Northern California or NorCal is home to iconic coastal cities, redwood forests, perfect outdoorsy landscapes, dynamic weather, and the Pacific coastline. In this guide, we are sharing 6 Northern California road trip itinerary ideas with planning tips for an epic adventure.
So whether you have a weekend, 5 days, or a week, we got you covered. You will find varied road trip options with a combination of cities, parks, and cute small towns for an affordable vacation on California’s Pacific Coast.
Northern California road trip: Planning tips, packing and travel guide
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What comprises Northern California?
Northern California consists of 9 counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma counties.
The Bay Area consists of the major cities of San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland. So you have the popular sights like the Golden Gate Bridge, historic cable cars, tech giant offices, and San Jose with Silicon Valley.
Farther up north are the pretty Napa and Sonoma valleys with vineyards. On a road trip, you can also include visits to Lake Tahoe, national parks like Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Lassen Volcanic National Park.
California state parks are also amazing road trip stops for hikes, and to check out redwoods. Must include state parks are – McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and Van Damme State Park (Mendocino County).
Special mention about outdoorsy destinations: Mount Shasta (in Siskiyou County), Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes (for winter skiing).
How to plan a Northern California Road Trip?
San Francisco is the perfect destination to kick start your Northern California road trip itinerary. Depending on your departure city, you may also find better flights (frequency and price-wise) to Oakland or San Jose.
We have arrived at SF and San Jose international airport in the past from Canada, and both worked well. If this is your first time in California or San Francisco, we do recommend spending at least 2 full days exploring the city’s highlights, before departing for your road trip.
We have a detailed 4 days in San Francisco itinerary to get you started. This post also has day trip ideas for you to consider.
If you are planning for a full 2 weeks in Northern California, consider the following road trip itinerary,
Northern California Road Trip 2 weeks
- Day 1 – 4: Arrive in San Francisco. Explore for the next 3.50 days.
- Day 5 – 6: Drive along Pacific Coast Highway, with stops
- Day 7 – 8: Stay and explore Los Angeles
- Day 9: Day trip to Joshua Tree National Park
- Day 10: Death Valley National Park
- Day 11: Mammoth Lakes
- Day 12 – 13: Yosemite National Park
- Day 14: Drive back to San Francisco, or fly out from Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT)
10 days in Northern California road trip with Lake Tahoe
- Day 1 – 2: Arrive in San Francisco. Explore.
- Day 3: Monterey
- Day 4: Carmel
- Day 5 – 6: Yosemite National Park
- Day 7 – 8: Sonoma County (vineyards, optional: Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, Guerneville)
- Day 9 – 10: Lake Tahoe. Fly out from Reno airport
7 days in Northern California with cities, and an epic National Park
- Days 1 – 2: Arrive in San Diego. Explore
- Day 3: Joshua Tree day trip
- Day 4: Palm Springs
- Day 6-7: Explore Los Angeles. Fly out on day 7
4 day Northern California Coast Road Trip Itinerary
- Day 1 – 2: Arrive and explore San Francisco
- Day 3: Muir woods, and Point Reyes
- Day 4: Fort Bragg
Read: More road trip ideas from San Francisco
Accommodation, packing tips, and sightseeing for North California Road Trip
There is no dearth of accommodation options in California’s north coast. You can easily combine hotels, bed and breakfast, Airbnbs to campsites, depending on your road trip picks.
- Hotels: We stayed in hotels on most of the road trips. Cities like San Francisco, San Diego, LA will be slightly expensive as compared to places like Sacramento, Eureka, and Mountainview. Destinations like Napa and the Sonoma Valley will be a bit pricer. Where to book? Booking.com
- Airbnbs and Bed & Breakfast: In the off-season, you can score a nice Airbnb near Yosemite, or Truckee (Lake Tahoe/Reno). You can also book unique Airbnbs in the US especially domes in the Joshua Tree National Park. Where to book? Guest houses & B&B
- Campsites: Campsites can be reserved at Half Moon Bay (Francis Beach Campground), Yosemite, and other parks in Northern California. Where to book? www.reservecalifornia.com
- Campervans: If you do not wish to book accommodation, campervans are always an option. Although we have never booked one in California, we have heard other travelers enjoying slow travel in a campervan. Campervan Rental Option: Lost Campers – Unlimited Mile Camper Van Rental San Francisco
For your road trip in Northern California, here are some essential items to pack,
- Clothes: Pack 2-3 sets of clothing, depending on the duration of your road trip. Carry hiking clothes, and don’t forget to add a lightweight waterproof jacket
- Comfortable shoes: Comfortable shoes are a must, they are helpful while you are behind the wheel or taking rest stops (for a stroll) or out and about exploring. Buy KEEN hiking shoes here
- Water bottle – Carry a reusable water bottle, and stay hydrated!
- Healthy snacks – Keep nonperishable snacks.
- Emergency car kit – An emergency car kit is essential should things happen on the road. You can create one from scratch or buy one pre-pack from Amazon.
- Dashboard mount for phone or GPS – Go hands-free while you are driving. Use a dash mount to keep your phone or GPS for navigation.
- Car & Travel insurance – Car insurance is essential, so is travel insurance if you are traveling from overseas. For the car, you can also secure insurance with the rental company when you pick up the vehicle
- Daypack or hiking backpack. Buy our favorite from Pacsafe
Additional Reading: Get our list of 55 road trip essentials, and plan your cross country road trip with Google Maps here
6 Ultimate Northern California road trip itinerary routes to take on this year
2 week Northern California Road Trip Guide
- Distance: 1190 miles or 1900+ km
- Drive Time: 2 – 4 hours per day, with overnight stays
- Itinerary: 14 days
- Route: San Francisco (Arrival. Stay for 3 to 4 nights) > PCH Highway Stops (50-minute drive and then stops). Stay in Santa Cruz > Los Angeles (5.5 hours drive non stop. Stay for 2 nights) > Joshua Tree National Park (2 hours – stay overnight) > Death Valley NP (4 hours) > Mammoth Lakes (2+ hours. Stay here for 2 nights) > Yosemite NP (30 minutes. Stay for 2-4 days). > San Francisco (3 hours, nonstop drive. Fly out).
Start your 14 day Northern California road trip by arriving in San Francisco. Optional airports: Oakland, and San Jose.
After your arrival in San Francisco, set aside 3.50 days to explore the city. San Francisco is one of the popular cities in the state of California. Home to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, there is no dearth of amazing things to do in the city.
Along with the Golden Gate, the bustling Fisherman’s Wharf is a must visit. Make a trip to the Alcatraz, and learn about this gory history. Art lovers must explore the SFMOMA, and admire the Palace of Fine Arts, which has great photo spots as well.
Hit beaches near the city, or opt for a picnic on a warm day at the Crissy Field or the Alamo neighbourhood. Do add a historic tram ride on your SF itinerary, and check off the unique crooked street/Lombard Street.
Pick up your car rental or campervan from San Francisco and embark on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip. Use Highway One, and make stops at the Half Moon Bay, Natural Bridges State Park, and Santa Cruz.
Plan to reach Santa Cruz in the evening, and stay there overnight.
The following day has a drive of 5+ hours non-stop. You can stop along the way at
- Pinnacles National Park
- Lost Hills
Arrive in LA by the evening and this is your home for the next 2 (or 3) nights. For a short one day in Los Angeles, capture the main landmarks that the city is known for.
Visit the Griffith Observatory – learn about our cosmos and capture the world-famous Hollywood Sign from up there. Set aside a few hours to check out Downtown Los Angeles.
If you prefer to hit the trails, head to Runyon Canyon Park or Griffith Park.
Soak in sunset views at the Venice Beach in Santa Monica, and finish the night by wandering at the Public Art “Urban Light”.
From Los Angeles, make your way to Joshua Tree National Park, and spend a day there. Known for the unique Joshua trees, rock formations, and dramatic landscapes, you can easily check out 2-4 prime attractions including a short hike. Here is a one day Joshua Tree itinerary to consider.
There are options to stay near Joshua Tree National Park. You can stay on a campsite inside the park, or in a nice bed and breakfast in the towns of Joshua Tree or Twentynine Palms (north of the park).
On day 10, start bright and early for Death Valley National Park. You will be driving for about 4+ hours to get there. You will only have 1-3 hours at the park, and so we recommend adding one or two attractions and then continue your drive to Mammoth Lakes.
Visit the Zabriskie point in the Death Valley, and soak in the iconic views of the golden colored badlands of the Furnace Creek formation and more. You can also opt for a hike from this point around Badlands Loop, and connect to the Golden Canyon, and Red Cathedral.
In the evening, plan to arrive at the Mammoth Lakes, and stay there on day 10, and 11. Use day 11 to rest, and relax whilst admiring California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
Mammoth Lakes town is home to Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain, which are known for ski activities in the winter. Death Valley to Mammoth Lakes is 2+ hours, one way. (Note: You can also stay near the Death Valley, and drive to Mammoth Lakes the next day at leisure)
The eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park is an easy 30-minute drive from Mammoth Lakes. Head there on day 12, and stay there for 2-3 days, depending on the return trip.
In one day in Yosemite you can cover the epic sights from El Capitan, Half Dome, and the Bridal Veil Falls. The Tunnel View is an easy way to capture the majestic beauty of the prime attractions in Yosemite Valley.
Lower Yosemite Falls are one of the most iconic views in the park, and this is a must add to your itinerary. Set a day (or more) for hikes. There are a few easy and short trails that you can embark on such as the Mirror Lake Trail (2 mile), and Mist Trail Hike (3 mile).
If interested you may want to explore the Mariposa Grove to check out the Grizzly Point Giant Sequoia trees (there is a Mariposa Grove shuttle bus too, and is a quick and easy ride). You can go on a 2.50 mile trail to check out the large fallen sequoia trees as well.
At Yosemite, you can choose to stay at a campground, Airbnb, or a hotel outside the park. Here are some of the best Airbnbs in Yosemite National Park.
On the final day of your Northern California itinerary, you can either drive back to San Francisco – driving time is 3 hours. You can also fly out from Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT).
San Francisco and coastal cities road trip
By Alice from Adventures of Alice
- Distance: 146.4 miles or 235.60 km
- Drive Time: 2.50 hours non stop drive
- Itinerary: 5 to 7 days
San Francisco is one of the greatest cities in the world, but some of its surrounding areas have more to offer than you might expect. Big Sur for example – a less popular road trip destination that many feel may be amongst best destinations on Earth.
From downtown San Francisco find Highway 280 or 101 freeway heading south toward highway 1 and head past Pacifica beach town before making your first stop at Half Moon Bay (one of our favourite spots for food).
Keep going down this scenic coastal route as it passes through Santa Cruz before reaching Monterey with Fisherman’s Wharf all along the way up until finally arriving at Carmel-By-The Sea where you can explore Cannery Row while taking in breath-taking views from atop Mission Street Hill.
The next little town is Santa Cruz, which has a surprising combo of surfers and hippies. There’s also an artichoke museum if you want to learn more about this vegetable that Californians love so much.
One last stop before we head off into the desert – Castroville! If deep fried artichokes with ranch dressing sound good, then pull into Castroville for some warm comfort food at Big Artichoke Cafe on your way out of California.
As you make your way down the coast of California, one thing that is immediately noticeable are all the signs advertising “the best seafood.” The Monterey Fisherman’s Wharf has an excellent view and offers a variety of fish.
At Big Sur, there are many places to stop for food or trinkets on the drive along Highway 1. If you have additional time it is worth stopping in at some wineries as well!
Read: Best Airbnbs in Big Sur
San Francisco to Lake Tahoe Road Trip
By Noel from Visit California and Beyond
- Distance: 199.4 miles or 320.90 km
- Drive Time: 3.25 hours non stop
- Itinerary: 2 to 4 days
One of the most popular Northern California road trips that locals and visitors like to do is doing a San Francisco/Bay Area road trip to beautiful Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevadas.
One of the biggest destination spots in Northern California, Lake Tahoe is perfect year round for winter, spring and practically all the seasons. The distance is almost two hundred miles and over 3 1/2 hours long but longer if you plan on visiting places along your road trip.
The most liked places to stop and explore include the Capital of California at Sacramento and the historic old town district which is easy to walk around. You can stop in the gold hill town of Auburn which has a historic western district that is also fun to explore and check out the local shops, bakeries, and cafes in town.
The cut off to Lake Tahoe is at Truckee which is a cool alpine town to explore and maybe grab a bite to eat along the way and just stretch your legs before you finally get to Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe has a lot of fun outdoor activities to keep you busy, but why not take a cruise around this gorgeous landscape from the North Tahoe to the South Shore and back up on the west side.
South Tahoe has most of the main accommodations with large hotels to small inns you can stay at but all the communities around the lake have inns and even AirBnbs to stay in the popular lake area.
You’ll enjoy outdoor activities like boating, biking, hiking, kayaking and even river rafting in the very cold Tahoe river waters with some level three wave action.
A road trip to Tahoe in Northern California is a must-do and a few days or even stretched out a week is the perfect way to have a fun vacation in the region.
Monterey to Big Sur Road Trip
By Candice from csginger
- Distance: 29 miles or 47 km
- Drive Time: 45 minutes non-stop
- Itinerary: 3 days
The stretch of Highway 1 from Monterey to Big Sur is filled with dramatic coastlines, beautiful beaches, wildlife and scenic hiking trails. The highlights along this stretch of the iconic highway are Big Sur, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey.
The best time to visit this stretch of the Pacific Coast is from April to October due to the nice weather. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds September to November is your best bet. However, this area is amazing to visit no matter the time of year you visit.
The highlight in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium and historical sites. Window shop down Cannery Row and explore the Monterey Walking Path of History in the Monterey State Historic Park. Don’t miss the sea lions at the Coast Guard Pier.
On your way to Carmel-by-the-Sea make your way through the 17 Mile Drive, a scenic drive through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove. In Carmel-by-the-Sea you can enjoy the downtown area, play at Carmel Beach and tour the Carmel Mission.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a hiking paradise. Dramatic coastlines, tide pools, secluded beaches, and famous China Cove are found throughout the reserve. Parking does fill up fast so visit either early in the day or later in the afternoon.
Big Sur is one of the longest and most picturesque stretches of undeveloped coastline in the United States. There are lots of opportunities for hiking, stopping at viewpoints and visiting the beach. Some of the highlights in Big Sur are Bixby Bridge, Point Sur Lighthouse, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Waterfall and Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
If you want to camp in the Big Sur area, you will need to make your reservations well in advance. There are several hotels in the Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea areas as well as private vacations rentals.
San Francisco to Yosemite National Park Road Trip
By Daria from Discovery Nut
- Distance: 170 miles or 273.58 km
- Drive Time: 4 hours
- Itinerary: 3 to 5 days (depending on the number of hikes you do at Yosemite)
Located under four hours away, Yosemite National Park is a perfect getaway from the Bay Area. While Yosemite is a wonderful destination, the road trip itself is absolutely worth it as you will get a chance to drive along the winding mountain roads and marvel at the towering redwoods.
There are several roads that you can take to get from San Francisco to Yosemite, however, for the best experience, we recommend CA Highway 140 that will take you through the towns of Fish Camp and Mariposa.
The fastest way to get from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park is by driving a car. If you don’t plan to rent a vehicle during your trip, you can also take a train ride from the bay area to Merced from where you can hop on a train. Keep in mind though, that it is a much longer option that could take you between 6 and 8 hours.
Do not wait until the last moment to book your accommodations in Yosemite, especially if you travel from late June through September. Yosemite is one of the busiest destinations in Northern California and prices here can reach a few hundred dollars for a very basic hotel room during the peak season.
Additionally, weekends can be very crowded in Yosemite during summer. This especially applies to federal holidays when thousands of people make their way here from all over the country. If you can, plan your trip for weekday.
Pacific Coast Highway road trip from San Francisco to Avenue of the Giants
By Katy from A Rambling Unicorn
- Distance: 225.4 miles or 362.76 km
- Drive Time: 4 hours non stop
- Itinerary: 3 days
California’s curvy Pacific Coast Highway is legendary. Hugging the shoreline from Los Angeles to Leggett, Highway 1 twists and turns through some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.
If you’re short on time, however, driving from San Francisco to the Avenue of the Giants is an incredible Pacific Coast Highway road trip.
Begin at Muir Woods, one of the last stands of old-growth redwoods in the Bay Area. Be sure to make a parking reservation in advance or book the shuttle. From here, the route heads to Muir Beach Overlook and continues north.
There are many pullouts and opportunities for sightseeing along the coast, from Point Reyes National Seashore and Bodega Bay to Sonoma Coast State Park and the Point Arena Lighthouse.
Mendocino is a cute little seaside community that is a must-see on this trip. Located near the northern terminus of the Pacific Coast Highway, Mendocino features a historic downtown that is dotted with picturesque wooden water towers and antique shops.
Mendocino Headlands State Park is only steps away from the downtown area with access to the rugged shoreline and coastal bluffs.
At 230 miles in length, this road trip can be driven in a single day but it is not recommended. Reserve 2-3 days if you can. The road is hilly and curvy and takes longer to drive than expected (especially for larger vehicles). While the route can be driven any time of year, expect the best weather from spring to fall – with September and October being the least foggy.
There are many opportunities for camping up and down the coast, especially around Bodega Bay. For those seeking less rustic accommodations, Hill House Inn in Mendocino is reasonably affordable.
We hope you found this post on epic road trips in Northern California useful! You can read more of our US Travel Guides below,