This remarkable trip starts in the state capital, Sacramento, then winds northeast through to California’s wild northeast corner, a land of safe-to-visit volcanoes like Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Discover splashing waterfalls on quiet, crowd-free trails, rent a houseboat on a sparkling lake. Then beeline west through miles of spectacular forestlands to get a taste of Wild West history in Eureka, a former Gold Rush boomtown now filled with art galleries and craft breweries.
Begin your trip in the center of the state, home to the capital city of Sacramento. Like many cities, California’s state capital is undergoing an energetic renaissance. Young adults looking for an urban vibe are moving into this low-key city, with microbreweries, gastropubs, and trendy boutiques popping up to serve them. Award-winning chefs are gaining attention for their focus on hyper-local ingredients, and relationships between restaurants and surrounding farms and ranches have become not a novelty, but the norm. Hot summer days create some of the nicest evenings anywhere in the state, where locals sit on porches in elegant Victorian-era homes, and kids scamper in leafy parks until the sun goes down.
As the state capital, there’s plenty going on, and gatherings of various colourful groups around the cupola-topped Capitol are common. Museums are centered largely around the Capitol Mall area and in historic Old Sacramento, the renovated area along the Sacramento River that was a core hub during the Gold Rush. Getting around to all these different locations is easy, and traffic jams are fleeting. Granted the gold award for bike-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Sacramento is also a great place to explore by bike, with wide designated lanes, and paved trails along the American and Sacramento Rivers. There’s also a convenient light rail system to linking popular sites around town.
After exploring the history and arts of Sacramento, head north through the bountiful Central Valley, then swing east to the college town of Chico and one of the best known craft breweries in the state.
After passing through broad agricultural farmlands, the leafy city of Chico makes an inviting destination. It’s home to a state university, and where there are college students, there is likely beer—in this case, very good beer indeed.
Get a taste for where the current craze in craft beers began—not just for Chico but the entire state—with a visit to Sierra Nevada Brewing’s expansive tasting room/restaurant/brewery complex. Take a self-guided tour, or join a guided one, with offerings including a sustainability tour showcasing California’s largest privately owned solar installation, and an in-depth exploration (limited to 5 beer geeks) of the brewery’s inner workings. No tour is needed to cool off with a frosty pint in the trellis-shaded Taproom & Restaurant. Sierra Nevada Brewing has been the catalyst for other small-batch breweries to open in the area—and it helps that it’s a college town. Stop by the Handle Bar for a great selection of craft beers on tap.
For a good leg stretch, head to Chico’s beautiful Bidwell Park, with great-for-a-dip swimming holes and trails into wild canyons. Then load up the car and continue north to follow an appealing route linking farm stands and artisanal food purveyors.
Continuing north from Chico, discover a surprisingly abundant region near the leafy and cool Sacramento River. Rich soil and plenty of water make this fertile area a prime place for farms and ranches, and many invite visitors to come by to buy fresh produce, artisanal olive oils, and other local food products.
Established by local farmers, the Tehama Trail meanders through rural communities, linking together nearly two dozen vineyards, orchards, and grass-fed beef ranchers and other specialty meat producers. Though you can hop onto the route at any point, the driving tour technically begins in Corning, a town that has been linked with olives for generations. Stop in at the iconic Olive Pit for samples of traditional black and green olives, or try more exotic options, like herb-and-garlic-cheese-stuffed Sicilian olives. Head over to sleek and shiny tasting room at Lucero Olive Oil to sample artisanal olive oils and vinegars and shop for classy gifts.
Continue along the Tehama Trail to sample and buy heirloom tomatoes, juice-down-your-chin peaches and plums, and just-picked berries, as well as fresh pies and honeys. Swing by New Clairvaux Vineyard in tiny Vina, just south of Redding, where Trappist monks (yes, monks) invite you to sample their Barbera, Pinot Grigio, and other varietals in a large tasting room that’s on the monastery grounds.
Your road trip now swings east and north to take in some of California’s most amazing and wild regions. First up, a visit to a remarkable, ultra-family-friendly guest ranch on near the south entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Lassen Peak, often capped with snow year-round, starts to rise up from the horizon as you head east, a dramatic, triangle-shaped volcano rising above gently rolling plains dotted with oak trees and large, volcanic boulders. Lassen Peak is still active (the last eruption was in 1917), but bubbling mud pots, steaming geysers, and other features are all designed to keep visitors safe.
The land gets more rugged and thick with conifer forests as you reach the town of Chester, gateway to the south entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Head into the park roughly 3 miles/5 kilometers to Drakesbad Guest Ranch. This 1900 lodge offers snug accommodations with nice extras—massage services, guided trail rides, and a restaurant and friendly bar perfect for a post-hike beer, even if you’re not a guest. There’s an appealingly rustic feel to this remote location, with kerosene lamps lighting most of the lodge’s cabins, comfy wooden chairs plunked in front of perfect views, and trails fanning out in all directions. Rates include lodging and all meals—which are decidedly lux by backcountry standards: think grilled salmon or prime rib for dinner, and premium wines.
The ranch’s most coveted feature is its hot springs pool, known as Drake’s Bath. During the day the temperature is cooled to a comfortable level for swimming, but at night the naturally hot water creates a giant hot tub. (Insider tip: You can use the pool, even if you’re not an overnight guest; by making reservations for dinner that night.) Drakesbad is in the Warner Valley region of the park (accessed via the town of Chester). Ask ranch staff for directions to volcanic features like Devil’s Kitchen geothermal area, Boiling Springs Lake, and Terminal Geyser.
Spend some time learning about California’s volcanoes at the outstanding Kohm Ya-mah-nee Visitor Center, then head out to explore some of the park’s remarkable and safely accessible features, such as this colorfully named site. The “hell” in Bumpass Hell is aptly named. Here you see geology in action—16 acres/6.5 hectares of boiling springs and mud pots, hissing steam vents, and roaring fumaroles.
Early pioneer Kendall Vanhook Bumpass was the unfortunate explorer who stumbled—literally—upon these hydrothermal features in the 1860s: the discovery included stepping into a boiling pool and burning his leg.
No such worries for visitors today. An easy, well-marked trail travels to the geothermal site (3 miles round-trip and worth the effort). Along the way, a short spur trail leads to a stunning panorama of peaks—actually the remnants of a massive volcano called Mount Tehama, which exploded some 500,000 years ago. Your nose will tell you when you near Bumpass Hell. The rotten egg smell from naturally occurring gases is pervasive, and so is the noise—a strange ruckus created by all the belching mud pots and bubbling pools. Bumpass Hell’s boardwalk trail lets you walk safely around them, unlike poor Mr. Bumpass.
Continue due north from Lassen Volcanic National Park to visit one of California’s most beautiful (and remarkably undiscovered) sites, Burney Falls, in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park.
One of the most spectacular waterfalls in the state—if not the continent—this 129-foot-tall, fern-draped cascade seems to come out of nowhere. Located 60 miles/97 kilometers northeast of Redding, in an area that from a distance looks like a rumpled collection of weathered cinder cones and broad plains under a cloud-free sky, Burney Falls is one of California’s biggest surprises. It’s no wonder 26th President Teddy Roosevelt dubbed it “the eighth wonder of the world.”
Follow a short path to the main overlook in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. You’ll have to raise your voices to talk (or be happy in silence)—the broad wall of water faces you head on—booming over a mossy ledge, splashing down the fern-covered face, tossing gushers and shards of rainbows left and right—finally plunging so hard and fast into a clear pool that you can see flumes of air bubbles reaching deep below the surface. The main falls originate at the top of the cliff, but icy gallons of snowmelt also gush from the sieve-like volcanic rock face. Continue down the path to the pool—where you are likely to look but only briefly touch: the water never goes much above 42°F/5.5°C. Fishermen don’t seem to mind the chill; the big pool at the base, and Burney Creek above and below the cascade, are popular for catch-and-release fly-fishing.
Your route now swings northwest to visit one of California’s tallest mountains, a soaring, snow-capped volcano the rises from the valley floor.
If skies are clear, this massive, perennially snow-capped peak will soon become all that you see as you drive northwest, a behemoth rising up from the flat valley floor, topping out at a staggering 14,179 feet/4,322 meters high. And while some mountains climb gradually, this one rises from surrounding flatlands in such perfect, cone-shaped, snow-capped majesty that it seems almost unreal—the perfect projection of a child’s fantasy of what a mountain should be. (Famed naturalist John Muir wrote that his “blood turned to wine” when he first caught sight of the Fuji-esque peak.) Summiting the mountain is for the hardiest of climbers; ask about guide services at The Fifth Season outdoor store in the town of Mt. Shasta, a New Age-y enclave on the mountain’s west side. (Get the town’s vibe at The Crystal Room, a prism-filled visual feast.)
Fortunately, you don’t have to bag the peak to enjoy this alpine paradise. Easy paths loop through wildflower-filled meadows and into cool forests. One of the prettiest trails, a mellow two-mile path along the McCloud River on the mountains south, leads to a trio of waterfalls—all beautiful, though Middle Falls is the real head-turner. There’s camping, caverns, and world-class fly-fishing too. Most winters, there’s skiing too, at low-key and local Mt. Shasta Ski Park, on the mountain’s western slope.
Your journey now begins its southern leg before heading east to the Pacific coast. First stop, one of California’s most popular recreational reservoirs, enormous Shasta Lake.
Spend the day exploring this expansive 30,000-acre/12,140-hectare reservoir, the largest in California. A typical summer day finds the crystal blue waters sprinkled with fishing boats, jet skis, inner tubes—almost anything that floats. Some Almost 370 miles/595 kilometers of shoreline wrap around mirror-smooth coves ideal for dropping an anchor to cast for bass, crappie, catfish, and sturgeon.
Even better, plan an overnight (or longer) stay by renting a deluxe houseboat. Rentals from marinas and resorts around the lake range from basic models with comfortable accommodations to multi-tiered, floating palaces, with whirlpool spas, gourmet kitchens, and master suites with flat-screen TVs.
"You might want to prime your visit by listening to “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s ode to America, which he wrote while helping build the dam’s arch barrier."
Other worthwhile stops around the lake include a free tour of 602-foot/183-meter Shasta Dam, the second largest concrete dam in the country. You might want to prime your visit by listening to “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s ode to America, which he wrote while helping build the dam’s arch barrier. Another year-round adventure: take a guided tour of Lake Shasta Caverns, a fascinating underground world 250 million years in the making—and only accessible by boat (boat ride included with tour).
After playing at Shasta Lake, drive just south to visit the friendly and relaxed town of Redding, home of one of California’s most amazing bridges.
A functional work of art, the remarkable pedestrian bridge, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, spans the tree-lined, trout-filled Sacramento River in Redding’s Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The 700-foot/213-meter-long span is undeniably striking, with its glass block walkway and soaring white tower and suspension cables forming a functioning sundial-- a nod to human creativity and ingenuity, both important themes of the 300-acre park.
Before you cross the bridge, visit the adjacent visitor center. Outside, Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp lets kids learn about what it was like to be an early logger in the region; there are also recreations of a traditional Native American bark house. Inside, interpretive displays shed light on local wildlife and natural history.
Now walk across Sundial Bridge—if there are fly fishermen nearby wait a few minutes and you’ll probably see them snag a fish or two. (The river here alive with trout.) On the far side of the bridge, opposite the museum, is the relax in the California native and drought-tolerant gardens in the 200-acre/81-hectare McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, or rent bikes or join a guided Segway tour to follow paths along the riverfront.
Your road trip ends with a final leg through rugged forestlands, past sparkling lakes and winding rivers, to slip into cool coast redwood forests before reaching the waterfront city of Eureka.
After so much wildness for so much of your trip, Eureka is an inviting and lively switch. This once rough-and-tumble seaport town, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, has split-personality charm: a sense of history in the handsomely restored, Victorian-era Old Town district, a still-working seaport where crusty fishing boats chug in and out of a protected harbor, logging trucks rumbling through town, and an eco-conscious college vibe thanks to Humboldt State, in the nearby town of Arcata. Hundreds of ornate 19th-century homes, like the Carson Mansion, a paragon of Queen Anne architecture now housing a private club at the end of Second Street, reflect the prosperity of Eureka’s formative years, when lumber was king. The entire city is a state historic landmark, a captivating mix of nature and culture with a small-town feel.
Start your visit along the waterfront, where a pretty esplanade provides nice views of the harbor and adjacent Humboldt Bay. Visit the small maritime museum, then board the MV Madaket, a snug ferryboat plying the bay since 1910, for 75-minute guided cruise. In adjacent Old Town, beeline to the outstanding Eureka Visitors Center, where you can sample local wines, beers, and local oysters, ask for tips on nearby galleries, gift shops, and eateries, and book guided tours and adventures.
Eureka also has the distinction of being the southern gateway to the collection of preserves known as Redwood National & State Historic Parks, a World Heritage Site and one of the most unforgettable settings in California.
From Eureka, it’s a roughly 5-hour drive south to San Francisco, 281 miles/452 kilometers south along the coast.