20 Incredible Things to do in Northern California on a Family Road Trip

Northern California - Yosemite NP

Northern California is brimming with beauty and wonder, from stunning beaches to charming cities, towering redwood forests, sprawling vineyards, rugged mountains, and numerous national parks. There are so many fun and memorable places to visit in North California that are a bucket-list must!

One of the great appeals of California is that it’s a fantastic destination to frequent all year round, weather-wise, with warm summers and relatively mild winters. The high mountains in north California experience snowy winters, making it the perfect winter sports destination (the months of December, January, and February are the best time to visit).

If beach breaks are more your thing, consider going between May to October for hot sunny days and bright blue skies. It’s best to visit San Francisco between September and October as early July to late August, the city can experience heavy fog.

Here’s our selection of the best things for families to do road-tripping in Northern California.

This post is part of our Discover the USA and Pacific North West Road Trip series

Highlights of Northern California

Note that the top attractions of Northern California are all quite spread out. You’ll want to plan out your itinerary in advance to make sure you’re capturing as many of the highlights as possible on your NorCal road trip!

We suggest breaking your journey into 4 sections over two weeks:

  • Big Sur and the coast up to San Fran – spend a few days around the city, including wine country
  • Head west to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and tackle the national parks through to Lake Tahoe
  • Drive onward to the lesser-known northeast corner of the state for some incredible nature experiences
  • End your journey with the scenic coastal Redwoods and dramatic PCH.

Let’s look at all these attractions in much more detail.

1. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite, located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, is one of the most popular National Parks in the country, and for a good reason! The park is home to more than 400 species of animals, as well as the ancient giant sequoia trees.

Northern California - Yosemite Falls

Yosemite is easily one of the most beautiful places to visit in Northern California. The impressive rock formations, including the iconic Half Dome, make it the perfect destination for more adventurous families that enjoy exploring, climbing, and hiking; there are plenty of great hiking trails in Yosemite that are easy to tackle with kids.

It is also home to Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the world, dropping an impressive total of 2,452 feet.

You can attempt to see the best of Yosemite in one day, though we’d recommend at least 3 or 4 days to experience all the different landscapes and highlights.

The best time to visit is from May to September before it gets too cold – though this is also when it’s at its busiest and a timed reservation system is in place (abolished, it seems, in 2023). Many parts of the National Park are open year-round, so consider going off-peak instead; Yosemite can make an excellent fall camping spot in October, or visit this incredible national park in April to beat the peak crowds.

Badger Pass Ski Area is a popular family skiing, and snowboarding spot in winter, or the more adventurous may like to try a snowshoe hike through Mariposa Grove or cross-country skiing on Glacier Point Road.

Where to stay: Camping inside Yosemite is incredibly popular and books up fast, as do lodges. Yosemite Valley Lodge is a popular favorite near Yosemite Falls and good for groups.

2.  Lake Tahoe

Another beautiful nature spot in Northern California is Lake Tahoe, the perfect destination for nature lovers all year round. In winter, the area is known for being a world-class skiing destination, but it is also a great place to visit in summer, with spectacular scenery perfect for those who enjoy hiking, biking, and kayaking.

Northern California - Lake Tahoe

Sand Harbor Beach is perfect for paddleboarding, and Kings Beach is great if you would rather just relax and enjoy the beautiful views. The dazzling blue waters are a popular tourist destination, so we recommend visiting outside of the peak summer months, although beware that it can be rather chilly in winter, with the surrounding mountains very popular and filled with ski resorts. 

Fall can be another colorful, albeit chilly time of year for road tripping Lake Tahoe without the crowds and enjoying its majestic beauty.

You can see the highlights of Lake Tahoe in a weekend, but if time in your itinerary allows, it’s a great place for renting a holiday house and staying a full week to soak in all its beauty.

Where to stay: There are small towns dotted all around the lake. South Lake Tahoe is home to many great resorts such as Heavenly Valley Lodge, or for a truly quaint and quiet town, try a shorefront cabin in Tahoma.

3. Redwoods National and State Parks

Redwoods National and State Parks are some of the best places to visit in Northern California to explore the ancient forests. Home to the famous California redwood trees, these are some of the tallest trees in the world, some of which are over 250 feet tall and nearly 1000 years old!

The Redwoods National Park and three State Parks (Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park) are managed together, covering multiple locations from Crescent City down to Stone Lagoon campgrounds.

Northern California - Redwoods NP

You can enjoy a lot of the redwoods experience from the sensational Northern California scenic drive along Highway 101, but we do recommend you divert through the Newton B Dury Scenic Parkway and try some of the trails for the best experience.

To the south of here, you’ll find Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County. It is an easy diversion off the 101. If you don’t have much time to explore on foot, you can still get an incredible feel for the size of the trees by road.

Many tourists also enjoy the novel experience of driving through some of these giant trees for a classic photo experience (Note that these giant drive-thru trees in California are on privately owned properties and come at a fee!).

Where to stay: The Redwood National Park and various State Parks are quite spread out, so you can easily spend a few days hopping from one location to another. Camping is the best way to get up close, or you can base yourself in the historic coastal town of Eureka, which will put you in the middle of the action as you drive north or south.

4. Muir Woods

If you simply can’t get enough of the tall timber, don’t miss Muir Woods National Monument, with kid-friendly hikes and stroller-accessible trails, it is one of the most popular places in northern California for Redwood spotting.

Northern California - Muir Woods

The proximity of Muir Woods to San Fran, however, makes this a VERY crowded spot. Parking or a shuttle to the entrance need to be pre-booked, and don’t expect too much serenity in the forest – but nonetheless, you won’t fail to be impressed by the giant redwoods.

Where to stay: It is straightforward to day trip to Muir Woods from anywhere around San Francisco but for nearby lodgings try Pantoll Campgrounds in Mount Tamapais State Park or head to nearby Sausalito on the bay side.

5. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Nestled in the peaceful forests of Northern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to four different types of volcanoes: steaming fumaroles, wildflower meadows, and clear mountain lakes.

Lassen Peak is considered an active volcano with plenty of hydrothermal activity visible in the park (think hot sulfur springs, basaltic lava flows, and bubbling mud – it can definitely be smelly!).

Northern California - Lassen Volcanic National Park

If you only have time for one stop inside Lassen, we recommend the Bumpass Hell Trail for a 1.5-mile hike (3 miles return) to see some of the park’s best geothermal activity (a tougher walk for little legs, but an incredible educational experience awaits).

Try Sulphur Works near the southwest entrance if you want an easy-to-spot from the stinky roadside stop. It’s certainly one of California’s more unique, educational, and underrated National Parks.

The best time to visit is from around June to October, as some of the trails are only accessible in the warmer months. Snow in the winter months means the Lassen Volcanic National Highway, the 30-mile scenic drive through the park, closes until after Spring clearing, usually around May.

Where to stay: Near the southwest entrance, try Village at Childs Meadow, Mill Creek. Further west Red Bluff or Redding offer more varied options for road trippers or campers should look at the Manzanita Lake campground.

6. Mono Lake

Mono Lake, nestled between the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is a salt soda lake and one of the major natural attractions in north California. The spectacular saline waters were formed at least 760,000 years ago and are home to an unusually productive ecosystem with many fish, brine shrimp, and migratory birds.

Northern California - Mono Lake

It’s the perfect spot for nature lovers, with daily free walks where you can learn all about the local wildlife and go bird spotting. It’s the perfect spot to relax with the family and enjoy some peace whilst surrounded by beautiful scenery.

We recommend renting kayaks and paddling among the awe-inspiring tufas for a unique Northern California experience. You may also want to seek out one of the region’s many natural hot springs for a unique experience (you’ll need a good map and possibly an off-roading vehicle to find the best-hidden spots, though!)

Where to stay: Your closest accommodation is Yosemite Gateway Motel, or drive onwards to Yosemite West or Mammoth Lakes.

7. Big Sur & Highway 1

Big Sur is one of the longest and most scenic stretches of undeveloped coastline in the whole country, and there are few drives more breathtaking than down this coast on Highway 1 – The Pacific Coast Highway (the PCH).

Many visitors will have it as their number 1 spot to visit on the West Coast – though, do we warned, if you have motion sickness sufferers, scenic can mean lots of twists and turns!

Northern California - Big Sur

Bordered by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the scenery is wild, rugged, and beautiful. With its turquoise waters and picturesque hiking trails, Point Lobos State Reserve (just south of Big Sur) is known as the “crown jewel” of California’s State Park system and well worth a visit.

NB – landslides in the area, particularly in the winter, can cause delays or complete road closures. Always check traffic conditions for Highway 1 before you set out. (The section between Limekiln State Park and Lucia has been closed since January 2023 for a landslide and is expected to re-open in late Spring 2024)

Where to stay: For some family-friendly camping fun, check out Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park with its magical redwood forest and the beautiful Pfeiffer Beach.

8. Wine Tasting in Napa & Sonoma Wine Country

One of the most fun things to do in north California is to visit one of over 500 wineries in the Napa & Sonoma counties, also known as wine country. Don’t worry if you’re traveling with your kids, as some of these wineries welcome families with kids of all ages (but do be warned, plan ahead! A trip to Napa can be akin to planning a Disney World trip when it comes to logistics; planning the perfect itinerary that’s inclusive of children and adult needs is a bit of an art form).

Northern California - Napa

You can learn first-hand how wine is made, and whilst parents enjoy a wine tasting, kids can experience the different flavors and smells of seasonal fruits at a smoothie tasting. Healdsburg and Sonoma County are not just about excellent food and wine, as many of the surrounding areas also offer beautiful scenery, picturesque parks, lovely gardens, and other outdoor activities.

Kids may also enjoy a side trip to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County; popular attractions here include the hands-on Children’s Museum of Sonoma County and the Charles M Schultz Museum. These Northern California attractions are both great stops if you need a break from the wine trail.

We share our complete guide to visiting Napa Valley with kids over here.

Where to stay: The area to cover here is huge, so think carefully about where to locate yourselves. Just a short stopover, you may benefit from staying near downtown Napa like Napa River Inn, or try the stunning Silverado Resort and Spa for a truly Napa experience!

9. Russian River

If you are more of a beer lover, you won’t want to miss a trip to the Russian River, also in Sonoma County, to take a guided tour of the local brewery and taste the famous Pliny the Elder (two locations now in Santa Rosa and Windsor). Children are welcome, so it’s a fun outing for the whole family – and one of the most extensive tasting paddles you’ll find in PNW!

Northern California - Russian River

Besides beer, there are also eco-adventures, spa retreats, and river activities such as tubing to enjoy. Visit Johnson’s Beach on Russian River for a lovely day of swimming, kayaking, and sunbathing. Just a short drive northwest from Sacramento, it’s the perfect weekend city escape.

Where to stay: A lovely waterfront motel with river access is Casa Secoya in Monte Rio, or find plentiful accommodation in downtown Santa Rosa, try Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country.

10. Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes is a popular tourist destination along the Pacific Coast in Northern California. This National Seashore was established to protect local ecosystems and is home to a myriad of plant and animal species.

Your family will love all the indoor and outdoor activities, including hiking, beach-going, kayaking, spotting elephant seals at Chimney Rock, and visiting the remote Point Reyes Lighthouse (if weather permits!)

Northern California - Point Reyes

At only 35 miles from San Francisco, it is one of those Northern California vacation spots that’s perfect for a relaxing weekend escape with spectacular scenery and delicious eateries. In West Marin, we recommend trying some oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co. and checking out the award-winning cheeses at Cowgirl Creamery.

Summer travelers, be warned! Although it’s the warmest time of the year, it can also be the foggiest! Point Reyes Lighthouse and the rugged west coast beaches are frequently shrouded in clouds. However, you’ll find calm waters and blue skies nearby at Tomales Bay; stop off at the picturesque town of Point Reyes Station on your way.

Where to stay: Camping in Point Reyes National Seashore is popular in this remote area, or try a VRBO property in picturesque Inverness on Tomales Bay. Bodega Bay, slightly further north, also provides several more rental home options.

11. Lava Beds National Monument

One of the top north California attractions is Lava Beds National Monument where volcanic eruptions over the past half a million years have created a rugged landscape with more than 800 caves.

Northern California - Lava Beds National Monument

There are some guided tour options for visiting these impressive caves (between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends), but for the most part, you and your family can explore the underground lave tubes and tunnels without a guide, and as the park is quite remote, you will feel like you have the caves to yourselves.

The area was once home to Native American tribes, and in some of the caves, you can find petroglyphs and pictograms dating back thousands of years. You can learn more about the Modoc homelands and the Modoc War here.

Where to stay: Your nearest town is Klamath Falls, with several reasonably priced hotels and motels.

12. Bodie

One of the most interesting places to visit in Northern California is the former gold-mining town of Bodie. This once bustling town in the Basin Range of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains was home to more than 10,000 residents in the 19th century, but it is now an abandoned town.

Northern California - Bodie

It is a place seeping in history where you can learn all about the California gold rush and how it went from a booming metropolis with 65 saloons to one of the state’s most interesting ghost towns. Bodie has been a State Historic Park since the 1960s, with many areas very well preserved so you and your family can imagine exactly what it looked like in its heyday. 

Where to stay: No accommodation in Bodie itself, but stay close by at Virginia Creek Settlement, Bridgeport.

13. Devils Postpile & Rainbow Falls

A rare geological sight and one of the world’s finest examples of columnar basalt, the 80,000-year-old Devils Postpile National Monument is a popular summer site for day trippers and hiking in California near Mammoth Mountain.

Devils Postpile in Norther California

Often paired with a trip to the beautiful neighboring Rainbow Falls, access to these natural wonders is only possible in the summer and by shuttle bus due to accessibility issues (unless you’re an avid cross-country skier or snowshoer!)

Where to stay: There are plenty of accommodation options, from Reds Meadow Campground to the more upmarket Juniper Springs Resort in Mammoth Lakes.

14. San Francisco

The famous city of San Francisco is a charming destination with something for everyone. The multicultural city is knowns for its great food, friendly and open-minded residents, historic cable cars, impressive bridges, iconic hills, and fantastic views.

Northern California - Downtown San Francisco

The city offers plenty of things to do, with world-class museums, high-end shopping, fantastic street art, and delicious food. There are so many fantastic places to explore, but some of the top spots to visit include Chinatown, Little Italy, the Haight district, the Mission district, the Botanical Garden, North Beach, and Golden Gate Park.

You can find our fabulous guide to 24 hours in San Francisco with kids from local Preethi over here.

Where to stay: Try Grand Hyatt San Francisco Union Square or on the waterfront The Fairmont Heritage Place Ghirardelli Square for upmarket family apartments with resort conveniences and great Bay views. See a complete guide to San Francisco family accommodation here.

15. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is another city well worth a visit in Northern California with kids. On sunny summer days, families can partake in water sports, enjoy picnics on the golden sands, eat at one of the many delicious local eateries, and play in the blue waters.

The popular beach town is also home to the most famous boardwalk in all of California – the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Northern California - Santa Cruz Boardwalk

A top summertime plan for many years now, the Boardwalk first opened in 1907, and today, the oceanfront amusement park boasts free admission, with plenty of fun rides, classic arcade and carnival games, ice cream treats, and music to keep all the family entertained.

Although it can get incredibly busy, especially on weekends, it’s undoubtedly one of the most iconic things to do in California and a memory kids will cherish.

Where to stay: Rent a gorgeous 3-bedroom house in Downtown Santa Cruz, or try Bella Notte Inn offering family quadruples near the beach.

16. Sacramento

For those that want to learn more about the history of California, a trip to Sacramento and the State Capital Museum is a must. A stroll around the charming Old Town Sacramento will take you back to the city’s Gold Rush era of the 1850s, with its wooden sidewalks and horse-drawn wagon rides.

Northern California - Sacramento

The riverside area is a top tourist spot, with excellent riverside dining and shopping. Don’t forget to visit one of the most beloved museums in the city, the California State Railroad Museum, which is often cited as the most popular railroad museum in all of the USA!

Where to stay: Some great centrally located options for families include Hyatt Centric Sacramento Downtown or Inn Off Capitol Park

17. Golden Gate Bridge & Sausalito

San Francisco and the Bay Area make the list again! A trip to Northern California wouldn’t be the same without seeing the architecturally astounding Golden Gate Bridge. Each year, more than 10 million tourists flock to the 1.7 mile-long bridge with its tremendous 746-foot tall towers.

Northern California - Golden Gate Bridge

The best way to enjoy the Golden Gate Bridge is to bike across it, but there are also various viewing spots nearby with excellent views of both the city and the bridge. Check out Crissy Field, Baker Beach, Marin Headlands, and Point Bonita Lighthouse to take some spectacular city snaps with the bridge in the background.

Extend your journey on to historic Sausalito known for its waterfront restaurants, elegant Victorian mansions, and trendy shopping district with spectacular Bay scenic views on a clear day.

Where to stay: If you fancy staying just outside of San Francisco and closer to the northern beaches, try the superb-rated Cavallo Point, Sausalito.

18. Shasta Lake

A totally underrated part of Northern California that seldom seems to make most tourist publications’ “best of” lists, we only found Shasta Lake by chance when a change of plans (hello bushfire season!) put us in nearby Redding.

View of Shasta Dam and Shasta Lake in Northern California

Shasta Dam, across the Sacramento River, is an incredible feat of engineering that forms the man-made Shasta Lake. The largest freshwater dam in California, the waters here not only serve a vital role in the water supply but are home to numerous recreational activities, including water skiing, swimming, and fishing.

For a more in-depth experience, there is a visitor center where you can learn more about the dam or even take a tour of the inner workings.

Renting a houseboat on Shasta Lake is an incredibly popular family vacation activity in Northern California and the perfect place to relax for a few days. Off the water, the local area is popular for hiking, mountain hiking, and camping. You can also take cave tours at Lake Shasta Caverns.

Where to stay: Of course, renting a houseboat is the top choice, or just stopping through, there are several neat and affordable lodgings in Redding; we loved Americana Modern Hotel with basic rooms that fit families of five.

19. McArthur Burney Falls, Memorial State Park

McArthur Burney Falls might not be the highest or largest waterfall in California, but it is easily the most beautiful, with more than 100 million gallons of water flowing every day. Memorial State Park, the second oldest state park in California, has a looping trail that allows for various vantage points to observe the stunning falls.

Northern California - Mcarthur B

Families can also enjoy the local wildlife and stunning landscapes, and you can even camp on the grounds. Additional nearby activities outside of the park include golfing, hunting, boating, fishing, hiking, and even skiing during the winter months.

For a unique trip down memory lane, seek out the nearby famous railway bridge from Stand by Me in Burney!

Where to stay: Find the perfect camp spot at Mcarthur-Burney Falls Memorial SP or if you prefer 4 walls Green Gables Motel & Suites, Burney.

20. Monterey

Last but not least, the beautiful coastal town of Monterey is sure to be on your kid’s bucket list! Best known for its Monterey Bay Aquarium – the inspiration for the “Marine Life Institute” in Finding Dory – most of your under 10’s are no doubt going to be very familiar!

The aquarium is home to sea otters, sharks, jellyfish, sea horses, rays, starfish and octopus, while otters and sea lions can be spotted in the kelp forest-filled waves below. The shoreline here is also known for its humpback whale spotting opportunities from April to November.

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium – credit Sally from Little Hiccups

Aside from the aquarium, there’s so much on offer in the Monterey area, including the 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove, one of the most epically scenic drives in the US!

There are plenty of tide pooling opportunities at Pacific Grove Marine Gardens Park, and kids will also love a stop at Dennis the Menace Playground (El Estero Park Complex).

Monterey can be tackled as a day trip from San Francisco, though most will take on a visit to Monterey as part of the incredible coastal drive through Carmel-By-The-Sea and down to Big Sur.

Where to stay: Try the beautiful and homely Victorian Inn, or Monterey Bay Inn both walking distance to the aquarium.

How long do I need to road trip Northern California?

Your Northern California vacation can be flexed around your available dates, but with anything less than a fortnight, you’ll spend most of your time in the car. If you want to squeeze out the most from all the suggestions above, you can try this route:

Example 2 weeks Northern California Itinerary

We have assumed you’re coming from LA/Southern California, but you can easily adjust this itinerary to loop onto the end of a PNW Road Trip coming from the Oregon Coast and start with the Redwoods.

  • Day 1 – Big Sur – Monterey
  • Day 2 – Santa Cruz
  • Day 3 – San Francisco
  • Day 4 – Golden Gate Bridge – Muir Woods – Saulista
  • Day 5 – Point Reyes – Napa/Sonoma
  • Day 6 – Russian River – Avenue of the Giants – Eureka
  • Day 7 – Redwoods National and State Parks
  • Day 8 – Lava Beds National Monument (option to visit southern Oregon)
  • Day 9 – McArthur-Burney Falls – Shasta Lake
  • Day 10 – Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • Day 11 – Lake Tahoe
  • Day 12 – Bodie – Mono Lake
  • Day 13 – Yosemite
  • Day 14 – Devils Postpile

Top tips for a Northern California Road Trip

  • Be mindful of time; when traveling with kids, you will be better off concentrating on one area of Northern California at a time to make the most of the experience or spreading the above itinerary over one month as there is quite a lot of mountainous, windy driving involved which makes for long days in the car.
  • Want to save yourself a long, windy drive full of disappointment and nausea? Skip Fort Bragg Glass Beach and the top end of the Pacific Coast Highway unless you are staying a few days in Mendocino County.
  • Summer is the most popular time for visiting Northern California, and it also means bushfire season. Be prepared that your plans may need to be flexible and have maps downloaded ready in case you need to change routes suddenly (do not rely on having internet wherever you go!)
  • Don’t forget our handy road trip packing list. This has all the essentials you’ll need to bring with you on a road trip through California in a downloadable PDF.

You and your family will, without doubt, love your trip to Northern California. There is so much fun, beauty, nature, and history awaiting you! Do you think we’ve missed any other Northern California gems?

Want more USA travel inspiration?

You may also enjoy these articles for planning your family vacation to the United States and North America:

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a collage of images from Northern California destinations
A collage of beautiful images from popular tourist destinations in Northern California

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1 thoughts on “20 Incredible Things to do in Northern California on a Family Road Trip

  1. A small world cup says:

    I and my friends explore Yosemite National Park. We had heard Yosemite was amazing and they were right! We spent 5 days in the park and did one of our favorite hikes of all time.

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