This loop tour through the northern half of the state takes in 10 of the region’s favorite destinations, including San Francisco, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and the towering redwoods along the wild and scenic north coast.
It may measure less than 50 square miles/130 square kilometers, but San Francisco justly ranks as one of the greatest cities in the world. Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, the “City by the Bay” is the perfect place to start any adventure.
For a novel way to explore “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a park, or head into Golden Gate Park to visit museums and row across a secret gem, Stow Lake. Continue along the flat Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf and the Exploratorium science and learning museum.
Return your bikes and hop a cable car to ride over the hill to the high-end shops and enormous Macy’s, Niketown, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus around bustling Union Square, with a stop for Italian pastries and cappuccino at Emporio Rulli right in the square. Nearby, stroll boutique-lined Maiden Lane—pedestrian only thoroughfare during the day, when cafes set up tables and chairs right in the street. Nearby Westfield Mall, a dazzling complex on once scruffy but now spiffed up Market Street, glitters with even more stores, including an deluxe food court on the lower level. At night, catch a show in the theater district, or head to North Beach to see Beach Blanket Babylon, a raucous and irreverent San Francisco institution. For more nightlife and dining, stroll Valencia Street in the Mission, a trendy and eclectic hotbed of restaurants and bars, and awesome late-night scoops at Bi-Rite Ice Cream.
From the Bay Area, drive across the Central Valley to climb into the Sierra, home of California’s first national park, Yosemite. You can access the park via several routes—accessing appealing Gold Country towns, like Oakhurst and Mariposa, and the historic High Sierra town of Groveland.
This lively 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 Humboldt Bay Tourism 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.
Continue south along the wild coast (plenty of turnouts for photos) to Mendocino, one of California’s most romantic hamlets.
This charming hamlet, perched on a wave-carved headland, is sandwiched between thick forests and a restless sea. With fewer than 1,000 year-round residents and this remote location, Mendocino offers tranquility in a spectacular North Coast setting. Mendocino’s dramatic location is a natural magnet for artists, and you can often see them, easels propped and paint palettes out, capturing the scene on their canvases. Mendocino is meant for walking, so stroll the little streets with shops selling local artwork, then pop in for a coffee and chat with the locals. Take a walk along the bluffs, especially at sunset on fog-free evenings. The region’s wild natural setting and isolation have also drawn alternative thinkers and environmentalists, and the word “organic” pops up on many a menu. Victorian-era homes, converted into B&Bs in every level of poshness, look like gingerbread houses come to life. Mendocino also knows how to throw a good party, especially when it comes to food, and annual festivals celebrate mushrooms, wine, and crab, as well as the region’s largest inhabitants, whales.
Given Mendocino’s Pacific-out-the-window location, it’s little surprise that restaurants here excel in seafood. Salmon, albacore, rock cod, Dungeness crab, and abalone are some of the ocean delicacies you can enjoy at area restaurants, some with dress-up fancy ambiance, others kick-back-with-the-locals relaxed. For a special meal, consider Trillium Cafe for fresh seafood in farm-to-table preparations, (chock-full ling cod bouillabaisse, local wild king salmon with creamy pumpkin seed pesto). The Grey Whale Bar and Cafe, housed within elegant Maccallum House B&B, also features nightly seafood specials.
If you see people walking by with crumbs on their shirts, they’ve probably been to Goodlife Cafe and Bakery, where locals have been known to describe pastries, such as the seasonal huckleberry Danish, as “insanely good.” Wholesome, organic, and fair trad are all buzzwords here.
Insider's Tip: Want a really fresh catch? Consider booking space on a local fishing charter and see what you can snag.
Keep following the rugged coast, with stops at historic Fort Ross (a former outpost for Russian hunters searching for sea otter pelts) and Jenner, the village at the mouth of the Russian River. Then reach your last stop, a towering grove of coast redwoods just north of San Francisco.