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16 Free Places to Visit in Northern California

16 Free Places to Visit in Northern California

Enjoy affordable coastal pebbles, stunning sunsets, and towering trees. highlight these gorgeous locations.


6 min read

June 04, 2021

Contrary to popular belief, NorCal travel doesn’t have to come with a hefty price tag. Rocky coastline, stellar sunsets, and the tallest living trees in the world—all these and more can be experienced without breaking the bank. Discover NorCal wilderness you’ve never seen before as the wind blows through your hair. Venture off to the countless places to visit in Northern California on your next weekend road trip and leave your heart in its hidden gems.

Free Northern California Things to Do 

No visit to San Francisco is complete without crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. It's fun, it's free, it's iconic, it's a must!

1. Cross the Golden Gate Bridge 

When it comes to things to do in San Francisco for free, the Golden Gate Bridge is an obvious choice. Located less than four miles from the Fisherman’s Wharf, the bridge boasts panoramic vistas wherever you look. Imagine the Pacific on one side and rocky S.F. seascape from the other—these are the Bay Area photo ops you’re getting. You can even see the beautiful city of Sausalito and Alcatraz Island from afar. Relish the coastal breeze and admire the San Francisco skyline as it complements the orange arches and architectural excellence.

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2. Visit Point Reyes National Seashore 

From rocky headlands and brushy hillsides to expansive sandy stretches, Point Reyes welcomes you and your family for an epic adventure. You’ll have a blast perusing one of the most fun and inexpensive things to do in Northern California—the park is home to over 1,500 species of plants and animals. Explore the cultural history of the area that has spanned for thousands of years through a tapestry of stories and interactions seen at Point Reyes

Also known as the Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay, the Sundial Bridge spans the Sacramento River in Redding and forms a large sundial.

3. Watch the Sunset atop Sundial Bridge 

Serving as a new downtown entrance for Redding’s extensive trail system, Sundial Bridge is a scenic haven for pedestrians and cyclists. As the name suggests, this bridge is, in fact, a working sundial—it’s one of the largest in the world. Celebrate human creativity and ingenuity as you explore this free Northern California attraction by letting steel, glass, and granite evoke a sense of weightlessness in you.

4. Visit UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden

The University of California Davis Arboretum and Public Garden is a 100-acre stunner located along the banks of Putah Creek. Founded in 1936, this living museum houses 4,000 kinds of trees, plants, and shrubs, appeasing nature lovers to a tee. Keep an eye out for bird and reptile species as you meander through this verdant space. Exercise your body, rest your mind, and set a spark to your creativity at this fun place near Sacramento to go for free.

Free Things to do in Sacramento County

The riverfront historic district of Old Sacramento is filled with Gold Rush-era buildings, cobblestone streets, and horse-drawn carriages.

5. Time Travel in Old Sacramento 

Experience California's rich history in Old Sacramento, where Gold Rush buildings, cobblestone streets, and horse-drawn carriages bring the past to life. With museums like the Sacramento History Museum and the California State Railroad Museum, a leisurely walk or a train ride offers a deep dive into yesteryear. It's an affordable highlight, so don't miss it on your visit.

The Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail is a 32-mile trail that's considered one of the longest paved purpose-built bike trails in the U.S.

6. Bike on the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail

Winding along the American River, the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trails commences at Discovery Park in Downtown Sacramento. Also known as the American River Bike Trail, the multi-use pathway is shared by hikers, joggers, and bikers. The 32-mile trail passes through numerous attractions between Sacramento and Folsom—each one more scenic than the other. Bring your four-legged friend along (on a leash) and trek the trail filled with serenity and gorgeous scenery.

7. Tour the Nimbus Fish Hatchery

If you consider yourself an angler aficionado, the Nimbus Fish Hatchery is the perfect cheap activity in Sacramento for you. Located in eastern Sacramento County, the hatchery raises Chinook salmon and steelhead to release in the American River. Not only that, but it’s also one of NorCal’s leading free places for kids. The Nimbus Fish Hatchery has on-site nature trails that meander along the river with bustling wildlife enhancing your trips.

Free Things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area

With 24 million visitors annually, Golden Gate Park is the third most-visited city park in the United States.

8. Walk around Golden Gate Park 

The rumors are true—Golden Gate Park is on everyone’s S.F. bucket list. Spread across 1,017 acres, the park boasts everything from bucolic lakes and meadows to vibrant recreational activities. Stroll through miles of green lawns and bridle paths, relax near shaded lakes, and snap pictures of the thousands of plants right in the heart of the city. Coming here is basically a free walking tour of San Francisco (and we’re not complaining at all).

Once a large, privately-owned public saltwater swimming pool complex, the Sutro Baths burned down to its concrete foundation in June 1966.

9. See the Sutro Baths at Lands End Lookout 

Lands End Lookout offers people a glimpse into the history of this S.F. gem. This Golden State attraction boasts a visitors center, smoothly paved trails, and of course, the iconic Sutro Baths. Built in 1896, the baths were once a passion project of a wealthy Californian entrepreneur. Now, they stand in testament to the feats of architectural imagination. 

10. Explore the Presidio of San Francisco

As your Bay Area itinerary starts filling up, do not sleep on the Presidio of San Francisco, one of the most fun places to go for free. Offering hiking trails and a much-needed sense of peace and solitude, this quiet park is the ideal place to spend an afternoon. One of the park’s main attractions is Andy Goldsworthy’s Wood Line outdoor sculpture, tucked away just off Lover’s Lane.

Places to go for Free in Humboldt County

California's best-kept secret is the historic Victorian village of Ferndale. Dozens of well-preserved Victorian homes dot the city.

11. Check out the Victorian Village of Ferndale 

Add Ferndale to your Northern California adventures for its enchanting vibes, nestled by the breathtaking Lost Coast. Its quaint Victorian allure makes it a sought-after backdrop for big-screen hits. Wander down the picturesque Main Street, where artsy shops and boutiques meet beautifully preserved homes from the 1800s, showcasing Gothic Revival, Italianate, Eastlake, and Queen Anne architectural styles.

12. Cruise along the Avenue of the Giants 

As you drive along Humboldt Redwoods State Park, expect the Avenue of the Giants to take your breath away. The 31.5-mile NorCal scenic drive will make everything feel small and insignificant—the towering redwoods take you to several attractions. The Immortal Tree is one of the highlights of this highway; it’s estimated to be more than 950 years old. Stop by the Founder’s Grove for a self-guided tour of the well-maintained old-growth redwood forest. You won’t regret adding this fun and cheap thing to do to your NorCal bucket list.  

Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail is accessible from the Elk Meadow Day Use Area. You can also take the three-mile Berry Glen Trail to view the grove.

13. Get lost in Lady Bird Johnson Grove 

Sitting atop a ridge, 1,000 feet above sea level, Lady Bird Johnson Grove is one of NorCal’s most scenic places to go for free. Named after former First Lady of the U.S. Lady Bird Johnson, this captivating grove unfolds among the ancient trees in Redwood National Park. With ferns and wildflowers surrounding the area, a walk through this grove is the closest thing you’ll get to a rustic oasis.

Fun Places to Go for Free in Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma Counties 

14. Check out Glass Beach

Located in Fort Bragg’s MacKerricher State Park, Glass Beach is one of the best to visit, even when it’s cold. Not too long ago, this place used to be a water dumpsite. In time, the broken bottles dumped here transformed into kaleidoscopic pebbles. Ditch the traditional white sand and find yourself mesmerized by thousands of colorful glass pebbles that illuminate the beach. 

15. Explore the vineyards of Meritage Resort and Spa

Opt for a short and scenic stroll at the beautiful Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa. The resort hides beautiful caves behind its main hotel, with stairs leading you along the way. While most people consider the cave to be the highlight, the vineyards by the resort are what truly stand out. As far as free things to do go, this place deserves a spot on your list of Napa attractions.

16. Take a stroll at Cornerstone Sonoma 

Wondering where to take your date? Head to this wine country marketplace brimming with world-class shopping, boutique tasting rooms, and artisanal designs—yes, we’re talking about Cornerstone Sonoma. What makes this place so special isn’t just the stores, it’s the picturesque gardens that take center stage. Listen to live music and enjoy your evening at the art-inspired gardens of this breathtaking Northern California attraction.

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