Envision yourself driving over the Golden Gate Bridge at dawn while the sun breaks through the fog. Then winding through the hills along the rocky seaside of the California coast which then turns into a dense, lush forest with ancient trees towering hundreds of feet above you. Before long you’re staring at a snow-capped volcano rising over 14,000 feet high.
This Northern California road trip visits many bucket list destinations. After you leave San Francisco and cross the Golden Gate Bridge stick to California Route 1 for the first couple of days. Route 1 offers striking views running parallel to the Pacific Coast and then later winding through California’s coastal redwoods.
After finishing driving California’s coast you’ll briefly head east passing through Southern Oregon then you’ll continue south to California’s Cascade Volcanoes – Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak. On your final evening, after five busy days of exploring, you’ll head back to San Francisco.
Travel Time for a Northern California Road Trip Loop Starting in San Francisco
The total distance of this Northern California road trip loop starting and ending at Escape Camper Vans in San Francisco is 957 miles. This Northern California road trip takes 19 hours to drive via California Route 1 up the coast and down I-5 through the mountains on your way back to San Francisco.
Best Time of Year for a Northern California Road Trip
Weather, road closures, and peak travel seasons are all things to consider for your Northern California road trip. Each season offers a different experience depending on your interests.
Spring is a great time to explore Northern California from San Francisco, especially to visit the redwoods. Winter and spring bring plentiful precipitation meaning Redwood National Park is the most lush and green during spring. Point Reyes National Seashore and lower elevations around Mount Shasta are covered in blooming wildflowers.
Most of Lassen Volcanic National Park is still blanketed in snow but you can visit Manzanita Lake on the west side of the park. Wherever you are in Northern California, the statement April showers bring May flowers stands true. Pack some good rain gear!
By summertime temperatures warm up in Northern California meaning fewer rainy days and more sun! Wildflowers bloom at higher elevations as snow melts away. Conditions permitting, by mid-summer, all roads on this route are open.
A lot of folks plan their vacations in the summer so all these Northern California road trip destinations are more crowded so book your campsites well in advance.
Fall is also a nice time to road trip in Northern California. Temperatures are comfortable and September and October actually bring some of the warmest, sunniest days along the California coast out of the whole year! While temperatures in the mountains begin to drop they’re still manageable with days in the 60s and nights in the 30s to 40s. Generally, snow doesn’t start falling until late fall or into winter.
The biggest consideration with a Northern California road trip in the fall is fire season. California is known for its wildfires and if there was minimal precipitation throughout the summer and past winter the state is at higher risk. Stay open to altering travel plans to avoid smoky areas or closures.
If planning your Northern California road trip in the winter expect a lot of rain along the coast and snow in the mountains. Your campervan will likely be filled with clothes hanging from every surface as you try to dry them out. While crowds are fewer in the winter the weather isn’t very enjoyable and road access in the mountains is limited due to snow.
Preparation for a Northern California Road Trip
Before heading out on your Northern California road trip it’s important to know what to pack, campsite information, and logistics on the road. Here are some tips to help your road trip to Northern California run smoothly.
Book Your Campsites
Many campsites on this trip require or highly recommend campground reservations in advance. Campground reservations open as early as 6 months out. If traveling during the high season, or on weekends or holidays, book your campsites early as possible.
Stock Up On Groceries
Many of these Northern California road trip destinations are located in remote areas. Aside from the town of Mount Shasta, there are few to no restaurants in or around the national parks and seashore. Go grocery shopping on the first day of your trip and plan to cook a majority of your meals if camping in the parks.
You’ll pass through small cities and towns along your road trip where you can resupply your kitchen or dine out but most of these towns are over an hour from favorable campsites.
Some campgrounds do not have any water access or require filtering from nearby sources. Check if your campground has potable water. If it doesn’t pack two gallons of water per person per day so you have enough water for drinking and around camp.
Fuel Up Your Tank
Traveling in remote areas means long stretches of driving with few gas stations. Always refill your tank before heading into a park or when your talk is half-full.
Carry Navigational Tools
Some stretches of this Northern California road trip are out of cell service. Download offline road maps before you start your trip. If you know where you want to hike download offline hiking trails. AllTrails is a great option for this.
Also, purchase a Northern California paper road map. If all else fails, it’s always valuable to have a paper map on hand.
Pack a Rechargeable Battery
A rechargeable battery is a great way to recharge your devices while road-tripping in an Escape Campervan. The vans will only charge your devices while running. A battery pack is great for charging your devices at night.
This Northern California road trip itinerary visits a variety of destinations in different climates. Therefore, layering your clothes is the best way to dress. Always pack a rain jacket, a puffy, and a fleece as well as other clothing good for varying temperatures.
Check Park Conditions
Check the national park websites before heading into the parks for any information about road closures or weather. Important updates are displayed in a banner at the top of each page if pertinent.
Be Bear Aware
Surprising to many, there are black bears along parts of the Northern California coast. And of course, they regularly frequent the mountains. Most campsites have bear boxes for food storage. It’s important to properly store all food from bears, rodents, and other animals.
Keep food locked in a bear box if the campground has one. Otherwise, keep all food locked in your campervan at night. Do not feed any wildlife.
Northern California Road Trip Stops
This Northern California road trip explores many diverse environments. You’ll spend your first day cruising along the Pacific Coast. Spend the next day and a half immersed in the serene redwood forest. Spend the last couple of days exploring the high alpine in Mount Shasta and Lassen Volcanic National Park.
The variety of striking landscapes along this Northern California road trip will leave you speechless. Whether you love challenging hikes, gentle strolls, dining out, or scenic drives, Northern California offers it all.
Day 1: Northern California’s Coast via Route 1
Head out early from San Francisco to get a full day of exploring the beaches and overlooks along California Route 1. On this first day, you’ll be overwhelmed by the number of scenic lookouts and beaches you can venture onto.
While there are camping options all along the coast, a campground around Mendocino, just under five hours north of San Francisco, is a great option for night one. This will give you plenty of time to explore a few hot spots along the coast without feeling rushed.
As you head north out of San Francisco you’ll immediately hit your first Northern California road trip highlight: the Golden Gate Bridge. Once you cross the bridge there are a couple of photo options. For a low viewpoint of the bridge head to Battery Yates. This is one of the least crowded spots to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge.
If it’s a clear day head up to Golden Gate Viewpoint and Battery Spencer for iconic shots of the Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco in the background. If visiting in the summer or on a weekend you’ll want to hit this viewpoint before 8 am to avoid lines of crowds that can back up for hours.
As you continue along Route 1 North you’ll next pass Stinson Beach. It’s part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. From the Golden Gate Bridge to Stinson Beach, you’ll drive up and down hills offering great views of the Pacific Coast. Stinson Beach is a small, quaint seaside town and popular surf spot. Grab a coffee or breakfast here on your way north!
Continuing north along Route 1 you’ll pass Point Reyes National Seashore next. Watch wildlife on the beach, drive through the Cypress Tree Tunnel, visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse, or hike out to Chimney Rock for impressive coastal views. There’s plenty to explore along Point Reyes National Seashore.
Glass Beach is a famous beach along the Northern California coast near Fort Bragg. As you can imagine, it’s covered in sea glass in colors of blue, green, white, brown, and yellow. The glass ended up there following seaside dumping at a town north of Glass Beach.
All glass is protected by the state park so you can’t take any but it’s certainly worth exploring this unique beach on your Northern California road trip!
Russian Gulch State Park Campground is just two miles north of the town of Mendocino. It’s a 26-site campground open from May to September and is located in a forest filled with ferns and waterfalls right next to the Pacific Coast. Sites cost $45 a night and have flushing toilets, tap water, showers, picnic tables, and fire rings.
Van Damme State Park Campground is 3 miles south of Mendocino. The state park offers beautiful hiking through dense fern forests. It has 65 campsites open year-round. Reservations are highly recommended. Van Damme State Park Campground has bathrooms, showers, water, and fire grates. Sites cost $45 a night.
Manchester State Park Campground is a seasonal campground open from late May to early September. Campsites are available on a first-come first-serve basis. There are 30 drive-up campsites with water, pit toilets, tables, and fire rings. Sites cost $45 a night.
The MacKerricher State Park Campground has 114 sites separated into three areas. West Pinewood is open year-round. East Pinewood and Surfood are open from early May to early September. Drive-in sites cost $45 a night and have a picnic table, fire ring, flushing toilets, and tap water.
You can’t drive the California coast without indulging in some oysters! The Marshall Store is an oyster bar and restaurant located on the coast just north of Point Reyes National Seashore. Enjoy a delectable lunch of oysters and other local shellfish at the Marshall Store.
If you’re looking for fine local fare and fresh seafood then The Little River Inn Restaurant, just south of Mendocino, is the perfect spot. Enjoy either menu or family-style Cioppino dinner here or just grab a cocktail at the Whale Watch Bar, the most iconic bar along the Mendocino Coast.
Days 2 – 3: Redwood National Park
Home to fat banana slugs, dense fern-covered forest floors, and Giant Redwoods, the tallest trees in the world, Redwood National Park is a must-visit destination on your Northern California road trip.
From the Mendocino area along California Route 1 to the southernmost part of Redwood National Park is just under an hour’s drive. Redwood National and State Parks is a national park complex made up of a string of parks: Redwood National Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The parks run into one another and are all easily accessible via park roads.
The Big Tree Wayside is one of the most easily accessible and quickest ways to see some of the largest trees in Redwoods National Park. It’s located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park off Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway.
A flat 200-yard walk will lead you to “Big Tree”. Next to the “Big Tree” is a 15-minute walk around the “Circle Trail”. The Big Tree Wayside is a can’t miss spot on your Northern California road trip.
Running for 10 miles through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway is one of the most impressive drives in the northern redwoods. Without stopping it takes 20 minutes to drive but it’s worth enjoying the views at a few of the many pullouts. There are also several hiking trails off the parkway.
Stout Grove is a 44-acre redwood grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. This grove is home to many redwoods reaching over 300 feet tall! There is a short half-mile hiking trail along the Smith River and among the trees of Stout Grove. There are other hikes nearby too.
To explore the redwoods by road, Avenue of the Giants can’t be missed. It’s the most scenic driving stretch of all the Northern California redwoods.
Avenue of the Giants stretches 31 miles long and runs parallel to Highway 101. The windy road is very slow-moving, taking about two and a half hours to drive without stops; but of course, it’s hard to drive without stopping at all the impressive pullouts! It’s best to spend at least a half day here if you choose to visit.
Fern Canyon is another remarkable spot in Redwoods National Park. On the Fern Canyon Loop, you won’t find any redwoods; rather you’ll walk among Sitka spruce and other conifers. The most unique part of this trail is the tall fern-covered canyon walls, unlike anything else in the park. The one-mile loop runs through a stream bed so plan to get your feet wet.
Jedediah Smith Campground is a year-round campground near Crescent City. The campground is first come first served from October to April and reservations are required from May through September. Sites are $35 a night. Jedediah Smith Campground has water, fire pits, and showers.
Mill Creek Campground is a 145-site campground in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, just south of Crescent City. It is open from mid-May through early October. The campground is surrounded by young redwoods and tall maples. Mill Creek Campground has potable water, flushing toilets, and hot showers. Sites are $35 a night.
Gold Bluffs Beach Campground sits right on the Pacific Coast where Roosevelt elk regularly graze. It is in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park very close to the Fern Canyon Trailhead. Gold Bluffs Beach Campground is open year-round and has potable water, flushing toilets, showers, and a fire ring. Sites are $35 a night.
Elk Prairie Campground is a 75-site, year-round campground in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Reservations are required from May to October. Elk Prairie Campground has potable water, flushing toilets, fire rings, and showers. It costs $35 a night.
Places to Eat in Redwood National Park
There are no restaurants or food vendors in Redwood National and State Parks. Nearby towns in Crescent City, Klamath, Orick, Trinidad, and Eureka have a few food options.
Day 3 – 4: Mount Shasta
Mount Shasta is both a small town and a large Cascade Volcano in Northern California. With Mount Shasta volcano standing over 10,000 feet higher than the town of Mount Shasta, you’ll have breathtaking views everywhere you go.
The Mount Shasta area is about 4 hours from Redwood National Park. The area is great for hiking, paddling, scenic lake views, and for dining downtown.
Lake Siskiyou is a scenic 430-acre reservoir located just a few miles from downtown Mount Shasta. Not only does the lake offer impressive views of Mount Shasta towering in the background over 10,000 feet above the lake, but it’s also a popular outdoor recreation area with beaches, camping, and cabins. Lake Siskiyou is a popular spot for swimming, paddling, fishing, and boating.
Reaching almost 8,000 feet in elevation, Everitt Memorial Highway is the highest point on Mount Shasta that you can access in a vehicle. The highway is closed in the winter at higher elevations as snow covers the landscape. By late spring to early summer, the road begins to open following plowing.
Everitt Memorial Highway offers scenic views of Mount Shasta and the surrounding national forests. On a clear day, you can even see Lassen Peak to the south! There are many day hiking trails off Everitt Memorial Highway and even the option to hike to the top of Mount Shasta for experienced mountain climbers.
Panther Meadows is located at the end of Everitt Memorial Highway. You’re sure to feel the altitude up here if you drive up from town at about 3,500 feet!
The trailhead for Panther Meadows is accessible when the highway opens. A 1.5-mile hike leads you out to Panther Meadows which offers stunning scenery of Mount Shasta and in the spring is a great wildflower viewing spot.
Heart Lake and Castle Lake are accessible via a 3-mile out & back trail in Castle Crags Wilderness near the town of Mount Shasta. The moderately challenging trail gains 820 feet in elevation and offers stunning views of Mount Shasta standing high and mighty in the distance behind two small alpine lakes.
Panther Meadow Campground is located at the end of Everitt Memorial Highway sitting almost 7,500 feet high on Mount Shasta. It is accessible when the highway is open usually from July 1 – November 1.
Panther Meadow Campground has 15 sites located a short walk from vehicles. It has tables, vault toilets, and fire rings. It is first come, first served and it is free. There is a 3-day limit per person per year. There is no water spigot here so bring water or filter from the nearby creek.
McBride Springs Campground sits at 5,000 feet high on Mount Shasta off of Everitt Memorial Highway. It’s a 12-site campground with tables, fire rings, and vault toilets. McBride Springs Campground costs $10 a night and does not require reservations. It’s usually open from Memorial Day to the end of October. Stays are limited to 7 days per year.
Bunny Flat Trailhead is a popular primitive camping area at 6,900 feet on Mount Shasta. Campervan camping is a great option here. There are no services aside from a vault toilet. You must bring water and pack out all the waste. It’s free to park and spend the night at Bunny Flat Trailhead.
Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort is located alongside the picturesque Lake Siskiyou. This established campground is popular for tent, cabin, and RV camping. Campsites have picnic tables, fire rings, and showers. The resort also has a general store, kayak and paddleboard rentals, and a couple restaurants.
Mike & Tony’s is an Italian American family-style restaurant popular for both locals and visitors since 1945. It has a full bar serving beer, wine, and cocktails. The homemade menu serves a variety of food including seafood, steaks, pasta, chicken, vegetarian options, and more.
Cooper’s Bar & Grill is a cozy restaurant with wood-panel walls and a large fireplace. Dine here for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or come in for a cocktail at the full bar. Cooper’s Bar & Grill is a popular spot in town for live entertainment.
Grab a cup of coffee at the local Mount Shasta coffee shop, Seven Suns Coffee & Cafe. Open every day from 6 am – 2 pm, enjoy a variety of breakfast and lunch options ranging from breakfast burritos and wraps to bakery items and build your own sandwiches.
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Day 5 – 6: Lassen Volcanic National Park
The northwest entrance into Lassen Volcanic National Park near Manzanita Lake is located an hour and forty minutes south of the town of Mount Shasta. There are many things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Varying hydrothermal features make up the landscape in the park as well as opportunities for scenic driving, hiking, or short walks to lakes and viewpoints.
**The 2021 Dixie Fire burned over 70,000 acres or about 70% of the park. Due to this fire, large parts of the park are left devastated with ash still blanketing some areas. It’s important to follow park closures and check updates before visiting the park. The Lassen Volcanic National Park website has up-to-date information about the Dixie Fire impacts.
Lassen Peak Highway is a 30-mile scenic highway through Lassen Volcanic National Park. It starts on the northeast side of the park near Manzanita Lake and winds past many park highlights including Lassen Peak, Lake Helen, and Sulphur Works. It ends in the southeast corner of the park near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center.
Lassen Peak Highway is only open when clear of snow in the summer and fall. Sometimes it opens as early as mid-May, other years it doesn’t open until July depending on how much snow there is. It closes between October and December depending on when snow starts to fall.
Manzanita Lake is a large lake located in the northeast part of Lassen Volcanic National Park and is one of the most photographed spots in the park. There’s a flat walk around the lake and on clear, calm days, you can see the reflection of Lassen Peak in Manzanita Lake.
The lake is a popular spot for fishing, kayaking, swimming, and hiking. Manzanita campground is right next to the lake.
Standing 10,457 feet tall, Lassen Peak is the highest point in the park and the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range. Drive to the base of Lassen Peak and enjoy views from the highway or if you’re into hiking, take the 5-mile round-trip trail up the summit!
The hike up to Lassen Peak gains about 2,000 feet over a mile and a half and you’ll be short of breath at altitude, but the summit views are well worth it! You can even see Mount Shasta to the north on a clear day!
Check out one of the most easily accessible and very unique hydrothermal features in Lassen Volcanic National Park at Suphur Works. These gray bubbling mud pools are accessible via a short paved sidewalk off of Lassen Peak Highway. They are actually vents for Lassen Peak which is considered an active volcano since it erupted about 100 years ago.
You must stay on the boardwalks. Off-trail travel has resulted in severe burns and injuries as the mud and pools are very hot.
Lake Helen is a high alpine lake near the trailhead to Lassen Peak. It’s known for its deep blue waters and dramatic scenery surrounding the lake. Lake Helen is usually frozen over well into the summer and sometimes doesn’t melt until the early fall when you can enjoy a perfect reflection of Lassen Peak.
Manzanita Lake Campground is a 179-site reservation-only campground open from mid-May until it closes for snow usually in late October to early November. Single sites cost $15 – $26 a night depending on the season.
It’s the largest campground in the park located adjacent to Manzanita Lake. The campground has flushing toilets, hot showers, laundry, and a small camp store.
Summit Lake Campground is located off of Lassen Peak Highway, fairly central in the park. It has 46 sites open from the end of June to early September. Sites cost $24 a night and reservations are required. Summit Lake Campground has flushing toilets, fire grates, and potable water.
Places to Eat near Lassen Volcanic National Park
There are no restaurants in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The Lassen Cafe & Gift is a small cafe located in the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center where visitors can buy light meals including salads, soups, fruit, sandwiches, beverages, and soft-serve ice cream.
Other than the small cafe there are no restaurants so plan to cook your camp meals!
H2: Why Rent a Camper Van for a Northern California Road Trip?
An Escape Campervan is the perfect travel vehicle for your Northern California Road Trip because they are comfortable and convenient. Renting a campervan is better than renting an RV because campervans are mobile, easy to drive, and compact. Unlike RV’s you don’t need sewer or electric hookups.
Escape Camper Vans also offer a bunch of extra accessories including a full kitchen kit, a door canopy (great when camping in the rain), a solar shower, camp chairs, and much more to make your trip as enjoyable as possible.
Reserve with Escape Camper Vans for your Northern California Road Trip
From where to go, things to do, places to eat, and how to prepare, you now know everything you need to plan your Northern California road trip. With a convenient Escape Campervan pickup location in San Francisco, it’s easy to fly in, pick up your campervan van, and hit the road to explore some of the best and most diverse environments on this Northern California road trip!
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