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Northern California Explorer  dsc07417

Northern California Explorer Road Trip

Northern California Explorer

The northern-most stretches of California are some of the most beautiful, and under-rated parts of the state. On any road trip north from San Francisco, rolling green meadows give way to rugged spectaular mountains and towering Redwood forests in only a short distance. This seven-day road trip takes you to, through and between some of the most Instagrammable and exciting spots in San Francisco, Shasta Cascade and Sonoma County.

Day 1: San Francisco

Morning: Take in the technicolour explosion of art and flavour in the Museum of Ice Cream’s installations

Lunch: Grab some refreshments at the Commons Club at the Virgin Hotels San Francisco before continuing your exploration

Afternoon: Glide through one of the city's most iconic winter activities - ice skating at Union Square - before warming up with your credit card for the neighbouring boutiques. (Ice rink open November - January)

Dinner: Taste a sample of San Francisco's representation in the 2019 California Michelin Guide at Gibson

Stay At: Virgin Hotels San Francisco 

Day 2: San Francisco

Morning: Walk a the city stretch including The Castro, Haight-Ashbury, the Painted Ladies, and Golden Gate Park for an instagrammable adventure

Hint: If you'd prefer an alternative walking tour, consider going from the Ferry Building, to Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square and the Palace of Fine Arts

Lunch: Fill your tummy on a food tour of North Beach with Avital Food Tours

Afternoon: Take in the views of the city skyline from a private tour of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill

Evening: Learn something new or just have fun at the Exploratorium After Dark. A hands-on museum for children during the day, it opens each Thursday night for adult play - complete with cocktails

Day 3: San Francisco -> Chico

Transit: Hit the road towards Chico (approx. 3h 45m total) after a quick breakfast

Morning: Shop 'til you drop at The Vacaville Premium Outlets with high-end brands

Lunch: Grab at bite at California's favourite pit-stop, Nut Tree Plaza, with 26 casual dining options

Afternoon: Discover how some of California's pioneering craft beer is brewed at the Sierra Nevada Brewery

Dinner: Grab a brew and a bite at the Sierra Nevada Brewery Taproom

Stay At: Oxford Suites Chico

Day 4: Chico -> Redding

Transit: Drive towards Redding (approx. 1h 20m)

Morning: Discover Northern California's wilderness at Turtle Bay Exploration Park - a great activity for families. Don't miss taking a stroll across the iconic Sundail Bridge

Afternoon: Tour Lake Shasta Caverns, one of the oldest and most visited natural landmarks in Upstate California

Dinner: Devour some hearty food at C.R. Gibbs American Grille

Stay: Hilton Garden Inn

Day 5: Redding -> Corning -> Sonoma County

Transit: Drive from Redding to Corning (approx. 45mins)

Lunch: Taste some of the U.S.A's best olives at the Olive Pit, in a town known for its fresh produce.

Afternoon: Taste drinks at Spirit Works Distillery, where some of Sonoma's best local concoctions are created

Dinner: Eat, drink and be merry at Fern Bar, a part-restaurant drinking establishment that takes inspiration from the county's biodiversity. Don't miss strolling aroung The Barlow before or after dinner!

Stay AtVintner's Resort 

Day 6: Sonoma County

Morning: Soar over the wineries, parks and towns of Sonoma County with Up & Away Ballooning

Afternoon: Sample world-famous Sonoma County wines without worrying about your calorie count on a Sip 'n Cycle Tour with Getaway Adventures

Dinner: Taste the sustainable Sonoma County culinary style at Bricoleur Winery

Day 7: Sonoma County

Morning: You've heard of Downward Dog, but try a whole different experience at Goatlandia's goat yoga

Lunch: Enjoy the great outdoors with a picnic at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, amongst some of the tallest trees on earth

Afternoon: Hike the walking trails around Bodega Bay to see some of Sonoma's exquisite and rugged coastline (hint: there are great photo ops)

Items from Vacaville Premium Outlets in California's Central Valley
Marc Falardeau/Flickr

Vacaville Premium Outlets

Vacaville Premium Outlets
Stylish bargains off Interstate 80

If you’re heading from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sacramento or Lake Tahoe, take a break and check out the 115-plus stores at the impressive Vacaville Premium Outlets, located in Vacaville.

You’ll find dozens of shoe shops alone, including Adidas, Aldo, Asics, Bass, Clarks, Cole Haan, Crocs and Converse (and that’s just from A to C!), not to mention designer fashions, sportswear, leather items and more at this open-air centre just off I-80, the main east-west corridor between San Francisco and the Sierra Nevada range. Shop for bargains from iconic brands including Coach, Tumi, The North Face, Le Creuset and Banana Republic.

For the convenience of its shoppers, Vacaville Premium Outlets has a children’s play area, baby changing facilities and electric-vehicle charging stations. If you find yourself in need of a pick-me-up, there's a Starbuck’s and Kristin’s Coffee Corner on-site, along with DJ’s Grill and Deli for a meal and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory for treats.

While in the Vacaville area, there’s lots to see and do. The nearby Suisun Valley is home to a booming winemaking industry; call in at Blue Victorian Vineyards or Wooden Valley Winery for a tour and tasting, or, in central Vacaville’s Town Square, visit Cuvee E, a wine bar specialising in local vintages. There are lots of ways to take advantage of the region’s ideal climate and terrain as well. Visit Browns Valley Open Space Preserve to go bouldering, or park up at dog-friendly, 190-hectare Pena Adobe Park for a hike, a picnic or an afternoon's fishing.


Cal State, Chico
Courtesy of Explore Butte County


Map of Shasta Cascade
This university town, historic community and craft beer pioneer is Butte County’s largest city

One of California’s most distinctive small cities, Chico blends the energy of a contemporary university town and a long history as a hub for the surrounding farming communities of Butte County.

With a centre of stately 19th-century buildings and a leafy canopy of thousands of street trees, the city retains strong links to its past. That’s especially true at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, where you can tour the grand, three-storey Italianate home of city founder John Bidwell. Along with his wife Annie, who donated nearly 890 hectares of land to the city following her husband’s death, Bidwell is responsible for Chico’s remarkable Bidwell Park. Now stretching for 17 kilometres from the heart of town into the foothills, the park gives Chico a municipal park and recreational destination that cities with many times its population (of roughly 100,000) would envy.

Generations of Californians first discovered Chico on their university tours to Cal State University, Chico. With a campus adjacent to both the city centre and Bidwell Park, Cal State Chico influences the life of the city and gives the community a wealth of cultural attractions. The bell tower of Trinity Hall rises over this beautiful university, where Big Chico Creek meanders among the buildings, and the Petersen Rose Garden, with 50 types of roses and 350 bushes, brightens the campus. Take a stroll around campus on a self-guided walking tour and check out the outstanding concert series at Laxson Auditorium, the grand, 1931 venue that has hosted appearances by everyone from Nobel Prize laureates to musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and Willie Nelson. You can also learn about world cultures and aspects of local history at the university’s Valerie L. Smith Museum of Anthropology.

Back in town, the Museum of Northern California Art in the 1927 Veterans Memorial Hall showcases works by 96 regional artists collected by Chico’s Reed Applegate. Of course, Chico, like many university towns, also has its quirky side and is home to the National Yo-Yo Museum, the world’s largest public collection of yo-yos. 

As the birthplace of the pioneering Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico has played a big role in America’s craft beer revolution. The craft beer tradition is also upheld at The Commons Social Emporium near the city centre, which is owned by locals and features more than 20 beers and ciders on tap.

Despite appearances, Chico does not live on beer alone and you’ll also find terrific dining, including the contemporary California cuisine at acclaimed chef Ann Leon’s Leon Bistro and the sushi at Japanese Blossoms. Or start the day right with favourites such as the apple walnut pancakes and banana Nutella French toast at the central Café Coda (265 Humboldt Ave.; +1 530 566 9476). And the delectable blackberry lemon scones at the beloved Upper Crust Bakery & Café are irresistible. 

Many local restaurants count on the bounty of Chico’s surrounding farmland, a cornucopia on vivid display at the city’s twice-weekly farmers' markets. The markets run year-round, while the annual Taste of Chico in September is a great opportunity to discover the best of the city’s dining and craft beer scenes. Another major local event is the Chico Wildflower Century, during which you can burn off some of the calories you put on while in town as you cycle among almond orchards and hills blanketed by spring blooms travelling along routes that range from 20 to 200 kilometres.

If you’re looking for a place to stay in the heart of the city, the 1904 Hotel Diamond has a gorgeous foyer with brick walls and a graceful wooden staircase, as well as rooms that combine historic atmosphere and contemporary comforts.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California
Courtesy of Sierra Brewing Company

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
Pale ale put this trendsetting Chico producer on the map

What began as a cobbled-together home-brewing operation grew up to become the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, one of America’s first modern microbreweries, and the producer of one of California’s most beloved beers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Founder Ken Grossman started out as a young home brewer, making beer in five-gallon batches with homemade equipment. After studying chemistry at university, he opened a home-brewing shop in Chico for like-minded brewing fanatics.

Two years later, he took the plunge into commercial brewing. To make do with limited funds, Grossman outfitted his operation with used dairy tanks, a soft-drinks bottler and equipment salvaged from defunct breweries. 

In 1980, he brewed his first bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The bold, piney beer was an instant hit—so much so that Grossman had to expand the brewery twice to keep up with demand.

In the decades since that first auspicious batch of its namesake pale ale, Sierra Nevada’s line-up has grown to include many other fascinating brews, such as Hop Hunter IPA, Kellerweis, Beer Camp IPA and the intense 'High Altitude' series.

At Sierra Nevada’s taproom and restaurant in Chico, visitors can sample 19 draft beers and nosh on seasonal, farm-to-table fare. Those interested in observing up close how it all happens can select from a range of brewery tours, each of varying length. The restaurant makes bread from spent brewers’ grain and even offers a good children's menu, with organic peanut butter, golden raisins and fresh fruit on a crunchy flatbread. The brewery also has a 350-seat live music venue, so be prepared to stay a while. 

Northern California Explorer  T8_TurtleBay_PeterAlfredHess_1280x642
Peter Alfred Hess/FlickrPlay at Redding’s 300-acre museum, arboretum, sculpture park, and forest camp

Turtle Bay Exploration Park

Turtle Bay Exploration Park
Play at Redding’s 300-acre museum, arboretum, sculpture park, and forest camp

Turtle Bay Exploration Park is exactly that—a mostly outdoor institution build alongside the shady Sacramento River, with creative ways for kids to learn about Native American and pioneer history, as well as plants and wildlife. Indoor exhibits shed light on the region’s natural world. 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.

The park also lets kids experience some pretty classy outdoor art, most notably Redding’s striking Sundial Bridge Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Kids love to stare down through the glass tiles that pave this remarkable pedestrian-only bridge spanning the Sacramento River. On the far side of the bridge, opposite the museum, is the 200-acre/81-hectare McConnell Arboretum & Gardens, with displays of native California plants and trees—especially pretty in spring. 

Northern California Explorer  VC_UndergroundCalifornia_Module05_LakeShastaCaverns_Stock_ED_564090967_1280x640
Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images

Lake Shasta Caverns

Lake Shasta Caverns
Plan to visit these amazing caves, only accessible by boat

A remarkable find on the north end of Shasta Lake, this series of natural limestone caves reveals an underground world some 250 million years in the making. And to make them even cooler, the caverns are only accessible via guided tours that include a boat ride across the sparkling lake—the only way the public can reach the site.

Though the local Wintu Native Americans likely knew of the caves long before Shasta Dam created the lake in 1945, it was local fish hatchery employee J.A. Richardson who got the honours of “officially” discovering the caverns in 1878. Inside, there’s plenty of cave-ish eye candy, including bulbous stalagmites and spindly stalactites, glistening limestone curtains with bacon-like bands of colour, and helictites, delicately twisted straw-like cave formations.

Opened in 1964 as a local attraction, Lake Shasta Caverns offers tours year round. It’s a moderately strenuous 45- to 60-minute visit inside, with some 600 stairs accessing different parts of the labyrinth, but it’s well worth the effort.