A Trip To Northern California {Itinerary}

Northern California Itinerary

Northern California is beautiful. My first time in California was spent in this part of the state. I visited from the end of July through the beginning of August and stayed in Sacramento (which is very hot this time of year) while exploring the area. The itinerary included San Francisco, the Pacific Coast Highway, Napa Valley, Sacramento, Eldorado National Forest. and Lake Tahoe. The Redwoods were on the itinerary, but fires at the time prevented us from traveling to these locations.

*This itinerary was for approximately six days.

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Sacramento Itinerary

Sacramento reminded me of Texas. Warm, dry, dusty, sunny, and bright.  It was in the 100s when we visited (in July). I didn’t miss all the humidity I’m used to at home in Indiana. An entire day was spent exploring the city, including Old Sacramento (“Old Sac”) in the riverfront historic district.  Old Sac contains over 100 businesses, museums, and attractions that can be explored on foot. A parking garage is available for a fee or free parking on side streets.

Old Sacramento

Adjacent to Old Sac is the Tower Bridge (aka Yellow Bridge) along the Sacramento River. Being a major landmark, I suggest visiting this bridge if you are already in the area. You can walk on and under it; the bridge offers a great photo background (especially at night)!

Now, let’s talk food. I feel that some of the main highlights of Sacramento were the many available food and coffee options!  The Waffle Experience offers an amazing brunch. They have some of the most unique waffle dishes, the best potatoes, and delicious craft soda.

I suggest Station 38 for their Iced Sea Salt Carmel and Iced Vietnamese or Temple Coffee for a handcrafted latte. Shift Coffee also has a really aesthetic set-up; just visiting for the atmosphere is worth it, but having one of their breakfast sandwiches or grilled cheese is life-changing. They make a pretty mean latte as well.

Eldorado National Forest

Just 40 minutes east of Sacramento is the Eldorado National Forest. In an attempt to see how far we could get to Lake Tahoe, it was by accident that we landed in Sly Park, California. While we didn’t have all day to explore, what we did see was beautiful! The scene here is gorgeous, Sly Recreational Area is surrounded by the Eldorado Forest and mountains decorate the background of every view. You can take a mile hike to see one of the waterfalls and some of the biggest, oldest trees I’ve ever seen in my Midwestern life. Just watch out for bears!

While traveling back to Sacramento, a treat at Sweet Dozen Cones was more than I bargained for. Specializing in ice cream and donuts, their cone shop in Folsom, CA, has donuts shaped into cones and filled with ice cream.  They have several options to choose from and are HUGE. After ordering, I realized one cone was shareable.

Napa Valley

Most people think of Napa Valley when considering northern California as a destination. It’s such a popular spot, and knowing we’d be there during prime wedding season, I planned. Although Napa is known for endless vineyards and wineries, it is so much more than that. The scenery, small towns throughout the valley, and sunsets over the mountains and vineyards are beautiful!

I had several recommendations for the Napa Valley Wine Train, so I made reservations several months in advance (plan ahead) and chose the sunset dinner train. Additionally, I chose one specific winery I wanted to see in Napa for the tour. This visit was more for the experience than for wine consumption and I knew that Castello di Amorosa would offer a great opportunity for that.

If you are from the Midwest you may be used to visiting wineries from Michigan and surrounding states, take note that Napa wineries and tastings are much more expensive than in the Midwest.  A tasting at a winery in Napa will cost you double to triple that in the Midwest.

Oakville Grocery is a great stop to grab sandwiches and snacks for the drive around Napa Valley. It has been open since 1881 and is a cute, gourmet grocer that sells picnic foods, wines, cheeses, and pick-up dinners for two. It is also home to the 1881 Napa Wine History Museum.

We spent the day driving around Napa and checking out the views before boarding the train in the evening. I later learned that the train covered all the sightseeing we had done via the car, so save yourself some time, gas, and view from aboard! The Gourmet Express Dinner train was a 3-hour train ride through Napa Valley in the evening, accompanied by a 3-course gourmet meal. This train typically runs around $215+ per person, and you will want to book in advance, especially during the busy seasons.

We visited Castello di Amorosa on a Sunday afternoon after making reservations in advance for their Premium Guided Tour. I highly suggest this tour over the general admission because it will give you access to additional parts of the castle, better views, and a tour guide.  It’s worth the $45 per person and includes a tasting.

San Francisco

It was my first time visiting California, and I had my heart set on seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and catching a glimpse of some sea lions. The highlights of my time in San Fran included visiting Pier 39, watching sourdough being made in front of Boudin’s Bakery, walking around the Fishermans Wharf, eating sushi and drinking bubble tea, catching a glimpse of the Full House house, taking in the view from Bakers Beach, and driving along the Golden Gate Bridge.

Travel tip for San Francisco:  Go into San Fran first, explore the city and Pier 39, and then drive across the Golden Gate Bridge from the south side. If you drive in from the south side you will not have to pay any tolls to cross the bridge.  There is a toll from the north side and it is much busier! From there you can jump on Highway 1 and go north along the Pacific Coast. 

Typically, I’m not much for a tourist trap, which is exactly what Pier 39 is, but I wanted a glimpse of those sea lions and Alcatraz (from a distance). You can get both of these things on Pier 39. We strolled through Fisherman Wharf and Boudin’s Bakery, grabbed some sushi/Japanese food, and enjoyed some bubble tea. Driving through San Francisco, I located the Full House house and then headed to Bakers Beach, on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I received several suggestions to go to Bakers Beach for views of the Golden Gate Bridge. On this particular day, it was foggy, and I couldn’t see the entire bridge in full view, but Bakers Beach also offered the opportunity to walk the coast and be away from all the crowds and tourists.

Highway 1 Pacific Coast

Toward the end of the trip, we drove along The Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1) from San Francisco to Point Reyes National Seashore.  This is a breathtaking drive, but heed this warning:  it’s not for the faint of heart. I’m a bit afraid of heights and expected this drive to be just a highway along the seashore. It’s more of a small, 2-lane road that winds around the side of a mountain/cliff, literally right over the ocean.

Construction was going on at the time, and I didn’t realize there was a landslide six months prior, so they had just reopened the highway when we drove through. The views were worth it, and the drive is likely not a problem for most people who don’t fear heights…or falling off cliffs. The Highway 1 stops included Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Muir Beach Overlook, and Stinson Beach.

Mt. Tamalpais State Park offers amazing views of northern California if you reach the 2,571-foot peak to the top.  There is no entrance fee; you’ll want to arrive early to avoid the mountain fog and driving in this area at night. Before or after your time at the park, I recommend stopping at the Mountain Home Inn to grab a bit to eat (food service stops early, so check times in advance). It is the only restaurant within miles, and they have outdoor seating with views you won’t find anywhere else! If you can afford the luxury, they have lodging available as well. It is one of five boutique hotels in the Romantic Places collection.

Muir Beach Outlook was the highlight of my day. After parking, take a very short hike to the outlook for incredible views of the most amazing outlook over the Pacific Ocean. It was hard to find due to GPS being spotty and directing us to the wrong place (there is even a sign at that location that notes GPS is wrong), but if you keep focused on the signs, you’ll eventually find it. Again, if you fear heights, you’ll want to be aware that the trail to the outlook could cause anxiety. I didn’t have too many problems with this myself, but it’s worth noting.

Stinson Beach was the last stop on Highway 1 before it got dark. I didn’t get a chance to explore the beach, but there was a pull-off along the highway where I stopped for a photo. It is named one of the best swimming beaches in Northern California. Stinson Beach would be a great place to spend the day, pack a picnic, and enjoy some waves.

Well, that’s a wrap.  Northern California was amazing!

TIP: Visit In-N-Out Burger.  Just do it while you’re in California. They don’t exist in the Midwest. I can no longer look at Five Guys the same way. In-N-Out was the best 11 pm dinner decision ever.

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