If you can’t decide between the beach or the mountains, city nightlife or quaint historical towns, and sleeping in luxury or roughing it, then Northern California is your ultimate destination. Here you’ll find a breakdown of each distinct region in the area, highlighting their major draws and general personalities.
The politics, the culture, the food—these are what make San Francisco world famous. Dine on cutting-edge cuisine at high-end restaurants and offbeat food trucks, tour classical and avant-garde museums, bike through Golden Gate Park and explore its hidden treasures, and stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf, where barking sea lions and frenetic street performers compete for attention.
San Francisco Bay Area
Surrounding San Francisco is a region as diverse as the city itself. To the north, Marin offers wilderness seekers a quick reprieve from the city, while ethnic diversity and intellectual curiosity give the East Bay a hip, urban edge. On the southern Peninsula, beaches and farmland are within quick driving distance of the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley and San Jose.
Northern California’s Wine Country is famous for a reason. This is the place to pamper yourself with excellent wines, fantastic food, and luxurious spas. Napa offers all of the above in spades, while Sonoma is the place to catch a bit of history and to enjoy a mellow atmosphere. The Russian River adds redwoods and a bit of river rafting to the mix.
For deserted beaches, towering redwoods, and scenic coastal towns, cruise north along The Redwood Coast. Explore Russian history at Fort Ross on the grassy bluffs of the Sonoma Coast, be romanced by Mendocino’s small-town charm and nearby wineries, and discover the quirky, hippie charm of towns like Arcata and Trinidad.
Shasta and Lassen
At the southern end of the volcanic Cascade Range are geologic wonders alongside plentiful outdoor recreation. Rent a houseboat on Shasta Lake or spend a few days climbing or skiing dramatic Mount Shasta. You can traverse nearby lava tunnels or travel south to hike through boiling mud pots and fumaroles at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Bright blue skies, granite mountains, and evergreen forests surround jewel-like Lake Tahoe. Glossy hotels and casinos line the South Shore, while the low-key North and West Shores beckon with quiet beaches and miles of hiking, biking, and ski trails. Nevada’s East Shore specializes in uninhibited good times, while the Truckee-Donner area adds a bit of Old West flavor to the outdoor scene.
Sacramento and Gold Country
The political epicenter of California is the Gold Rush-era town of Sacramento. More history awaits on the winding scenic highways that crisscross Northern Gold Country. Tour abandoned mines, raft some high-octane white water, go wine-tasting in the Shenandoah Valley, or explore the caves, caverns, and big trees of Southern Gold Country.
Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra
The work of Ansel Adams and John Muir has made Yosemite a worldwide icon. Thousands crowd into Yosemite Valley to view the much-photographed Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall, and El Capitan. On the eastern side of the Sierras, Mono Lake and Mammoth Lakes provide more scenic wilderness to explore.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon
Aside from the dramatic rugged terrain, the real draws to this central Sierra region are the giant sequoias in the General Grant Grove and the General Sherman Tree. Visit the Giant Forest Museum, take an invigorating hike up to Moro Rock, and duck into glittering Crystal Cave, which is as beautiful as its name suggests.
Some of the most beautiful and most adventurous coastline in the world is along Highway 1—the Pacific Coast Highway. Go surfing and wine-tasting in Santa Cruz. Witness gray whales and sea lions off the rugged Monterey Bay, and then explore their environment at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Camp and hike the unspoiled wilderness of Big Sur, and then tour grandiose Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Northern California.