When you think of Northern California what do you first think of? San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, maybe Napa or Sonoma? That’s the Northern California we all know. I personally don’t want to follow the crowds to these well-known places. I like to find hidden gems few people know about; to find unique and quirky places and people.
So I set out on a road trip voyage to discover the unique places to visit in California. However, the state is so huge, I had to break it into Northern and Southern California! You can see my article on places to visit in Southern California here.
Table of Contents
What makes these Northern California places unique?
The places that made this list are little gems I found as I traveled throughout the region by car. Some of these places are popular already with the travelers who come to these rural areas, and some are just regular local places, not on any tourist trail. They include sights, landscapes, restaurants, parks, and hotels. And together they made up the best places on my trip!
The Best Places to Visit in Northern California
These 4 regions are easily reachable via car from San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento airports. I suggest you make a road trip out of it and pick a few of the places and plan a weekend or week-long trip!
I love it when places surprise me with something unexpected. The North Coast of California is not only home to all the great hidden beaches and water adventures you would expect from the California coast, but it is also a mecca for lighthouses. That’s right, the East coast is not the only coast with lighthouses!
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse: This really is a hidden gem – you can’t drive to it, you have to walk a ½ mile to get to it! What I loved about the Point Cabrillo lighthouse was you could stay there overnight in the lighthouse keeper’s cabins; a completely remote and unique experience. There’s a museum, gift shop, tours at the lighthouse, and of course sensational views of the rugged coast.
Point Cabrillo Light Station Website
Stornetta National Monument and Point Arena Light House: This was my second visit to this Stornetta Public Lands…because it’s just that great. Do a hike with Unbeaten Path Tours and learn all about this incredible landscape, how it’s formed, why it’s protected, and watch for whales, seals, and birds. This is one of my favorite tours I’ve ever taken; Margaret’s knowledge and passion for the area are what make this experience so wonderful. Then head right ‘next door’ to the Point Arena Light House. Walk the 145 stairs to the top for jaw-dropping views. And don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for whales along the coast! This is also a lighthouse where you can stay overnight for a unique experience!
Stornetta Lands Tours with Unbeaten Path
Point Arena Lighthouse Website
Glass Beach: This unusual beach is worth a stop in Fort Bragg. This former city trash dump site was full of glass bottles that have been tumbled into colorful sea glass now. You can go down and search for clear, blue, and green glass (hint, the blue is hardest to find!), but you can’t take it with you. Look but don’t take! Be sure to do a leisurely sunset walk along the Fort Bragg coastal path and enjoy the artistic redwood benches along the way. Each bench was designed/created by a local artist, a beautiful way to celebrate local artists!
Glass Beach in Fort Bragg
Looking for Adventure in California?
Check out my top California adventures you need to add to your itinerary!
Requa Inn: Two words…cinnamon rolls. Yes – this place is worth a stay just for those delicious cinnamon rolls in the morning. The Historic Requa Inn overlooks the Klamath River in the Redwoods National and State Park. A beautiful and unique setting where you can unplug and enjoy nature…and did I mention they have cinnamon rolls?!
Seascape Restaurant: The vibe at the Seascape restaurant is ‘fisherman’. This isn’t a fancy place, it’s a simple, basic seafood restaurant perched out on the pier in Trinidad. Fishermen and locals have been coming here for fresh seafood since the 1950s. Great views and creamy clam chowder!
Featherbed Railroad Inn: It doesn’t get much more unique than this, sleep in a vintage caboose on the shores of Clear Lake, considered to be the oldest lake in North America. Each caboose is designed differently and has everything you would expect in a hotel room…even a jacuzzi tub!
Featherbed Railroad Inn Website
Read about my Northern California and Oregon road trip adventures!
The earth is not quiet in this part of California. That and the enormous amount of outdoor activities is what makes this region unique. It is home to Lassen Volcanic National Park, the only place on Earth where all four types of volcanoes can be seen. But it also has some more non-geothermal unique finds.
Sundial Bridge: How a medium-sized town like Redding enticed a world-famous architect, Santiago Calatrava, to design their bridge, I have no idea. But it means that there’s a world-famous bridge in Redding; move over Golden Gate Bridge, and there’s a new bridge in town. Unlike the Golden Gate, this is simply a pedestrian bridge that crosses the Sacramento River. It is the world’s largest sundial; it is also the most costly and inaccurate timepiece on earth! Go at sunrise or sunset for some spectacular views and photography moments.
Sundial Bridge Redding Website
State of Jefferson Scenic Byway: This isn’t your run-of-the-mill scenic byway, it is also home to a fascinating history of politics and the State of Jefferson. This part of Shasta Cascade was close to succeeding and becoming our 49th state back in 1941. 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. You’ll also be treated to beautiful views of the Klamath River, 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.
State of Jefferson Byway Website
This is the area that is responsible for the ‘making’ of California. If it wasn’t for the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills, California wouldn’t be what we know today.
Volcano Town: The town of Volcano may be small with only 130 people, but it’s rich in history. Wander around the Gold Rush-era buildings with signs indicating their historic significance. Be sure to stop at the old theatre building and general store. You’ll find a multitude of California “firsts”: The first theater group, the first private school, the first law school, the first legal hanging in Amador County, and the first astronomical observatory in California. Surprisingly there was a Civil War ‘battle’ fought in the little gold rush town of Volcano too, any local will be happy to tell you the entertaining story. The canon used (but never fired) is on display in the town today.
Volcano, California Website
Volcano Union Inn: Don’t miss this incredible diamond in the rough in the town of Volcano. Run by Tracy Berkner and her husband Chef Mark Berkner, they have put an immense amount of love into this old historic Inn that used to house miners. There are 4 rooms to reserve and an incredible little pub where they wow people with farm-to-table menus and wine pairings. A favorite menu item is the Union Wings; buffalo wings meet duck a l’orange (Oui Oui / Hell Yes)! Duck drummettes that are seasoned, cooked confit, deep fried, and then doused with an orange harissa glaze. How could something this good be in a little town of 130 people, I have no idea, but you’ll want to stop there!
Read Reviews of Volcano Inn
Volcano Union Inn Website
Gold Panning Coloma: Get ready to yell “Eureka!”; a Greek word translated as “I have found it!” The motto was adopted in 1849 and originates from the discovery of gold in the little town of Coloma California. Not only rich in history, but this little town is also a place where you can try your hand at panning for Gold yourself on the South Fork of the American River! Luckily I was able to learn my skills from some local gold panners who do it for a living today, which made it even more of a unique experience. You can watch how my gold panning went in this video.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Park
Much of the Delta region in the Central Valley sits below sea level, behind levees earning it the nickname “California’s Holland”. You can drive for hours on levee roads in this fascinating part of California.
Locke Town: The little town of Locke in the Central Valley is the only town in the United States built exclusively by the Chinese for the Chinese. The Chinese population who came to build the levees founded Locke in 1915 after a fire broke out in the original Chinese section of Walnut Grove. The new town of Locke was created by Chinese architects and constructed by the Chinese. Walk down the main street and get a glimpse at a bygone era. It’s not exactly a ghost town, but don’t expect much activity or people! It’s a hidden historical gem in Central Valley.
Locke Town Website
Old Sugar Mill: A one-time sugar-beet processing plant, this old building has been given a second life. It’s been converted into tasting rooms and storefronts for nearly a dozen Clarksburg Winemakers. You’ll find fifteen unique wineries offering varietals from all over Northern California. If you want to do wine tasting outside of the normal Napa and Sonoma, this is the place to come – a one-stop shop in a beautiful setting!
Sugar Mill Website
Peter’s Steak House Isleton – This is what it would look like if a Nebraska steak house and a Thai restaurant had a baby. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill steakhouse. But, the important thing is that it is a delicious steakhouse. Peter and his wife Yee make an incredible prime rib – rivaling anything I’ve ever had in Nebraska! The décor is slightly Asian, and the food totally hearty Midwestern. Located in an old historic building, it’s worth a stop, but go hungry!
Peter’s Steak House Website
Map of Places to Visit in Northern California
Now since I got you excited to try some of these quirky places, I’ll show you where you can find them.
For those of you who like to explore off-beat things when you travel, this list should keep you busy for a while!
II was a guest of Visit California for a #CaliforniaWild project during my time in California. However all opinions expressed here are my own.