Miles from the shores of Venice Beach and Tinseltown down south, Northern California presents an ambiance that is uniquely its own. From the lush cedars and redwood forests to the vast fields of raspberries and haskap to the lively culture of the Bay Area, NorCal has so much to offer visitors and residents alike. If you are looking for a break from the major hubs of San Francisco and San Jose, stop by the small towns of Northern California for a peek into a diverse, laid-back culture that sprouted up in the northern end of the Golden State.
Found near the winding Russian River is the former logging town of Guerneville. With a population below 5,000 and its quirky, off-beat atmosphere, Guerneville makes for a great Sonoma County retreat. Guerneville’s Main Street is quintessential Americana and has great places to dine on some excellent eats. There are a lot of quality restaurants there like Boon Eat + Drink and BROT. The ice cream at Nimble & Finn’s is a fantastic destination as well! Guerneville is known for its inclusivity; the Rainbow Cattle Company is a queer-friendly saloon space that serves a great margarita and is a must-visit in the area. The nearby Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a conservation home of the titanic redwoods, is the perfect place to take a stroll.
Roughly half an hour north by car from Guerneville, the quaint and delightful Bodega Bay sits along the coast and is a must-see. Visitors love the town’s great ocean views and Doran Beach which is beautiful. Additionally, you can even sign up for horseback trail rides along the sand. If you are lucky, you might even be able to spot a migratory whale or two as they pass by en route to their breeding grounds. Northern California is known for its hiking, and the Bodega Head Trail and Doran Regional Park are excellent for that purpose. One of the biggest Bodega Bay attractions is the Children’s Bell Tower which features 140 differently-sized bells, or the Sonoma Coast Vineyards for some famed California vintage.
Perched along the shores of the ever-popular Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada, the quaint mountain town of Lake Tahoe is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts. With the lake and mountain nearby, there are nearly endless amounts of sports and activities within arms reach here. Not to worry, there is plenty else to do as well beyond working up a sweat. Grab a bite at the Fire Sign Cafe or the River Grill located by the scenic Truckee River. The lake-view boardwalk is perfect for a leisurely stroll while the high-flying Tahoe Treetop Adventure Park will definitely appeal to adrenaline junkies. The North Tahoe Arts studio offers arts classes or carve the slopes at Granlibakken Tahoe Ski Area if you are so inclined. It is hard to go wrong at Tahoe City.
Northern California has always been known for marching to the beat of its own drum. Well, Eureka is as unique and out-of-the-ordinary as they come. A little on the larger side, this town has lost none of its charm in the process. Eureka has wonderful architecture including The Pink Lady, an ornate Queen Anne Victorian home, the Carson Mansion, and the many storefronts along the town’s main street. Kayaking at Sunup offers a wonderful view of Humboldt Bay. The town is also located only 40 minutes from the Redwood State and National Parks, replete with towering redwood sentinels and the restorative, clean air Northern California’s forests are known for.
The little-known town of Jenner has less than 200 permanent residents but packs plenty of punch in terms of activities and attractions. Try the clam chowder at Café Aquatica for a quick but delicious bite. For a more formal meal, the oysters at River’s End are well-received. Jenner comes complete with three amazing beaches to choose from: Jenner, Goat Rock, and Blind, and there is plenty of excellent hiking to be done as well such as the Kortum Trail and the Jenner Highlands Preserve. Remember to visit Fort Ross State Historic Park which has 3,400 acres of wilderness and an Russian-era fort!
Half Moon Bay
The coastal city of Half Moon Bay is roughly 25 miles south of San Francisco. More than just another beach town, Half Moon Bay is known for its lovely downtown and its perennial bumper crop of seasonal events. The town’s Main Street area features the famous Ritz Carlton which is a pricey but undoubtedly classy place for a meal, and a drink at The Ocean Terrace bar is always a good choice. Whale watching is a popular activity in Half Moon Bay as you can sometimes spot some of the 15,000 Gray whales as they pass to Mexico. The Half Moon Bay Brewing Company has plenty of tasty craft brews on tap for beer connoiseurs. If you visit in October, the annual pumpkin festival is absolutely delightful.
About an hour’s drive from Half Moon Bay, Capitola is a surfing town with a relaxed atmosphere and plenty of personality. Though often compared to the nearby city of Santa Cruz, Capitola far outshines its larger cousin to those in the know. Capitola is dripping with charm and flavor. Literally. Polar Bear Ice Cream or Yogurtland Capitola have delicious ice-cold treats, while Zelda’s on the Beach is a fine place for a meal scored by live music. A visit to Capitola would not be complete without a stroll by the gorgeous pastel house and a visit to at least one of Capitola’s three beaches and a day of lazing by the glittering Pacific Ocean.
Widely viewed as one of Northern California’s best seaside towns, the former fishing village of Monterey has transformed into one of the state’s most popular destinations. John Steinbeck who grew up in the northern farming town of Salinas drew inspiration for his novel Cannery Row from this part of downtown Monterey. The fish here is to die for and you will not be disappointed at the catch of the day at Schooners Monterey or The Sardine Factory. Animal lovers will want to pick up tickets for a whale-watching expedition from Fisherman’s Wharf or see the monarch butterflies at Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.
Meaning butterfly in Spanish, the lovely town of Mariposa rests in the foothills of the awe-inspiring Sierra Nevada. This gold-rush town was named for the droves of Monarch butterflies that were spotted by explorers. The town hosts the Mariposa Butterfly Festival on the first weekend in May. Visit the state mining museum to learn more about the town’s mining heritage or the Butterfly Creek Winery and Vineyards for a refreshing glass of wine (or two). Lastly, listen to the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra which is well-regarded and plays classical music outdoors.
Roughly a six-hour drive from San Francisco, Crescent City is largely known as a waystation between Californians visiting Oregon and vice-versa. There is plenty to see and do here, however, like the Tolowa Dunes, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, home to the ancient sentinel Redwoods, and the Battery Point Lighthouse & St. George Reef Lighthouse which is open for tours depending on when you visit. The site has been used as a set location for movies such as Star Wars and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial!
The town of Trinidad is a picturesque little town just over an hour south of Crescent City with a population below 400 roughly 1.5 hours south of the Oregon border. Often underrated, Trinidad is not and will never be a tourist trap, meaning it is the perfect place to relax and get away from it all. The town is far from the light pollution of California’s major cities, making it perfect for stargazing. You could easily spend the day beachcombing at Moonstone Beach or trekking through the Trinidad Headland Trail. Trinidad Rocks has some of the most diverse colonies of seabirds in the state. Last but not least, 20 minutes north of Trinidad is Redwood National Park which is home to the tallest trees on Earth.
Everybody knows about the beach at Fort Bragg. The coastal city of Fort Bragg once had a dump site along the water where all its refuse and, most importantly, glass, were disposed of. Over the years, the constant beating tide turned this colorful glass into small, smooth stones and the beach into one of the most unique in the world. After visiting Glass Beach, visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens which are one of the most beautiful in the state. Be sure to bike the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail for one of the best sunset views around.
It is safe to say that California is large enough to have two personalities. The glitz and glam of Hollywood down south contrasts sharply with the downbeat atmosphere of Northern California’s former beatnik and hippie enclaves. Walk amongst the redwoods and traipse atop the scenic beaches of Northern California’s coastal towns. There are so many little-known corners of the Golden State to be explored, and there is no better place to start than its small towns.