In a state surrounded by sweeping views and natural beauty, it would be a crime to always take the quickest route from A to B. Driving anywhere in the Golden State is a treat, but cruising through Northern California is especially exciting due to its expansive landscapes, rugged beaches, majestic mountains, and lush forests.
Whether you’re embarking on an eco-friendly California road trip, planning on tackling the Pacific Coast Highway, or tracing the past by going on a Gold Country trip of a lifetime, the best way to appreciate the diversity of NorCal is by picking up a map and going on a scenic drive.
The best drives in Northern California
1. Redwood Highway
The mega-popular Redwood Highway is not only one of the most scenic drives in Northern California, but also in the entire state. The 175-mile journey between Leggett and Crescent City feels like one continuous drive through a forest, partly due to the enchanting Avenue of the Giants you pass along the way—this famous stretch of the highway spans 31 miles and is lined with towering redwood trees, some of which are among the oldest known to man. You can’t help but feel like you’ve drunk the shrinking potion from Alice in Wonderland while being among these humongous trees.
2. Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway
Ancient volcanic peaks; dense forests; deep river canyons; pristine lakes—this untamed trans-Sierra route will expose you to all this and more. As one of the best drives in Northern California, Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway passes by spectacular Sierra attractions such as Grover Hot Springs State Park, Lake Alpine, and Calaveras Big Trees State Park. So, don’t hesitate to get out and stretch your legs while cruising along the 61-mile route.
3. Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Scenic Byway
This scenic drive in Northern California follows Highway 168 and White Mountain Road, leaving anyone passing through speechless. Take in unparalleled views of the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada Mountains, and watch out for the tight curves along the way. Care for an interesting stop during your journey? Drop by the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest to see some of the oldest trees in the entire world—some of the trees here exceed 4,000 years of age and feature twisted, beautifully colored wood.
4. Mount Shasta-Cascade Loop
As one of the longer trips on this list, the Mount Shasta-Cascade Loop makes for an incredible weekend road trip. Take your time while tackling this over 400-mile scenic drive in Northern California and learn about the region’s rich volcanic history. Make sure to spend some time in Lassen Volcanic National Park, take pictures of Mount Shasta, and drop by Shasta Dam.
5. Silverado Trail
The Silverado Trail is an ideal drive for those looking to squeeze in a quick Napa Valley getaway. Even though this scenic drive in Northern California can be completed in under an hour, the tree-lined country road still packs plenty of views and must-see destinations. Looking to lengthen your trip? Stop at one or more of the wineries dotting the route and explore their beautifully verdant grounds.
6. State Route 35
Also known as Skyline Boulevard, this mostly two-lane scenic drive in Northern California stretches from the Oakland Hills to (almost) Santa Cruz, providing breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay, Pacific Ocean, and Silicon Valley. The scenery on this curvy, narrow road is unbeatable, which is why it’s one of the best scenic drives in the Bay Area. With natural wonders, many top state parks, and more attractions along the way, Skyline Boulevard is one road you definitely shouldn’t miss.
Scenic drives near Sacramento
7. Highway 49
Pack some snacks, put on your feel-good California playlist, and go cruising along Highway 49 for the ultimate adventure in the Sacramento Valley. This scenic drive near Sacramento not only boasts panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada foothills, but also features many historic landmarks that teach you about the state’s history. Give yourself plenty of time to visit these Gold Country attractions and to get out and snap photos of the gorgeous scenery—you’re going to want to stop and stare quite a few times during the road trip.
8. California State Route 160
Stretching nearly 50 miles, California State Route 160 consists of two sections: northern and southern. The longer, southern section is the more scenic one of the two, passing by the Sacramento River and over the Antioch Bridge. Travelers along this scenic drive near Sacramento can expect to cruise by the historic Sacramento Delta agricultural areas and the charming small towns lining the river.
The Best Lake Tahoe scenic drive
9. Lake Tahoe Perimeter Drive
Since the drive around the entirety of Lake Tahoe is only 72 miles, why not trace it all in one trip? Boasting spectacular beaches, killer views, and plenty of recreational activities, this Tahoe scenic drive has no shortage of things to see and do. So, take your time and stop to take in the vistas and to enjoy the destinations just off the road. If you just can’t bear to leave, stay the night in South Lake Tahoe to fully take advantage of all that this beautiful region has to offer.
Scenic drives in San Francisco
10. Pacific Coast Highway
Is a Golden State road trip list ever complete without the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)? Although the entirety of the PCH stretches all the way from San Diego to San Francisco, it is entirely possible to complete only the northern section of this long journey. Start your scenic drive in San Francisco, continue southward for as long as you like, and turn back around whenever you decide you’ve had enough (although we have a hunch you won’t want to stop). Landmarks on the northern end of this highway include the Golden Gate Bridge, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Cannery Row, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
11. 49-Mile Scenic Drive
Looking for a quick and easy way to explore S.F.? The 49-Mile Scenic Drive was made for exactly that—literally. It was created in 1938 for the sole purpose of highlighting the city’s beauty and promoting it as a tourist destination. Having been modified several times since its construction, this scenic drive in San Francisco is now a loop starting and ending at Civic Center Plaza. Among the many landmarks you’ll drive by are Union Square, Chinatown, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square.
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