Between Disneyland, Los Angeles, and San Diego, southern California steals a lot of the glory of this giant state. However, by taking your travels further up north, there is a great deal to see that will wow you in ways SoCal never could.
The first thing you’ll notice (and appreciate) is the smaller crowds up north, as things can get pretty busy the further south you go.
However, there are far more alluring things that draw travelers to NorCal than just the thinner crowds. From the stunning scenery to the unique activities; from the tasty eats to the great outdoors, this part of the country is a truly special place full of fun and adventure.
So pack your bags, hop in your car and get on the road because we have the top sites for you to see on a trip to NorCal that you don’t want to miss.
This picture-perfect town is right in the heart of Sonoma County, which means you’ll find some of the best wines in the country here, sans all the Napa Valley crowds. Not only will you love the taste of the wine here, you’ll also love the fact that Healdsburg is a leader in sustainable practices for its wine, and is quickly reaching its goal of becoming a 100% certified sustainable wine region by 2020.
Wine aside, there is much to do in this beautiful town, starting with some seriously good eats. Be sure to drop by Costeaux French Bakery. A Healdsburg staple since 1923, this bakery makes world-class artisan breads that you will definitely want to stock up on for your camping eats. And for dinner we highly recommend Pizzando for some local eats that will knock your socks off with a great ambiance to boot.
Healdsburg is also a great place to experience the Redwood forest in all its glory with some hikes that are family-friendly. The serenity the Redwoods provide is unlike anything you’ll experience elsewhere.
Favorite part: Jordan Winery
This family-owned winery has mastered bringing food, wine, and hospitality together to create an unparalleled wine experience. Housed in a stunning chateau, this winery has views to kill, food that will elevate your taste buds, and of course, delicious wine we could drink for ever.
Whether you’ve been here before or not, SF is an absolute must for your NorCal road trip. There are countless stops you can make while you’re here, but we’ll share with you our favorites.
Our first recommended stop is the Golden Gate Bridge. While driving over it and taking in the views from the car is fun, we recommend renting bikes and biking across it instead. That gives you more time to enjoy its splendor in full.
If you’ve got time, hop on a boat and head across to Alcatraz for a trip back in time, and when you head back to the mainland don’t miss out on Fisherman’s Wharf.
Because there is so much to see in this city, we recommend booking a walking tour that will hit all the hot spots, but that will also give you great insight to some of the city’s secret spots and fun history.
And your San Francisco trip wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Chinatown and a ride on a cable car. Also, you can’t go wrong with the food here, so really any spot you pick is sure to be a good one.
Favorite part: Nob Hill
In this neighborhood you’ll experience the old San Francisco when the railroad tycoons ran this city. The architecture here is stunning, and if you have a chance, pop into one of the swanky lounges for a cocktail.
Though known primarily for its sequoia trees, there is a lot more than these ancient arboreal beasts to enjoy while at Yosemite National Park.
As the third oldest national park that sees nearly 4 million visitors a year, you know this park is a hot spot that will not disappoint.
Speaking of hot spots, there are plenty to see here in the park’s walls. One of our favorite highlights of Yosemite is it’s namesake falls. Measuring in at nearly 2,500 feet, Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in all of North America, and holds the record for the sixth largest waterfall in the world.
Half Dome is another must-see spot in the park. Regardless of whether you’re a rock climber, you will appreciate this rock formation that is the most iconic one in the park. If rock climbing isn’t your gig, then you’ll love the fact that you can hike to the top. Just be aware that it’s a 15-mile hike, so plan for some extra time.
The other rock climbing favorite in the park is one you’ve likely heard of: El Capitan. This is popular for night climbers and highly-skilled ones, so we don’t recommend attempting unless you really know what you’re doing. Otherwise, enjoy the view and the other people scaling this 3,000-foot rock.
Favorite Part: Tunnel View
Though this can get quite crowded at time, it’s worth wading through the crowds to see the views of the hottest sites in the park from here.
The history behind this house is just as interesting as the house itself. Located in San Jose, this house is undoubtedly worth a stop on your NorCal road trip.
Originally purchased by Sarah Winchester of the Winchester gun family back in the late 1800s, this mansion started as a small home that underwent over 35 years of renovation with over $5 million thrown into it.
Though Ms. Winchester died in 1922, she had completed quite a transformation. Winchester Mansion boasts over 160 rooms and 40 bedrooms with over 2,000 doors, some leading to interesting places such as a kitchen sink. Secret passageways are abundant, along with many other strange and nonsensical changes Ms. Winchester requested be made to the home.
No one is quite sure why she would want to create a staircase that leads straight to the ceiling or many of the other oddities of this house, but it certainly rumored to be haunted not only by Ms. Winchester herself, but also the ghosts of those killed by Winchester guns.
However you feel about ghosts, this mansion is an architectural marvel and worth the price tag to get in.
Favorite Part: Massive Cabinet
The mansion is home to a cabinet that opens up into a pathway through 30 separate rooms.
This surfer’s paradise was made for those who love to catch the waves, but also for those who love the outdoors. We recommend hitting up Cowell’s Beach for some great waves that will start your day off just right.
The boardwalk here in Santa Cruz is touted to be one of the best in the country, so make sure you spend some time perusing the offerings here. Take a ride on the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster that has been standing here since 1924 (at your own risk). Or play a round at the pirate-themed mini golf course. Grab some good old-fashioned junk food while you’re here, and then head to Natural Bridges State Beach for views of one of California’s most iconic beaches.
If you time your trip right, you may have the chance to see the monarch butterflies flying about. (The best time for this is fall and winter.) There are some great hiking trails around here too, so grab some snacks and lace up your boots.
Be sure to catch the sunset here — we promise you won’t regret it.
Favorite Part: Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
Though it doesn’t sound particularly interesting, this museum is a must-see. Not only is it located in a great spot (overlooking one of Santa Cruz’s top surfing spots), it boasts a ton of history and displays some rad surfing pieces from the past.
You may recognize this town from HBO’s hit show Big Little Lies, but there is far more to this beachside spot than drama and secrets.
Let’s start with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This place is world-renowned and you will be sorely disappointed if you miss out on a visit to this aquatic hotspot. Boasting over 35,000 sea creatures, Monterey Bay Aquarium has wonders that will keep you occupied for hours, including sea otters, hammerhead sharks, and much more.
While you’re in the area, be sure to hit up Cannery Row for some cute little seaside shops. You may recognize this name from John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row, but much has changed since he wrote that book back in the 1940s. Check it out for yourself to see.
If you’re looking to add some adventure to your experience, head to Old Fisherman’s Wharf for a whale-watching tour or kayaking in the bay.There is also some great food to be had here, particularly the clam chowder.
Head a bit south to this spot for some seriously dramatic ocean views, but also for some fabulous hiking and cute sea otter spotting.
Yes, we know it’s just a bridge, but this isn’t just any bridge. It’s Bixby Bridge. For those Big Little Lies fans, it’s the bridge featured in the show’s intro. Stunning by itself, the views from atop this bridge will really wow you.
We recommend driving across a few times and swapping drivers so each person gets a chance to soak in the views.
Favorite Part: The Bridge at Sunset
Time your trip across the bridge for sunset to get the more epic show you’ll see on your whole roadtrip.
The last stop on our NorCal road trip is San Luis Obispo, a.k.a. SLO. The vibe here is the epitome of laid back, and you’ll love spending some time in this relaxed beach town.
Home to CalPoly, you’ll certainly sees students abound here, but chances are they’re enjoying the offerings of the town more than studying (who wouldn’t?).
Make your first activity of the day a trip to Pismo Beach for one of California’s top surf spots. Whether you’re a skilled surfer or a beginner, you’ll love catching some waves here at Pismo Beach.
If you prefer to stay out of the water, you’ll enjoy walking on the pier and watching the surfers do their thing.
SLO has some great wines and is home to two wine regions: Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. The weather here is ideal growing grounds for over 40 varietals, so enjoy a number of different wine tastes while here. The extra bonus is the stunning views of the rolling vineyards.
Speaking of tastes, you won’t want to miss out on San Luis Obispo’s farmer’s market. It seems small towns have the best farmer’s markets, and that is certainly the case with SLO. Every Thursday night you’ll enjoy blocks of downtown shut down to parktake in all things local.
Favorite Part: Lopez Lake
Though it may seem crazy to head to a lake when you’ve got the ocean right there, Lopez Lake is the hub for all water activities, and some great hiking trails as well. This makes for a great picnic spot as well, so pack some snacks with you.
See why we love northern California? And this only skims the surface of all there is to see in this part of the great state of California. See even more with KOA Value Kard Rewards. With this in your virtual pocket, you’ll get discounts on camping so that you can extend your NorCal road trip and enjoy more of all the beauty. Plus, you’ll enjoy tons of other benefits including rewards points that will get you cash for future camping trips.
Leslie, a.k.a. Copy Girl, is a copywriter who gets butterflies from telling stories through words.
Her voice comes from a place filled with passion, dreams, and lots of sugar. “Cake over steak” is her go-to motto.
With over 10 years of experience in crafting words, and years of embarking on travels that have taken this Montana girl to some incredible places, Leslie love the adventures of both body and mind her writing takes her on.
Everywhere she goes, she takes this advice with her:
“Hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown.” – Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
To see what Leslie’s up to in the writing world, visit her website here.