Top Outdoors Vacations in Northern California

Northern California has it all: a wild coast dotted with picture-perfect beaches; rugged granite peaks topped with snow; and primeval forests bristling with ancient trees. Of course, Northern California also has San Francisco, but you knew that already. Here are six top spots in NoCal that are easy to pair with the City by the Bay, or enjoy as trips in their own right—no city required.
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Point Reyes National Seashore, California  (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Point Reyes
The Point Reyes Peninsula, a top vacation spot for San Franciscans, is truly a world apart: It's the only slice of California that's on the Pacific tectonic plate, not the North American plate. During the gray whale migration season from January to May, the lighthouse is one of the best places to spot the cetaceans on their journey. The highly recommended hike to Tomales Point (9.5 miles roundtrip) is easy to moderate and leads to a rocky sliver at land's end, the perfect place to enjoy a moment of zen. The small town of Point Reyes Station has several excellent restaurants, including Stellina, with its creative take on Italian fare and commitment to local ingredients. Stay nearby at the secluded Black Heron Inn or roadside gem Motel Inverness.

The Redwood Coast
The prime attraction of this Northern California destination is the chance to commune with the world's tallest trees, Sequoia sempervirens (the coast redwood), though not all of the area’s charms reach 300 feet into the sky. Take the road less traveled, the Howland Hill Road, and hike the Boy Scout Tree Trail (about six miles roundtrip) before returning to the coast. Pack a picnic lunch for the trail to Hidden Beach and spend some time on this quiet, picturesque stretch of rugged northern Pacific coastline. Eat and bunk for the night at the Historic Requa Inn, located on a bluff above the Klamath River.

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Valley is certainly one of the most majestic places on Earth, but therein lies the problem: Everybody wants to see this top spot in Northern California. The roads going in and out of the valley during peak times can be more like a Los Angeles freeway than a sleepy scenic byway. Avoid the thickest traffic by heading up Glacier Point Road to hike Sentinel Dome (about two miles roundtrip) for a bird's-eye view of the valley and none of the crowds. On the other side of the valley, Tuolumne Meadows is Yosemite's high country, and a true hiking mecca; try the Cathedral Lakes Trail (seven miles roundtrip). When it's time to bed down, head to Evergreen Lodge near Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. It hits all of the right notes for a Yosemite getaway, from the cabins nestled in woodlands to kid's activities galore.

Published: 21 Sep 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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