Top Road Trip Destinations in Northern California
I was born and raised in "The Golden State" of California, spending most of my life exploring hidden gems and smaller, lesser-known towns with my family. When my husband and I had our three children, we passed along these types of adventures to our own family. We love not having to battle crowds, and the expenses are often lower than traveling to more touristy places like Lake Tahoe (which is still a very beautiful place even if “everyone” knows about it already). But, don’t worry city lovers, my last vacation spot is just for you.
My criteria for a vacation consist of asking these questions about a new place:
- Does it have a local coffee shop, grocery store, and/or brewery?
- Does it have access to the outdoors?
I assure you that the following 10 destinations are a great fit for this criteria!
- Gold was struck in 1848 in Coloma, California and more than 100,000 people, nicknamed “forty-niners,” rushed to California in 1849 to get rich. Just a year later, in 1850, California officially became a state.
- The state flower is the Golden Poppy.
- California encompasses 1,100 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean.
- The Coast Redwood tree is the tallest tree on Earth and can reach well over 300 feet tall.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Few things in California are more majestic than the tallest trees on Earth, the Coast Redwood Trees. Standing at 300 feet tall (or more) and as wide as 24 feet across, Coast Redwood Trees are 200 to 2,000 years old. Most of the redwood trees are 10-12 feet in diameter according to the National Park Service, which would take about 7 people to join hands around one to complete a circle. You just can’t imagine their size until you stand beneath one or try to hug one and are dwarfed in comparison. One of the best places to meet these giants is in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, at the southern end of Humboldt County.
If you’re the camping sort, I recommend staying at Burlington Campground on the Avenue of the Giants in Weott. Next door to the campground is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park Visitor’s Center where you can learn some of the history of the area. You can also pick up a brochure for the 32-mile auto tour of the Avenue of the Giants which meanders through some of the tiny towns of Southern Humboldt County.
If you camp at Burlington, I recommend swimming in the Eel River in the warm months at the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove, which is just a few miles up the Avenue of the Giants. At the nearby Founders Grove Nature Trail Loop, you can see the Dyerville Giant and the Founders Tree, which are massive. The trail is only 0.3 miles and fairly flat and well worn, so it's great for young toddlers or an all-terrain stroller.
If you forget your pots and pans when camping, like we did one year, or you just are looking for a reprieve from camp cooking, I recommend the Avenue Cafe in Redcrest for lunch or dinner, along the Avenue of the Giants. They have great pizza, a cool mural, and a kid’s menu. Our favorite local coffee shop, The Daily Grind, is in nearby Myers Flat.
There are a number of small local markets along the Avenue of the Giants for small things like s’mores ingredients and bags of ice. But if you need the nearest large town for something else, Garberville is to the South, and Fortuna is to the North. Both are about 20-30 minutes away.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Orick, at the northern end of Humboldt County, has some unique features that Humboldt Redwoods State Park at the southern end of Humboldt County lacks. One is the coastal access at Gold Bluffs Beach which is next to one of our family’s favorite hikes of all time: Fern Canyon. Another is the opportunity to view the Roosevelt elk in their natural habitat.
Fern Canyon is really neat because you get to hike through a 50-80 foot deep canyon that is sprouting verdant ferns out of its sides. A creek traverses the canyon where boards are set up in the busy summer months (June-September) to help you cross the water. I recommend waterproof hiking shoes or sandals that can get immersed in water. It is a 1-mile loop trail that only has a 150-foot elevation gain. Our 2.5-year-old was able to do the hike herself, holding our hands sometimes to avoid some of the deeper parts of the creek.
A herd of Roosevelt Elk, the largest type of elk in Northern America, can often be viewed from Elk Prairie, Davison Road, or Gold Bluffs Beach. It is important to stay back from them and give them their space, so binoculars or a telephoto lens are better to use to view them closer. These majestic creatures were once almost extinct!
I suggest you bring snacks or a picnic out to the beach, but nearby EdeBee’s Snack Shack in Orick serves up some tasty burgers (including elk burgers!). There are more awesome dining options south in the town of Trinidad.
A few things to do in the area to extend your vacation are hiking Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail in Redwood National Park in Orick which is 1.5 miles. We have seen a black bear here. Know what to do in case you encounter wildlife.
If you are visiting the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park area (part of Redwood National & State Parks) in the Spring, the lupine flower bloom is photo-worthy. It is east of Orick up Bald Hills Road from Highway 101. Drive 10-15 miles up the road for the peak blooms that will last until the end of May.
If you’re looking for a way to rest your feet after a hike, take the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway which is 10 miles and takes about 20-30 minutes. It is a scenic alternative route to the U.S. Highway 101 (similar to the Avenue of the Giants in Southern Humboldt County).
Eureka and Arcata (Humboldt County)
The center of Humboldt County offers a vibrant vibe and is the heartbeat of the county. We love to visit Eureka, the largest city in Humboldt County, and the artsy university town of Arcata. You can stay in Eureka or Arcata while also visiting both Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (and Redwood National Parks). Each one is about an hour away from Eureka and Arcata.
In Eureka, you’ll find a quaint seaside community with a harbor of boats and a vibrant Old Town, as well as several historic Victorian homes. In Old Town Eureka, watch the boats cruise by.
Eureka boasts Sequoia Park and Sequoia Zoo. The zoo has a new redwood sky walk, which is a network of connected bridges and platforms 100 feet above the forest floor. Sequoia Park next door to the zoo has a playground for children with swings and a paved trail through the redwoods. On the other side of the zoo there is a rose garden.
For lunch or dinner, our favorite spot is the Lost Coast Brewery Restaurant. It’s super family-friendly and has great food, a small arcade in the back, and fun decor. Walk on over to Humboldt Bay on Eureka’s waterfront, where you can find the local ice-cream shop, Living the Dream.
In Arcata, you’ll find a quirky, vibrant town. For a quick breakfast, check out Los Bagels just off the plaza. It is a colorful little spot with some unique offerings. Then head to the nearby Arcata Community Forest just next to Cal Poly Humboldt and a short walk from the Arcata Plaza. You can hike or mountain bike here and there’s a disc golf course amongst the redwoods. There is a playground called Redwood Park with spectacular views of the redwoods and a big, open grassy meadow to throw a frisbee. There are over a dozen relatively short trails that can be connected to make a longer hike.
If you’ve got beach lovers in your family, we enjoy the Mad River Beach in Arcata which has large sand dunes for kids who love to play with their sand toys in this giant natural sandbox.
At the end of a fun day in Arcata, head to Arcata Scoop where you’ll find delightful flavors like lavender and cardamom, with a small kid’s ice-cream shop play area and whimsical decor, like a rabbit from an old carousel ride.
Plumas County is about an hour north of the much more popular Lake Tahoe. I have been coming to Plumas County in the Sierra Nevadas since I was a little kid. It’s truly a quiet place to slow down. The entire county has less than 19,000 people. My family recently enjoyed staying at the Nakoma Resort in Clio which has an outdoor pool and hot tub, an indoor climbing gym and basketball hoop, a recreation room with games, and a kid’s room for littles with crafts, a slide, and toys.
We walked the resort’s quiet grounds and neighborhoods in the spring and had lunch at the Graeagle Frostee, where I used to ride my bike as a kid when on vacation. They even have a local miniature golf course and driving range in Graeagle.
We swam at the resort’s pool and then enjoyed a family-friendly meal at Rico’s Mexican Food in Portola, a quaint gold country town where there are a few dining options. We also picked up some snacks in Portola at the Feather River Co-Op.
My favorite beer garden of all time is in the nearby town of Blairsden, called The Brewing Lair. They are located on a beautifully forested 15 acres with an outdoor stage for live music, corn hole, outdoor ping pong, and disc golf. They are dog and kid-friendly, and allow outside food to be brought in because they do not offer their own.
It is worth mentioning that in 2021, the Dixie Fire reached a total size of 963,309 acres, making it the largest single fire in California history. The Dixie Fire burned parts of the Lake Almanor and Lassen Volcanic National Park area which re-routed our summer vacation plans last year towards the coast instead, to escape the smoke and closed roads. We have yet to return to this beloved area since the wildfire, but look forward to experiencing it again soon.
If you drive north from Redding up toward the California/Oregon border, you’ll find the cute mountain town of Mount Shasta. Mount Shasta is an outdoors paradise that is conveniently located off of Interstate 5.
We enjoy staying at the newer LOGE hotel, in its family room which has a separate room of bunk beds for our older girls while we stay up late in the other room. They even have a hammock in the room, which of course, my kids love too. The fire pit is a great place to unwind after a long day of outdoor adventures!
I look forward to grabbing coffee and breakfast at Seven Suns, Yak’s, or Berryvale Grocery all in downtown Mount Shasta to start the day. Once you’re fueled up, there are plenty of outdoor recreation options. Hiking, river rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking, boating, off-roading, fishing, bird watching, and swimming are all nearby in the warmer months. In the winter there is also ice-skating, skiing, and snowboarding at Mt. Shasta Ski Park.
For lunch or dinner, I recommend heading to downtown Mount Shasta or to nearby Dunsmuir where there is YAKS on the 5 for a delicious burger and fries after a big day of recreating.
In recent years with the severe California drought, Lake Shasta has dried up to a sliver of what it once was. I recommend visiting nearby Siskiyou Lake or Whiskeytown Lake. Or, a bit further away is Trinity Lake.
Placerville’s “claim to fame” is Apple Hill, a very quaint and charming area that has seasonal farms and orchards that are open to the public. Apple Hill’s peak season is late August to October, but September is the busiest. The Apple Hill Growers Association has a map online which lists all the farms, their seasons, and locations. Despite the name “Apple Hill,” some farms also have pumpkin patches or Christmas tree farms. Our favorite place on Apple Hill that is open year-round is Boa Vista.
Apple Hill is often a long day trip from the Bay Area, Sacramento or Tahoe, so we stayed in Placerville and we got to experience much more than just Apple Hill. For coffee, we sought respite from the late summer heat at Totem Coffee, where their patio was shaded.
Our favorite hike nearby was Bassi Falls in the Eldorado National Forest. It’s about an hour’s drive from Placerville, but one of the best hikes we’ve ever done. The huge boulders and fresh water from the waterfall, creating small pools for dipping our feet in, were unforgettable. The lower hike was easy carrying a hiking backpack with our baby, but we wouldn’t have felt comfortable taking our very small children up to the upper portion.
I cooled off in the nearby Ice House Reservoir Picnic Area by swimming in the lake which charged a $10 day-use fee, while my husband stayed in the car with a napping toddler.
Head back downtown to window shop in all the cute local shops. Your kids will love T.W. Bonkers Toy & Candy Emporium. For dinner, there are a number of pizzerias, breweries, and pubs nearby for kids of all ages!
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
We’ve camped at Calaveras Big Trees State Park amongst the giant sequoia trees and also stayed at AirBnb’s in the town of Arnold and nearby. Either way, visiting the park is a must. Junior Cubs and Junior Rangers offer programs in the summer for ages 3-12, and there are campfire programs on the weekends in the summer too. The Visitor’s Center, where there is a souvenir shop, museum, and bookstore, is a fun place to start.
The North Grove trail was a good distance for our young kids. It is flat and can be busy, but you get to see the giant sequoias and giant sugar pine cones. You can also see a huge sequoia tree that was cut down in 1852, and its remaining stump once used as a dance floor. You can step up on top of that giant sequoia tree stump and feel how massive its trunk was.
Nearby in the town of Arnold, there are a few dining options. We enjoyed Arnold Chinese Restaurant for something different than your typical mountain pub food. The owner and her daughter ran the whole restaurant as she herded her toddler around the place. They were very understanding of our own whiny toddler who doesn’t like to sit for meals. We enjoyed dining outside at Angel’s Mexican food truck and Bristol’s Ranch House Cafe, which both had picnic tables outside. Snowshoe Brewing is a solid pub choice for a meal and local beer.
Nevada City and Grass Valley
We’ve stayed in Grass Valley and Nevada City a number of times at Airbnb’s. We walked from downtown Nevada City to the Hirschman Trail and the Deer Creek Tribute Trails on separate days. They were both beautiful and the Deer Creek Tribute Trail has a picturesque suspension bridge over Deer Creek.
After a morning hike, check out Fudenjuce, which is our all-time favorite lunch stop in the area. They have really yummy (and healthy) wraps and smoothies.
In the summer we went to one of the swimming holes on the Yuba River. These can be tricky to get down to due to the large boulders. We had a very difficult time getting down there with a baby carrier.
It is also easy to take a day trip from Nevada City to Lake Tahoe to do some snow recreation in the winter.
One of the best co-op grocery stores we’ve been to is BriarPatch Food Co-Op, between the two towns. It is one of the larger co-op grocery stores we’ve been to in Northern California. They have an espresso bar, deli and prepared foods counter, and all sorts of other staples and specialty goods. For dinner, we also liked Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Company in downtown Nevada City.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is usually abbreviated to SLO (pronounced “slow”) if you’re a local.
For breakfast, we love Madonna Inn for a kitschy retro pink diner in a hotel. You will feel like you’re walking straight into the 1970s when you walk into the Madonna Inn; like time has frozen. For breakfast downtown, we love Louisa’s Place.
No matter what age kids you have, there are several beach towns nearby to check out. My favorite local beach is Morro Rock Beach in Morro Bay with views of the imposing Morro Rock.
If you’re in Morro Bay and want a meal after the beach, check out Great American Fish Company with views of the bay and boats. We’ve been going there for decades and we love their family-friendly restaurant and seafood.
After your meal, take a walk down Embarcadero to see a variety of cute shops, including a family favorite of ours, The Shell Shop. There are tons of different seashells to look at and feel that are for sale.
My husband’s favorite local beach is Avila Beach. If you check out Avila Beach, on the way back to SLO you will find the Avila Valley Barn. You can enjoy the farm with tractor rides, feeding the farm animals (they sell produce to feed them on site), homemade baked goods and pies, an ice cream and sweets shop, U-pick fruit and pumpkins, a gift shop, and barbecue on the weekends.
In SLO, there is also the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum which is great for a hot day. Just a couple of blocks from the children’s museum is the historic and beautiful Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. The mission opens up onto a public plaza, great for a picnic, and there is creek access for kids to wade in when it's hot.
For older kids, I love to hike Bishop’s Peak or any of the five of “Nine Sisters” (ancient volcanic mountains) that have public trails and beautiful views of the valley below. In the spring, everything is lush and the hills are green. I also hiked Montana de Oro in Los Osos and played in the tidepools there many times as a kid. There are cliffs at this beach and the tidepools are slippery, so I recommend it for older kids.
A tour of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, a short trip up the coast from SLO, is fascinating for anyone, but especially history buffs and future architects. Strollers are not allowed on this tour due to all the stairs, but baby carriers and hiking backpacks are allowed. Tours of Hearst Castle are currently on hiatus for road work and are set to reopen May 11, 2022.
When back in SLO, there are some great casual and family-friendly restaurants that have been around for decades. Check out Frank’s Famous Hot Dogs, Firestone Grill (known for their tri-tip sandwiches), Woodstock’s Pizza, or Splash Cafe (known for their clam chowder in freshly baked bread bowls).
San Francisco and East Bay Area
This last destination is for city lovers, and it’s a foodie’s paradise. There’s one thing the big cities have that small, rural towns don’t: more food options! If you love to eat, then I’m going to give you all my favorite family-friendly dining spots in the San Francisco and East Bay Area, and activities to sprinkle in when not eating.
Our favorite unique place to eat in San Francisco is Chinatown. Chinatown in San Francisco is the largest and oldest Chinatown outside of Asia. There are many local Chinese restaurants and bakeries in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Don’t forget to check out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. Did you know the fortune cookie was invented in Chinatown? Come watch fortune cookies being made!
Outside of Chinatown where it is mostly eating and shopping, we love Golden Gate Park. There are so many places to visit in just Golden Gate Park alone, you could spend multiple days here. The California Academy of Sciences is great for budding scientists. Plant lovers will enjoy the Conservatory of Flowers, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and the Japanese Tea Garden. Kids love the carousel!
Another San Francisco treasure is the historic Presidio and Crissy Field Beach with views of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
The Exploratorium in San Francisco is worth a stop for any age. It has various science exhibits and hands-on activities. Walk the waterfront Embarcadero along the piers and end at the Ferry Building for some coffee or lunch. There are several eateries in the Ferry Building that are top-notch for any gourmet foodie, but low-key enough for kids and families. The Exploratorium and Ferry Building are both indoors so they are especially great for cold and rainy or hot weather.
If you’re like me and you like visiting a big city like San Francisco, but feel claustrophobic after a while, I recommend heading out to the East Bay. Oakland and Berkeley are both large and interesting cities with a lot to offer, but a bit easier to navigate than San Francisco if you have a car.
While in Berkeley, young kids will delight in Tilden Park which includes a steam train, carousel, and farm.
Next to Berkeley is the city of Oakland. Here you’ll find Market Hall next to the Rockridge BART station in Oakland. Foodies love it here, but kids love watching the lobsters in tanks and picking up a baked goodie while adults snag a cup of joe from Highwire inside. This will fuel you up for a trip to Fairyland or the Oakland Zoo. Fairyland is a little amusement park inspired by fairy tales. The Oakland Zoo has a special new gondola that is included in admission. It takes you up the hill from the main zoo to another exhibit spot that gives you views of Oakland and San Francisco across the water.
I hope you enjoy your travels in amazing Northern California, an outdoor recreation and foodie’s paradise.