Northern California is the perfect playground for cool adventures, in both summer and winter. From snowboarding, scuba-diving, biking, and more, we were lucky to experience so many different fun things to do in the region, our home backyard. Check out our list of top outdoor activities in Northern California.
Northern California has been home for over 15 years, meaning, for other California travel ideas, we share our experiences through our California blog posts, including itinerary suggestions along the Pacific Coast, or the US West Coast. For outdoor things to do Southern California, click here.
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Outdoor Activities in Northern California
Top Summer Activities in Northern California
While some of the activities below are feasible in different areas, some others can only be done in specific places.
- San Francisco surfing
- Napa Valley biking
- Hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains
- Lake Tahoe kayaking
- Bay Area kitesurfing
- Monterey Bay scuba-diving
- San Francisco Bay sailing
- White-water rafting on the American or Merced Rivers
Trekking in Northern California
Did you know that California is home to more National Parks than any other State in the US? Indeed, the Golden State features over 10 National Parks and Recreational Areas, as well as 14 National Forests. So for all hiking enthusiasts, this is trail paradise! You can do for short day hikes to strenuous multi-day treks where no one in sight. And the landscape diversity from the ocean coastline to the snow-covered peaks will keep each hike exciting!
Trekking is one of the best things to do in Northern California, in our opinion!
- Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada mountain range as a whole are prime hiking territories, with several wilderness areas offering pristine environments. The 195 miles (314 km) Sierra High Route, which stays at high elevations of 9,000 to 11,500 feet (2,700 and 3,500 m), is a testament to what the region can offer for adventurous and experienced trekkers. But trails for easy and moderate hikes are also available along the Lake Tahoe
- The Shasta-Trinity and Whiskeytown regions offer equally incredible treks with a fewer crowd than in the Sierra Nevada.
- Point Reyes and Muir Woods National Parks offer great opportunities an hour away from San Francisco.
- Yosemite National Park is, of course, one of the most famous parks in California, with the strenuous hike to the Half Dome a must. Note that this hike is now regulated and requires a permit available by a lottery run in March. But even if you don’t get the permit, the park offers numerous hiking opportunities in the valley but also the Tuolumne Meadows.
- Lassen volcanic environment is worth the remote location.
- Don’t forget the National Forests, where places like Eldorado National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, Plumas National Forest, and Klamath National Forest offer hiking opportunities for everyone. One of the positive aspects of hiking in national forests is that you can usually camp anywhere though you might need a permit before using a camp stove and even more so campfire due to fire hazards. Make sure to check each park’s regulations for individual details.
- For those looking for long-distance treks, the famous John Muir Trail (JMT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) pass through California, and you can hike parts of these trails from different places in the state.
Kayaking in Northern California
From sea kayaking along the Pacific Ocean coastline to lake kayaking in the Sierra Nevada, Northern California has several pristine kayaking options! Consider even spending the night camping under the stars for a longer overnight trip.
- Lake Tahoe kayaking at Emerald Bay is one-of-a-kind! Don’t miss it in you visit Lake Tahoe in summer. For longer trips, the 72-mile (116 km) Lake Tahoe Water Trail follows the shoreline over seven days and 20 public launch/landing sites.
- Mono Lake kayaking: another unique kayaking adventure, gliding by the Tufa rock formations that make the saline lake so interesting.
- Lake Almanor offers 52-mile (84-km) shoreline and over 300 campsites to break down and plan a great outing.
- Union Reservoir is an alpine lake sitting at 6,850 feet in the Sierra Nevada. One of the options is to spend the night camping on the shore, a perfect two-day overnight kayaking camping trip!
- Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing is excellent to observe sea otters and bird watching.
- Monterey Bay is fantastic for coastal kayaking, though make sure to watch for tides and currents. Kayaking there is better reserved for advanced kayakers.
- Point Reyes Tomales Bay lets you cross the bay and camp in the park. In recent years, bio-luminescence kayak tours have become popular at night.
Advanced kayakers might want to check Drakes Estero and open coast kayaking, though the conditions there can be extremely challenging.
- Mendocino Coast kayaking searching for sea caves
- The American River and the Yuba River should be on the list of those looking for river kayaking
Northern California Kiteboarding
Thanks to the large water presence from the coastline, rivers, and numerous lakes, Kitesurfers will find plenty of spots to learn and practice. In the Bay Area alone, you can count for over a dozen kitesurfing spots!
- San Mateo Third Avenue is probably the most popular spot
- San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge: That would be the iconic spot right from Crissy Field.
- Sherman Island in the Sacramento River Delta is known for its constant and strong winds.
- Waddell is the ocean spot that is best reserved for expert riders due to its big waves and cold water.
- Ocean Beach for incredible downwind trips
- Alameda Crown Beach is a right spot for beginners
- Berkeley Marina Point Emery is better for experienced kiteboarders
- Stinson Beach in Marin County is a beach break, so best for wave riders
Scuba-Diving in Northern California
While the water is definitely on the cold temperatures, the marine diversity makes for impressive dives.
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Monterey County, where you can find blue rockfish that give Bluefish Cove dive site its name
- Farallon Islands boast humpback, blue, gray and killer whales but the conditions are challenging and should be approached carefully
- Lover’s Point State Marine Reserve in Pacific Grove, Monterey County, and its fantastic kelp forest
Sailing in San Francisco Bay
One cannot visit California and San Francisco without sailing the Bay!
- Bay Area Ferries: You can board one of the several ferries that cross the San Francisco Bay from San Francisco, Sausalito, or Oakland. These boats have regular schedules throughout the day, and most accept bikes if you are returning from a bike ride.
- Sailboats: Another option is to join a sailboat for a ride under the Golden Gate Bridge or around Alcatraz Island.
- Historic 1891 Alma: The US National Park offers scheduled rides on this historical boat that used to deliver good in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco.
- Learn to Sailboat: if you are staying around for a while, learn to skip your sailboat by taking a lesson.
White-Water Rafting in Northern California
The usually heavy winter snowpack is one of the reasons why white-water rafting in NorCal is pretty thrilling. Thanks to snow melting come spring, the rivers’ flow make for exciting conditions, some up to Class V.
Rivers in Northern California include:
- Klamath, Merced, Sacramento, American, and Trinity Rivers.
- The Cal Salmon River is probably the biggest of them all and should be run by experienced rafters.
River classes go from Class II to V, and the best time to go white-water rafting is from April to September.
Horseback Riding in Northern California
With so many national forests nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains, horseback riding is an awesome way to explore if you are not into hiking or trekking. As with many tours involving animals, please be mindful of how the four-legged staff is treated.
Surfing in Northern California
With such a coastline, surfing spots are plentiful, and several spots are within an hour’s drive from San Francisco, north and south of the rugged Northern California coastline.
Note that the water temperatures in Northern California can be chilly at around 50°F (about 11°C ) in summer, compared to the average 68°F (20°C) of the Southern California waters. Great white sharks also roam these parts of the ocean, but watch for recent spottings and warning notifications before going in.
- Santa Cruz: considered some of the best waves, with reefs and swells
- Half Moon Bay: mostly from From Princeton Harbor
- Pacifica: a nice place to learn and perfect for beginners to intermediate surfers
- Ocean Beach: suitable for intermediate surfers though not as beginner-friendly as Pacifica
- Maverick: that spot drives world-class surfing competition when its massive waves come crashing. Dangerous and wild, it’s best reserved for the pros.
- Bolinas: smaller waves but with a smaller crowd
- Humboldt: reaching quite north of California on the way to Oregon
Biking in Northern California
You can bike pretty much anywhere, and it would be hard to list every the top 50 biking routes in NorthCal. However, there are several trails that we think are must-do.
- Napa Valley: where you can combine a fun bike ride with wine tasting
- Monterey Bay Coastal trail, covering an 18-miles road from Castroville to Pacific Grove, where you can continue along the beautiful 17 Mile Drive toward Carmel for a stunning scenic drive
- San Rosa 8.5-mile Joe Rodota Bike Trail goes along old train trestle bridges and an abandoned railway line
- American River Trail: the 32-mile long trail starts from Sacramento’s old town up to Folsom Lake, passing long swimming pools
- Lake Tahoe: from road riding to mountain biking, the area offers plenty of riding opportunities of various lengths and difficulties. Cisco Grove, Truckee to Squaw, Old Echo Summit, and Jack’s Valley Loop are one of the few available bike rides in the Lake Tahoe area. Note that while the distance between North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe is only around 35 miles, the small road is windy and narrow, and it takes about a one-hour drive from one end to the other.
- San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, as you bike from Fisherman’s Wharf to Sausalito and Tiburon. Probably one of the most iconic bike rides in Northern California!
- Hammond Trail in Humboldt Country McKinleywille with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean
Fun Winter Activities in Northern California
The Lake Tahoe area is home to over ten ski resorts, so you can imagine that winter in Tahoe is simply fantastic! But beyond downhill ski, there are plenty of other ways to experience winter in Tahoe.
- Snowboarding or skiing around Lake Tahoe. Kirkwood is one of our preferred resorts, but from Alpine Meadows, Sugar Bowl, Squaw Valley, Northstar, and others, there is something for everyone!
- Snow camping or snowshoeing in the Sierra Nevada
- Snowkiting on Prosser Lake
Have you ever experienced any of these Northern California activities? What else do you think we should list? Don’t forget to leave us a comment in the Comment section!
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