Road trips are virtually synonymous with summer and, in Northern California, there’s so much to see when you’re cruising on four wheels.
But while heading to Tahoe, Big Sur, or the Russian River are epic must-do journeys, they’re just the tip of the road trip iceberg.
On these three routes, you’ll find everything from outdoor adventure and historic sites to kitschy roadside attractions and wine tasting. So pack up the car and hit the pavement For these NorCal trips on roads less traveled.
US-395 to US-88: Mammoth Lakes to Hope Valley
Bodie, a largely intact ghost town off of US-395
(Courtesy of @bodiestatehistoricpark)
This road trip along the spine of the Sierra is chock full of surprises, both natural and human-built. Begin your journey at Mammoth Lakes—an outdoor haven in summer, a skiing wonderland in winter—where the Sierra Nevada Resort (164 Old Mammoth Rd.) has just been fully renovated and reimagined as a chic, mountain lodge, and a new restaurant with Michelin-pedigreed chefs, Vulcania (6201 Minaret Rd. #240), is now open. From there, you’ll follow beautiful US-395 north past geological oddities, ghost towns, and hot springs all the way to Topaz on the Nevada-California border, about 100 miles away. From there, veer westward on US-89, continuing on to US-88 at Alpine Village until you arrive at Hope Valley, a gorgeous mountain pass that rivals Yosemite’s best.
Devil’s Postpile National Monument
Devil’s Postpile combines one of the finest examples of spaghetti-like columnar basalt in the world with pristine high Sierra views and hiking. // Devil’s Postpile Rd., (Mammoth Lakes), nps.gov
Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve
This ancient lake is best known for its bizarre tufa, pinnacles of calcium carbonate that rise like cityscapes from the water, and salty water so dense, it’s almost impossible to sink. // US-395 (Lee Vining), parks.ca.gov
Bodie State Historic Park
Explore Gold Rush-era deserted streets and abandoned homes and businesses at Bodie, one of the West’s most complete, still-standing ghost towns. // CA-270 (Bridgeport), parks.ca.gov
Travertine Hot Springs
Composed of three natural pools on a hilltop south of Bridgeport, Travertine Hot Springs are the ideal place for a soak. // Jack Sawyer Rd. (Bridgeport), tripadvisor.com
Distance: 130 miles
US-49: Mariposa to Placerville
Sutter Creek, one of the charming historic towns on US-49.
(Courtesy of @visitsuttercreek)
Take a trip back in time to California’s Gold Rush days on US-49. The road journeys through the Sierra foothills from Mariposa to Auburn, alongside some of the most storied sites and cutest towns in the entire state. Begin the drive in Mariposa, whose fabulous museum (5119 Jessie St.) Smithsonian once called one of the best small institutions west of the Mississippi. From there, the road takes you north through pint-sized communities teeming with shopping, wine, beer, and great food; shuttles you past the ruins of early mines and other mid-19th century ephemera; and drops you in the middle of Auburn, a beautifully preserved historic town and the gateway to Placer County wine country.
Kennedy Gold Mine
Tour the remains of one of the world’s deepest gold mines (try their paranormal nights investigations for something a little out of the ordinary) or wander the ruins on your own. // 12594 Kennedy Mine Rd. (Jackson), kennedygoldmine.com
Sutter Creek & Amador City
Sutter Creek and Amador City are, without a doubt, two of the most interesting, most charming historic towns in Northern California with great food, great shopping, and beautifully restored hotels like the Imperial in Amador City (14202 Old Hwy 49).
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Visit the exact spot where California miner James W. Marshall first discovered gold, changing the trajectory of the West Coast forever. (If you’re feeling lucky, you can try panning the river yourself). // 310 Back St. (Coloma), parks.ca.gov
Placer Wine Trail
Taste your way through more than two dozen boutique wineries located in and around Auburn on the Placer Wine Trail. // placerwine.com
Distance: 180 miles
US-101: Leggett to Ferndale
The Chandelier Tree, one of the kitschy stops in store on US-101.
(Courtesy of @autokennel)
There’s tons of classic kitsch in store on this trip along the Redwood Highway. Add to that some of the largest redwood forests in the state and a historic town so pristine, it’s a Hollywood darling, and you’ve got yourself a road trip. Kick things off in Ukiah, where Vichy Springs (2605 Vichy Springs Rd.), California’s oldest continuing operating resort, tends its mineral hot springs for day use and overnight stays. From there, make your way north through the redwood forests along this section of US-101 (which is aptly called the Redwood Highway in these parts), before turning off towards lovely Ferndale.
Skunk Train: Wolf Tree Turn
Ride the Wolf Tree Turn through the Noyo River Canyon on the Skunk Train, a historic steam engine that’s been rolling through the Mendocino redwoods since 1885. // 299 East Commercial St. (Willits), skunktrain.com
Leggett is Northern California’s king of old-school roadside attractions. Don’t miss the Chandelier Tree (67402 Drive Thru Tree Rd.), which is large enough to drive a car through, and Confusion Hill (75001 US-101), a “mysterious” spot full of optical illusions.
Avenue of the Giants
Called the “finest forest drive in the world,” motoring along this 31-mile detour on the old route US-101 is like driving through a fairytale. // 17119 Avenue of the Giants (Weott), parks.ca.gov
Ferndale isn’t just your destination, it’s a part of your journey. Be sure to bake some extra time into your road trip to explore the town, especially the shops in its Victorian Village and the eerie hillside cemetery.
Distance: 147 miles