Broad Street with rainbow flags during Pride Month, Nevada City, California. Image credit Chris Allan via Shutterstock

6 Picturesque Small Towns in Northern California for a Weekend Retreat

Northern Californians lucked out with their geography. If you live in other regions, you must travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, often by plane, to see oceans, mountains, deserts, and giant trees. In NorCal, all this can be found a short drive from major cities. From Yosemite National Park to the Napa Valley, an entire geographic and cultural wonderland can be explored in a single weekend. Discover the most picturesque small NorCal communities near big cities for a weekend retreat to remember for a lifetime.


Memorial Lighthouse in Trinidad California, colorful flowers view and colorful bay
Memorial Lighthouse in Trinidad, California.

If Trinidad's name is not enough to inspire a weekend visit, further explore the virtues of this little gem in Northern California. Nuzzled by blue waters to the west and redwoods to the east, Trinidad offers swimming (although the surf is so strong that it is not often recommended), kayaking, paddleboarding, fishing, beachcombing, hiking, island hopping, and sightseeing, especially on Trinidad Head, which is the bow of this titanically tantalizing terrain. Yet, in saying all this, the best views might be found downtown.

As one of the smallest cities in California, Trinidad is so cute it is almost painful, as you know it will be hard to replicate such quaintness when the weekend is done. Pretty picket fences corral colorful homes and historic haunts like Trinidad Museum, all of which overlook the Pacific. After walking these winsome roads and grabbing a grass-fed burger and mashed potato cone at The Lighthouse Grill, snuggle into Trinidad Bay Bed & Breakfast Hotel. Unlike the other Trinidad, you can get to this one by car. It takes just five hours to drive from San Francisco to the NorCaribbean. Better bring a bathing suit and jacket.

Nevada City

Vacationers frolicking in the Yuba River in Nevada City, California.
Vacationers frolicking in the Yuba River in Nevada City, California. Image credit Pascalipatou via

Nevada City is a gold mine. This compact community was developed during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Naturally, many of its attractions were built on - or with - gold. These include Broad Street Inn and the National Exchange Hotel, two 19th-century buildings which still house people exploring the region's shops, forests, and mines. Such sites are combined at nearby Empire Mine State Historic Park, an 856-acre preserve of one of the biggest California gold mines and its surrounding wilderness, where you can hike underground (a short depth) and overground in search of geological treasures.

If you have yet to find genuine gold, head to the Yuba River for gold panning, which is offered on Saturdays at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. When you get back to Nevada City, save some time for Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada, which is around an hour east and offers golden views and entertainment.

Fort Bragg

Glass beach, Fort Bragg, California
Glass beach, Fort Bragg, California.

Fort Bragg is a seaside oasis with 7,000 residents in Mendocino County. The ocean's shimmering beauty, as seen from the Pomo Bluffs or Noyo Headlands, is hard to beat, but Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens can do it. This 47-acre preserve straddles the Pacific Coast Highway and contains many hundreds of species of flowers, plus wildlife like birds and deer that enjoy the blossoms as much as humans.

Another contender for Fort Bragg beauty bragging rights is Glass Beach, a glass garbage dump molded, over the decades, into a jewel-encrusted coastline near MacKerricher State Park. Collecting the sea glass is common but controversial given the obvious depletion. Excursions to sites like these, plus the historic area dating to when Fort Bragg was an actual fort, can be buffered by rest and relaxation at the Beach House Inn. Best of all, San Francisco Bay is just three hours away, which means Fort Bragg is an extremely accessible NorCal paradise.


Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California.
Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California. Image credit StephanieFarrell via

Another Gold Rush community, Sonora makes the most of its heritage by having a golden hue. Gold-tinted buildings comprise the old Tuolumne County Courthouse, which was built in 1898 and remained in operation until 2021, and The Historic Sonora Inn, which was built in 1896 and is still in operation. The unencumbered sun spreads golden warmth across the rest of this 5,000-person city, which facilitates outdoor activities like hiking, biking, shopping, and sightseeing.

For arguably the best sights in California (and America), drive just over an hour to Yosemite National Park, headlined by El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, and Mariposa Grove. You will enjoy the giant sequoia.


Calistoga, California: Buildings on the streets of Historic Calistoga is a popular tourist stop at the north end of Napa Valley wine country.
Buildings on the streets of Historic Calistoga, California. Image credit Dragan Jovanovic via

What is a weekend trip to NorCal without wine? You do not need to artificially enhance a tour of this already euphoric area, but Napa Valley, just an hour and a half from both San Francisco and Sacramento, is considered the wine capital of America. Mushed in this verdant valley is Calistoga, a community with just over 5,000 residents and roughly 50 wineries.

Among them are Brian Arden, Tamber Bey, and Storybook Mountain. In all of those wineries, you not only taste the beverages but tour the vineyards and facilities (as well as horse stables in Tamber Bey's case and caves in Storybook Mountain's) to see how the magic is made. Although they may be outnumbered by wineries, there are plenty of accommodation options for your weekend visit to Wine Country, chief of which are Calistoga Wine Way Inn, Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery, and Calistoga Spa Hot Springs.


Carnegie Library in Willits, California
Carnegie Library in Willits, California. Image credit Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Even more iconic than NorCal's red wine is its red wood. Giant, red-tinged trees are a huge part of the region's geography and culture, and Willits is the gateway to the ancient grove. This 5,000-person "city" is flanked by redwood forests, which you can enter by foot, bike, horse, and even train. The historic Skunk Train takes passengers from Willits in the interior and Fort Bragg on the coast, winding through the majestic trees during the scenic trips.

Willits itself began as a lumber town and is now a charming, lumbering community. Slow-paced attractions include Mendocino County Museum, Willits Center for the Arts, and Willits Frontier Days, which are held in June and July. You can stay in the The Old West Inn while wandering the woods and wonders of Willits.

Northern California is perfectly calibrated for a weekend getaway. Sites like Yosemite National Park, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, redwood forests, gold mines, islands, beaches, and deserts are just a few hours from San Francisco and Sacramento and can be covered in a few days. Trinidad, Nevada City, Fort Bragg, Sonora, Calistoga, and Willits are some of the best options for a stay while exploring a weekend's worth of NorCal.

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