9 Incredible Scenic Drives in Northern California For 2023
Looking to take a road trip across Northern California?
Believe it or not, Northern California is home to some of the most incredibly scenic drives in the world. From the towering redwoods of the coast to the rolling hills of wine country, there is no shortage of natural beauty to explore.
These nine incredible scenic drives in Northern California prove that it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey. For this post, we turned to our friend Courtney from Disorderly Drifters to help us out, because she knows these roads like a pro.
9 Incredible Scenic Drives in Northern California + Best Stops Along the Way
Each of these incredible drives in Northern California delivers inspiring views. Many of them have great stops along the way, where you can soak in all the beauty of the Golden State and support the shops and restaurants that dot the iconic roads.
1. Golden Gate Bridge and HWY 101
As you begin your journey in San Francisco, a can’t-miss road trip begins with the Golden Gate Bridge on Highway 101. After you cross the iconic bridge, stop at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the best places to see the bridge and the city.
📍 Golden Gate National Recreation Area
While you’re in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, take time to explore. The recreation area has several roads that offer exceptional views, including the Marin Headlands, the Point Bonita Lighthouse, and Fort Baker.
After you’ve explored the recreational area, hop on Highway 1 (the most famous California highway) and drive to Muir Beach and the Muir Woods Visitor Center to hike through the tall forest. Consider bringing your bicycle or your hiking gear so you can explore the nature area north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
2. Hendy Woods on HWY 128
Hendy Woods is filled with redwood trees, and you can see them as you drive this scenic route. The beauty of Hendy Woods is that it’s close to San Francisco.
The area near Philo and Hendy Grove is dotted with wineries and tasting rooms. Grab a bottle of your favorite red or white to enjoy as you stop to hike through the Hendy Woods State Park.
If you continue 17 miles north, you can see more redwood forest at the Navarro River Redwoods State Park. This park is a quick drive to the Pacific Coast Highway, so it’s a good stopping point before endeavoring on the next leg of the incredible scenic drives in Northern California.
📍 Wineries Between the State Parks
Highway 128 is filled with wineries that follow the curves of the Navarro River. Consider stopping for wine tasting at Navarro Vineyards & Winery and Husch Vineyards & Winery.
These two spots offer charming tasting rooms and friendly sommeliers who will help you find the perfect bottle to match your tastes and preferences.
3. Russian Gulch near Mendocino
After leaving Navarro River Redwoods State Park, continue west on HWY 128, then turn north on HWY 1. Your goal is to drive past Mendocino to stop at Russian Gulch State Park.
While you’re on HWY 1, the route provides an awesome view of the Pacific Ocean and the rocky California coast, making it one of the most beautiful drives in NorCal.
📍 Russian Gulch State Park
This state park features several hiking spots with impressive views. The Russian Gulch Bridge crosses the Russian Gulch Creek that empties into the Pacific Ocean. When you stop at the state park, take the small hike to the bridge viewing area and the sinkhole just to the west.
4. HWY 1 to Fort Bragg and the Glass Beach
The journey from Russian Gulch State Park to Fort Bragg is one of my favorite scenic drives in the entire state. This beautiful route is home to several small state parks, which are all worth seeing. The road winds along the coast, providing stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
There are also plenty of opportunities to stop and explore, whether you’re looking for a place to picnic or hike. In addition, the drive takes you through some of California’s most picturesque countryside.
So if you’re looking for a scenic drive that will also give you a chance to explore some of the state’s natural beauty, the drive from Russian Gulch State Park to Fort Bragg is definitely worth taking.
📍 Point Cabrillo
Stop at Point Cabrillo to visit the Lightkeepers Association and wander the trails along the rocky point. The historic stop includes a lighthouse, a museum, and eye-catching views. Wander north to Frolic Cove Beach for more inspirational views.
📍 Caspar Beach
The coastline of Mendocino county offers exceptional whale-watching views, especially at Casper Beach and the Caspar Headlands State National Reserve.
📍 Glass Beach
This is the must-see stop along this route. Glass Beach earned its name because it is covered with smooth glass that has washed up over the years. Visit the beach before sunset, so you can search for glass and then catch the glorious views as the day ends.
5. Fort Bragg to Willits
In Fort Bragg, the roads out of the town are limited. You can go north or south on HWY 1 but I recommend you hop on CA-20 to head east. This road meanders through redwood forests and ends in Willits, where you can access HWY 101.
The Fort Bragg Willits Road scenic drive is one of the most gorgeous drives in California. The route takes you through old-growth redwoods, with towering trees and a canopy of leaves that filters the sunlight.
You’ll also pass by pristine lakes and rivers, as well as fields of wildflowers in bloom.
The drive is just over an hour long, but it’s worth taking your time to soak in all the beauty. Along the way, you’ll also find plenty of places to stop and explore, including state parks, hiking trails, and small towns.
📍 Jackson Demonstration State Forest
If you need to get out of the car and stretch your legs for a bit of beautiful hiking, the Jackson Demonstration State Park is perfect.
It’s close to the halfway point on Fort Bragg Willits Road and is loaded with gorgeous views of the redwoods. From there it’s a short drive onto Willits.
📍 Ride the Skunk Train
When you arrive in Willits, take time to let someone else do the driving! The Skunk Train brings you on a 16-mile route around the area, which is a great way to catch unbelievable views of canyons and summits.
6. Avenue of the Giants – SR-254
Whether you leave from Fort Bragg or Willits, the next epic drive weaves through the Avenue of the Giants on California State Route 254.
The Avenue of the Giants is my favorite and the most epic scenic drive in Northern California. It’s a 31-mile stretch of Highway 101 that winds through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, home to the world’s tallest trees.
The redwoods here are some of the oldest living organisms on earth, and they’re absolutely awe-inspiring. The forest is also home to an array of wildlife, including Roosevelt elk, black bears, river otters, and bald eagles.
The drive itself is pretty incredible, with towering trees lining both sides of the road.
In some sections, the canopy is so dense that it feels like you’re driving through a tunnel. It’s an unforgettable experience and one that I highly recommend to anyone visiting Northern California.
Whether you stay on the road or veer off to the plethora of quick stops along the route, your mind will be blown away by the canopy of giant trees enclosing the road. The SR-254 is a bypass off HWY 101, so keep your eyes peeled.
📍 The Shrine Drive-Thru Tree
Near the halfway point is Shrine Drive-Thru Tree, which is one of the few remaining drive-thru redwoods in the area. It’s also home to several walk-thru trees, which are worth seeing!
📍 Williams Grove Visitors Center
Stop here to pick up a map of the best spots along the Avenue of the Giants. Many are just a few steps off the road, but you’ll miss them if you don’t know they exist.
7. HWY 36
As you continue north from the Avenue of the Giants, you’ll come to the scenic Highway 36. This winding road is 248 miles long and is by far one of the best road trips in California. The scenery along this route is breathtaking and absolutely worth the time.
The road has limited cell service and few gas stations, so be sure to fill up before heading on the journey. Consider taking a motorcycle or a convertible coupe on this road to get the full sensory experience of the curves and hills with the wind in your hair.
📍 Mad River and Trinity National Forest
There aren’t many stops along this twisty route, so the best recommendation is to stop at the spots that call you. Take time to stop in Mad River and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Tip: Bring snacks to enjoy at the parking spots, as most of the restaurants and shops are at the endpoints.
8. California 89
When you reach the junction of I-5 and CA-36, you’ve got some choices. You can jump on I-5 and head north over Shasta Lake and toward Mount Shasta, then turn on California 89 in Azalea.
Or you can continue on CA-36 east to reach CA-89. If you take 36 to 89, you’ll travel north on 89 for the next leg of the iconic scenic drive.
Heading north on I-5, you’ll reach the northern point of CA-89 in Azalea near Mt. Shasta. If you travel this way, stop and take in the beauty of Mount Shasta and enjoy the tourist attractions and hiking trails. But, the goal of this journey is to see the sights along CA-89.
Whether you travel north from CA-36 or south from I-5, you’ll still see the amazing sights along the way.
📍 McCloud River Falls
At the foot of Mt. Shasta are the McCloud River and its beautiful falls. To see the falls, look for Fowler Public Camp Road and travel south.
It’s best to take on this stop in a vehicle with four-wheel drive. There are several spots with short walks to the falls, especially along Upper Falls Road.
📍 Lassen Volcanic National Park
A highlight of CA-89 is the Lassen Volcanic National Park. The highway twists and turns through the national park with exceptional views of several peaks and lakes. Consider stopping to see Lake Helen and the Little Hot Springs Valley Overlook.
This section of the highway is closed in the winter, and when you experience the road, you’ll quickly understand why.
9. State Route 299
Northern California is filled with gorgeous twisty roads through the mountains. Highway 299 is one of these scenic highways, stretching from the coastal town of Arcata along the Pacific Ocean to the state of Nevada; its the eastern point.
The road is a part of the Trinity Scenic Byway with historic routes through Trinity County.
The highlight of California State Route 299 is the stretch through Trinity County from Salyer to Whiskeytown. You’ll see the old train route in several areas of this twisting road.
Continue through Redding at the northern tip of the Sacramento Valley, where the road then heads north toward Nevada. The entire route is worth the drive, but you’ll discover your own favorite stops along the way.
📍 Willow Creek – Bigfoot
At the western point of SR-229, you’ll find Willow Creek and the town’s infatuation with the legendary Big Foot. Stop at the BigFoot Collection to find some memorabilia.
The historic city features charming shops and homespun restaurants. Spend the night here, or stop for a bite to eat. The Joss House is a great place to visit to experience the best preserved Gold-Rush-era Chinese temple.
📍 McArthur-Burney Falls
On the eastern side of I-5, you’ll find Four Corners and a turn to McArthur-Burney Falls. This is a must-see stop with 129-foot falls and the bridge from the movie Stand By Me.
What is the best fall drive in Northern California?
If you’re looking for the most beautiful fall drive in Northern California, look no further than Highway 70 along the Feather River Canyon in Plumas County.
Picture this: it’s early October, the leaves are just starting to turn, and you’re cruising along Highway 70 through the Feather River Canyon in Plumas County, Northern California. The air is crisp and the views are absolutely stunning.
Every twist and turn in the road brings a new vista, and with the leaves in all their autumnal glory, it’s like driving through a living painting. This is one of California’s most scenic drives to take in the fall, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re anywhere near the area.
The Feather River Scenic Byway features maples, oaks, and dogwoods that change into vivid colors as the seasons shift. Catch HWY 70 at Wicks Corner and head north for beautiful views.
What is the best scenic drive near San Francisco?
San Francisco is an amazing city, and there are plenty of scenic drives to take nearby for the perfect day trip. However, the best scenic drive near San Francisco is the 17 Mile Drive south of the city.
The coastal views are incredible, the twisting roads are a blast to drive, and there’s always something new to see around every corner. Plus, there are tons of great photo ops!
Whether you’re looking for dramatic ocean cliffs, charming seaside villages, or sprawling golf courses, the 17 Mile Drive has it all.
And did I mention the food? There are some seriously delicious restaurants along this coastal drive, so make sure you come hungry.
Admission is $11.25 per car, and the views are worth every penny.
The Wrap-Up: Scenic Drives In Northern California
Northern California drives offer awe-inspiring views of mountains, volcanos, beaches, historical cities, and rivers.
Whether you head off to see giant redwoods or to catch a glimpse of mountains and waterfalls, you won’t be disappointed with the plethora of twisting, winding roads on these incredible scenic drives in Northern California.
And when you’re done checking out Northern California, why not head due south to check out a very different side of this state! Southern California has its own set of adventures, including the possibility of road tripping into some of the most beautiful and safe places in Mexico.
So are you ready for the wild ride of road tripping California?! Let’s go!