Northern California Road Trip: Where to Go and Where Not to Go

March 22, 2024   15 Comments »

Northern California Road Trip: Where to Go and Where Not to Go

May 5, 2016 15 Comments »

If you are in my generation you remember records. My sister had a turntable in her room with a nickel taped to the needle to add some weight and avoid skipping. I listened to the 45 of Locomotion endlessly. But I never turned it over to see what was on the other side – the B-side.

Notoriously the B-side is the less popular and less played song that few people pay attention to. As a kid, I was always caught up in the popular, but as an adult, I find that I’m drawn to the less popular, less popular things, places, and even less popular ways of living life.  It’s a core part of me that has firmly set in, and it’s the way I choose to live my life.

In my life I want to blaze my own trail and lead – I don’t want to follow.  And this is especially true in my travels.

When I decided to plan a Northern California Road Trip, I knew I had to do it ‘my way’ – the B-Side way. It started simple – I wouldn’t do the so often traveled LA to San Francisco Highway 1 road trip. I wouldn’t even do the typical and predictable Northern California Road trip to Napa, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and Muir Woods as the California tourism would suggest.

Instead, I would seek out the Northern California B-Sides; the lesser known places, places people have heard little about, but people like me would love to ‘discover’. And to top it off, I would do it in a unique way, in a self-contained Jucy Camper Van which would allow me complete flexibility and keep me on budget.

Route Map for Northern California Itinerary

Here’s the Northern California road trip route I took. The red markers are places and sights I stopped at along the way and have more info and pictures if you click on them, the green markers are where I stayed.

Skip Sonoma/Napa and go to Lodi

Northern California Road Trip Lodi Wines

“Everyone has drank Lodi wine, they just don’t know it,” said Dan, the owner of Oak Farm Vineyards.

Only 90 miles from San Francisco is one of the most sipped but least-known wine regions in California. Lodi has been growing wine grapes since the mid-1800s and today, but that’s where it stopped. They were mainly growers who sold their grapes to wineries in Napa and Sonoma.

However, over the last decade, the area has blossomed, and wineries are now showcasing their own grapes and varieties. It’s the largest appellation in California, with over 190,000 acres in production. Known as the Zin capital of the world, thanks to its warm days and cool nights, the Zinfandel grape loves the Lodi soil.

There’s an attitude in Lodi of “We can do anything here,” said Elise, winemaker for Bokisch Vineyards – and they do when it comes to winemaking. Not only is the area known for Zinfandales, but they are also known for being experimental (a true B-side quality!). Bokisch Vineyards is one of those experimenting with Spanish and French varietals.

Thanks to my friend and Ottsworld reader Sarah for helping me discover this area! She’s an expert on Lodi Wine and works at the visitor center!

wine glasses and bottles

Wineries to Visit in Lodi:

Lodi Wine and Visitor Center – start here and plan your trip in the region!
Oak Farm Vineyards
Bokisch Vineyards

Skip Lake Tahoe and go to the Klamath River

Northern Californ Klamath Forest

Everyone goes to Tahoe, but there’s another body of water you should see. The Klamath River is also called the “upside-down river” because it flows in a strange way. It begins in the plains and flows toward the mountains – carving its way through the Klamath Mountains before reaching the sea.

It is also home to a fascinating history of politics and the State of Jefferson. It’s also a popular area for white water rafting near Happy Camp where you’ll also find Big Foot.

Take this Northern California and Oregon road trip filled with adventures

The Story of the State of Jefferson

This part of Northern California (and Southern Oregon) was close to succeeding and becoming our 49th state back in 1941. This was a region that earned a living off the lumber, fishing, and other harvesting businesses. In particular, poor road quality and lack of bridges made it difficult to earn a living in this remote area of Klamath National Forest. They wanted to break away and form their own state (named Jefferson) to improve their lifestyles by governing themselves with their own laws. They were very close to succeeding until Pearl Harbor happened, and the US was thrown into war and unity. Drive the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway (Highway 96) and see some of the remnants of the succession movement as well as beautiful views of the Klamath River.

It’s still a pretty depressed area economically; each little town I went through was smaller and smaller. At Happy Camp, I asked for any advice on things to see on the rest of my drive on the byway and the young woman at the market simply said – “just lock your doors as you drive through Hoopa.”

I get it – I totally understand why the people around Northern California don’t feel like they are part of the rest of California. As I look at the life of people living around Yrekra and the towns along the Jefferson Byway, it baffles me to think that this is the same state where, in LA, you can buy syringes of vitamin shots and add chlorophyll to your water at the hip cafes in Venice Beach. But it’s a fascinating piece of California to see and makes you realize that there is a lot more to California than the popular stops and big cities.

State of Jefferson Scenic Byway

Skip Muir Woods and Go to Redwoods National Park

Northern California Redwood National Park

Why see only a small, crowded part of the Redwoods at Muir Woods when you can go further north to the Redwoods National Park? You can drive among giants, hike among giants, and you can even sleep among giants in Redwoods National Park. Drive the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway – the National Park’s version of the Avenue of the Giants. There are tons of pullouts where you can stop and take hikes into the woods. The trees envelop you, and, soon, your stress and worries melt away among these giants; it’s wellness travel on a budget!

I camped next to a big open meadow where wild elk roam in the Elk Prairie Campground located in Redwoods National Park. It had a real mystical feel to it to cook dinner and sleep under the trees in my little van.

I couldn’t get enough of the Redwoods so after a stop at Ramone’s Bakery in Eureka for a delicious breakfast, I continued further south I took a tip from my Gogobot travel planning app and stopped at Founders Grove along Avenue of the Giants for another spectacular hike with virtually no people around!

After all, sitting in a car all day on a road trip can be monotonous, I welcomed the opportunity to get out and stretch my legs for the little ½ mile walk through the Founder’s Grove. The path is well-marked and histories of various trees were provided. You’ll even get to see the fallen Dyerville Giant, a 362 ft. tall redwood that fell with a mighty crash in 1991. You’ll be amazed at these giants, their root systems, and their lifespans. You might even feel like giving one a hug.

Redwood Forests Visited:

Redwoods National Park Info Camping in Redwoods National Park:
Arrive before 5 PM to have a chance at getting a spot in the campground as it fills up fast after that. In the summer months, reservations are recommended as it fills up fast! There’s a shared bathroom, and each campsite has picnic tables and fire pits.
Founders Grove Hiking

Skip LA Beaches and head to Glass Beach and Bowling Ball Beach

northern california bowling ball beach

Who needs Hollywood bling when you can beach comb for glass bling in Fort Bragg? The saying “One man’s trash is another person’s treasure” has never been so true in Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg has beautiful coastal walks, however, veer off the path and head down to the beach and you’ll find more than just sand.

Former city trash dumpsites have yielded beautiful sea glass that has been tumbled and smoothed by the ocean waves. Go at low tide, and you’ll see the colorful pieces of smooth glass all over the beach. This is one time when walking on glass is safe! But you can’t take it with you – there are strict rules about leaving the glass on the beach.

There are no spares at the bowling ball beach. You can only experience these round, smooth geological wonders at low tide; the so-called bowling balls are actually known as a “concretion,” sedimentary rock formed by a natural process. These boulders are the result of millions of years of concretion and erosion.

Located at the northern end of Schooner Gulch State Beach and hidden away off Highway 1, I parked my Jucy campervan, followed the path on the ridge, and then scrambled down a small path to the beach to find them! Make sure you check the tide schedule first before making the trip!

Beaches to Visit in Northern California

Glass Beach Fort Bragg
Bowling Ball Beach

rocky california coastline

Skip Big Sur and Drive Highway 1 to Stornetta Protected Lands

california road trip

Not only was I surprised when my twisting, winding road through the forest suddenly gave way to jaw-dropping coastal views and cliffs, but I was also surprised that no one was there! I decided they could call it the Lonely Coast since I seemed to be the only one around. Forget the crowds of gawkers at Highway 1’s Big Sur and head further north, where you will have the views to yourself.

The steep coastal cliffs north of Westport are where Highway 1’s coastal driving route begins. Highway 1 (also called Shoreline Highway in this part of California) gets you as close as it possibly can to the edge at times. And there are plenty of places to pull over, park the van, and get out and listen to the crashing waves.

This Northern section of Highway 1 will lead you to the newly protected Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands, which contain more than 1,000 acres of scenic coastal habitat harboring wildlife. But to really get a feel for this area and its ever-changing coastline, I went out with Margaret Lindgren, owner of Unbeaten Path Tours, for a 3-hour walk along this spectacular coastline. She was able to show me the hidden gems of the area, explain the geology of the region, and show me the best photo spots. I learned why this area was so special and why it’s still relatively unknown.

After your Stornetta hike you will be hungry – so make sure you stop at Rollerville Café near the Lighthouse turnoff. This was probably my favorite find on my Gogobot app!  Delicious home-cooked food and a laid-back atmosphere in an area where there aren’t many options for cafes!

Rocky California coastline and vineyard

Stops along Highway 1 in Northern California:

Unbeaten Path Tours with Margaret
Rollerville Café
Point Arena Lighthouse
KOA Manchester Beach Campground

Skip the hotels and get a Jucy Camper Van

northern california road trip in a camper van

The wheels I used for this trip were a great fit for a modern-day hippy – or someone who wants to save money on a road trip. I rented a Jucy camper van that basically was my bed on wheels – it even had a kitchen too – all packed into a little minivan. It was a great way to get around the twisting, narrow roads around Northern California – especially Highway 1 in Mendocino County. I just stopped at the campgrounds and camped for the night, maximizing my sightseeing time in Northern California!

The van actually holds 4 people – 2 sleeping inside and 2 up above in the ‘Penthouse’. Since I was only one person, I was living large! The kitchen in the back was perfect for camping, with a pump sink you fill with 6 gallons of water, 2 gas burners, a fridge, and more cooking gear than what I had in my NYC apartment!

The Van also has a 2nd battery that runs for days and will allow you to use the overhead lights, charge phones/notepads via USB, and keep the fridge running all the time.

At the end of my trip, I had a hard time giving up my Jucy camper van. I really fell in love with the ease of getting around, and I honestly never slept better in my life than in my double bed in the van!

Book Your Own JUCY Camper Van:

Rent from their 3 US locations   – San Francisco, LA, or Las Vegas
Rent a Jucy Camper Van for your Northern California Trip

Road Trip Gear You’ll Need

These are all things I took with me for my recent Northern California Road Trip.

Phone Holder – when you are doing a solo road trip (or any kind) and renting a vehicle – be sure to bring some sort of phone holder with you so you can safely use your phone GPS. I’m not sure why rental car companies don’t just offer it as part of the rental, but they don’t, so pack your own!

VICSEED Car Phone Mount
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Auxillary Cable Connection – also great for plugging in your own music if the car doesn’t have Blue Tooth (which mine didn’t). I listen to podcasts on my road trips so having access to them is essential!
Kensington 4ft/ 1.2m Nylon Braided Premium 3.5mm Auxiliary Audio Cable – Black (K39202US)

Headlamp – essential for camping and making trips in the dark to campground bathrooms!
Petzl – TIKKA Headlamp 100 Lumens, Black (FFP)

Black Diamond Storm 400 Headlamp, Azul

The Storm 400 also has three different colored night vision modes and peripheral white lighting for close-range activities like carefully re-racking for the final summit pitch in the dark. The headlamp has our Brightness Memory feature, which allows you to turn the light on and off at a chosen brightness without reverting back to the default, full power setting.

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03/06/2024 01:17 pm GMT

Rain Gear – it’s often wet and rainy in the Redwood forests, so if you plan on exploring the giant trees, make sure you have rain gear with you! I use the

When I travel, I find the cheapest rental car rates at Check out their prices for a California road trip!


This post contains some affiliate links. If you choose to purchase items through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of running this site.

Jucy hosted my van rental for this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.

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