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Must See Northern California? Northern California is an amazing place to visit, with everything from beaches to wine country. With so many must-see destinations in one state, it can be hard to decide where you want to go first!
All of Northern California has something beautiful and unique to offer visitors – from the redwoods in the North Bay Area all the way down past Big Sur on the Central Coast. There’s a lot of ground between those two regions, but each area offers something special for families that will make your vacation memories last a lifetime.
Must See Northern California
You’ll see soaring cliffs along Highway 1 as you head south towards Big Sur; explore San Francisco’s landmarks like Alcatraz Island or Golden Gate Bridge; hike among giant sequoias at Yosemite National Park, and more. Are you ready? Buckle up!
Muir Woods and Jedediah State Park are both amazing options for enjoying the serenity of the redwoods. Some of the redwoods in the Bay Area are nearly 1,000 years old. Their majestic nature draws you in and you’ll feel like staying forever and ever. Stare up at the trees, some of which are more than 250 feet tall, and it’s easy to see how small we are in the grand scheme of things.
Muir Woods gets busier with tourists because of its location, so if you can make it out to Jedediah State Park, it’s worth it.
Muir Woods is adjacent to Golden Gate Park, just a few miles north of San Francisco; it would be easy to make a day of your adventures in this area.
Both parks have stroller-accessible, kid-friendly hikes available.
Sequoias at Yosemite
Can’t get enough of big trees? Visit Yosemite’s Giant Grove of Sequoias. As with all National Parks, you should check the status of the park before heading out. Sometimes they’re closed due to storms or other bad weather, or other reasons. It takes a little planning, but you can avoid crowds at Yosemite.
Among God’s wondrous creations is the giant sequoia tree, with a wide red trunk and lofty branches; this super-sized conifer is a remarkable beauty.
Sequoia National Park
If you have not been to Sequoia National Park to see the monumental giant sequoia trees with huge bright red trunks and soaring heights, you should put it on your schedule of trips that you must take.
The sequoia trees have giant trunks with huge girths, the Waterfall Tree found in Alder Creek Grove is155 feet. Some are so tall that you cannot see the tops. Awe-inspiring, the giant sequoia is the largest species of trees in the world. Noted for their bright red bark, some with bark exceeding three feet thick. The Giant sequoia is one of God’s most beautiful creations, and it is only found growing naturally in a limited area of the southwest along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
Entering Sequoia National Park
As you enter the wonderland of Sequoia National Park, you will see a background of tall white rugged mountains (13,000 ft.) that look like castles high in the sky and include Mount Whitney (14,505 ft.), the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states.
Surrounded by green rolling foothills and meadows with abundant colorful flowers in the spring and summer, the trees seen include Ponderosa, Jeffrey, sugar, and lodgepole pine trees, along with white and red fir trees. Even amidst the beauty of these surroundings, the sudden groves of sequoias are still quite surprising and breathtaking.
Identification and Location
The Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) belongs to the subfamily Sequoioideae of the cypress family, Cupressaceae, of the conifer grouping. It is related to the Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), found along the northern California coast.
Most of the giant sequoia trees are located in 65 to 76 groves to the south of the western side of the Sierra Nevada of California and east of the town of Visalia. They are at an elevation of between 4600 and 6600 ft. in the north and 5600 to 7000 ft. in the southern range.
The giant sequoias exist in a humid environment, often along rivers or streams, and where the summers are dry, and the winters are snowy. They grow in granite-based residual and alluvial soil on the southern slopes of the northern mountains and on the north of the southern mountains.
Among the tallest, widest, and oldest single-stem trees on earth is General Sherman, at 275 ft. and aged between 2300 and 2700 years. It is located in the park’s Giant Forest.
Visalia, Tulare, and Three Rivers are gateway cities to the great sequoias. Visalia is a little over a 3-hour drive from Los Angeles on State Highway 99. It is just over 5 hours to Sequoia National Park from San Francisco.
With more than 800 caves created by flows of lava more than 10,000 years ago, Lava Beds National Monument is a must-see attraction in Northern California. The monument also includes historic battlefields and campsites. Plan ahead and add camping and caving to your trip’s itinerary!
Hike, bike, kayak, and walk the beach while visiting the historic landmark known as Fort Bragg. This beautiful town is full of rich history. During the earthquake of 1906, Fort Bragg was damaged severely. Most brick buildings collapsed as fire ravaged the town. From the first salmon fishery back in 1898 to the redwood power poles that still stand to this day, these things remind us of days of the past.
Visiting Fort Bragg is like taking a step back in time. Locals and tourists alike say there’s a spirit of community that you don’t find in many other places.
You’ll find that Fort Bragg has everything from tidepools and surfing to hiking and sunbathing, a stop sure to keep everyone in the family happy all day long. I definitely recommend checking out Glass Beach.
Speaking of taking a step back in time, Bodie Historic State Park is the perfect opportunity to do just that. Though it is located more towards Central California than the northern portion, if you’re driving in, it’s worth a stop. In 1859, William Waterman Bodey discovered gold near what is now referred to as Bodie Bluff. In 1861, a mill was established and the town started to grow. An estimated 10,000 people had landed in Bodie by 1880.
A town literally frozen in time, Bodie has been a State Historic Park since the 1960s. Bodie does not restore the buildings from the 1800s, they simply preserve them.
Print this fun Bodie word search for the kids to work on before your visit.
The mesmerizing turquoise waters of Lake Tahoe are world-renowned. With so much to do, it’s difficult to choose between hiking the trails, chilling on the lake, or taking all the pictures your fingers can snap! We would totally be remiss in not adding this to our list of Must See Northern California gems!
Have you heard of the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion? The kids especially love this one. You can take an hour-long tour through this mansion, which was built in 1903.
Bring your own bike (or rent one) to enjoy the bike trails that run along the highway. If you’re looking for a serene trip, it’s less crowded in the winter but it’s also cold! Take your pick. 😉
Another point worth visiting during your trip to Lake Tahoe is the Balancing Rock Trail in D.L. Bliss State Park. The trail is about half of a mile long, and it takes you to Balancing Rock (stacked boulders) and down to a beautiful stream. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the rocks kinda look like a dinosaur.
Highway 1 really deserves its own post entirely. You can make a week (or more) out of the trip up this coastal highway. If you’ve never had the opportunity to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, it’s a MUST for any Bucket List.
“Sunny beaches. Foggy coastline. Swaying palm trees. Towering redwoods. Playful otters. [..] Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is not only one of the best California road trips: it’s one of the best road trips in the world!”– Practical Wanderlust
Be prepared: you’ll notice damp, windy weather during the summer along the northern part of Highway 1. Some parts of the route have no (or very poor) cell phone service.
Should you head up the coast, or down the coast? If it were up to me, I’d drive north inland and south down the coast. That’s how you’ll get the best views.
Depending on when you visit, you may want to pack a jacket or coat. The weather can get chilly, especially if you’re from warmer states (or even Southern California). Another item to pack: binoculars! There are so many breathtaking views, I guarantee you’re going to wish you had binoculars, especially when you’re trying to spot whales, seals, and other wildlife!
Don’t forget your camera, obviously, as well as hiking shoes. And dress in layers, because the temperature changes frequently. When the sun comes out, it can warm up quickly.
Just north of the bay, caused by erosion, you’ll see sea stacks overlooking the coast. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, “The Birds”, was shot in Bodega Bay.
History buffs love this hunting base, built in 1812. Russians owned and operated Fort Ross from 1812 to 1841. It is now a State Historic Park with trails, beaches, a book shop, and a museum. There’s plenty to keep everyone interested here. A 30-minute walk up to Fort Ross Road will land you in the orchard. You can scuba dive a shipwreck, or walk across the San Andreas Fault. Photo opp!
Do you feel that there is something we missed? Let us know!