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Updated on January 3rd, 2020

Have you wanted to drive a majestic northern California road trip? This state has captured my heart and brings me back year after year to go skiing in Lake Tahoe. I love road trips and something that makes California so special is that the road trip options are endless.

California has so much to offer visitors. Whether you’re looking for stunning mountain ranges, long sandy beaches, bustling cities, iconic National Parks, unique deserts or delicious wine regions you can find them all here.

I set out on a California road trip from Lake Tahoe to explore the often unvisited northern areas and will show you the best California road trip plan to visit in two weeks.

Driving down highway 1 on a northern California road trip

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California Road Trip Map

California Road Trip Destinations

This California road trip itinerary is special because as well as going to some essential well-known destinations, you will also get to venture into areas of California unseen to most tourists.

Start your California road trip in Sacramento

Have you been searching for California road trip ideas but they all start in LA or San Francisco? Well, why not start in Sacramento? With a large airport and many inbound flights, this is a great place to start your California road trip without having to fight through San Francisco traffic.

Sacramento has its own charm and character. Although there are half a million people here what I loved most about it were the small-town vibes. You’ll find amazing coffee, delicious fresh food and you don’t have to act like an adult.

The green state capital of Sacramento

Sacramento frequently hosts art house exhibitions and bar nights where you have the chance to colour in pictures, play exquisite corpse and do scavenger hunts all while drinking wine! So I guess we are being adults – Just the fun way. Sacramento has gorgeous, tree-lined streets and beautiful classical architecture.

Sacramento is a perfect place to begin a California road trip. This ensures you do not need to deal wth San Francisco traffic

Santa Rosa

While I Practically needing to be dragged out of Sacramento (the promise of wine tasting did help). My next stop was Santa Rosa which is part of the famous wine region of Sonoma County. Neighbouring the Napa Valley but with prices overall on the more affordable side. This is a great place to visit for a fancy wine tasting weekend without the price tag.

Make sure you spend at least a night here so you can make the most of the wine tasting and not have to drive. We visited D’Argenzio winery which has a pretty outdoor area with bocce, darts and super friendly staff. The bartenders are really knowledgeable and you’ll learn a lot about the wines. You can find some great food places here. The biggest problem with this place is it is set up to keep you here. Don’t get trapped like we did and try some other wineries.

Local tip: Try Hanks Creekside for breakfast – absolutely delicious.

California road trip Sonoma Country wine region

Petaluma

Continue your California road trip south of Santa Rosa to Petaluma and make sure you stop at my favourite brewery – Lagunitas. If you love craft beers then Lagunitas should be one of your favourites too. One of the best parts about this taproom is that they have a large selection of beer on tap which isn’t sold in supermarkets. The brewery serves food and has two stages.

Arcata

A northern California road trip wouldn’t be complete with heading up to Humboldt County on the far northern coastline. While we’ll save the drive along the scenic highway 1 for the return trip see if you can spot this hidden swimming spot along highway 101. Known only by locals and easily accessible it made for a nice break from driving. I was lucky to have a local with me and show me this secret spot.

California Road Trip Secret Swimming Hole

Nearby Humboldt State University is the Redwood Park, known for the friendly tree giants, plenty of hiking trails and paths accessible to bikers and horses. Time it so you get to watch the sunset through the trees while strolling through the dense forest. Spend the morning exploring the rough and jagged coastline of Arcata and visiting the cute town centre. With so much to look at, it was easy to waste a day meandering along.

Huge sequoia trees in humboldt state park

Fort Bragg and Mendocino

Heading south from Arcata take the California road trip must see – Highway 1 for the most incredible ocean views until you reach Fort Bragg. Stop off at the iconic glass beach, grab a coffee and then continue back along the highway until you reach Mendocino. This peaceful coastal town has adorable cafes and storefronts. Spend half a day here walking along the reserve and then get back to the drive.

Armstrong Redwood State Park

Thinking the road could not become any more scenic I was hugely surprised when I turned at the intersection heading towards the Armstrong Redwoods. The heavy forest-lined road was covered in dense moss and greens of every hue. It looked like a green fairyland. Being only 20 minutes north-west of Santa Rosa it is easily accessible for a day trip from the Bay Area.

To stay in the Armstrong Redwoods you will need to have your own camping gear. Spend a couple of nights in this enchanting state park and spend your days going on small hikes. I was in so much awe of the huge giants I was among, having only ever seen the redwoods before in Arcata. The best thing about this campground was the elevation. You sit atop a peak and watch the sunset over peaks of the same height. This was one of the most memorable moments in my travels to date.

One of the most beautiful greenest drives I have ever taken

Yosemite National Park

Continue your California road trip south to Yosemite. While this had always been a bucket list destination of mine, I was always told photos don’t do it justice. Yet seeing these iconic rock formations in person blew me away. They are huge!

Most of the campsites in Yosemite are first come, first serve. So ensure you arrive early in the day. Tip: If you happen to be too late, you can always share a site with someone else if they allow it. I camped at the Bridalveil campground which I would recommend to others. This campsite is close to glacier point for viewing those spectacular California sunsets. I fell so much in love with Yosemite and camping I hope to return for a backpacking trip next spring.

If you are doing your California road trip during the winter check the current conditions to see if the passes are open.

No California road trip would be complete without a visit to Yosemite

Murphys

Finishing up my loop and heading back towards Lake Tahoe, I spent a night in Murphys. A small ‘green’ town (a lot of the California weed is produced in this region), and fast becoming a go-to destination for wine enthusiasts. The main street in town boasts plenty of local boutique wine cellars with fine dining and casual eateries.

I hope these northern California road trip ideas have inspired you to head out on a beautiful drive.

Let me know how you go and if you add different destinations to yours.

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Hello! My name is Erin, the lady behind Curiously Erin. After more than 10 years of travelling and working abroad, I wanted to create a platform where I could share my stories and travels. My goal is to help you live the life you desire and inspire you to travel more.

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