There aren’t too many places in the world where you can travel from majestic redwood forests and dramatic coastal cliffs, to volcanic mountains and beautiful lakes – all on one road trip!
When it comes to varied and dramatic scenery, northern California really does have the lot!
Outdoor adventures are around every turn with mountains for skiing in winter, summer hikes, fall color drives and a step back in time to the Gold Rush era.
Sharing with you our favorite scenic drives from Northern California for one of the most incredible tasters of everything that’s great about road tripping in America.
- 1. Northern California Scenic Drives: Pacific Coast Highway – San Francisco to Fort Bragg
- 2. Northern California Scenic Drives: Mount Shasta Cascade Loop
- 3. Northern California Scenic Drives: Redwood Highway (US 101)
- 4. Northern California Scenic Drives: 17-Mile Drive Carmel-by-the-Sea to Monterey
- 5. Northern California Scenic Drives: Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway (State Highway 4)
- 6. Northern California Scenic Drives: Silverado Trail
- 7. Northern California Scenic Drives: Skyline Boulevard (State Route 35)
- 8. Northern California Scenic Drives: Sacramento Valley Gold Rush Trail (State Route 49)
- 9. Northern California Scenic Drives: Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway
- 10. Northern California Scenic Drives: Lone Pine to South Lake Tahoe (US-395)
- 11: Northern California Scenic Drives: Lake Tahoe Loop (US 50, NV 28 and US 89)
- 12: Northern California Scenic Drives: Yosemite Valley Loop
- Top Tips for Road Tripping California
1. Northern California Scenic Drives: Pacific Coast Highway – San Francisco to Fort Bragg
- Distance: 172 miles
- Time needed: 3.5 hours direct to 3 days including all the stops!
Nothing describes Northern California better than a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. Although the entirety of the PCH – State Route 1 – stretches all the way from San Diego to Legget – over 1,000 miles in total, it is entirely possible to complete only the northern section of this long journey from San Francisco to Fort Bragg as a stand alone road trip over a weekend – or much longer if you want to take in all these stunning stopping points!
You can tackle the entire drive along PCH 1 – or take the more inland Highway 101 for segments of the trip (if you have any motion sickness sufferers you’ll soon see why!); dramatic, twisty bends, towering trees and rugged cliffs punctuate much of this scenic journey.
Beginning with crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, make a photo stop at the viewpoint on Marin Highlands side of the bridge before heading to Muir Woods National Monument. (Pro Tip – reserve your parking time at Muir Woods in advance!)
Keep heading north along Highway 1 for Point Reyes National Seashore. Filled with hidden trails, secluded sandy beaches, an utterly instagrammable cypress grove and the Point Reyes Lighthouse is a must-stop. Visiting from November through to March you may even be in luck with some coastal whale spotting.
You can keep heading along the PCH or another option is to cut back inland after Point Reyes Station, taking the picturesque roads through West Marlin County and rejoin the 101 for a while.
Take Highway 128 – the incredibly Hendy Woods Scenic Drive – back to the coast. You’ll pass through yet another of California’s tall timber forests, the Navarro River Redwoods State Park before rejoining the PCH.
Fort Bragg, made famous for its Glass Beach is your end point for this dramatic coastal journey (though don’t be too disappointed if this iconic landmark has lost a little of its shine). Enjoy your time along the Mendocino Coast and stop a few days to enjoy the wild and rugged beaches.
(Take Note! if you intend continuing your journey north to the end of Highway 1 and rejoining the 101 to start the Redwood Highway, that last 40 miles or so can be grueling on motion sickness sufferers!)
When to go: Although the peak of summer brings the crowds, note that the mist can often hamper the coastal views at this time of year. The roads remain open in winter but can be susceptible to road works and long delays, we recommend spring as the best season for this incredible scenic drive in Northern California
Continuing onward to Oregon on the 101? Here are our top road trip stop suggestions between San Francisco and Portland.
2. Northern California Scenic Drives: Mount Shasta Cascade Loop
- Distance: 400 miles
- Time needed: 2 to 3 days
The Mount Shasta-Cascade Loop is an incredible weekend drive. This scenic 400 mile round trip from Redding will teach you about the region’s rich volcanic history from Lassen Volcanic National Park to Lava Beds National Monument, all while exploring picturesque small towns like Etna or Quincy along Highway 89!
The narrow winding roads through these areas make it worth every minute of driving just so you can see what they have waiting for visitors upon arrival: breathtaking views at almost every turn; waterfalls that drop hundreds if not thousands feet off cliffs right next door where people swim during summertime (and winter too!).
The 30-mile drive through Lassen Volcanic National Park is a great way to view some of the park’s key attractions. This national park is home to steaming fumaroles, mud pots, boiling pools and several geysers.
Much of the raw beauty of Lassen Volcanic National Park can be enjoyed from the car, including the stinky bubble Sulphur Works. If there’s one trail to get out and enjoy on foot though it’s Bumpass Hell Trail, taking you on a 3 mile round trip to the largest geothermal area in the park. One of the most truly unique places to experience in California.
When to go: Much of this drive can be enjoyed year-round, though you’ll find temperatures are at their best for exploring the trails June to October. Note that there will be Alpine route closures in winter, you cannot drive through Lassen Volcanic National Park approximately late October to early June.
3. Northern California Scenic Drives: Redwood Highway (US 101)
- Distance: 175 miles
- Time needed: 3.5 hours to 3 days
The Redwood Highway is not only one of the most scenic drives in Northern California, but also in the entire state. The 175-mile journey between Leggett and Crescent City may seem like one continuous forest but is actually made up of several smaller state parks and the Redwoods National & State Parks.
One of the most famous stretches is the enchanting Avenue of the Giants. Spanning some 31-miles through the Humboldt Redwood State Park, you’ll find yourself engulfed by the towering coastal redwood trees, some of which are among the oldest known to man.
The drive is perfect for a family road trip, as it is not too long, and there are plenty of places to stop and explore along the way, including exploring the parallel Eel River.
As a novelty touch, the kids may appreciate a stop at one of the Drive-Thru trees. Located on private land at the southern end of Avenue of the Giants you’ll find properties such as Shrine Drive-Thru Tree and Chandelier Tree – cheesy, yes, but memorable road trip experiences in Northern California!
Continuing your journey northward along the 101, you’ll drive through the Redwood National and State Parks in Humboldt County. Get off the main road to truly appreciate their grandeur, with several shorter scenic drives. The Newton B. Drury Parkway is a great choice for all vehicle types to see the Big Tree Wayside.
For a more challenging drive (no motorhomes or RV’s), try Howland Hill Road to see the old-growth redwoods in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park or for coastal views, Enderts Beach Road, fabulous place for Elk spotting and off the coast whale spotting in the winter months.
The coastal town of Eureka with it’s Victorian-era homes make a good stopping point along your redwoods journey.
Nostalgia buffs may want to download “Map of the Movies“, an incredible journey around all the legendary Hollywood filming spots in Humboldt and Del Nort Counties – think Jurassic Park to ET and Return of the Jedi, all filmed in this incredible corner of the globe.
When to go: Spring and Summer are the best seasons to enjoy the Redwoods, with summer notably busier. Do note, this section of the 101 can be prone to landslides and closures for road works and repairs, best to always check your route before setting out whatever time of year.
- Dip into more of the detail, this northern California road trip itinerary will take your from San Francisco to Crescent City along the Redwoods Highway
4. Northern California Scenic Drives: 17-Mile Drive Carmel-by-the-Sea to Monterey
- Distance: 17 miles
- Time needed: 3 hours with plenty of photo stops
If you’re after a short but spectacular scenic drive in northern California, the 17-mile Drive Carmel-by-the-Sea to Monterey, best known as “17-mile drive” will transport you from the picturesque town of Carmel to the seaside community of Monterey on the Pacific Coast.
The only downside; due to it’s huge popularity and falling on private lands, this scenic drive is paid. For your fee you do get a guided map but we’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s worth it! (The alternative is to enter free by bike from Pacific Grove gate).
Pro Tip – you can get your entry fee refunded! If you dine at any of the Pebble Beach Company restaurants they take the entry fee off your bill.
The popular stopping points include visiting the Lone Cypress Tree, taking a picture at one of the most photographed spots in America, Pebble Beach, a stop at a roadside fruit stand and a stop in the artsy town of Pacific Grove.
This scenic drive also takes you through an old Spanish Rancho and includes several world-class golf courses, resorts and exclusive homes along the way. The best spot to pull up for a picnic is between Point Joe and Seal Rock.
When to go: A summer visit might sound ideal but remember the northern California coast can be shrouded in fog at this time. Fall and spring are best and mid to late-afternoon ideal for clear skies.
5. Northern California Scenic Drives: Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway (State Highway 4)
- Distance: 61 miles
- Time needed: 2 hours to half a day
The Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway is a must-see for any nature lover. This stunning mountain drive takes you through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, crossing at it’s peak with the Pacific Crest Trail.
The route passes by some of California’s most beautiful destinations including Grover Hot Springs State Park, Lake Alpine and Calaveras Big Trees State Park to name just three!
Winter sees the road closed to through traffic, but Arnold, Big Tree State Park and Bear Valley along CA-4 are a bit of a hidden gem when it comes to winter sports in California. The scenic route transforms to a snow highway, ideal for snow mobiles and backcountry fun.
When to go: Fall is the ideal time to visit for some amazing colorful foliage (why should the east coast get all the fun, right?) Note that the high-country segment of Highway 4 between Lake Alpine and Silver Creek is closed during the winter months (approximately mid-November to May)
6. Northern California Scenic Drives: Silverado Trail
- Distance: 29 miles
- Time needed: 1 hour to 2 days
The Silverado Trail is an awe-inspiring journey through the heart of northern California’s wine country, taking your from Napa to Calistoga. Even though this scenic drive in Northern California can be completed in an hour, the tree-lined country road still packs plenty of views and must-see destinations.
Get off The Silverado Trail (and parallel Highway 29) and stop at one or more of the wineries dotting the route and explore their beautifully verdant grounds.
Most wineries now require advance booking, especially at weekends if you’re stopping for a tasting – and don’t come cheap! A good non-booking stop for a gourmet picnic on the lawns is V Sattui or grab something in town from Oxbow Public Market – more tips for visiting Napa Valley with kids here.
Complete your journey just north of Calistoga at Old Faith Geyser of California. Sitting on private lands, its not quite of Yellowstone size, but nonetheless a fun stop to finish the Silverado Trail.
When to go: The most popular and busiest time is harvest season late August through October. Spring can be a beautiful time to visit with fewer crowds March to May. Do expect weekends to be much busier (some wineries will only open Thursday through Sunday), but makes mid-week traffic conditions ideal!
7. Northern California Scenic Drives: Skyline Boulevard (State Route 35)
- Distance: 54 miles
- Time needed: 40 minutes to half a day
California State Route 35, also known as Skyline Boulevard, is a scenic highway that winds its way along the top of redwood forested hills of northern California from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz. It makes for the perfect San Francisco day trip, or add it as a scenic detour to your west coast road trip itinerary.
Following the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the views of both the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay (on a clear day) from the roadway are simply stunning and make for a perfect backdrop to a family road trip.
There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the scenery, including viewpoints, parks, and picnic areas, the ideal way to enjoy the Silicon Valley.
When to go: Open and enjoyable year round. Like most of the northern California coast, be wary that summer can bring the mist and winter the rain; Late Spring and Fall are perfect.
8. Northern California Scenic Drives: Sacramento Valley Gold Rush Trail (State Route 49)
- Distance: 307 miles
- Time needed: 1 day to 4 days
If you’re looking for a scenic drive that offers a little bit of everything, California Highway 49 in the Sacramento Valley is the perfect choice for the history buff.
1849 (hence Highway 49) saw the start of the California Gold Rush and the winding roadway from Oakhurst to Vinton will take you on a journey through this chapter in the state’s history. Think charming small towns, rolling hills and vineyards along the banks of the American River.
The once gold-laden rivers of the Sierra Nevada Foothills define the path for the Gold Rush Trail (or often called the Golden Chain Highway) in Mother Lode county. Some fascinating stops include the California State Mining and Mineral Museum, Columbia State Historic Park, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and Railtown 1897.
Many will pick up parts of the trail from Sacramento, but there’s plenty to see and do along the way, so we’d suggest setting aside several days to explore it from start to end for the full ’49ers experience. The “official” start point is at Oakhurst, 14 miles south of Yosemite, ending at Highway 120 near Groveland.
For an overnight stop, be sure to spend at least a night in historic Columbia, one of the best-preserved towns along Highway 49 taking you on a true step back in time; thing historic inns, stage coaches, townspeople in period attire and panning for gold!
When to go: Summers can be pretty hot, we’d recommend Spring and Fall for the best experience.
9. Northern California Scenic Drives: Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway
- Distance: 500 miles
- Time needed: 3 to 4 days
Partially covered in the Mount Shasta Cascade Loop above but extending the drive through Oregon, the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway is a 500-mile route follows the Cascade Mountain Range through the Modoc Plateau, the Warner Mountains, and the Black Rock Desert.
Traveling north to south along the Cascade Mountain Range, the highlights of this “All American Road” include volcanoes, ancient forests, high deserts, and snow-capped mountains. This drive is perfect for a family road trip as it offers something for everyone.
Starting in Oregon’s only national park, Crater Lake National Park, head south into California and visit the underground caves of Lava Beds National Monument, admire the dramatic peak of Mount Shasta, then the unbelievably beautiful McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. Continue onwards through several fabulous small towns to Lassen Volcanic National Park and end your journey at Susanville.
Whether you’re a geology nerd of not, you’re bound to be astounded by not just the living history but the raw and majestic beauty of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.
When to go: Late Spring and Fall are the best time for tackling this trip due to mountain closures in the winter that can last as late as June. Summer, inevitably, brings with it peak crowds, Crater lake in particular.
10. Northern California Scenic Drives: Lone Pine to South Lake Tahoe (US-395)
- Distance: 232 miles
- Time needed: 4.5 hours to 2 days
If you’re looking for a family-friendly road trip that offers stunning scenery and plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation, look no further than the Highway 395 drive from Lone Pine to South Lake Tahoe – one of the most beautiful roads to drive in the world.
This route parallels California’s Eastern Sierras Nevada mountains, providing motorists with gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside at every turn. Plus, there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy some outdoor fun along the way, making it the perfect destination for a summer vacation.
Take your time and plan for at least one overnight stop to take in everything this scenic route has to offer. Interesting stops include Manzar National Historic Site (suitable for older kids), Eastern Sierra Museum, Fossil Falls, Law’s Train Museum, Mono Lake, Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls.
We’d also suggest adding a side trip to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest – and additional 34-mile return trip – is a another must to witness some of the world’s oldest living trees, before concluding your journey at Lake Tahoe.
When to go: Fall is the perfect time of year for this trip but many parts are accessible year-round, just be aware of driving conditions in the winter.
11: Northern California Scenic Drives: Lake Tahoe Loop (US 50, NV 28 and US 89)
- Distance: 72 miles
- Time needed: 2.5 hours to 2 days
The scenic drive around Lake Tahoe may not be one of the state’s longest but is most certainly among the most scenic drives in northern California (and Nevada). There’s no shortage of things for kids to do, with breathtaking beaches, stunning vistas, and numerous leisure options in both summer and winter.
Taking you from Kings Beach in the north in an anticlockwise direction you’ll go through Tahoe City on your way to Emerald Bay State Park, stopping in at the popular resort town of South Lake Tahoe. Crossing into Nevada, popular stops include Zephyr Cove, Cave Rock and Sand Harbor.
Winter offers a huge variety of snow sports in the surrounding mountains, whilst summers the beach-like atmosphere akin to a coastal town! Although you can circumnavigate the lake in just a few hours, do take your time to soak in everything on offer at one of the most beautiful places in California.
Traffic in summer certainly won’t permit you to move at speed; Plan your stops carefully as parking spots can fill early in the day and take in the raw, serene beauty of this stunning lake in the mountains – truly a scenic family road trip like no other!
When to go: Pick your season! The road is accessible year-round and each season brings with it something quite unique and beautiful.
12: Northern California Scenic Drives: Yosemite Valley Loop
- Distance: 11.5 miles
- Time needed: 4 hours to 1 day
Last but not least, it may be one of the shortest in distance on this list but we simply cannot exclude the Yosemite Valley Loop, one of the most family-friendly scenic drive in Northern California and a haven for nature lovers.
The loop begins with a visit to Yosemite Village, where you can explore the historic buildings and shops of this old gold rush town before continuing up the winding road into the mountains
You’ll ascend Tioga Pass, passing through forests and alpine meadows full of wildflowers in late summer. You’ll also see amazing views of Tenaya Lake far below on one side and Half Dome towering above on the other.
As you continue past Mirror Lake, Nevada Fall (the highest waterfall in North America), Vernal Fall (another spectacular cascade) and Bridalveil Fall (a beautiful misty curtain), the Yosemite Valley Loop culminates at the spectacular Tunnel View, with views of Yosemite Valley and El Capitan that will take your breath away.
You can also park at several traiheads to go camping, hiking, climbing, fishing, and more.
Pick your timings carefully to get the most out of what is arguably one of the best scenic drives in northern California for a family road trip. This route is seasonal and parts of the road are closed in winter, through until late May or early June. Once the peak of summer rolls around, it’s best described more as one enormous traffic jam than a scenic drive!
When to go: Late Spring and Fall will be the best time to tackle the Yosemite Valley, equally scenic by car as it is by bike,. which may eb the preferred options in the peak of summer!
- Don’t miss our Yosemite to Lake Tahoe guide to make the most of driving through the Sierra Nevada mountains between these two California beauties.
Top Tips for Road Tripping California
You can plan your northern California road trip at any time of year but a few things to be mindful of:
- Before you set our road tripping in California, always check for latest highway updates. Many of the most scenic drives in northern California are susceptible to both bushfires and landslides.
- California State Parks come with daily parking fees of $10 – it’s good for 24 hours so make the most of it!
- Many parts of northern California have poor to non-existent cell phone signal, always have downloaded maps if using a phone app or take good old-fashioned paper maps.
- Invisible “black ice” can be an extreme hazard in winter – take note of our winter driving tips before you set out.
- Road tripping the mountains in winter, look out for “Snow Zone” signs as these will let you know about requirements for snow chains or traction tires.
- Summer means bushfire season for much of northern California. Stay alert to bushfire warnings with the National Weather Service and Cal Fire when planning your daily drives.
- Never forget an important item for your family again! Download our ultimate family road trip checklist before you set out.
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