Northern California is a catch-22.
The region is so stunningly beautiful that people from around the world come year-round to see its most iconic sights like Yosemite and Tahoe. But all those visitors bring the kind of crowds, long lines, and endless traffic that puts a serious dent in our ability to enjoy them.
Lucky for us, there are still plenty of fantastic NorCal destinations that haven’t yet caught the world’s attention. From Carmel Valley to the Lost Coast, these getaways are excellent alternatives to the norm with just a fraction of the crowds.
Instead of Napa, try Carmel Valley.
Folktale Winery in Carmel Valley.
(Courtesy of @folktalewinery)
With wineries regularly charging upwards of $50 for tastings, it’s hard to feel the same enthusiasm for Napa we once did. We can tell you from experience, elbowing your way through the buzzing crowds just to get another glass of cab is not nearly as fun as it seems. Why not head to Carmel Valley instead, where the reds are just as rich and full bodied, and the tourist game is still somewhat under control.
Like Napa, Carmel Valley is a beautiful region of vineyards, ranches, and rolling hills. The landscape is so similar, in fact, that Carmel Valley is one of Napa’s biggest competitors for California cabs, merlots, and chardonnays. There are around 20 tasting rooms in and around town including Folktale Winery(8940 Carmel Valley Rd.) and Joullian Vineyards (2 Village Dr.); at most of them, you don’t even need a reservation. About twice the distance from SF or the East Bay as Napa, we recommend staying overnight in order to do it up right. If you’re high rolling, Bernardus Lodge & Spa (415 W. Carmel Valley Rd.) has your number. Otherwise try the Carmel Valley Lodge (8 Ford Rd.), a relaxing resort that’s (usually) well under $300a night.
Instead of Tahoe, try Lake Almanor.
(Courtesy of Visit California)
Tahoe in the summer can be a nightmare. Traffic jams, overcrowded beaches, impossible lines, and soaring house rental rates do not a relaxing getaway make. But add another 40 miles to your trip (let’s face it, weekend Tahoe traffic will add at least that much additional time anyway) and you can escape to Lake Almanor, a hidden gem right next door to Lassen Volcanic National Park).
One of the largest lakes in Northern California, Lake Almanor has all the swimming, water sports, and outdoor adventure of Lake Tahoe with a lot fewer people. There are 52 miles of shoreline to post up on, and just about everything you’ll need for a memorable getaway, minus the casinos. There’s even snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding in the winter. And did we mention that hotels are actually affordable here? (Check out the quaint cottages at the Highlands Ranch Resort.) Honestly, this place sells itself.
Instead of the Russian River Valley, try the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
(Courtesy of Jessica Avila/The Pioneer)
As its reputation as a laid back, redwood-and-wine-filled escape has grown, Sonoma’s Russian River Valley has gotten decidedly more touristy, especially on weekends in summer. But the region has a doppelganger in the Santa Cruz Mountains that’s still relatively under the radar. You won’t even have to drive farther to get there; from San Francisco and Oakland, the journey only takes about 90 minutes.
Like the Russian River Valley, the southern foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains are a swath of sequoia forest cut by the San Lorenzo River. In tiny towns like Felton, Boulder Creek, and Ben Lomond, historic stays like the Fern River Resort (5250 Hwy 9, Felton) and the Brookdale Lodge (11570 Hwy 9, Brookdale) are keeping the classic California vacation vibe alive. Multiple parks, including Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park are ripe for hiking and biking, while quaint amusements like the 1880s steam train Roaring Camp Railroad (5401 Graham Hill Rd., Felton), The Mystery Spot (465 Mystery Spot Rd, Santa Cruz), and the Bigfoot Discovery Museum (5497 Hwy 9, Felton) make for delightful entertainment. And yes, there’s wine, too—plenty of it. Big Basin Vineyards (830 Memory Ln., Boulder Creek), Byington Vineyard & Winery (21850 Bear Creek Rd., Los Gatos), and McHenry Vineyard (6821 Bonny Doon Rd., Santa Cruz) are great places to start.
Instead of Yosemite, try Sequoia & Kings Canyon.
The view from Moro Rock in Sequoia & Kings Canyon.
(Courtesy of @godfreyplata)
In 2021, 3.34 million people visited Yosemite National Park, each one of them clamoring for their own Insta-worthy view of Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. That’s more than three times what Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Northern California’s other high Sierra national park, got—and it makes a huge difference.
At Sequoia & Kings Canyon, they’ve got the same kind of massifs, canyons, and rocky terrain as Yosemite, plus an added bonus: Giant sequoias, the world’s tallest trees. Plus, you won’t have to fight tooth and nail for a campground or a reservation at one of the park’s four lodges (the smallest, John Muir Lodge, is in a prime location near the sequoia grove). For a gorgeous view that rivals Yosemite’s best, head to Moro Rock, a granite dome in the sky. While you won’t be the only one there, we can pretty much guarantee it’ll be a lot easier to get that clutch photo.
Instead of Big Sur, try the Lost Coast.
There aren’t a whole lot of coastal escapes that can compete with Big Sur. But the Lost Coast, which runs from Shelter Cove to Eureka, does a damn fine job of trying. The region, which spans Mendocino and Humboldt counties is a gorgeous landscape of dramatic bluffs, thick forests, and virtually empty beaches.
Although you can’t drive long stretches of the coast the way you can in Big Sur (hence the name, the Lost Coast), you can pop in and out from redwood to ocean and back again, stopping at highlights like Black Sands Beach, Punta Gorda Lighthouse, Mattole Beach, Petrolia, and Ferndale. Before you head out, rest up at the Oceanfront Inn (26 Seal Dr., Shelter Cove), a cozy boutique stay where every room has a balcony with a view of the Pacific. For a more intense adventure, the northern section of the Lost Coast Trail (786 Shelter Cove Rd., Whitethorn) from Mattole to Black Sands Beach is a 25-mile must.