23 Must-See Outdoor Destinations to Explore in Northern California in 2023
The outdoor destinations of NorCal are some of the most jaw-dropping on the planet. From the active volcanoes to the stunning waterfalls and massive redwood trees, there’s so much to see in California’s north. No matter what you like to do in the outdoors, we’ve got you covered.
Here are 23 sensational outdoor destinations to visit in Northern California in 2023:
Lava Beds National Monument
Sitting in the the tippy-top of Northern California is one of the most beautiful, historical parks in all of California. Combining geology with history and just good ole’ fashioned outdoor beauty, this rugged terrain is one of NorCal’s most fascinating and underrated outdoor destinations.
Although the scenes above ground are beautiful in their own right, the main attraction in the Lava Beds National Monument is its 20 developed lava tube caves that are open to the public.
Many of the developed caves contain trails through the cave and stairways or ladders into the cave. Most of the developed caves are located along Cave Loop, a 2-mile road near the visitor center. Just a short walk from the visitor center, Mushpot Cave contains exhibits and is the only lighted cave at Lava Beds. Developed caves are divided into three groups based on their varying levels of difficulty in the hardest section of the cave: least, moderate, and most challenging.
Read more about An Underground Visit to the Lava Beds National Monument
Jedediah Smith Redwoods
The Jedediah Smith Redwoods, sitting it the northwest corner of California, are one of the great hidden gems of the United States. With ancient redwoods towering over groves along a remote stretch of the North Coast, the area is not one that gets crowded very often.
There are plenty of beautiful areas to experience the magnificent NorCal redwoods and Jedediah Smith might be the most undeveloped. A large portion of the park has no trails whatsoever and that likely isn’t going to change soon. But there are still a few ways to experience these pristine redwoods.
The most popular hike in the park is Stout Grove, which may be the scenic redwood grove on the planet. The Boy Scout Trail and Mill Creek Trail are also popular, giving visitors a chance to see large portions of the park near the main campgrounds.
Learn more about the Jedediah Smith Redwoods
Mendocino Headlands State Park
Mendocino Headlands State Park is a breathtaking natural wonder located adjacent to the village of Mendocino, enveloping the town on three sides. The trails follow the ocean around the headlands, providing excellent opportunities for whale-watching during the season from late December through April. At the southeast corner of Mendocino, visitors can explore one of the few white sand beaches in the region, Big River State Beach, situated at the mouth of Big River, which is constantly reshaped by the strong tides and large waves.
The area surrounding the headlands was home to the Northern Pomo tribe for centuries, with other inland tribes visiting the coast annually to trade, hunt, and socialize with the coastal tribe. The Headlands feature a blowhole, the original 1850 lumber mill site, and offer spectacular ocean views. Visitors can park at the west end of Main Street or head north to Heeser Road, turn left, and circle around the Headlands to end up at Lansing Street. The trails are easily accessible from Main Street and various parking areas along the way, with the section along Heeser Drive providing the best opportunity to see migrating whales in the winter.
The Historic Ford House serves as the Visitor Center for Mendocino Headlands State Park and is located on Main Street in Mendocino. Visitors can find exhibits on local cultural and natural history, as well as information on the town of Mendocino, making it an excellent starting point for exploring the Mendocino Coast.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more pristine area in Northern California than the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Whiskeytown Lake is the centerpiece of the park that includes four waterfalls, hundreds of miles of trails and a beautiful beach.
There’s something for everyone at Whiskeytown. You can hike a peak, visit a waterfall, go for a swim, enjoy the lake from a boat, go fishing, lounge on the beach or even do some water skiing. Whiskeytown is a local favorite for Redding residents and is a must-see destination for anyone visiting the area.
Learn more about Hiking the Waterfalls of Whiskeytown
Emerald Bay is a National Natural Landmark, and when you see it in person you’ll know why. The bay is known for its pristine waters, isolated island and 180 degrees of overhead views to bask in its beauty. This area provides one of the most gorgeous views of Lake Tahoe and is a very popular destination for tourists.
There are two distinct ways to experience Emerald Bay – by land or by water. Boating or kayaking in the bay is popular for visitors as it will get you up close with the legendary Fannette Island. From the water you can also get glimpses of Vikingsholm – the Scandinavian castle on the shore.
A more popular way to visit Emerald Bay is by hiking the trails above, which will give you stellar views of the lake. The most popular hike is Eagle Falls, a waterfall flowing just west of the bay. The short hike to the waterfall is one of the most popular outdoor destinations in the Tahoe area.
In McCloud, California sits one of the premiere outdoor destinations in Northern California. McCloud Falls offers visitors three beautiful and unique waterfalls within a short hike. It’s the perfect place to bring the family to swim and enjoy the great outdoors.
McCloud Falls, located just outside of Mount Shasta, California, actually consists of three different waterfalls, all with their own distinct personalities. The three tiers of McCloud Falls – Upper, Middle and Lower – provide visitors one of the best outdoor experiences in NorCal. It’s a beautiful hike to see all three waterfalls and in the summer months there is some great opportunities for swimming and recreation.
While Upper is difficult to get to and Lower is the smaller of the three, Middle McClouds Falls remains the most popular waterfall in the area. It contains a large swimming hole at the bottom and you can even catch some crazy cliff jumpers putting on a show. But one thing’s for sure, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
Learn more about Hiking the Three Tiers of McCloud Falls
Trinity Alps Wilderness
The Trinity Alps Wilderness, located just northwest of Redding, is a gorgeous mountain range providing backpackers with stunning views, pristine high-alpine lakes and unmatched wilderness isolation. It’s the perfect place for an outdoor adventure in the summer months.
For campers and backpackers looking for an introduction to the Trinity Alps Range, Caribou Lakes Trail is the perfect route! Along the trail, hikers run into enormous Caribou Lake (72 acres), Lower Caribou Lake, as well as stunning Snowslide Lake and a series of other smaller pools.
We also recommend taking the difficult hike to Grizzly Falls. Considering its length (14 miles) and altitude change (5,400 feet), Grizzly Creek trail doesn’t exactly fit into the category of “casual hikes”. Following the motto: “nothing worth doing is easy” though, Grizzly Creek Trail’s grueling hike leads to one of the best if not THE best payoffs in Northern California.
Learn about hiking the Trinity Alps Wilderness
Scoring views of Half Dome throughout Yosemite National Park is a treat for any visitor. But the true adventurer might prefer to get their kicks with the thrilling hike to the top of the legendary rock formation.
Rising nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level, Half Dome is a Yosemite National Park icon and a great challenge for many hikers. Despite an 1865 report declaring that it was â€œperfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot. George Anderson reached the summit in 1875, in the process laying the predecessor to today’s cable route.
The 14- to 16-mile round-trip hike to Half Dome is not for you if you’re out of shape or unprepared. You will be gaining elevation (for a total of 4,800 feet) most of your way to the top of Half Dome. Most would say the reward is worth the effort. Along the way, you’ll see outstanding views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Half Dome, and from the shoulder and summit panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra.
Learn more about the Thrilling Hike to the Top of Half Dome
Hot, flat, dry and the most interesting thing to do is drink beer.
It’s not a far reach to say this is how many people in Northern California view Chico in the summer. If it wasn’t for Bidwell Park, I would be right there with them, but the 2,500 acre park changed Chico from a place I was trying to get away from to somewhere I didn’t want to leave.
Bidwell Park starts on the outskirts downtown and sprawls into the mountains behind Chico, unravelling Big Chico Creek and creating a prime destination for outdoor junkies with a broad scope of interests. Whether you live in Chico or the surrounding NorCal area, Bidwell Park is worth a visit.
From the relaxing vibe of Lower Park to the rigid hikes and epic swimming holes of Upper Park, there’s plenty of adventure in this massive outdoor utopia.
Read our Complete Guide Chico’s Bidwell park
Lake Shasta Caverns
While most people head to the lake for sunny vibes, there’s also an awesome experience you can find underground. Lake Shasta Caverns are a network of caves located near the McCloud arm of the lake and is one of the most unforgettable cave adventures found in the country.
The tour begins with a long downhill hike to the patio boat that carries you to the other side of the McCloud River arm of the Shasta Lake. Once you arrive at water level, the boat ride is wonderful. Though Shasta Caverns is only a short drive north of Redding, you may be shocked by how otherworldly it really is. Maybe that’s the point.
Once in the cave you are ushered through chambers of all sizes, some up a flight of stairs, some down. Each cavern has a name, and a story. Though I have been known to get claustrophobic in tight places, I’ve never felt that way inside Shasta Caverns. There is so much to see and too many great stories to listen to. The tour takes at least an hour, and the time flies.
Discover a captivating underground world at Lake Shasta Caverns
Although it sits a little further south than most of our other destinations, road tripping to Mammoth Lakes is something you simply have to include on your bucket list. Nestled between the mountainous Yosemite National Park and the Nevada border sits Mono County, an outdoor buffet of swimming, fishing, hiking, biking, skiing, kayaking, running and sightseeing.
Alas, like most road trip destinations in NorCal, this area is a tale of two seasons. Its winter season contains a myriad of world-class winter sporting opportunities, with the famous Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain sitting a mere 20 minutes away. Its summer season, though less talked about than its rival, may have more to offer a visitor with its mountains and lakes serving as a paradise for the outdoor inclined. Hiking is probably this area’s most sought after treasure, with hundreds of miles of trails that meander through the Inyo and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests, including the John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Hoover Wilderness areas. And, of course, you can’t forget about the area’s world famous hot springs.
Learn more about visiting Mammoth Lakes
Castle Crags Wilderness
Castle Crags seems to hide in plain sight. Though clearly visible from I-5, the magnificent geological oddity receives less mention than other North State attractions. Maybe people prefer volcanoes to granite spires.
Whatever the reason for Castle Crags State Park’s relative anonymity, the destination certainly deserves a visit. From the hike to Castle Dome to finding waterfalls like Root Creek Falls and Burstarse Falls, there are so many reasons to make a trip to the legendary Crags.
Learn more about Castle Crags State Park
Point Reyes National Seashore
Sitting just north of San Francisco on the Pacific Ocean is a spectacular coastal area dominated with ocean views, marine wildlife sightings, a historic lighthouse, a shipwreck and one of NorCal’s most photogenic destinations.
There are plenty of places to visit in the Point Reyes National Seashore. You can get ocean views and see some marine wildlife at Drake’s Beach. You can drive through the magnificent Cypress Tree Tunnel, with the obligatory stop for a photo. You can see the Point Reyes Shipwreck, a gorgeous tribute to the area’s history. Or you can simply visit the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse.
You simply can’t be disappointed by a visit to the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Learn more about the Picturesque Visit to the Cypress Tree Tunnel
A flowing phantom haunts Table Mountain near Oroville. It disappears during the summer, and remains well hidden in remote Coal Canyon the rest of the year. The lucky few that stumble upon it boast of its sinister beauty. A narrow cascade reaching 134 feet to the bottom of Coal Canyon, Phantom Falls seems most drawn to the wet, gloomy months of winter (only fitting right?). When dark clouds clear for a few days and wildflower displays are at their height February-April, Phantom Falls is one of the best spectacles in the North State.
Unfortunately, getting to Phantom Falls is about as hard as finding an actual phantom. No established trail leads to the landmark, which sometimes necessitates the use of a GPS or compass to find it (Lat/Long: 39.61041, -121.56063). Hikers also need to proceed with caution through the area to avoid trespassing or trampling over wildflowers.
Begin from the trailhead (again there’s no trail) at the unmarked parking lot adjacent to a green cattle gate off Cherokee Road (directions below). To ensure legal passage, head northwest to a drainage that sits due south of the falls. At this point, you’ll ascend a steep gorge. Try your best to avoid poison oak. After close to two miles of walking, you’ll reach a cliff that overlooks Coal Canyon and Phantom Falls. There, you can marvel at the splendor of your surroundings. Bring a camera.
Learn more about the Winter Spectacle of Phantom Falls
Avenue of the Giants
Sitting in in the middle of the Humboldt Redwoods State Park is the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile two lane stretch of old Highway 101 that features some of the most beautiful scenes of Northern California’s world-famous redwoods.
This roadway has become a popular destination for roadtrippers to get a quick glimpse of the beauty of the North Coast without even having to leave their vehicle. The massive trees aligning the highway are a portion of the largest remaining stand of virgin redwoods in the world.
The drive offers distinct views of the redwoods along with multiple trailhead access to the State Park and you can even access the Eel River for fishing, swimming and other water fun. Along the Avenue there are a number of sleepy small towns including Pepperwood, Redcrest, Weott, Myers Flat, Miranda and Phillipsville, where you can explore quaint shops or stop in for supplies.
The drive lined with titan trees is mostly flat with gentle turns, highlighted with forest hamlets, campgrounds, picnic areas and numerous trailhead that lead into the magical redwood forest.
Learn more about the stunning drive on the Avenue of the Giants
Did you know that there’s a lake in NorCal that’s nearly a half a million years old, staking claim to the oldest lake in North America?
Clear Lake in Lake County is one of the most geologically unique lakes on the planet, sitting at 480,000 years old and being formed on top of a volcano deep below the earth’s surface. There’s volcanic activity such as fumaroles and boiling hot springs all around the area, a reminder of the lake’s storied past.
So how has Clear Lake sat in its same spot for this long? It’s actually a geological anomaly. The molten rock that sits deep below the lake is remnant from the volcano that once sat at the location, now dormant. That rock tilts a little bit every year, allowing water to seep through at a slow rate and keep the water level consistent for hundreds of thousands of years.
For many people around the globe, when they think of Northern California, they think of Burney Falls. Located just north of Redding between Lassen Peak and Mt. Shasta in California’s lava country, is famous for its 129-foot waterfall, which cascades from Burney Creek down into Lake Britton. The falls are a sacred place for the Pit River Indian Tribe, who have held ceremonial rituals here for thousands of years. President Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed with the waterfall, he dubbed it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
The year-round falls are formed by melting snow from Burney Mountain, which travels through underground streams before hitting solid rock and flowing back to the surface. Each day, more than 100 million gallons of water plunge over the falls.
While you’re there, don’t miss the Falls Loop Trail, which is a 1-mile hike to the base of the falls and back up. During the walk, you’ll see lava flows and fractured basalt as evidence of the regions turbulent volcanic activity. After descending 100 feet into Burney Canyon, we’re rewarded with a cool mist at the base of the falls.
Read more about the Eighth Wonder of the World – Burney Falls
It’s best known for its world-famous rock formation shaped as the head of a gorilla. But the 4.7-mile out-and-back hike on the Tunnel Creek Trail, which is part of the Tahoe Flume Trail, is so much more. In fact, it may be the best panoramic view of Lake Tahoe that one can find.
The Tunnel Creek Trail begins in Incline Village and climbs high above the lake, giving views of Tahoe’s water clarity from thousands of feet up. From the top of the trail, you can see the entirety of the 71-miles of shoreline surrounding Lake Tahoe. But to snap a photo, you may want to sit by Monkey Rock.
As rumor has it, an Incline Village local noticed the shape of the rock matched that of the head of a gorilla. While going through a devastating divorce, that local hiked up the hill and carved the ears and nostrils into the rock. Today, it makes for an interesting photo above Tahoe.
Learn more about the hike to Tahoe’s Monkey Rock
It’s hard to beat the experience you get when you’re standing at the summit of a significant mountain, especially when it’s an active volcano. The hike to the top of Lassen Peak is not a strenuous as one might think and you will experience amazing views of Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Northern California surroundings.
There’s no question why the Lassen Peak hike remains the most popular in the park. It’s not particularly strenuous and is a great memory for anyone looking to experience the beauty of the world.
Read all about the hike to the top of Lassen Peak here.
Sitting high above the Pacific Ocean below, Mount Tam is known to be a very special destination for anyone that visits. Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Mount Tamalpais State Park is loaded with breathtaking vistas, wildlife sightings and lush meadows sweeping over the foggy Bay Area.
From the hills of Mount Tamalpais, you can see 360 degrees of pure bliss surrounding you. From Mount Diablo to the Farrallon Islands to the San Francisco Bay, there’s so much to see from the upper peaks of the mountain.
You can spend you time hiking, picnicking or wildlife viewing near the East Peak Visitor Center. For photographers, the area is known to give unparalleled views of the fog surrounding the area, flowing like the waves below it.
Learn more about Mount Tamalpais State Park
Humboldt’s Fern Canyon has become one of the most popular outdoor destinations in Northern California, with its 50-foot walls covered in ferns. The hike through the canyon is uniquely picturesque, much like walking through an ancient forest filled with dinosaurs.
Located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, it takes a bit of work to get to the North Coast gem known as Fern Canyon, but it’s worth it. From Highway 101 at Orick, drive unpaved Davison Road 10 miles to this spectacular canyon, a hidden paradise of ferns lining a narrow gorge carved out by Home Creek. Some of the seven different types of ferns clinging to the steep cliffs are ancient species, with ancestry tracing back 325 million years. Living underneath their leafy shade are some eye-catching amphibians, including Pacific giant salamanders, which can measure nearly a foot in length, and northern red-legged frogs.
The trail follows a series of small footbridges (installed in summer) deep into the canyon. Lush, drooping ferns create hanging gardens, miniature waterfalls pour down rock faces, and moss wallpapers every surface. The walls grow taller and squeeze tighter as you travel.
Learn more about Humboldt’s Fern Canyon
What can we say about Mount Shasta that hasn’t been documented heavily on this site? The Crown of California is as beautiful as it is a mystery to everyone who gets close to it. It’s the perfect outdoor playground for anyone, giving majestic slopes and tributaries to anyone that comes in its path.
There’s so many ways to enjoy Mount Shasta. You can earn insane views of the active volcano from Heart Lake. You can hike the lush meadows of the lower elevation areas. Or you can drink from the headwaters of the Sacramento River at the bottom of the mountain.
On any given day, you’re also likely to see one of the magical lenticular clouds that make Shasta so famous. The clouds lend to the legends surrounding the area, including sightings of aliens, Bigfoot and the beings living inside the mountain – Lemurians.
Learn more about the Crown of California – Mount Shasta
Everyone knows that Northern California is home to hundreds of beautiful waterfalls, some of them world-renown. But did you know that the tallest waterfall in North America, and the third tallest in the world, sits right in the pristine wilderness of NorCal?
Yosemite Falls is arguably the centerpiece of one of the world’s most popular parks, Yosemite National Park. It actually consists of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall, the Middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Falls. The Upper and Lower sections of the waterfall are some of the most popular and beautiful destinations in the park.
If you take into account the three different drops of the waterfall, it cascades down a total of 2,425 feet from the top to the bottom, making it North America’s tallest. Upper Yosemite Falls accounts for most of the drop, with a 1,430-foot plunge, with Lower Yosemite Falls accounting for the bottom 320-foot drop.
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