Looking for great activities to keep you busy when you visit Northern California? Check out our guide to all the best things to do in Northern California!
Renowned for its scenic coastlines, incredible hiking trails, sky-high ancient redwood trees, and alpine lakes, Northern California, is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream destination.
Northern California hosts some of the most famous national and state parks in the nation, including Yosemite National Park and Redwoods National Park, which protect the world’s most magnificent trees.
And though nature is a significant attractive quality of Northern California, that’s not all it’s known for. Some of the world’s most well-known tourist attractions are within the confines of Northern California.
This includes the highly photographed Golden Gate Bridge in downtown San Francisco, the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the wine lover’s paradise of Napa Wine Country, and the infamous Alcatraz Island.
A trip to Northern California is guaranteed to be a world of fun!
Check out our complete guide to the best things to do in California here!
If you’re looking for all the most fun things to do in Northern California, you’ve come to the right place!
Our top Northern California activities list compiles treks among giants at Humboldt Redwoods State Park and spelunking at Lava Beds National Monument. Pack your bags. It’s time to start adventuring!
One of the most well-known national parks in the United States, Yosemite National Park is famous for its towering granite cliffs, giant ancient sequoia trees, roaring waterfalls, and outstanding scenery.
Yosemite Valley is heaven for nature lovers, and it’s definitely one of the best places to visit in Northern California. With an abundance of outdoor activities to try, like camping, hiking, rock climbing, and more, there is so much to see and do here.
Some of the park’s granite rock formations are touted as natural wonders for appearing to shine like they’re on fire with stunning oranges and reds aflame. One of the most popular of these, bringing in visitors from across the globe, is Horsetail Fall, which reflects a fiery orange glow during February.
The Half Dome is also one of the most challenging and scenic hiking trails in Yosemite National Park.
Visit Yosemite for a few days, or jump on a popular day trip from San Francisco!
Touted for its steaming fumarole and alpine lakes, Lassen Volcanic National Park is full of thriving nature and stunning picturesque landscapes.
The park protects many volcanoes, with unique geothermal areas featuring mud pots and boiling pools.
Lassen Volcanic National Park boasts all four types of volcanoes, including the Plug Dome, Composite, Shield, and Cinder Cone. Lassen Peak is one of these volcanoes, the world’s largest Plug Dome volcano.
Lassen Volcanic National Park’s world-class ranger programs offer outstanding opportunities and activities to take part in, such as astronomy programs, public bird banding, and snowshoeing tours.
Located in San Francisco, Golden Gate Park is the third most visited park in the United States, and for a good reason!
Home to vibrant botanical gardens, strolling trails, museums, and picturesque picnic spots, the park welcomes millions of visitors a year to bask and settle into its tranquil atmosphere.
Its rich green lawns, sparkling lakes, and numerous plant species make it effortless to take a deep breath and relax in the oasis away from the hustle and bustle of life.
Head to the California Academy of Sciences, one of the largest natural history museums in the world, with a four-story living rainforest and other exciting educational opportunities.
Stroll over to the Conservatory of Flowers, a historic landmark featuring a multitude of rare tropical plants and flowers sourced across the globe. Golden Gate Park is a must when visiting San Francisco, and it’s one of the best things to do in Northern California.
For more ideas, check out our list of the best things to do in San Francisco!
Boasting the largest alpine lake in the nation and the largest freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe is also the second-deepest lake in the United States!
Spending time at Lake Tahoe is one of the best things to do in Northern California. Taking part in water sports like kayaking, swimming, and boating is extremely popular, taking advantage of the sparkling turquoise waters of the lake.
Encompassing the area around Lake Tahoe are excellent scenic hiking trail selections through the alpine forests with spectacular mountain backdrop viewpoints along the way.
This sightseeing cruise takes you throughout Emerald Bay of South Lake Tahoe. Before heading out on the world-class Tahoe Bleu Wave, guests can decide between a daytime or sunset cruise to access unrivaled viewpoints of one of the top-photographed places in the world.
Look out for bald eagles flying from one tree top perch to another as you relax into the awe-inspiring panoramic views of Lake Tahoe.
Settled at San Francisco Bay, connecting San Francisco to Marin county, the Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic landmark labeled as one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
Attracting millions of visitors yearly, the Golden Gate Bridge is the most famous sight in San Francisco, and it’s the most photographed bridge in the world!
It suspends over the bay with outstanding engineering featuring imposing towers and sweeping cables.
At the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center, visitors can hear stories and learn more about the bridge’s history and engineering through interactive exhibits, information services, and free walking tours.
The Russian Gulch State Park, two miles north of coastal Mendocino, is famous for several reasons. One is the park’s collapsed sea cave, the Devil’s Punchbowl. A short hike to the sea cave reveals breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean.
Another major attraction of the Russian Gulch State Park is the Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge, which draws in many visitors looking for photo-taking opportunities.
One of the other noteworthy scenic attractions of the park is the 36-foot waterfall, the Russian Gulch Falls, surrounded by the lush vegetation of ferns and redwoods.
The famous maximum security federal prison featured in more than a few films (or a derivation used in others, like Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban), Alcatraz Island, can be found off the coast of San Francisco.
Later known as “The Rock,” this island held infamous prisoners such as Al Capone, Robert Stroud (aka the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
Only a few inmates successfully escaped the highly secure penitentiary, though no one knows if they managed to survive the rushing currents of the bay.
Today, tours are open for visitors to explore the historic lighthouse and abandoned prison on the island. Booking a day trip to Alcatraz from San Francisco is one of the best things to do in Northern California!
Included in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Muir Woods National Monument thrives with old-growth redwood trees and scenic nature trails.
The national state monument protects one of the last ancient redwood forests in the bay area. Within the preserved forests, some of the trees are 1,000 years old, with skyscraping heights of more than 250 feet.
It’s not hard to spend hours at the park, checking out the different trails and basking in the rejuvenating primeval forest.
For nature lovers, make sure you include this spot on your list of the best things to do in Northern California!
One of the most reputed scenic highways in the nation, the Pacific Coast Highway travels from San Francisco to San Diego along the coastline.
Through the drive, you’ll find awe-inspiring views of long stretches of rugged coastline, giant trees, and tall mountain peaks. A Northern California road trip along the coast of the Pacific Ocean is an excellent idea!
Many people purposefully plan road trips along the Pacific Coast Highway, noting the numerous points of interest to stop at and appreciate. Stop for locally-made wine, catch a wave with fellow surfers at surfing villages, and check out historical landmarks.
If you’re heading south, check out our list of the best things to do in San Diego!
Found on the flank of Medicine Lake Volcano, Lava Beds National Monument is a historic place, culturally and geologically.
Within the last half a million years, the surrounding landscape has been formed by volcanic eruptions. The monument protects the natural environment, historic Native American rock art sites, battlefields, and more than 800 caves, including lava tube caves.
Some of these caves are open for exploration, including Mushpot Cave, the only lighted cave at the monument that features exhibits to learn more about the geological impact that formed the cave.
Other recommended tours for beginners to explore include the Blue Grotto Cave and the Hopkins Chocolate Cave.
The first aquarium to exhibit a living kelp forest and remaining one of the tallest exhibits in the world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s world-class exhibits have soared its status to one of the greatest aquariums out there.
Boasting more than 200 exhibits, plus its 80,000 animals and plants, the aquarium knows how to stun visitors with spectacular displays.
Welcoming all ages to learn more about the importance of marine conservation and preservation efforts, the aquarium is dedicated to protecting and cherishing marine life, sharing these unique underwater species with the world.
See otters playing, luminescent jellyfish floating about, and sharks swimming with hungry gazes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium!
You can easily visit this famous aquarium on a day trip from San Jose, a popular city in Northern California.
Read next: The Ultimate 3 Days In San Francisco Itinerary
Favored for the unique items scattered across its shore, Glass Beach is a highlight of Fort Bragg, California. This fascinating beach is layered with a diverse array of colorful sea glass.
Drawing in visitors from all over, many come to take some free souvenirs. However, it’s crucial to note before visiting that taking the glass from Glass Beach in Fort Bragg is illegal.
Though Glass Beach is touted for its sea glass, there are also nearby small coves and beaches that are free to adventure. If the tide is low, tide pooling is another popular activity at Glass Beach, where you can look out for little sea creatures such as crabs, starfish, and sea anemones.
Fort Bragg even has a Sea Glass Museum that you can check out. Here you can purchase unique sea glass souvenirs and browse through the beautiful artworks.
Another one of the best things to do in Northern California is visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This bustling amusement park in Santa Cruz is set perfectly on a one-mile-long stretch of beach.
Attracting visitors since 1907, this historic amusement park knows how to keep things lively! First, ride the historic roller coaster, the Giant Dipper, that’s been running since 1927 (don’t worry, it’s safe!).
Then, have fun at the bowling alley with friends, and hit the arcade to keep the good times rolling. There’s plenty to do at the best seaside park in the world!
Protecting the tallest trees on the planet, Redwood National Park is a nature-filled wonderland of ancient towering trees, rugged coastlines, and rushing rivers.
More than 200 miles of trails are open for visitors to hike, horseback ride, or bike through the thriving environment of coastal woodlands, prairies, beaches, and redwood forests.
Also, see the world’s tallest tree, a giant sequoia named Hyperion, which towers six stories over the Statue of Liberty. Other noteworthy records at Redwood National Park include the tallest hemlock, Sitka spruce, and grand fir!
Sequoia National Park is known for its towering sequoia trees, including the most famous, the General Sherman Tree of the Giant Forest.
The park features many favored attractions. The Tunnel Log is a drive-thru made through a fallen giant sequoia that fell in 1937. Crystal Cave is a favorite activity in the park, made of marble karst and intriguing stalactites. The Congress Trail leads to the General Sherman Tree and the rest of its grove, including the President Tree and the McKinley Tree.
You can also combine a trip here with a visit to the nearby Kings Canyon National Park, another gem of Northern California. This park is well-known for having some of the world’s largest trees, including the ginormous General Grant Tree, nicknamed “the Nation’s Christmas Tree.”
Both parks are located in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, and they protect some of the largest sequoia tree groves in the world.
Often compared to Yosemite for its luscious terrain and breathtaking scenery, Kings Canyon National Park is full of dipping valleys, the world’s largest and tallest trees, rushing waterfalls, and plunging canyons.
For more natural beauty in Northern California, check out our list of the best things to do in Lake Tahoe.
A long stretch of protected coastline, Point Reyes National Seashore is located just north of San Francisco. The area is home to a historic lighthouse, scenic beaches, and numerous nature trails.
This sanctuary exudes a natural charm with its sprawling grasslands, rugged coastlines, and picturesque viewpoints. More than 1500 species of animals and plants call Point Reyes National Seashore home, which makes the area a spectacular animal-watching site, especially when strolling on the nature trails.
The historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in 1870, is another attractive point of interest at Point Reyes National Seashore.
The lighthouse’s visitor center functions to educate others on the importance of the lighthouse, while the observation deck offers guests opportunities to whale watch from above.
Monterey Bay is another popular spot for whale watching!
This stunning region of Northern California has so much to offer travelers.
Located in the breathtaking Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mammoth Lakes is known for its ski slopes, unique natural landmarks, waterfalls, hot springs, and more.
The Devil’s Postpile National Monument is a fascinating location where you can see towering basalt columns and visit the nearby Rainbow Falls.
A popular place to holiday year-round, visitors can stay in a top-rated lodge and go skiing, go hiking, or soak in hot springs in their free time.
View the best accommodations in Mammoth Lakes here!
Settled in California’s most famous ghost town, Bodie State Historic Park welcomes visitors to explore the historic gold-mining ghost town.
The ghost town was named after the man who discovered gold in the hills near the border with Nevada. It soon became a booming gold mining town after that in 1877.
Now a designated National Historic Site and State Historic Park, Bodie remains abandoned with leftover rusting structures, the same as it looked half a century ago.
Near Yosemite National Park, the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve protects the tufa towers. The salinity level of the lake is three times that of the ocean, resulting in the spires and knobs of the tufa towers formed by calcium carbonate intermingled with freshwater and alkaline.
With the reserve is Mono Lake, an ancient lake that dates back millions of years. The lake is notorious for its breathtaking picturesque scenery of tufa towers and mountain backdrops.
People travel from all over for photo-taking opportunities and to participate in activities around and on Mono Lake, such as boating, cross-country skiing, hiking, and swimming.
Located in Old Sacramento Historic Park, the California State Railroad Museum pays tribute to the “iron horse” and its impact on history.
Trains were crucial in connecting California to the rest of the United States. The museum preserves restored cars and locomotives, some of which date back to 1862.
A walk through the museum is an opportunity to learn more about the Transcontinental Railroad, its role in history, and the work that went into its construction.
This museum is a highlight of Sacramento, and it’s one of the best things to do in Northern California for history buffs.
Napa Valley is famous for its wine, so there’s nothing like hitting up the area than hitching a ride on the historic Napa Valley Wine Train!
This historic train sets a luxurious scene with vintage Pullman rail cars designed with restored armchairs. As one of the few historic passenger railroads running in the nation, the
Napa Valley Wine Train presents a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors to explore refinement and history while sipping on world-class wines and gazing upon the scenic vineyards.
Another option is to explore Napa wine country on a wine lover’s day trip from San Francisco! Visit a medieval castle and tour some of the area’s best wineries.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park is home to the world’s largest contiguous old-growth forest of coast redwoods, Rockefeller Forest. It’s one of the coolest places to visit in Northern California!
California’s third-largest state park, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, is settled off the Avenue of the Giants. Many of the trees found in the park are thousands of years old, and within the Rockefeller Forest is the second largest tree in the park, Giant Tree.
Visitors can drive through one of the last remaining drive-thru redwood trees at the Shrine Drive Thru Tree, take refreshing hikes like the Founder’s Grove, and visit the fallen Dyerville Giant to bask in the glorious majesty of these ancient trees.
Looking to explore more of California? Read our list of the best things to do in Los Angeles here!
Found in Fresno, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are a unique attraction and one of the best things to do in Northern California.
Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere immigrated to America in 1901 to make his dreams come true. He wanted to become a citrus farmer and began constructing what is now the Forestiere Underground Gardens.
From scratch, Forestiere constructed an underground world dedicated to the ancient catacombs he’d adored as a boy near Filari, Sicily.
The self-taught artist designed stonework, arches, garden courts, patios, grottoes, and more, with only the simplest farm tools, such as a shovel and wheelbarrow.
It took 40 years for Forestiere to complete the task, and now, visitors from all over the world flock to the Forestiere Underground Gardens to bask in the one-man job. Find more info on the website!
A notorious tourist attraction in San Jose, the Winchester Mystery House is an architectural wonder teeming with intricate features and odd designs.
Sarah Lockwood Pardee Winchester, a widowed heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune, designed the historic landmark. After Winchester’s infant daughter passed away, then soon after her husband, the grieving widow moved to San Jose and purchased an eight-room farmhouse.
With what is touted as the world’s longest home renovation, which only stopped when Sarah Winchester passed, the house underwent never-ending construction.
The 24,000 square feet Winchester Mystery House features 160 rooms, 13 bathrooms, 52 skylights, six kitchens, and many more intriguing characteristics.
Unfortunately, no one understood Winchester’s plans for the house, but today, visitors can tour most of the Winchester Mystery House to experience the mysterious aura of the architectural wonder.
A historic rose garden, the Municipal Rose Garden was established in 1927 and quickly rose to fame for its stunning and diverse displays of roses.
Termed “America’s Best Rose Garden,” it’s no wonder the Municipal Rose Garden is considered one of the best things to do in Northern California.
The sprawling green lawns full of rose-speckled shrubbery of more than 4,000 rose shrubs, and 189 varieties of rose make for a fragrant and vibrant stroll.
This is another highlight of San Jose, a popular city to visit in Northern California.
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