Actually Cool Things You Can Do in Northern California

Hiking, boating, skiing, and more.

One of the best things about living in San Francisco is that our backyard is all of Northern California, one of the most stunning places on earth, with endless opportunities for adventure. And though we think you should explore all of the upper (and better) half of California, at the very least, you should check out these things, all of which are quintessentially NorCal and exceptionally cool. Given the stresses that the most recent bout of wide fires has put on the entire region, it never hurts to call ahead to make sure these activities are still open and operational.

There’s so much to see and do in this beautiful national park, which we happen to think/know is the most beautiful one in the United States, but you haven’t experienced the park to its fullest until you’ve put your fear of heights aside and hiked Half Dome

It’s one of just two tidefalls in California, but unlike McWay Falls in Big Sur, which you can see just by pulling your card to the side of the road, you’ll need to hike a minimum of 14-miles round-trip to see it. (In non-COVID times, you can do it in 13-miles -- and pass a lake with a rope swing along the way -- but that trailhead is currently closed.)

Skiing in Lake Tahoe
Adam Baker / Flickr

Tahoe has some of the best skiing in North America and the largest concentration of resorts, which means there’s something for everyone, including amazing weather. Or at least it’s amazing if the idea of a storm that dumps two feet of snow is followed by a sunny day with blue skies.

Tahoe is glorious year-round, but if the most popular times are the winter (see above) and summer (keep reading). There are ample hiking trails, beaches, and waterfront restaurants, and we love all of those things, but there’s nothing quite like taking a boat out to the middle of Lake Tahoe, a dazzling blue alpine lake that’s one of the deepest in the world, on a glorious summer day.

You won’t come close to fitting your arms around this giant sequoia since it’s the largest living single-stem tree on Earth with a circumference at the ground of 102 feet, but it’ll still feel good to try. Bonus points for also hugging a coastal redwood, the tallest living trees on Earth, which are only found in Northern California (okay, fine, and also the southwestern corner of coastal Oregon within the United States). Extra extra bonus points for driving through one.

glass beach
Kevin Lanceplaine / Unsplash

This beach in Fort Bragg is covered with colorful sea glass due to years of dumping, and though we’d normally encourage you to pick up litter, in this case it’s meant to stay put so everyone can enjoy it.

Yes, there’s a lot of stuff about trees on this list, but that’s what happens when you live in a region with the oldest and tallest trees in the world. And one of the best places to see the latter is at Muir Woods, a dense coastal redwood grove filled with towering old growth redwoods that are up to 1,200 years old and 260 feet high. Go during COVID when less than half of the normal volume of visitors is allowed, and you’ll really be able to appreciate the tranquility. And if all of THAT hasn’t convinced you, maybe the fact that its namesake John Muirs described it as "the best tree-lovers monument that could be possibly found in all the forests of the world” will.

More trees? Don’t blame us; blame the fact that Northern California has the best trees! Including Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile portion of old Highway 101 with over 50,000 acres of redwood groves.

At 129 feet, Burney Falls is neither the largest or highest waterfall in California, but it is one of its most spectacular. So much so that President Theodore Roosevelt, called it “the eighth wonder of the world.”

Mount Lassen in California
R3li3nt / Flickr

Make your way to the top of this active volcano that last erupted in 1915, and then check out some other cool spots around the park, including Bumpass Hell, a hydrothermal area with fumaroles, hot springs, and boiling mudpots, and the Subway Cave, a pitch dark lava tube that was created 20,000 years ago.

Oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co.
Yuichi Sakuraba / Flickr

You can’t shuck your own oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall right now, but you can still feast on them on the waterfront patio restaurant.

There are lots of amazing ghost towns in California, but the most famous and well-preserved (and the one you must definitely check out) is Bodie.

If you die before eating an IT'S-IT, you might as well not have lived.

A petrified forest in California
Robert Shea / Flickr

Over three million years ago, a volcanic explosion knocked down this forest of redwood trees near Calistoga, and it’s now considered one of the finest examples in the world of a preserved ancient forest, which, despite its name, is not at all scared or scary.

We’ll leaf (sorry) you with one final tree excursion, a cypress tree archway in Point Reyes that’s even better first thing in the morning when it looks even more like something straight out of a fairytale. It will also be less crowded then so you can get the perfect shot for Instagram.

Alcatraz Island
Mario Sánchez Prada / Flickr

Unfortunately, you can’t go inside of the buildings on Alcatraz right now, but you can still explore everything outside of the historic penitentiary, including the prison yard.

The Lands End trails offer some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge you’ll ever see and have lots of hidden treasures to discover, like an almost-secret beach, a cliffside labyrinth, and an abandoned octagon house.

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Daisy Barringer is a writer living in San Francisco. She’s climbed Mount Lassen over 10 times, and looks forward to doing it again soon. Tell her what she should add to this bucket list on Twitter @daisy.