsburg & Sonoma Wine Country

Drive time from the Anderson Valley: 1 hour / 50 miles

Look, everyone who comes to San Francisco wants to go to Napa because “it’s the best wine around!” 

While technically that might be true – Napa is known for its big, bold reds and oak-tastic Chardonnay – it’s also the most expensive and complicated, with reservations required almost everywhere and tastings that cost $40 for three small tastes. And that’s before you even get to the $400 a night hotel room you’ll need to book!

We’ve done Napa several times, but we’d recommend Sonoma – specifically the Dry Creek Valley around Healdsburg – instead

Healdsburg itself is a charming little town with good food and tasting rooms around the main square. Just outside of Healdsburg, you’ll find a plethora of smaller wineries who are serving some of the less famous varietals – pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, for example – at a much more affordable price. 

The point is, Healdsburg is, by far, our favorite wine country stop in California.

Things to Do in Healdsburg

Wine Tasting: Let’s put it this way – while you’re in Healdsburg, you probably won’t run out of tasting rooms in town, or in the Dry Creek Valley nearby. There’s a nearly unlimited number of spots to choose from. Here are some of our favorites. Wine tastings are less than half the price of the ones just a few miles east in the most famous wine region in the United States, Napa Valley. Plan on paying $15-$20 to taste 5-6 wines, and don’t be afraid to split tastings between two people (that’s what we usually do). 

  • Banshee is our favorite tasting room in town. We served their rose at our wedding!

  • Bella Wine Cave is a unique, underground wine tasting experience. Their vineyard specializes in small-batch Zinfandel and Rhone. We met two women here who had just been to Tanzania, and they inspired us to take our moms on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Tanzania to do a safari, which we still reminisce about to this day.

  • Truett Hurst has an excellent Gewurztraminer and a lovely patio. We’ve been there multiple times, including once with my mom, and she still talks about it.

Here are some other stops to make in Healdsburg that are not tasting rooms for various wineries.

Grab Some Picnic Supplies: Can you tell we love a good picnic? Stop by Oakville Grocery or Dry Creek General Store to pick up some supplies and find a nice place to stop for a picnic in between wineries (or at one of the wineries you stop at – most allow it). 

Noble Folk for Ice Cream: Craving ice cream? You can’t go wrong at Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar. It’s not just ice cream and pie (although that’s more than enough), but also cookie sandwiches, cupcakes, and French macarons. (Not GF).

Flying Goat for Coffee: Our favorite coffee shop in Healdsburg is Flying Goat for a great cup of coffee. 

Tilted Shed Ciderworks: Need a break from wine tasting? We absolutely love Tilted Shed Ciderworks. Their focus is on vintage ciders and use fresh-picked apples for their small-batch ciders. When we stop in we always grab a couple extra bottles to take with us.

Where to Stay in Healdsburg

In general, staying in wine country is expensive. Healdsburg is notably less expensive than Napa, which is partially why we have you stopping here instead. 

Here are three options for you that are right downtown and in the perfect spot for exploring town for an afternoon.

  • Hotel Healdsburg: A charming hotel right in the heart of all the action in Healdsburg. Right outside your front door, you’ll find tasting rooms, restaurants, and more. It’s a great place to stay, especially on a short trip.
  • Cottages at Healdsburg: Enjoy your own private cottage in Healdsburg, complete with a small terrace to enjoy your morning cup of coffee or afternoon glass of wine (why not both?).
  • H2 Hotel: Modern hotel with all the amenities you could dream of. It’s just a block or two south of the main square. We’ve gotten drinks at the bar in the lobby, and dreamed about staying here next time we’re in Healdsburg. 

San Francisco, CA

Drive time from Healdsburg to Downtown San Francisco: 1 hour 30 minutes / 70 miles

The first stop to pencil in on any Northern California itinerary has got to be San Francisco, which is where you’re going to be flying in (and likely out of). With its dining, architecture, and general “San Francisco vibe,” everyone needs to visit this city at least once.

We have it at the end of the itinerary, because we’ve found that we like to have a day or two at the end of a road trip to relax in the city before heading home, but it’s easy enough to flip it around and have this as your first stop after landing. 

We lived in San Francisco for a decade, and have strong opinions on what to do and see in the city. And more importantly, what not to do and see. 

Here are some other San Francisco travel guides for you to use to go deeper on one of our favorite cities in the world, and plan an incredible trip to the city by the bay.

What to Do in San Francisco

Explore the Ferry Building: The Ferry Building is a terminal for ferries and is an iconic San Francisco landmark. Inside the Ferry Building Marketplace, you’ll find a farmers market (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), food, and small local shops to browse. Heath Ceramics is one of our favorite shops featuring simple, timeless ceramic pieces. If you’re craving something sweet, we love Dandelion Chocolate or Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream. Of course, we can’t forget the coffee! Stop by Blue Bottle Coffee to grab a cup of the OG specialty coffee to sip on as you wander.

Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge: You can’t visit San Francisco without checking out the iconic Golden Gate Bridge! As great as it is to see it from a distance, it’s even better to walk it. It’s about 1.7 miles across each way, which should take you about an hour to make the round trip. Check the weather and bring plenty of layers, because it’s going to be foggy, cold, and windy roughly 50% of the time. 

Eat and Drink your way through the Mission District: The Mission District should be a destination when you’re ready to grab something to eat or drink. Want to grab a beer? Check out Zeitgeist, a well-known beer garden with a backyard patio to hang out at as you enjoy your beer, cider, or wine. Looking for something to eat? Head over to Burma Love to dip your toes in the world of Burmese cuisine (lots of gluten free options), or head to Little Star Pizza for some of the best pizza in San Francisco instead (not gluten free. Not even a little bit).  

Hike the Lands End Trail: This 3.4 mile hike features coastal terrain, beautiful views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, and gets you out of the city for a bit of fresh air. It can get a bit busy on weekends, though, just as a heads up. More info here

Explore Golden Gate Park: On the western end of San Francisco, you’ll find Golden Gate Park which spans over 1,000 acres and essentially runs all the way out to the coast. We recommend the California Academy of Sciences Museum, which is one of the largest museums of natural history in the world. The De Young Museum is perfect for art lovers and you can’t forget to visit the Buffalo Paddock which has been home to small herds of bison since 1899. 

Picnic at Dolores Park: Pack up a blanket, some food, and head to Dolores Park for a picnic. You’ll enjoy the San Francisco skyline while relaxing and enjoying some fresh air. Don’t miss Bi-Rite Ice Cream, which is right across the street!

Where to Stay in San Francisco

Since you’re only going to be in San Francisco for a night (maybe two), we’d recommend staying as centrally as you can. For most people, that means Nob Hill (more charming) or Union Square (more central and well connected, but much less charming). 

We’ve stayed at Petite Auberge in Nob Hill, which is a little French-themed B&B in a great location with a nice complimentary breakfast and happy hour (also look at their sister hotel the White Swan Inn a few doors down, which we’re itching to stay at soon!). 

Our room at Petite Auberge in San Francisco

We also have a love affair with the CitizenM Hotel in Union Square, which is a brand new hotel from our favorite hotel chain in the world (you can read about our stay in their Seattle hotel to understand why we say that). The rooms are about as comfortable as any hotel room we’ve stayed in, and are perfectly designed for a good night’s sleep. 

The rooms are small, but they’ve made a choice to have common areas in the hotel like the ground floor living room that are better places to hang out than alone in your room. 

One caveat: All rooms come with one king bed (no two-bed options), so this might not be the best option for families with small children who want to be in the same room.  

Whatever you do, don’t stay in Fisherman’s Wharf! It’s the least interesting part of the city, and it’s constantly packed with tourists. It has none of the charm that the rest of the city has, and we’d barely even recommend visiting, let alone staying there. 

Putting it Together: Sample Northern California Coast Itineraries

Now that we’ve covered our top stops, let’s talk about how to put it all together. We’re going to give you a 7 and 10 day version of an itinerary that you can use as a base for planning your own trip. 

A note on San Francisco: Our preference is having San Francisco as a place to end your trip just because we like having a relaxing city break at the end after a lot of driving. You might prefer to start your trip with a day or two in San Francisco, but it comes down to personal preference. 

7 Days in Northern California

With seven days in Northern California, we’d do the stretch of coast from San Francisco to Mendocino, and spend a couple of nights in wine country on the back end before ending with a day in San Francisco before you fly home. 

In this version, we’re essentially choosing wine tasting over Redwood National and State Parks.

  • Day 1: Leave San Francisco, Marin Headlands, and drive to Point Reyes
  • Day 2: Point Reyes and drive to Mendocino
  • Day 3: Mendocino 
  • Day 4: Drive through Anderson Valley to Healdsburg
  • Day 5: Wine Tasting in Healdsburg
  • Day 6: Healdsburg to San Francisco
  • Day 7: San Francisco and Fly Home

10 Days in Northern California

With 10 days, you can comfortably do both the redwoods AND wine country. In this version, you’ll have a long drive from Trinidad back down to Healdsburg, but we think the drive is worth it. 

  • Day 1: Leave San Francisco, Marin Headlands, and drive to Point Reyes
  • Day 2: Point Reyes and drive to Mendocino
  • Day 3: Mendocino & Fort Bragg
  • Day 4: Day Trip to the Anderson Valley from Mendocino
  • Day 5: Drive Mendocino to Trinidad (stop in Eureka)
  • Day 6: Trinidad & Redwood National and State Parks
  • Day 7: Drive to Healdsburg
  • Day 8: Wine Tasting in Healdsburg
  • Day 9: Healdsburg to San Francisco
  • Day 10: Explore San Francisco and Fly Home

Adding Lassen and Lake Tahoe (3 Weeks or More!)

If you’re lucky enough to have three weeks, we’d add on a weeklong trip to Lassen National Park and Lake Tahoe. 

It’s a long drive, but spending a couple days in Lassen and 3-4 days in Tahoe would be a lovely end to the trip with a completely different set of Northern California scenery.

The benefit of this version of the itinerary is that you don’t have to make your way back to San Francisco to fly home. We’d fly out of Reno if you’re ending your trip in Tahoe. That means you’ll have to spend a day or two in San Francisco (if you want to see it) on the front end of your trip. 

The other thing to know here is that this route is really only doable from late spring to fall. Otherwise, you’re going to run into road closures and snow and ice on mountain passes. 

Here’s what a 3 week itinerary with Lassen and Tahoe could look like. 

  • Days 1-3: San Francisco & Day Trip to Marin Headlands
  • Days 4-5: Point Reyes
  • Days 6-7: Healdsburg and Sonoma Wine Country
  • Days 8-10: Mendocino & Anderson Valley
  • Days 11-13: Trinidad + Redwood National + State Parks
  • Day 14-16: Lassen National Park (includes a driving day)
  • Days 17-21: Lake Tahoe

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Drive time from Trinidad: 3 hours 45 minutes / 197 miles

If you ask us, Lassen National Park is highly underrated! But that might be because of the incredible National Parks in California, like Yosemite and Death Valley.

Don’t overlook Lassen with its steaming fumaroles (openings near a volcano where hot sulfurous gasses escape) and crystal clear lakes. Bumpass Hell is the largest hydrothermal area in Lassen, with foul-smelling pools of mud pots, boiling springs, and bright turquoise pools. It’s a short hike along a boardwalk that is suitable for all ages. 

Things to Do in Lassen Volcanic National Park

Here are some of our favorite things to do in Lassen.

Hikes in Lassen Volcanic National Park: There are plenty of trails to choose from in Lassen National Park, but our favorites are:

  • Cinder Cone (4 miles): Challenging trail up Cinder Cone Volcano that rewards you with breathtaking views in all directions. Every step up through the ash is roughly half a step back, which makes this hike more difficult than it seems like it should be.

  • Lassen Peak (5 miles): This trail takes you to the top of Lassen Peak and starts at the parking area around 8,500 ft in elevation and ending at about 10,500 ft with spectacular views at the top. 

  • Kings Creek Falls Trail (2.7 miles): Moderate, mostly forested trail with a gorgeous waterfall at the end.

Take a Dip in One of Lassen’s Lakes: Find a place to cool off with a swim or set up a lunchtime picnic at one of the nearby lakes.

  • Lake Helen: Sparkling blue glacial lake located at about 8,200 ft in elevation just south of Lassen Peak for a great view while you relax by the water. 

  • Summit Lake: Smaller lake perfect for swimming with two campgrounds for those looking to camp.

  • Manzanita Lake: Tons of activities available like swimming and kayaking. You can even camp or rent a cabin for those who want to stay.

Where to Stay in Lassen National Park

Camping is going to be your best bet for staying inside the park. Here’s a helpful resource for finding the perfect campsite. We stayed at Manzanita Lake, and it was a gorgeous campground set around a picturesque lake. 

If camping isn’t your thing (or you don’t have the equipment with you), then stay in Mill Creek, which is about half an hour south of the national park. Highlands Ranch Resort is your best bet, with their comfortable rooms and spacious family suites that can accommodate just about any group size. 

Lake Tahoe

Drive time from Lassen: 3 hours 20 minutes / 185 miles

We MUCH prefer the lake’s western side (the California side) to the eastern side, the Nevada side. The stretch between Truckee and Emerald Bay State Park is our favorite and is where we got engaged! 

That’s where we recommend you spend your time.

Best Hikes in Lake Tahoe

Stunning views along the Rubicon Trail in Tahoe

There are plenty of hikes to choose from in Lake Tahoe, but we wanted to share a few of our favorites.

Echo Lakes (5.3 miles): Sunny trail in South Lake Tahoe with beautiful views as you hike up to Echo Lakes.

Eagle Lake (2.4 miles): Nice, relatively short hike rated as moderate, best hiked from May to September due to snow and ice. 

Rubicon Trail (9 miles): Longer, but it’s a relatively easy hike along the shore of Lake Tahoe with amazing views of the lake. The best way to do it is to hike from Emerald Bay to D.L. Bliss State Park and back to avoid the parking nightmare that is D.L. Bliss (though the parking situation at Emerald Bay isn’t that much better). 

Mount Tallac (10.9 miles): More challenging hike with a 3,300 ft elevation gain and a pretty consistent uphill climb. The views are spectacular!

Eagle Lake just after sunrise (and right after we got engaged!)

Other Things to Do in Tahoe

Aside from hiking, Lake Tahoe is full of activities for adventure lovers. 

Emerald Bay State Park: With many hiking trails and vistas, Emerald Bay State Park is a must when you’re in Tahoe. Even if you head here just for the gorgeous sunrise views over the lake, it’s totally worth it.

Ziplining at Tahoe Treetops Adventure Park: Are you looking for a bit more adventure and an adrenaline rush? Head over to the Tahoe Treetops Adventure Park where there are a total of 10 courses for beginners through advanced. If you prefer not to work too hard, you can also just do a zip line tour and skip the obstacles.

Rent a kayak: Explore Lake Tahoe in a kayak! There are plenty of places to rent a kayak and even a few companies that will take you on a guided kayak tour. We recommend either Tahoe Adventure Company or Clearly Tahoe.

Explore Truckee: Truckee is a small, historic town just north of the California side of Tahoe. It’s a great place to stop on your way in or out of Tahoe. Here are our recommended stops if you want to spend an hour or two getting a coffee or a beer and exploring.

  • Coffeebar: Described as a “radically inclusive Italian cafe experience,” how can you go wrong grabbing a coffee here?
  • Alibi Ale Works: Craft brewery with a creative food menu and live music.
  • Word After Word Bookstore: Great little local bookstore with a cool downstairs reading area worth stopping by.

Enjoy the Beaches: We can’t forget the beaches! Tahoe has some pretty epic beaches, below are our recommendations with most of them being on the north shore.

D.L. Bliss State Park: Located on the west (California) side of Tahoe this beach is gorgeous and often full by mid-morning in the busy summer months. It also features the Rubicon Point Light, the highest-elevation lighthouse in the US.

King’s Beach: Large sandy beach with picnic tables and pine trees. 

Secret Cove: Easy to miss from the road and a bit of a scramble to get to, but totally worth it with a small cove of bright emerald waters.

Sand Harbor: Nice beach with rock formations and an easy walking trail. 

Where to Stay in Lake Tahoe

If you didn’t already know, Lake Tahoe is gigantic, so choosing where to stay is going to be an important decision that will shape your trip. 

In general, there are three major areas.

First is the West Shore, which is where we usually stay because it’s a convenient spot between South Lake and North Lake Tahoe. There are a ton of amazing cabins on Airbnb on the West Shore (like this one). If you prefer a hotel, look at Basecamp Tahoe City, which is modern, affordable, and a great home base for exploring Tahoe. 

Next is South Lake Tahoe, which is the most commercially developed area. It’s close to Heavenly Ski Resort and the casinos on the Nevada side. Find the perfect Airbnb in South Lake Tahoe here, or consider Basecamp Tahoe South, the sister hotel to the one in Tahoe City. 

The North side of Lake Tahoe includes both Incline Village and Truckee. We’d recommend staying near Incline Village and Kings Beach rather than Truckee, which is a little bit further from the lake. This is the closest part of the lake to Reno, which is where you’ll be flying out of. Airbnb is going to be your best bet in this area.

When to Do This Northern California Road Trip

Part of the reason we opted to write a guide to this particular road trip is the fact that it’s largely accessible year round. For example, we just did a version of this in February, and while it was a little wet at points, it was largely enjoyable and accessible (and very, very quiet, which we liked). 

If your road trip includes stops further inland, like Lake Tahoe, Lassen National Park, and Yosemite, you’re going to run into places you can’t access outside of June through October (ish). 

This coastal road trip is accessible year round, with the notable exception of the early summer, when “June Gloom” sets in and the coast is shrouded in thick coastal fog most days. 

It’s counterintuitive for most people, but spring and fall are by far the best times to do this road trip

Spring brings wildflowers, slightly warmer temperatures, and blooming plants and trees of all kinds up and down the coast. 

Fall is the best weather-wise, and you’ll experience the magic of September and October in Northern California, which are warm and sunny almost without exception. 

Winter brings stormy weather, with crashing waves on the many beaches along this itinerary, which can be a plus, depending on what you’re into. It’s the perfect vibe for turning on the fireplace in your room and relaxing by the fire with a good book or catching up on a show, heading outside during the breaks in the weather to do some exploring. All in all, we’re spoiled, and the weather in the winter really isn’t that bad at all. 

Where to Start and End Your Road Trip

The best place to start and end your road trip in Northern California is going to be San Francisco. If you have more time and decide to venture out to Lake Tahoe, you can fly out of Reno to save yourself several hours of driving. 

Flying Into Northern California

If you’re flying in to start your road trip, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is the easiest place to fly in and out of for your road trip. You’ll make one big loop up the coast and back down through wine country, starting and ending at SFO. 

You could also fly into Oakland International Airport (OAK), but there are fewer flight routes. Check both to compare options and prices – they’re roughly equidistant from San Francisco (slight edge goes to SFO). We will say that Oakland is a much less stressful option, with less fog (meaning fewer delays) and fewer people. 

Make sure to book the earliest flight into SFO, and the latest flight out on the way home to give yourself as much time as possible on your road trip. 

Whatever you do, don’t fly into San Jose (SJC), which is about two hours south of San Francisco, and will add a bunch of unnecessary driving time. 

Flying Out

If you only have a short amount of time, like 7-14 days, it doesn’t really make sense to go as far east as Tahoe. 

Instead, we’d recommend a Northern California Coast road trip, making a big loop up the coast, then returning back down through wine country. In that scenario, you’d want to fly out of the same airport you flew into (book a roundtrip flight). 

If you have more than two weeks and you’re including Lake Tahoe, the easiest place to fly out of is Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO). It’s about an hour away from both South Lake and the West Shore, slightly closer to Truckee and Incline Village on the north end of the lake. 

To do that, you’ll have to book a one-way rental car, which will be more expensive but totally worth it to avoid the 4-6 hour trip from Tahoe to SFO. 


That’s all folks!

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