Northern California is a land of giants. Jagged peaks rise up from the Sierra Nevada Mountains like enormous stone totems. Waterfalls cascade for thousands of feet and cast rainbows in their mist. There are whales and dolphins.
The tallest trees on Earth exist only here: 300-foot Redwoods that crane the neck and humble the soul. There is world-class surf, stunning beaches and one of the most spectacular drives on the planet, following the rugged cliffs of California’s legendary Pacific Coast Highway. And then there’s San Francisco, still one of the coolest and most creative cities in the country. Northern California is exactly what holidays should be about: awe, adventure, plenty of sunshine and excellent wine.
It’s also a place for dreamers. The gold rush started here in 1848 when the first shiny flakes were discovered in a river in the Sacramento Valley, just north of San Francisco. Thousands of settlers soon arrived, swelling the population by a hundred times in little more than a year. They found gold, but more than that they found a land of abundance and beauty. And it inspired everyone who saw it. It was here that John Muir, the legendary environmentalist, dreamt up the concept of wilderness conservation. Teddy Roosevelt took one look at Yosemite and turned the idea into law. This isn’t just a beautiful landscape; it’s a landscape that’s so beautiful it’s changed the world.
And it might just change you too. The itinerary I’ve put together will take you on an 840-mile loop around the best of the Northern California, from its golden sands to its highest peaks. It is designed to put you in the perfect spot at the right time.
The route begins in San Francisco and makes its way counter-clockwise, hugging the coastline south through the beach towns of Santa Cruz, Monterey and into the spectacular headlands of Big Sur. Then we turn inland, gaining 4,000 feet in elevation as we climb towards the granite faces and giant Sequoias of Yosemite National Park. I’ll show you the best place to watch the sunrise, where to find the most exquisite views and the most beautiful lake for swimming. Then we head north to the azure waters of Lake Tahoe, like a sapphire jewel embedded in the earth, before finishing in Napa Valley for chilled wine, gourmet food and balloon rides over the vineyards at dawn.
A taste of San Francisco
Depart from the UK on a daytime flight direct from London Heathrow to San Francisco with British Airways. Arrive ten hours later, mid-afternoon local time, and make your way to the funky Hotel Zeppelin, a modernist homage to the city’s counter-cultural roots, in downtown Union Square. Freshen up; fight the jet lag and head out for some for laid back, but meticulously prepared Californian cuisine at Liholiho Yacht Club, just a five-minute stroll from the door.
Start the day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a 15-minute walk from the hotel, now the largest modern art museum in the country following a spectacular $610-million expansion. From there it’s a breezy ride on the city’s historic cable cars to Fisherman’s Wharf and a sourdough bread bowl filled with clam chowder for lunch, a Frisco classic. Bistro Boudin does one of the best.
Afterwards, rent bikes (from $8 per hour) and pedal along the waterfront to the Golden Gate Bridge. Opened in 1937, this engineering marvel is as bold and spectacular as the city itself and the best way to see it is on two wheels. Take the safe bike path over the bridge and make your way down to the cute harbour town of Sausilito on the other side of the bay. Finish the day watching the last rays of the sunset light up the city skyline across the water, one of the best views in town, before catching the last ferry back.
Pacific Coast road trip
Leave the city and drive two hours south to Santa Cruz, the original surf city. Stop off on the way at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, to gawp upwards at some of the oldest and largest trees on Earth. Then check in at the Inn at Depot Hill, right on the beach, and spend the afternoon catching waves and strolling the 100-year-old beach boardwalk with its old-school, free-admission amusement park, summer concerts and more.
Leave Santa Cruz and drive 40 miles south to Monterey, one of the best places in the world to see whales year round. Jump on a morning cruise – Monterey Bay Whale Watch are one of the few with resident Marine Biologists on board ($49 per adult) and keep your eyes peeled for humpbacks, orcas, grays, blues and more.
Afterwards, hit the Pacific Coast Highway heading south: 50 unbelievably dramatic miles along Big Sur’s rugged coast to the Post Ranch Inn. This contemporary design hotel, perched on the edge of a cliff, oozes style: floor-to-ceiling windows, salvaged redwood panels and an infinity pool dropping 1,200-feet to the sea below. Their award-winning Sierra Mar restaurant has some of the best views, and food, on the coast.
Spend the morning relaxing at the hotel: there’s an excellent spa, guided nature walks, yoga sessions and more. Then drive 15 minutes south to Julie Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where the stunning McWay Waterfall drops 80 feet from the cliff top directly to the sandy cove below. Stop at the Big Sur Deli on the way back to grab a picnic and a bottle of wine, then head up to Pfeiffer Beach, a few miles north of the hotel. In a region where every sunset is spectacular, locals say this one’s the best.
The wonders of Yosemite
This is the biggest driving day, five hours all the way from the ocean to the mountains of Yosemite National Park. But it’s worth it: the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams called these 1,169 square miles of wilderness “a glitter of green and golden wondering a vast edifice of stone and space.” Quite simply, this is one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on the planet.
Check in to the historic Majestic Yosemite Hotel, with stunning views across to Yosemite Falls, and spend the afternoon exploring the sheer cliffs, sunlit meadows and thundering cascades of the valley. Go to Glacier Point, at the end of the day, for the best sunset and stick around after dark: on a clear night the stars are bigger and brighter than almost anywhere else in the world.
Watch the sunrise from Tunnel View, one of the best views in the park. But it’ll be crowded. For a more secluded show hike the short trail just over the road that leads steeply uphill, for about 20 minutes. The view at the top is just as good and half as busy. The rest of the day you have the crown jewel of America’s national parks to explore. I recommend the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias, a different species than the coastal redwoods but just as impressive, and Tuolumne Meadows in the quieter, far north of the park.
The overwhelming majority of tourists in Yosemite never stray more than a mile from their car: don’t be one of them. This is your chance to hit the back country. If you’re fit and have a good head for heights, take the full day’s hike to the top of Cloud’s Rest.
The summit is a precarious knife-edge ridge, with a 6,000-foot drop to the valley below, but the 360-degree views on top are worth the effort. Finish with a swim in the lilac waters of Tanaya Lake, surrounded by log-pole forests, sandy shores and steep domes of brush-stroked granite on all sides.
Relax at Lake Tahoe
Leave the park and drive north (3-4 hours) to Lake Tahoe, 190 square miles of glittering azure water high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Check in to the Basecamp Hotel in Tahoe City, a rustic inn with trendy touches of contemporary colour and a good craft beer bar. Then spend the afternoon floating leisurely down the gentle rapids of the Truckee River nearby ($45 per person), before finishing off with s’mores on the hotel deck – roasted marshmallows and half a bar of melted chocolate sandwiched between sweet crackers, an American campfire tradition.
Head out this morning on a kayak tour of the remote northeast shore, stopping at deserted beaches along the way for lunch and an afternoon swim ($95 per person). Then make your way back to Tahoe City for a long, leisurely wine-filled lunch at the Sunnyside Resort’s huge open-air deck on the water. Keep the celebrations going with a happy-hour cruise on board the Tahoe Gal ($35 per person), an authentic-looking Mississippi River style paddle wheeler.
A tour of wine country
Leave Lake Tahoe in the morning and drive three hours west to Yountville, in the heart of the Napa Valley wine region. This town is the culinary capital of one of the most foodie places on the planet, so indulge yourself. Check in at the Bardessono Hotel & Spa, a high end but eco-friendly wellbeing boutique, and then spend the afternoon exploring some of the region’s best wineries.
Tomorrow will be locally focused, so go further afield today: Del Dotto Vineyards is utterly opulent and has an excellent candlelit tour of their wine cave. Finish with dinner at The French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller’s three Michellin star kitchen, just a short walk from the hotel, and widely regarded as the best restaurant in the region.
Today starts with a dawn balloon ride over the valley’s lush farmland sand rolling hills of bright green luminescent vines (from $200 per person). Then join a full day bike tour of local boutique wineries, led by an expert guide ($159 per person). With only 3-6 miles between each stop, and a long catered picnic among the vineyards, the pace is easy, and you’ll be able to smell the fresh scent of pinot, cabernet and chardonnay on the breeze.
The penultimate day closes the loop of your road trip with a two-hour drive back to San Francisco. Tonight you’ll stay in the hip Hotel Zephyr, in Fisherman’s Wharf, ideally located for your after dark cruise to Alcatraz ($47 per person). Tour the grounds of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly’s former home by torch light, before entering, if you dare, the infamous solitary confinement block known as ‘the hole’. Finish the holiday with craft cocktails and some legendary Bay Area nightlife.
Fly back to the UK tonight, but there’s time to check out the resident seal colony on Pier 39 and do some last-minute souvenir shopping around the wharf before you go.
When to go
This itinerary has been designed with a spring, summer or early autumn trip in mind. It’s perfectly possible to do it winter, but you’ll be skiing in Lake Tahoe, instead of lazing on the water, much of Yosemiteis off-limits, some seasonal activities will be closed and the coast has cooler and wetter conditions.
June, July and August are the most popular months. The weather is warm, sunny and everywhere is open and geared towards you having fun. But it’s also the busiest time. Roughly 75 per cent of Yosemite’s four million annual visitors come over this period and it can be a circus. It’s a similar story across Napa Valley and the Bay Area too. June and July can also bring fog and chilly wind to San Francisco.
A good alternative is May when Yosemite’s waterfalls are in full flow, the crowds are thin and the weather’s good. Even better is September, when the sun’s still shining on the coast and the mountains haven’t yet cooled. But check ahead for seasonal opening times.
How to book
If you’d prefer not to make your own arrangements, discuss your options with a tailor-made holiday specialist. Telegraph Travel recommends Audley, Wexas, Trailfinders and Abercrombie & Kent.