Northern California is a region known for its extraordinary forests and iconic scenic drives. From picturesque sandy beaches to lush redwood forests and breathtaking mountains, this is an area full of breathtaking sights. Set aside a few hours or a couple of weeks, pack up some road trip snacks, and get your camera ready. Whether you’d rather wind through wine country, climb the Sierra Nevadas, or cruise the coast, this list of Northern California’s top 8 scenic drives and sights has the picturesque route you are looking for.
1. Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway
This 61-mile stretch runs between the towns of Arnold in Calaveras County and Markleeville in Alpine County. Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway runs through valleys carved by glaciers and features granite basalt, river canyons and lush forests. The region boasts Giant Sequoia, bald eagles, vast meadows, gurgling streams, hot mineral pools, and more. This spectacular stretch of road connects the Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Grover Hot Springs State Park, making it the perfect drive for hikers, backpackers, and campers.
2. Yosemite Valley and Tioga Road
Stretching from Oakhurst, CA to Mono Lake, CA, the Yosemite Valley and Tioga Road drive spans 117 miles and requires approximately 2.5 hours to complete. Beginning at the south entrance of Yosemite National Park and passing through Mariposa Grove, travelers will enjoy the splendor of giant Sequoia trees and views of the extraordinary Tenaya Lake. Along the route are hiking paths leading to waterfalls, and the drive comes to a close at Mono Lake, a saltwater lake surrounded by volcanic hills.
3. Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway
Beginning in the Owens Valley at 4,000 feet, the byway follows California State Route 168 and White Mountain Road, also known as Forest Service Road 4S01. The Ancient Bristlecone Scenic Byway’s main attraction is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which is home to the world’s oldest living trees. This route, designated as a National Forest Scenic Byway in 1992, extends 34 miles and takes approximately 2 hours to drive, making it a quick activity for anyone looking to escape out to nature for an afternoon. However, due to the road’s tight curves, it isn’t recommended for those with trailers or motorhomes.
4. Lake Tahoe
The Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive is a fully paved 68-mile loop that follows three highways: US 50, NV 28, and US 89. This route is especially popular as Lake Tahoe is one of the nation’s top tourist destinations in California and Nevada. Each year, millions of people visit this beautiful region to enjoy the infamous lake and surrounding forests. The drive around Lake Tahoe is ideal for those interested in exploring outside the car as well. Numerous hiking trails are available along the way including the Tahoe Rim Trail. During the winter months, travelers can visit the Tahoe Basin to ski or snowboard.
5. Northern Pacific Coast Highway
One of California’s most iconic drives is the Pacific Coast Highway, more commonly referred to as the PCH. The northern 208 mile stretch between Sausalito and Leggett follows the coastline and features sloping highways with breathtaking ocean views. For those looking to get out of the car to enjoy the natural landscape, consider stopping at Muir Woods National Monument, Salt Point State Park, or Jug Handle State Reserve.
6. Silverado Trail
This route is ideal for anyone looking for a quick adventure. Extending just 27 miles from Napa to Calistoga, the Silverado Trail provides some of the most extraordinary views of the Napa Valley. This iconic region is known for its thriving vineyards, and many wineries can be visited along the way. The road was originally built in the 1850s during the Silver Rush and is best visited during the Spring, Summer, and Fall months.
7. Feather River Scenic Byway
This route is best suited for a day trip and a fuel-efficient car as it takes nearly 7 hours to complete. Starting in Oroville, CA, the Feather River Scenic Byway is the only road passing through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that is still open to cars. Much of this 367 mile route runs adjacent to the Western Pacific Railroad and allows for spectacular views of Feather River and the mountainous landscape.
8. Redwood Highway
Beginning at the Oregon border of Hwy 199, the Redwood Highway may be the most scenic drive in all of Northern California. Along with its incomparable views of the California coastline, this drive also passes through the a 33-mile stretch famously known as the Avenue of the Giants. This portion of the Redwood Highway cut through enormous redwood trees that are known to be some of the oldest in the world. While this route is spectacular year round, it is regularly frequented in the spring when visitors often make a pit stop at the Azalea State Reserve to see the flowers in full bloom.