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  • A sailing trip on San Francisco Bay in California
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    San Francisco: Adventures on Land and Water

  • Fun photo opportunity with local art in Coulterville, California
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    Yosemite Mariposa County: Gold Rush History and Majestic Beauty

  • Kayaking alongside tufa formations on Mono Lake in California
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    Mono County: The Road Less Traveled to Extraordinary Wonders

  • The famed Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park, California
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    Yosemite Madera County: Outdoor Adventure in and around Yosemite

Road tripping through Yosemite National Park in California
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Northern California Mountain Loop: Outdoor Wonders and Off-the-Beaten-Path Gems

By Zaida Rios

  • Route distance:
    451.00
  • Suggested Time:
    1-2 weeks

If you subscribe to the notion that road trips are as much about the journey as the destination, then you’re going to fall head over heels for Northern California.

Whether you’re sailing on the San Francisco Bay or hiking in an ancient redwood forest, this road trip delivers on all fronts: big-city culture, outdoor adventure, small-town charm and epic beauty.

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A sailing trip on San Francisco Bay in California
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San Francisco: Adventures on Land and Water

Fly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to begin your adventure. Catch all the city’s icons – the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf – on a breezy sailboat cruise along the San Francisco Bay. Beyond the iconic sights and stunning scenery that you’ve seen in the movies, the city is a captivating collection of neighborhoods, each with its own personality. Drop by Union Square’s whimsical Museum of Ice Cream and encounter Instagram-worthy unicorns, a pool of sprinkles and a scrumptious ice cream selection at Cafe1905C. If you favor the avant-garde and quirky, head to the Castro District via the F-Line Streetcar. This retro streetcar will drop you in the middle of the upbeat, sometimes irreverent, scene that is quintessential Castro. Rainbow-stamped crosswalks lead to unusual shops, hip restaurants and lots of creative energy in this LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood. Pick up something sweet at Hot Cookie Bakery. Bordering the nearby Mission District, you’ll discover Mission Dolores Park. Grab lunch to-go from Bi-Rite Market and enjoy it like a local on the park’s grassy lawn. Want the insider scoop on brag-worthy city views? Twin Peaks is your best bet. Hike to the top to witness a spectacular 360-degree view of San Francisco.

230 km
2.5 hours by car
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Fun photo opportunity with local art in Coulterville, California
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Yosemite Mariposa County: Gold Rush History and Majestic Beauty

Travel east to Coulterville, one of those small California towns that could easily double as a Hollywood Western movie set. After you’ve explored the historic buildings, visit the Northern Mariposa County History Center, where you can find a treasure trove of California Gold Rush knowledge. Next, jump on scenic route Highway 49, known as the Gold Rush Highway, to Mariposa, where you’ll find more small-town charm and Gold Rush history. Wander through a quaint downtown, pan for gold at the Mariposa Museum & History Center and shop for souvenirs at Mariposa Marketplace. Next, begin your first of several days exploring in and around the region’s crown jewel, Yosemite National Park. Plan ahead and make a reservation for a stay at The Ahwahnee, a gorgeous National Park hotel snug inside the Yosemite Valley. Catch views of Yosemite icons Half Dome and Glacier Point just a short walk outside the hotel’s front entrance. Treat yourself and make a reservation to dine at the hotel’s grand restaurant, The Ahwahnee Dining Room. A deliciously crafted meal in a rustically elegant setting is always a win, especially where high ceilings anchored by wooden beams and chandeliers create an unforgettable ambiance.

141 km
2.5 hours by car
03
Kayaking alongside tufa formations on Mono Lake in California
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Mono County: The Road Less Traveled to Extraordinary Wonders

Travel on Highway 120 West over Tioga Pass for astounding views of mountains and waterfalls as you depart Yosemite National Park and head to June Lake in Mono County. At U.S. Highway 395, head south to Highway 158 – the June Lake Scenic Loop, a 24-kilometer loop that winds through the village of June Lake and showcases crisp lakeside views. In the winter, it’s all about snow sports, but other seasons have their appeal too. The aspen trees provide a spectacular autumn color blast, and the warmer months offer scenic hiking trails, an array of water sports and excellent trout fishing. Return to scenic U.S. Highway 395 and venture along Highway 120 East to Mono Lake for a one-of-a-kind experience – you’ve never seen a lake quite like this one. In Mono Basin National Scenic Area, craggy rock formations called tufas jut forth in and around this high-desert, saltwater lake. A paddling trip is a terrific way to take in this mysterious lunar-like landscape, but if walking or hiking is more your pace, Mono Lake can be explored via the South Tufa Trail as well. Either way, you are scouting one of the oldest lakes in North America. Hop back on U.S. Highway 395 (the scenery is too good to pass up), and continue an hour north to Bodie, one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the USA. Once a thriving gold mining outpost, today it’s steeped in history. Get lost as you wander through desolate streets scattered with historic abandoned buildings.

219 km
3.5 hours by car
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The famed Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park, California
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Yosemite Madera County: Outdoor Adventure in and around Yosemite

You will encounter more stunning views of Yosemite as you travel scenic U.S. Highway 395 to Tioga Pass on your way to Oakhurst. A fun mountain town located at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, it serves as another convenient gateway to Yosemite National Park. In town, you’ll find a wide variety of lodging options and quality dining. Craving comfort food and craft beer? Drop by the South Gate Brewing Company. Order the award-winning Oaktown Pecan Brown that pairs nicely with the wood-fired pizza. If you love the idea of the outdoors but gravitate toward upscale amenities, consider a stay a Chateau du Sureau located on the outskirts of town. Set amid towering cypress trees, this AAA Five-Diamond resort is a posh and serene escape. Perks include gourmet dining, a day spa and yoga al fresco, as well as horseback riding and hiking in the area.

Now that you’ve been sufficiently pampered, you’re ready to explore more of Yosemite. Journey through Tunnel View, one of the most photographed vistas in the world, which showcases Yosemite’s big draws: El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. It’s the ideal place to stand in awe of Yosemite’s magnificent beauty. Be sure to add Mariposa Grove to your must-see list. It’s nothing short of a fairytale as you wander through ancient Giant Sequoias soaring upward to 92 meters. Back in Oakhurst, savor your last night at the Chateau du Sureau before driving back to San Francisco for your trip home.