Driving down scenic Highway 1 may be a popular California road trip but exploring Northern California by car is equally as breathtaking and boasts a lot of noteworthy sights. From fog-shrouded coastlines to towering redwood trees, the northern half of the state is characterized by small towns and stunning wilderness. Here’s a 5-day Northern California road trip itinerary to make the most of your time in this stunning part of the state.
When To Go On A Northern CA Road Trip
The ideal time to go is late summer/early autumn, when the crowds are gone, but the weather is still warm and not rainy. Another concern to take into mind is that California has been especially ravaged by forest fires in the past few years and as this article is being written the Mendocino Complex Fire is still not contained. Although no major highways are affected as of this time, it’s important to still check up on the Visit Mendocino Country website that has helpful up-to-date notifications about the wildfire.
Day 1: San Francisco
Start your trip out wandering around San Francisco for a day. Eat some dim sum in the Inner Richmond, check out the colorful murals in the Mission, get some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge by hiking Land’s End. Plan to take the BART back to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and pick up your car the following morning, since it’s a big hassle to have a car in the city with limited parking. The public transportation system is excellent and there are plenty of ride-share options as well. If you stay near downtown, BART will never be too far away for a quick ride to the airport in the morning.
Day 2: Mendocino
Drive up the Highway 101 to the beautiful seaside town of Mendocino. Walk around the town to admire the colorful Victorian homes. Start at the Kelley House Museum to get oriented. Afterwards grab a sandwich from the Mendocino Market and then head to Mendocino Headlands State Park, where you can enjoy your lunch with a view of the coastline, explore the numerous trails and if you’re lucky spot a gray whale.
If you still have energy head to the small town of Fort Bragg, which is an easy 16-minute drive from Mendocino. On the way you can stop at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (worth it for it coastal views and 47 acres of plants) or just continue on to the famed Glass Beach, which is located in MacKerricher State Park and is filled with colorful sea glass as far as the eye can see.
For a casual dinner, go to Frankie’s for solid pizza and a scoop or two of ice cream for dessert.
Where to stay: there are plenty of bed and breakfasts throughout Mendocino and Fort Bragg that won’t break the bank.
Day 3: Avenue of the Giants
Drive up to this 31-mile stretch of road (officially called State Road 254) that runs adjacent to Highway 101 and is part of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Stop by the Humboldt Redwoods Visitor Center located in the town of Weott, where you can have a picnic, and learn about the area through informative exhibits. Along the route there are small towns where you can pick up picnic supplies and walk around. The Eel River provides many great swimming options and there are plenty of picnic tables to have lunch at. If you want to go on an easy hike the Founder’s Grove is a breezy ½ mile self-guided walk among the redwood groves.
Where to stay: there’s nothing better than camping under the redwoods in this state park, but be sure to book well in advance, especially during the summertime.
Day 4: Lassen Volcanic National Park
This is the biggest travel day, so it’s good to get up as early as possible. Drive to the historic town of Ferndale and grab breakfast burritos at Poppa Joe’s (they’re open bright and early at 6 am) before continuing on to Lassen. Spend the rest of the day exploring this active volcano park, either by foot or by car. Pick up an in-depth auto-touring or hiking guide at either the Loomis Museum or the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor’s Center.
Make sure to stop by the hydrothermal spots in the park like the Sulphur Works, which is one of the easiest areas to access steam vents alongside a sidewalk pathway. Bumpass Hell is a 3-mile hike round-trip, but as of writing this article portions of this trail are closed until the end of 2018 for a rehabilitation project.
Within the park there are limited food options that include Lassen Café & Gift that offers sandwiches and stunning patio views.
Where to stay: just like Avenue of the Giants, Lassen is a great spot to camp overnight, but make sure to book early, especially during the busy season.
Day 5: Redding
Make your way slowly back to SFO, but first stop in Redding by Madayne Eatery and Espresso for a bagel sandwich, and a strong cup of coffee. After getting some morning fuel, it’s on to the pedestrian glass Sundial Bridge in Turtle Bay. It was designed by Santiago Calatrava as one of the world’s biggest sundials and provides stunning views of the Sacramento River as you cross it. On the other side you can walk along the walking path and get some scenic views of the bridge and the river.
Afterwards, drive a few more hours to the college town of Davis, and stop for a late lunch at Sam’s Mediterranean, a student favorite that serves delicious shawarma and has plenty of porch seating. Cash only. Afterward wander around downtown a bit to pop into local shops like Newsbeat, a great local magazine and gift shop. Make one final stop at Davis Creamery, for a cone of unique flavors like s’mores and Thai tea ice, before hitting the road for the final stretch back to San Francisco.
What is on your ideal Northern California road trip itinerary?