Northern California (NorCal)

It's truly incredible the amount of diversity from nature to culture to weather that engulfs the great state of California's upper section of NorCal. Mild weather, cool along the coast, varying from hot to cold inland. From the big cities around the San Francisco Bay Area to the forests and mountains up north and to the east, I'd consider NorCal to be more closely related to the Pacific Northwest (but much less dreary) with it's cool weather, substantial greenery, incredible national and state parks, and hipster cities.

My Favorites

1. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Highlights: Mountains, forests, lakes, waterfalls, hiking, mountain climbing, camping, wildlife
Suggest Staying: 3-10 days
Stay Around: Yosemite Valley
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Hands down one of my favorite national parks in the U.S., this place is a nature lover’s dream. There are misty mountain trails, forests, bears, lakes, rock climbing, waterfalls, and endless hiking. Most of the action and concentration of the park is in Yosemite Valley, but the park is huge! I encourage you to explore. Look at maps and pictures of the park outside the valley to find solace, beauty, and adventure. When I look at pictures, Yosemite kind of reminds me of Iceland, but warmer and more biodiversity.

See & Do

  • Yosemite Valley. Main area of the park where most of the attractions are. Also lodging, food, and water.
  • Yosemite Falls. Series of waterfalls flowing from the top of the mountain down to the valley floor.
  • Bridalveil Fall. 600+ foot waterfall. Interesting to visit at different seasons, as sometimes there’s water and you can swim, other times it’s dried up and you can climb up and over the rocks to the base of the falls.
  • El Capitan. Largest granite wall face in the park, and possibly the world. A sheer force of nature. A rock climber trophy. If you haven’t see Free Solo, watch it. Will blow your mind how a rock climber ascended this extremely difficult challenge all without a rope! Incredible and terrifying.
  • Half Dome. Iconic granite rock formation see from various viewpoints in the park. You can hike to the summit or climb it.
  • Sentinel Dome. Another nice granite rock formation to which you can hike up to the summit.
  • Glacier Point. Sweeping views of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, and Yosemite Falls.
  • Mariposa Grove. About an hour south you’ll find this amazing grove of sequoia trees. If this is your first time and opportunity to see sequoia trees, take advantage and make it a stop. You won’t be disappointed, these are some of the largest and oldest trees in the world. You may have seen pictures of actual cars driving through the trunk, which thankfully they don’t do anymore.


  • *Half Dome via Mist Trail. (14.2mi rt)
  • Four Mile Trail. (9.6mi rt)
  • *Yosemite Falls Trail. (7.2/8.4 mi rt)
  • Panorama Trail. (Glacier Point Rd; 8.5mi one-way)
  • Pohono Trail. (Glacier Point Rd; 13.8mi one-way)
  • Cathedral Lakes. (Tioga Rd; 7mi/8mi rt)
  • Mono Pass. (Tioga Rd; 8mi rt)
  • Glen Aulin Trail to Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. (Tioga Rd; 11mi rt)
  • Clouds Rest. (Tioga Rd; 14.5mi rt)
  • North Dome. (Tioga Rd; 8.8mi rt)


  • Getting Around. There’s a large parking area in Yosemite Valley for which you can leave your car and then hop on a shuttle to otherwise get around the park. There’s also easy access to hiking trails. Be sure to lock your car and hide your valuables. You can of course also drive through some of the park to see various sites.
  • Accommodations. In my opinion, it’s best to camp. Reserve well before your trip, this place fills up months in advance! The lodges in the park are very expensive, and camping is limited at campgrounds. There is regular and primitive camping (no water, electric, dump toilets). If campgrounds are full, drive along highway 120, there are some RV places that have tent spots, RV spots, cabins, and rooms.
  • Food & Bears. I highly recommend bringing food that is tightly packaged to avoid any potential run in with bears. This includes food on your person and also in your car. They have an acute sense of smell and won’t hesitate to break your windows if they smell food. A sandwich in a cooler should be no problem, but a recently cooked chicken in your back seat, you’re asking for it. Generally bears are far from the main areas of the park, so this is just a precaution…but it does happen. No grizzly bears, which means these bears are more into berries and foraging as far as I know.

2. San Francisco Bay Area

Golden Gate Bridge

Highlights: City, culture, food, museums, tech, innovation, art, ocean, cliffs, mountains, forests, lakes
Suggest Staying: 3-10 days
Stay Around: Mission District (Downtown), Berkeley or Oakland (East Bay), Sausalito (Sea Side)
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After a fantastic first visit in 2008, I swore though I’d never live in San Francisco. But oh what a wonderful place to visit. Fast forward 5 years later, I found myself living in the East Bay (across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco). The “Bay Area” as people who live there refer to it, has an amazing diversity of things to see and do. It’s like New York City, but slower paced, better weather, friendlier people, and more diverse nature. Exceptional national and state parks, food that will blow your mind, incredible music scene, and booming entrepreneurial, tech and big business economy with innovation and creativity everywhere. Despite that, a lot of people continue to move out of San Francisco to other up and coming, more affordable hipster cities that resemble San Francisco when it was in its infancy. This incredible place has a lot to offer and requires multiple trips to see it all!

See & Do (Downtown)

  • Mission District. My favorite neighborhood in San Francisco. Still a bit rugged and raw, there’s such a variety of hip trendy restaurants, odd and eclectic shops, and authentic hole-in-the-wall eateries. Walk along Valencia and Mission streets between 16th and 24th streets. Check out Paxton Gate taxidermy (trust me), and there’s also a nearby pirate store. You must eat at Foreign Cinema (excellent food, old movies playing on the big screen on their outdoor patio). Limon Rotisserie is possibly the best Peruvian food I’ve eaten in the U.S. There are also tons of Mexican restaurants. Nearby Mission Delores Park is a nice place to sit solo or with friends and relax on the green. A very off-the-beaten-path activity is a tour of Kinks Armory, literally what it sounds like, an old armory building that films bondage porn. Of course you don’t watch porn, you get a tour of the sets which are quite impressive. Created by engineers at popular tech companies and set directors from Hollywood.
  • The Castro. The epicenter for LGBT. Great area, great people, good food, overall fun time. For an interesting adventure, at the top of the hill, find the Randall Museum, a nature museum with nice views.
  • Haight-Ashbury (aka “The Haight”). Few neighborhoods have a cooler history than Haight-Ashbury where many hippies of the 60s/70s congregated, including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and countless other musicians, artists, and writers. Eclectic stores, cool bars, some good music still remains as well. Located just down the street from Golden Gate Park.
  • SoMa. Popular area of downtown San Francisco with lots of shops, food trucks, and tech companies. The popular Union Square on Geary St with an ice skating rink in winter and more shops. Yerba Buena Gardens are just north. And of course you have Chinatown, which is great. Wonderful Asian shops, markets, and tea tastings! You must stop in for a tea tasting at Vital Leaf, it’s so much fun, plus the tea is very good. There are several of them, check out Grant Ave. The iconic Chinatown gate is at Grant and Bush. The Asian Art Museum is quite nice. There’s also the cable car on Powell St you can ride, which is ok. I think there are much better uses of time.
  • Embarcadero and the Financial District. You’ll find some great quick Asian places to eat. Check out the Ferry Building which houses an indoor market, great food, and an awesome candied almonds stand. If you like science and/or have kids (I loved it as an adult), the Exploratorium is fantastic.
  • North Beach (aka “Little Italy”). Touristy, but outstanding places to eat, including gelato. Visit the iconic Coit Tower. Pier 39 is nearby along with Fisherman’s Wharf, which personally I don’t find that interesting plus it’s always cold and windy. If you like Jack Kerouac and the beatnik generation, definitely check out the Beat Museum. Popular streets are Columbus, Green, and Stockton. The main parts of North Beach and Chinatown are right next to each other for eating and shopping. Nearby over in Russian Hill, you’ll find the famous winding Lombard Street.
  • Pacific (“Pac”) Heights, Fillmore, and Western Addition. More restaurants, nicer area. Nearby Japantown has an underground mall, market, and restaurants which are not obvious if you’re just driving by. The famous Fillmore music venue is here if you have time to catch a show. For those Victorian home lovers and/or Full House enthusiasts, the “Painted Ladies” row of houses is here.
  • The Presidio. Great views, fancy housing, old military barracks, access to the Golden Gate Bridge. Crissy Field is a great spot for views of the bridge and also some nice greenery for relaxing. Two other wonderful museums include The Palace of Fine Arts and the Walt Disney Family Museum. A division of Lucas Arts is headquartered here, see if you can locate the Yoda statue.
  • Richmond District. Lesser traveled area, probably because the BART doesn’t head out that way, but there are other public transportation options or ride share. You’ll find some great attractions here including Lands End lookout and labyrinth, Ocean Beach, great selection of dim sum places, and of course Golden Gate Park which is lovely. Specifically in Golden Gate Park I recommend the Botanical and Japanese Garden, de Young Museum (art), and California Academy of Sciences (fun fact: they hold adult after hours some Thursdays with music and booze while you tour the place). If you want something off-the-beaten-path, seek out the Tiled Steps or Twin Peaks.
  • Mission Bay, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch. Waterfront area around the baseball stadium.
  • Nude Beaches. Yep, there are a few of them hidden around various beaches throughout the city.
  • 49-mile Scenic Drive. If you want a more guided experience, you can find these signs and stops throughout (and outside) the city. Takes you through much of what I described above.
  • Alcatraz. Yes, the famous prison that held Al Capone. I’ve never actually been, nor do I know any locals who have either. Not saying you should or shouldn’t go, but of all the things to do in San Francisco, this is not on my top ten. Alternatively, there are boat cruises that take you around the bay, during which one of the things you’ll go past is Alcatraz.

Food & Drink

  • The Mission. Foreign Cinema (American, amazing), Limon Rotisserie (Peruvian), Eiji (amazing sushi), Kiji (sister restaurant of Eiji, also great, not sure if still open), Blowfish (sushi, Japanese) Mr. Pickle’s Sandwich Shop (sandwiches), Ike’s Place (sandwiches), Taqueria Cancun (Mexican), Little Chihuahua (Mexican), El Farolito (Mexican), Tacolicious (Mexican), Manako (organic Japanese, tataki), Specchio Italian).
  • SoMa. Kama Sushi, Bamboo Asia (cafeteria style, takeaway, near Union Square). SoMa StrEat Food Park is an awesome selection of food trucks. Beats some food you can get in restaurants. Other notables include, Thirsty Bear (Spanish tapas), Deli Board (sandwiches), Kami Sushi. A unique seafood restaurant (pricey but good) is Farallon. In Chinatown, I liked Great Eastern (dim sum), Yin Du Wonton Noodle (some of the best noodles and wonton I’ve had), Dol Ho (dim sum). Up in the nearby Financial District, find the popular Yank Sing for dim sum. Tonga and Hurricane Room is a really interesting experience, tropical themed, ship inside, great food, cocktails. For tea, Samovar Tea Lounge at Yerba Buena.
  • North Beach. Rose Pistola (Italian), Tomasso’s Ristorante (Italian).
  • Fillmore. Lunchpad (sandwiches), Noir Lounge, Souvla (Greek), Fillmore Street Cafe, Happy Shabu Shabu (Japanese shabu shabu), Izakaya Kou (Japanese tapas), Udon Mugizo (noodles), Shabusen Restaurant (Japanese sukiyaki, shabu shabu), Woodhouse Fish Co. (seafood).
  • Richmond. Cliff House (fancy seafood restaurant with cliffside views). For dim sum, Hong Kong Lounge and Shanghai Dumpling King.

Drinking & Nightlife

  • Polk Street. More of your traditional strip of bars and nightclubs. One interesting non-club place is Edinburgh Castle Pub.
  • The Mission. There are some exceptional bars, cocktail bars, and smaller music venues. The Monk’s Kettle is great for happy hour or later in the evening. Also, especially for happy hour, Trick Dog, Homestead, and Elbo Room.
  • The Haight. Probably a bit less traveled for nightlife, some good bars and live music.
  • The Castro. LGBT friendly as mentioned, all kinds of different places.
  • North Beach. Variety of bar & restaurants.
  • SoMA. Variety of places, including Monarch and the very unique Smuggler’s Cove which feels like being on a pirate ship. It gets crowded, go early to avoid long waits. Nearby is Mikkeller, modeled after Copenhagen, has a great beer selection.
  • Live Music. Some of the popular, more intimate music venues I’ve been to include Slim’s, Great American, Bottom of the Hill, The Independent, and of course The Fillmore.
  • Theaters. The Roxbury in Mission Delores features indie films. Audium at Van Ness explores how sound moves in space.

Other Areas

  • East Bay (Berkeley). College town and hippie residence. The campus is great, some places nearby to eat, neat downtown, nice weather, hills with some great views of downtown San Francisco. The main streets in downtown Berkeley are Telegraph, College and Shattuck. Relax at Tilden Regional Park. Looking for a Whole Foods, but want something more local? Check out the Berkeley Bowl. There’s also a wonderful weekly farmer’s market in downtown Berkeley. My favorite breakfast spot is a small local place called Homemade Cafe. Royal Cafe and Sam’s Log Cabin are also good breakfast spots in the next neighborhood north, Albany. Also there, Solano Ave has some great restaurants, such as Troy Greek restaurant. The Junket in El Cerrito is a great place for bratwurst (German-British market with made to order options). Also in Berkeley, some other favorites are Kirala (absolutely amazing sushi), Cafe Leila (good food, outdoor patio, occasional live music). A few more options include Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen, The Sandwich Spot, Toss (noodles), Tomato Cafe, Cafe Clem, Pizza Moda, Thai Noodle (best duck noodle soup I’ve ever had), Kaze Ramen Noodles, Bangkock Thai. You’ll also find a few tea and bubble tea spots around Berkeley downtown and by the university.
  • East Bay (rest of it). Neighboring Oakland, a bit rough in spots, has a few nice neighborhoods such as Lake Merritt and Piedmont, the Fox Theatre for concerts, and Chabot Space Center for stargazing. If you like Belgian beer, check out Trappist. For food, try Tribu Cafe, Xolo (Mexican), and Duende (Spanish). Nearby Emeryville has shopping and is home to Pixar (though I’m not aware of a way to take a tour or anything like that). Temescal is an interesting little pocket with some good eateries. If you’re up for a fun drive with nice views, venture out to Mt Diablo. If you want some shopping and nice restaurants and happen to be farther out in the East Bay, try the suburb of Walnut Creek.
  • Marin County. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge you’ll find the tiny town of Sausalito on the water. Fancy but nice for a stroll or meal. Check out Sushi Ran, ranked one of the best sushi restaurants in the world (it’s great, but pricey). And directly on the other side is Golden Gate National Recreation Center (views of the Golden Gate Bridge, among other things). Mount Tamalpais is good for hiking and don’t miss the giant redwood trees at Muir Woods. Just up the way from there is Stinson Beach which is quite nice and a magnificent view of it traveling north off of Route 1. Tiburon is a neat little town if you have extra time on your hands. And if you have even more extra time, there’s Angel Island State Park (ferry over to the island). Lastly, though I’ve not been, there’s a popular meditation center called Spirit Rock.



  • Chinese New Year. (spring)
  • Pride Parade. (June)
  • Outside Lands. (summer, Golden Gate Park, music & art)
  • Folsom Street Fair. (fall, world’s biggest leather event, outrageous people, EDM, adult only)


  • Wine Country. It’s hard to visit San Francisco and not visit either Napa Valley or Sonoma to partake in some wine tasting. There is something like a few hundred wineries, which span about 20 miles up to Calistoga. There are shops, restaurants, wine tastings, wine cave tours, and spas. It’s a beautiful area to drive through and sit outside with a glass of wine or champagne. Find a designated driver, ride share, or book a tour. There may also be buses. Napa is a bit more upscale, while Sonoma is more laid back and down to earth (also has more free wine tastings). Napa has a small downtown, featuring the very popular French Laundry restaurant. Redd was also very popular but after researching, it has recently closed. If you’re up for some relaxation, there are several places in the area where you can visit outdoor hotel pools and “hot springs” by simply paying a fee if you’re not a guest (like in Calistoga for example).
  • Palo Alto. Home of Silicon Valley and Stanford University. Wonderful area, great weather, nice town, lovely campus, Rodin sculpture garden and museum at Stanford. Nearby headquarters of Apple, Google, and Facebook whose campuses are quite impressive. I always like to take visitors to Palo Alto downtown and to Stanford if time permits (about 45 minutes drive from San Francisco).
  • Santa Cruz. Surfer town, very chill. First trip down I remember driving around and seeing people out surfing or in front of their garages sporting convertibles and surf boards inside. Pretty area, people are very friendly and laid back. Beautiful drive down Hwy 101 to get there. About 90 minutes from San Francisco.


  • Getting There. SFO is the main airport south of downtown. BART (subway) will take you all the way into the city and even across to the East Bay. You can also fly into Oakland which can be less convenient or San Jose if you’re staying farther south.
  • Getting Around. If you plan to do a lot of sight seeing and museums, consider CityPass, which includes admissions, discounts, and transportation. Otherwise BART will take you to most of the main neighborhoods and attractions downtown (on the east side). There are also additional metro lines, buses, and ride shares of course. No need to rent a car if you’re staying and exploring exclusively in the city, only if you want to do day trips. There are traditional rental car companies as well as services like ZipCar.
  • Budgeting. San Francisco (and the rest of the Bay Area) is one of the most expensive places in the world, pretty on par with New York City. Expect expensive meals and lodging. I don’t really have any great budget saving tips other than look for free things to see and do, try CityPass, and may don’t eat super fancy meals and go out drinking every night. But it’s also your vacation in a wonderful city, so save for it and don’t be stingy if there’s something you want to do, explore, or experience.
  • Accommodations. Most people end up downtown in Union Square which is pricey. For some reason there are limited hotel options downtown. Your best bet is AirBnB in one of the “near-to-things” neighborhoods. Consider staying in an area you plan to explore most. Or if you want something more relaxed, try the East Bay. Or split between San Francisco and say, Napa or Sonoma. There are also some camping options nearby.
  • Walking. There’s a running joke in SF that you only ever walk “up” hills, never down. I don’t know how, but it’s true. You’ll be amazed at the sheer number of hills in this city and the steepness of them. Additionally, San Francisco is a huge city, be prepared to walk…a lot.
  • Weather. You may have heard of San Francisco’s microclimates and having lived in the Bay Area, it’s definitely a thing. You can seriously be in one area, walk 15 mins in one direction and the weather will be noticeably different. Near the east coast of downtown it’s usually windy and sunny, but go to the north coast, and it will likely be cold and foggy. The west part of downtown is very often foggy and on the cooler side. The East Bay is a few degrees warmer and Marin County varies due to where it is along the coastline and/or up in the hills. What you need to know is that you better bring at least a light jacket, it gets cool if there’s no sun or you’re in the shade, not to mention the wind. In summer, it’s cold and foggy due to the “marine layer”, so unless you’re used to cooler weather, you won’t be comfortable in shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops. Vendors along Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge make out like bandits selling sweatshirts to tourists in July. It’s truly bizarre. The best time to visit is in May/June or Oct/Nov, it’s lovely. The weather as you move farther outside the city is sunny, dry and warmer most of the year. Wine country is great in the spring/fall, and hit or miss in the summer because it can get pretty hot. Along the coast is always cool pretty much everywhere.
  • Crime & Crazies. San Francisco has a huge homeless population, many of whom are mentally ill. Most are harmless and non-violent, just don’t make eye contact if you want to avoid bizarre interactions or cons (or do, your choice). In general, stay away from the Tenderloin at night, it’s one of the least safe areas downtown. If you have a car, DO NOT leave anything inside, especially not visible. There are numerous stories of people stealing literally anything they see and breaking windows to get at things like cigarettes, umbrellas, tissues, and I even had a friend whose used, smelly hiking boots were stolen! In general, just use common sense. In my 2 years living there combined with previous trips, I only ever had one scary experience, but no harm done.
  • Rental Gear. Flying into San Francisco, but want to go camping? Head to Sports Basement. This place is like REI, but offers an assortment of rental gear like tents, sleeping bags, etc. And of course you can also buy anything you need as well.

3. Big Sur & The PCH

Big Sur

Highlights: Scenic drive, camping, hiking
Suggest Staying: 1-2 days
Stay Around: Julia Pfeiffer State Park (camping), Monterey/Carmel (north), Morro Bay (south)
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The PCH (aka Pacific Coast Highway or Route 1) from San Francisco through Big Sur is my favorite drive among all of the places I’ve driven in the world. It’s absolutely gorgeous with some points along the way that are a bit terrifying. This curvy, windy, cliffside highway stretches for miles. Big Sur itself is about 20 or 30 miles of windy coastal roads. Around every bend you’ll want to stop and take a picture of the next one off in the distance. There are several state parks, forests, and small towns the journey as well as the larger cities of Monterrey and Carmel. Take your time, be prepared to stop, be patient with other drivers/campers, and don’t forget your camera!

See & Do

  • PCH. The main draw is really just driving along the pacific coast highway and admiring the beautiful views.
  • Julia Pfeiffer State Park. Hiking, camping, and secret(ish) waterfall across the highway along the coast at Pfeiffer Beach.


  • Drive North or South?. Driving north puts you along the coast (easier to get out and take pictures), while driving south put you on the inside (feels a bit safer if you hate heights).

4. Redwood National & State Parks

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Highlights: Redwood forests, coast, hiking
Suggest Staying: 2-5 days
Stay Around: Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks and/or Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
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If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll absolutely fall in love with this place. The planet Endor was actually filmed in the redwood forests in the surrounding area. There are 3 parks in close proximity to one another: Redwood National Park, Redwood State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Interestingly, Fern Canyon had a scene filmed from one of the Jurassic Park movies, plus it’s a really cool place to visit! The forests are like non other I’ve seen besides rainforests. It’s pretty far north from San Francisco. While it can be a bit on the cooler side (not cold), I did a lot of camping in the area which was a blast. The drive up from Humboldt Country to the parks and continuing up just a bit north through Klamath is absolutely stunning.

See & Do

  • Redwood National and State Parks. This encompasses the entire area of lush, green redwood forests. Below break down some of the specific parks of this area.
  • Humboldt County. The county people often refer to for this area, which is known for some of the best redwoods with some amazing drives, including one of my favorites, Avenue of the Giants. On a sunny afternoon, about 70-something degrees, top down, car packed, had a most excellent drive through this road empty of cars but full of giant redwoods.
  • Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Close to the coast, has a beach in addition to the forest, where I saw an elk. Don’t miss Fern Canyon, it’s amazing.
  • Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Nice hiking, more redwood forest, great place to camp at the northernmost part of California, near the border of Oregon. Check out the short 0.5 mile River Trail and 1 mile Simpson-Reed Trail.
  • Klamath. Pretty area on the way traveling north (or perhaps south depending on your journey). Neat stop at the Trees of Mystery (though I still don’t know what’s so mysterious there).


  • Fern Canyon. Most people just do the short hike to a viewpoint, but if you’re bold enough to cross the stream (it’s not very deep at all, especially in waterproof shoes, or take them off), there’s a whole world of winding stream and fern lined canyon just waiting for you. I thought I’d stop for maybe 20 minutes to take some pictures and ended up staying a couple hours because I just kept wanting to wander around, climbing over logs, chasing frogs, and admiring the foliage. Very few, if any people actually go into the canyon.

5. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

Giant Sequoias

Highlights: Canyons, lakes, waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, hiking, swimming
Suggest Staying: 2-5 days
Stay Around: Kings Canyon (camping)
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Just a couple hours outside Fresno, these two adjacent national parks are truly hidden gems. Kings Canyon has mountains, lakes, hiking, and is very quiet and serene. I came for just a day or two and ended up staying a week. I was having a great time exploring but mostly sitting by the lake and laying my hammock reading Walden. Nearby Sequoia features giant sequoia trees that you won’t believe the size of!

See & Do

  • General Sherman Tree. One of the tallest trees in the world, around 275 ft!
  • Mt Whitney. Tallest peak in California.
  • Kings Canyon Panoramic Point. Striking panoramic views of forests, mountains, trees, and lakes.
  • Sequoia Lake. Large lake.
  • Hume Lake. Another large lake. Interestingly there’s a Christian camp at one end, which features a pirate ship.
  • The Mobius Arch Loop & Alabama Hills. Hiking trail with cool rock formations.

Other Considerations

Lake Tahoe

Fallen Leaf Lake

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

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.

Mammoth Lakes

Rainbow Falls

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

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.

Caples Lake

Caples Lake

Between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, sits this beautiful lake. Enchanting during any season. Also nearby are two caves, Black Chasm Cavern and California State Cavern. I try never to miss a cave and you can do both in the same day since they’re so close to each other.

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