Last Updated on June 10, 2022 by Nellie Huang

California local, Constance from The Adventures of Panda Bear, shares some  fun things to do in Northern California.

California is well-known throughout the United States as one of the most diverse ecosystems. The forested mountains, the desert, grassy chaparrals, and the coastal forests are all within reach in the state. Northern California, in particular, is known for its beautiful scenic spots both in the cities as well as in national and state parks.

Growing up in Northern California, I’ve gotten a chance to visit some of the popular national parks along with unique, off the beaten path views.

This is a compilation of some fun things to do in Northern California beginning in the southernmost point all the way to the border with Oregon. Be sure to include them in your California road trip itinerary!

fun things to do in northern california

18 Fun Things to Do in Northern California

1. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular national parks in USA. In 2016, Yosemite had over 5 million visitors in 2016, but most tourists tend to stay in Yosemite Valley which is only approximately 5.9 square miles. 

Half Dome is one of the most recognizable rock formations in Yosemite Valley due to its shape. It also happens to be one of the most athletically challenging since you can rock climb or hike up to the top.

El Capitan is also a beautiful granite rock formation that is viewable in the valley along with the amazing Bridal Veil Falls.

How to Get There:

With 95% of the Yosemite National Park designated wilderness, you can easily spend a week or two camping and hiking in the Yosemite.

But if you’re short on time, join this three-day camping trip in Yosemite to explore the national park without lugging your camping gear. Alternatively, take a day tour from San Francisco to Yosemite and Sequoia or just rent your own car and explore at your own pace.

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fun things to do in northern california - yosemite national park

fun things to do in northern california - yosemite

Book your tour here:

 

 

2. Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is one of the best places in USA to visit in winter especially for all kinds of snow sports such as snowboarding and skiing.

The Squaw Valley Resort was even home to the Winter Olympic Games in 1960. There are many ski resorts surrounding the entire lake on both the California and Nevada sides that it can be difficult to pick one!

There are so many things to do in Lake Tahoe for water babies out there, such as jet skiing, paddle boarding, kayaking, and more. The beaches along Lake Tahoe are also super busy on warm, summer days.

I would recommend renting a campervan and spending at least three days to explore Lake Tahoe as there are plenty of scenic hiking trails and view points; but if you’re short on time, here’s a good day tour of Lake Tahoe to see the highlights in the area.

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fun things to do in northern california - lake tahoe

fun things to do in northern california - lake tahoe

Book your trip here:

 

3. Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco is best known for the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge was built in 1937 and has been featured all over posters and movies ever since. While you could see the bridge from the touristy Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center and walk across it, I’d recommend other methods and vantage points for seeing it.

The best way to get see the Golden Gate Bridge is to bike across the entire span. For more relaxing ways to view the bridge, check out the views from Land’s End, Marshall Beach, and Crissy Field.

Another great way to see it is on a Golden Gate Bridge cruise, where you sail under the bridge, along San Francisco’s waterfront and around Alcatraz island. You can also see it on a combined ferry and cycling tour, to pedal across the bridge and around Sausalito. Check out my detailed itinerary if you’re planning a weekend in San Francisco.

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fun things to do in northern california - golden gate bridge

fun things to do in northern california - golden gate bridge

Book your cruise here:

 

4. Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is one of the most touristy spots in San Francisco, but there are tons to do in and around the park. For museum lovers, DeYoung Museum is great for the arts. California Academy of Sciences is where it’s at for the science buffs and children.

Floral aficionados will be thrilled to know there are various gardens throughout the park, including Shakespeare’s Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and the Conservatory of Flowers.

Rent a paddle boat and see the ducks floating around Stow Lake or observe the bison at the Bison Paddock. There are even a couple of Dutch windmills in the park!  

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fun things to do in northern california - golden gate park

5. Twin Peaks

This is still a secret spot for many tourists and Californians. This elevated point provides the best views in town and it’s an essential stop on any San Francisco itinerary.

Here, you can feast on views of San Francisco’s Financial District, from the Embarcadero all the way down Market Street, the main thoroughfare in downtown. On a clear day, you can even get a clear view of the cities of Berkeley and Oakland across the water, and Mount Diablo in the distance.

The two hills are approximately 925 feet high. Typically most locals drive up to the top, but athletic types have been known to hike or bike up to the lookout. More information on how to get to Twin peaks here.

fun things to do in northern california - twin peaks

6. Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz was home to some of the most notorious criminals in the history of the United States, including Al Capone and Robert Franklin Stroud. The ferry ride is approximately 15 minutes away from San Francisco and day trip admission include an audio tour.

I highly recommend combining your Alcatraz visit with a catamaran trip so you can cruise the San Francisco bayfront and explore the prison at the same time. A guided Alcatraz night tour can be an adventurous way of visiting the prison cells when there are fewer crowds and the atmosphere is more mysterious.

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fun things to do in northern california - alcatraz island

fun things to do in northern california - inside alcatraz

Book your Alcatraz tour:

 

7. Angel Island

Angel Island is often overshadowed by its smaller and more notorious neighbor in the bay (Alcatraz). In my opinion, it is one of the most underrated destinations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The island was known as “The Ellis Island of the West” because it held immigrants from various countries, primarily from Asia. They waited out their days in the Immigration Station before being accepted into the United States. When you visit the museum you’ll see Chinese poetry carved into the walls.

Aside from history, the island also offers a different perspective of the San Francisco Bay. Hike to the top of the hill, Mt. Livermore, and you’ll get expansive 360-degree views of the entire bay.

You can also take a tram tour and see amazing views of San Francisco, Marin Headlands, and Mount Tamalpais. To get there, book a ferry ride to Angel Island from San Francisco’s pier for $10.

fun things to do in northern california - angel island

8. Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods is the closest redwood forest to San Francisco so it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area. Though these aren’t the tallest redwoods in the state, they’re definitely some of the oldest.

The redwoods within Muir Woods are part of an old-growth forest, with most of the trees between 500 and 800 years old. The oldest redwood in Muir Woods is estimated to be at least 1,200 years old.

The main trail within the park is boarded and accessible to wheelchairs making it a super easy hike to see some of most beautiful redwoods. Unfortunately, that also means this area of the forest is more packed with tourists.

For a quieter hike, continue from the main trail to the Ben Johnson and Dipsea Trails.

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fun things to do in northern california - muir woods

fun things to do in northern california - muir woods

Book your tour here:

 

9. Mendocino Headlands State Park

If you’re looking for gorgeous cliffs dropping into the Pacific Ocean, the Mendocino Headlands State Park is the place to go. Here you’ll hike along some of the most beautiful coasts in Northern California.

It consists of 347 acres (1.4 km2) of undeveloped seaside bluffs and islets surrounding the town of Mendocino. The bluffs run alongside the two beaches (Big River Beach and Portuguese Beach) and the Big River. Guided walks on the headlands are also available.

The hike around the park isn’t too long or strenuous but still comes with amazing views. Be sure to save time to explore the cutesy downtown area of Mendocino afterwards. 

Ford House Museum is the park headquarters and visitor center. It offers information and videos about the history and biology of the Mendocino area, including the town’s boom in the logging era, the migration of the gray whales, and a scale model of the town as it was in 1890.

fun things to do in northern california - mendocino

10. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg

The origins of this beach shows the faults of previous generations; however, those mistakes have created one of the most unique and picturesque beaches along the California coast.

In the past, plastic hadn’t yet existed so most jars, bottles, and canisters were made with glass. People would throw their trash into the ocean and the waves would tumble and rock the glass into sea glass. 

One of the most beautiful spots in USA, Glass Beach in Fort Bragg is covered with sea glass of different shapes and colors. The sea glass coats the entire beach and is a beautiful contrast to the blues of the Pacific. I’ve heard that this amazing beach used to have more sea glass and it is now illegal to collect sea glass from the beach. 

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fun things to do in northern california - glass beach

fun things to do in northern california - glass beach

11. Humboldt Redwood State Park

This is the largest redwood parks in the state and is home to the beautiful Avenue of the Giants drive. The 31-mile drive along the old Highway 101 is the most gorgeous road through some of the tallest trees in the world.

There aren’t too many pull off areas along this road, but don’t try to stop to take photographs!

Founders Grove Loop is an easy 0.5mi hike, located off of the Avenue of the Giants. You’ll traipse through the redwood forest and see the amazing root system of the fallen Dyerville Giant. Prior to its crash in 1991, it was considered to be the tallest tree in the park and when it fell, locals heard it from a half mile away.   

fun things to do in northern california - humboldt red

fun things to do in northern california - humboldt redwood

12. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the coolest areas in California, primarily because it’s got interesting volcanic activity, ranging from bubbling mud pots, to hot springs, and sulfur-scented thermal vents.

Aside from the geothermal activities, you can also climb Lassen Peak and get amazing views of nearby Mount Shasta all from within the park.

Lassen Peak is the largest plug dome volcano in the world and also happens to be the southernmost volcano within the Cascade Range. The area was carved by glaciers, though there aren’t any there anymore, it does have as many as 14 permanent snowfields.

One of the most picturesque areas of the park is Bumpass Hell. It’s known for its geothermal activity as well as its beautiful reds, yellows, and blues.

fun things to do in northern california - lassen volcano

fun things to do in northern california - lassen volcano

13. Redwood National Park

Another one of the best national parks in USA, Redwood is in fact made up of 3 state parks: Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks.

It is also home to some of the most amazing old-growth redwood forests in the world. In fact, you’ll find the world’s tallest trees here. Hyperion holds this honor and stands at a soaring 379.7 feet tall; however to prevent it from public vandalism and harm, the location of the tree is kept secret.

Take in views of beautiful redwoods in coastal fog and hike through Fern Canyon, which is famous for its wall of ferns. The park also hugs the California Coast. If you hike far enough west, you can get sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

Combine a trip to the Redwoods with wine-tasting sessions at the nearby wineries.  If you’re planning a California road trip, make sure to make this a stop, along with San Francisco and the Mendocino cliffs!

fun things to do in northern california - redwoods

fun things to do in northern california - redwood national park

fun things to do in northern california - redwood national park

Book your trip here:

 

14. Mono Lake

Just to the east of Yosemite is Mono Lake, one of the most unique landscapes in Northern California. The desert lake located in the middle of the Mono Basin National Scenic Area is known specifically for its alkaline lake and limestone tufa towers.

Mono Lake does not have an outlet causing high levels of salt to accumulate within. The lake is so alkaline that calcium deposits formed and as the lake became more shallow the tufa column were revealed.

There are nature walks led by local guides throughout the year as well as kayak and canoe tours that are only available during the summer. And of course, you can do some hikes in the area too.

fun things to do in northern california - mono lake

15. Municipal Rose Garden, San Jose

If you find yourself in San Jose, make sure to check out this lush garden. This 5.5 acre rose garden in San Jose is typically frequented by locals taking prom or wedding photos, but don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. It’s one of the best off the beaten path spots of the San Francisco Bay Area with over 180 different varieties of roses in all colors.

The fountain in the middle of the park is surrounded by benches and a grassy area, is perfect for a relaxing picnic.  

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fun things to do in northern california - san jose gardens

16. Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the most beautiful areas along the coast, but it also happens to be one of the foggiest and windiest parts of Northern California.

Nevertheless, there are some cool spots in this area. Be sure to check out the Point Reyes Lighthouse, you can walk all the way down to the lighthouse and learn about its history.

The Cypress Tree Tunnel is also located within the Point Reyes National Seashore and is one of the most insta-famous spots in Northern California. The beautiful cypress trees seemingly form a tunnel along the road.

fun things to do in northern california - shipwreck on point reyes

fun things to do in northern california - lighthouse on point reyes

fun things to do in northern california - lighthouse on point reyes

17. Wineries in Napa & Sonoma Counties

Pretty vineyards and wine, what more could you ask for? The Northern California counties of Napa and Sonoma have some of the largest and most beautiful vineyards in the nation. They’re also some of the best places to go on hot air balloon rides – check out this hot air balloon trip in Napa.

There are plenty of places to choose from for wine tasting in California. Cornerstone Winery in Yountville, Napa Valley, has a cute and Instagrammable red chair you can sit and take photos in. Castello di Amorosa is a picturesque wine tasting spot with a Tuscan-inspired castle and breathtaking grounds. 

Dry Creek Valley is one of the most scenic spots of western Sonoma county. Jacuzzi Family Vineyards  has an affordable wine tasting and they offer olive oil tastings for the designated drivers. If you visit in the summer, I recommend going wine-tasting alongside the beautiful lavender field at Matanzas Creek Winery in Santa Rosa. 

fun things to do in northern califronia - tuscan villas

fun things to do in northern california - napa valley flower fields

fun things to do in northern california - hot air ballooning over napa

Book your winery tour here:

 

18. The Pacific Coast Highway

Technically, the Pacific Coast Highway, or Hwy 1, stretches across the entire state and through to the Pacific Northwest, but the pieces in Northern California are some of the most beautiful sections.

The highway hugs over 600 miles (900 kilometers) of California’s rugged and beautiful coastlines. It is one of the most astoundingly scenic roads in the world, meant to be traversed slowly while gasping at the mountains, towering trees, expansive beaches and endless sky.

You can drive the route from San Francisco to San Diego in a day, but why would you? Make a trip of the Pacific Coast Highway and spend a few days, a week, or longer meandering its length. Many of the aforementioned sights are located just off of this road, including the redwood parks, Point Reyes, and Mendocino.

Rent a car here!

fun things to do in northern california - pacific coast highway at dawn

fun things to do in northern california - pacific coast highway


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About the Author: Constance

Constance blogs on The Adventures of Panda Bear, along with her boyfriend Jimmy, where they share their travels around the world in experiencing new foods, learning about cultures, and discovering architectural feats.

They are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, California where the majority of their weekend adventures happen, but they also enjoy traveling around the world internationally. If you love fun facts about the world, you’ll enjoy their blog. Follow their adventures on Facebook or Instagram.