1. Yosemite National Park
2. San Francisco Bay Area
3. Big Sur & The PCH
4. Redwood National & State Parks
5. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks
What a beautiful place. Lake Tahoe is actually shared between California and Nevada. In my opinion the California side is better, but it’s certainly worth exploring both parts. Although the borders are east/west, the areas of concentration for lodging and attractions are more like north/south. Additional details can be found in my post on Lake Tahoe, Nevada, but a couple favorites include Emerald Bay, Fallen Leaf Lake, and Eagle Lake.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Most people tend to stick to the coast and miss out on some of the wonderful lesser known treasures to explore inland. This is definitely one of them. Reminds me of a mini Yellowstone with its lakes, mountains, forests, and the sweet sweet smell of sulfur in the air. Wander (safely) around the caldera at Bumpass Hell. Take in the beauty of Manzanita Lake and Lassen Peak. Fun fact: I went in June and one of the mountain peaks had snow! I camped by the lake and don’t recall being cold though. I do recall a ton of flies, so keep your tent closed. Also nearby you’ll find Lava Beds National Monument which is pretty cool if you’ve never been inside a lava tube. You can literally walk underground into tubes hollowed out from ancient lava explosions.
Monterey & Carmel
Monterey and Carmel are right next to each other, not too far south from San Francisco and just before Big Sur. Monterey has an incredible aquarium and wonderful seafood. Carmel has a cannery, golf, and beautiful seaside cliffs. You’ll also discover some wildlife such as whales, golden eagles, and of course sea lions. Look for signs and consider the scenic 17-mile drive.
Predominantly known as a popular ski area in the Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Lakes also has hiking, forests, and waterfalls. The most impressive being Rainbow Falls. It’s a bit tricky to get there, and I believe the fastest way is driving through Yosemite if traveling from the west. Note that you’ll have to pay the park entrance fee. There are other, less direct ways around, but only a few roads exist that will actually take you through the mountains and thus will tack on extra driving time. Definitely a cool spot if you have some time and inclination. Perhaps the easiest thing would be to add a day trip from Yosemite.
Pinnacles National Park
Despite being at the bottom of this list, Pinnacles is actually one of my favorite off-the-beaten-path hidden gems in Northern California. It’s not exactly on the way to anything else, despite being just east of Big Sur and due west of Fresno, making it a destination you have to make it a point to stop at. There are pinnacle rock formations, a small lake, rim hikes, and a small “cave.” I think the draw for me is that despite it’s small size, the rocks and lake form this beautiful little oasis. The hiking is relatively short and easy. There are lots of dragonflies, frogs, small harmless snakes, and wild turkeys who greeted me at the campground. And best of all, no crowds! Due to it’s size and semi-remote location, this park definitely flies under the radar, especially when compared to California’s many other larger than life national parks.