Scenic, one-of-a-kind and one-tank drives: See the most beautiful places in Northern California

·4 min read

Summer approaches, guests will arrive and talk turns to top destinations to visit. Recent conversations with my spouse and friends led to a discussion of the most beautiful places in Northern California.

Our criteria included stunning scenery, one-of-a-kind destinations and within a “one tank” drive. To offer both ideas and start arguments, here are our top 13:

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir is a quiet respite from over-crowded Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir is a quiet respite from over-crowded Yosemite Valley.

Hard to argue with this one: our second US National Park, established in 1890 just after Yellowstone, and is home to stunning views, massive granite obelisks, rushing rivers, and almost over-run with tourists now through September. A way to beat the crowds but gain almost all the dramatic scenery is to visit the Hetch Hetchy Valley, just north of — and the twin to — Yosemite Valley. Hetch Hetchy was dammed for San Francisco water needs in 1923, despite a decade-long battle by John Muir and the Sierra Club, but the valley is still mighty impressive. Visitors can drive to O’Shaughnessy Dam, hike over the dam and down the reservoir’s northside, with views and waterfalls to rival nearby Yosemite Valley.

Author’s spouse Susan in Calaveras Big Trees North Grove, between huge fragments of giant sequoia tree.
Author’s spouse Susan in Calaveras Big Trees North Grove, between huge fragments of giant sequoia tree.

Calaveras Big Trees

Calaveras Big Trees State Park is home to scores of towering giant sequoias up to 250 feet tall. Largest, in the park’s South Grove, is the Louis Agassiz tree, reaching well over 250 feet in height and 25 feet in diameter. The nearby North Grove is home to the Empire State Tree, almost as large. The park offers brisk, fairly level hiking options, camping among the trees, cabins for rent and tours led by rangers offering big tree’s insight.

Lake Tahoe’s Baldwin Beach attracts beach-goers, with Mount Tallac in distance.
Lake Tahoe’s Baldwin Beach attracts beach-goers, with Mount Tallac in distance.

Lake Tahoe

Take Tahoe’s Highway 89, from Camp Richardson north to Emerald Bay, for a most compelling 20 mile drive. Camp Richardson, a well-rounded and historic resort with the adjacent Tallac Historic site (remains of three huge private estates on the lake) and spend a few hours lazing on Baldwin Beach. Our favorite campground, Fallen Leaf Lake, a large Forest Service campground is just north.

Tour north on 89, visit beautiful State Parks like D.L. Bliss and stop for heart-stopping views of Emerald Bay. Hard to envision a more stunning scenic drive.

San Francisco

Our favorite way to visit is to drive to Oakland’s Jack London Square, park and walk a few blocks to the ferry terminal for a scenic cruise over to San Francisco’s waterfront. Your ferry makes a quick stop in Alameda, then churns its way across the bay, under the Bay Bridge, offering wonderful views of the San Francisco skyline to your portside, with Oakland’s busy waterfront and Treasure Island to starboard. The ferry docks at the historic Ferry Building, 123 years old and revitalized in 2003. Grab lunch at Hog Island Oyster Company, then either walk or take an historic trolley along the Embarcadero to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Ferries arrive and depart from San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
Ferries arrive and depart from San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

After an energetic day, return to Oakland via another ferry departing Pier 41, providing a stunning evening harbor cruise. The ferry trip is a bargain, with seniors half off, and, no pricy parking hassles in SF!

The San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta

The Grand Island Mansion is a highlight of a Sacramento Delta road-trip
The Grand Island Mansion is a highlight of a Sacramento Delta road-trip

The Delta offers visitors a host of options, from the Cosumnes River Preserve just north of Thornton, to almost anywhere in the Walnut Grove/Locke/Courtland area (take a several mile hike along the Delta Meadows Trail, which starts between Locke and Walnut Grove), or, start in Rio Vista and take me back roads northeast, utilizing the two free auto ferries to Grand Island with stops at Grand Island Mansion and the Ryde Hotel.

Eastern Sierra, along Highway 395

Bodie’s old post office and IOOF Hall make and Eastern Sierra drive all the more memorable.
Bodie’s old post office and IOOF Hall make and Eastern Sierra drive all the more memorable.

From Bodie south to Manzanar, this road takes you to a host of wonders, starting with Bodie, perhaps the west’s most impressive ghost-town, to Mono Lake with its eerie tufa towers rising out of the serene lake like ghostly pirate ships, and Manzanar, the World War II camp, where, sadly, almost 10,000 Japanese-American citizens were interred during the war. All down the highway, one has the mighty Sierra, the “Range of Light” as John Muir described it, rising abruptly to the west for unparalleled views and photo ops.

Wine country

Yosemite Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir is a quiet respite from over-crowded Yosemite Valley.    Author’s spouse Susan in Calaveras Big Trees North Grove, between huge fragments of giant sequoia tree.    Ferries arrive and depart from San Francisco’s Ferry Building.    The Grand Island Mansion is a highlight of a Sacramento Delta road-trip.    Lake Tahoe’s Baldwin Beach attacts beach-goers, with Mt. Tallac in distance.    Bodie’s old post office and IOOF Hall make and Eastern Sierra drive all the more memorable.    Karmere Vineyards, one of 30 lovely wineries in the Shenandoah Valley.
Yosemite Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir is a quiet respite from over-crowded Yosemite Valley. Author’s spouse Susan in Calaveras Big Trees North Grove, between huge fragments of giant sequoia tree. Ferries arrive and depart from San Francisco’s Ferry Building. The Grand Island Mansion is a highlight of a Sacramento Delta road-trip. Lake Tahoe’s Baldwin Beach attacts beach-goers, with Mt. Tallac in distance. Bodie’s old post office and IOOF Hall make and Eastern Sierra drive all the more memorable. Karmere Vineyards, one of 30 lovely wineries in the Shenandoah Valley.

Vineyards will always get a vote, often for Lodi/Woodbridge, but consider a drive into the Sierra foothills for the more laid-back and beautiful Shenandoah Valley just above Plymouth off Highway 49. With 30 vineyards sandwiched among the rugged Sierra foothills, the views are superior and the large variety of wines and down-home appeal of the local wineries make for a special place. Gold rush favorite Fiddletown is just to the south, for extra interest.

Space precludes our final recommendations, including Highway 49, the Gold Rush Highway, Pt. Reyes National Sea Shore, the Big Sur Coast, the Pinecrest area on Highway 108 and Lassen National Park. We’ll be back with more insight on these next week. Oh, and what did we miss?

For more info: Calaveras Big Trees Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1146, Eastern Sierra, monocounty.org; Lake Tahoe, visitinglaketahoe.com; Sacramento River Delta, visitcadelta.com; San Francisco trip, Jack London Square, jacklondonsquare.com; San Francisco Ferry, sanfranciscobayferry.com, Ferry Building, ferrybuildingmarketplace.com; Shenandoah Valley, visitshenandoah.org; Yosemite Park, nsp.gov/yose.

Reach Tim at tviall@msn.com; enjoy your NorCal travels!

This article originally appeared on The Record: Road trip: Northern California's top most beautiful places to visit