Northern California is a place of unparalleled natural beauty. The landscape is as varied as the people who call it home, with fog-shrouded coastlines, misty redwood forests, desolate volcanic outcroppings, and serene alpine lakes. Visitors can find plenty of places to take in the views, from the Pacific Coast to the High Sierra. The following are the most breathtaking views in Northern California.
Near Lake Tahoe’s southwestern edge are the deep blue-green waters of Emerald Bay. From 600 feet above the lake, visitors can pull off the highway to Inspiration Point to gaze upon the surrounding mountains and tiny Fannette Island. The adventurous can hike down the hillside to take a dip, lounge on the beach or visit the historic Vikingsholm Castle. Emerald Bay is 10 miles west of South Lake Tahoe on Highway 89.
Reaching more than 2,500 feet above the Marin Hills north of San Francisco, this mountain peak affords sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay and surrounding forests and grasslands. On clear days, those who make it to the summit can see as far as the Farallon Islands or the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. Mount Tamalpais State Park is 19 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge on Panoramic Highway off Highway 1.
One of the largest lava domes in the world, Mount Lassen stands at 3,500 feet above sea level. It is an active yet dormant volcano, the latest eruption from 1915 to 1917 leaving behind a stark, desolate landscape of volcanic rock. A moderate hike to the top reveals the true extent of the devastation a century ago and provides views of nearby Mount Shasta and crystal-blue alpine lakes. Lassen National Park is 60 miles east of Redding along Highway 44.
With its craggy limestone formations jutting from the water, Mono Lake appears otherworldly. The formations, or tufa, provide the ultimate backdrop to the serene water, especially at sunset or sunrise. Ideal vantage points include the South Tufa and Navy Beach areas while stopping points along Highway 395 offer seemingly endless vistas of the lake and High Sierra landscape. Mono Lake is northeast of Lee Vining, 13 miles east of Yosemite National Park.
The rocky promontory protecting Bodega Harbor from the open ocean offers spectacular views of the Pacific coast. Trails snake across the land, providing visitors a chance to gaze upon secluded coves, sandy beaches and rock formations. The site is ideal for whale watching, as gray and blue whales make their way south from Alaska January through May. To reach Bodega Head, take Westshore Road off Highway 1 north of the town of Bodega Bay.
Feather River National Scenic Byway
California isn’t known for its fall color, but this stretch of Highway 70 through Plumas, Butte and Lassen counties proves otherwise. Wending its way between Oroville and Quincy, the scenic byway along the north fork of the Feather River is dotted with maple, aspen and dogwood that turn brilliant shades of scarlet, orange and gold come autumn. Several historic train bridges and tunnels add to its appeal. The Feather River National Scenic Byway begins just outside of Oroville on Highway 70, connecting with Highway 89 in the east.
Wine lover or not, it’s easy to be impressed by the rolling hills and rugged vineyards of the Napa Valley. Surrounded by mountains on either side, the valley is home to the Napa River, redwood groves, natural hot springs and lush forests. An aerial tram takes sightseers to Sterling Vineyards 300 feet above the town of Calistoga, offering panoramic views from the peaceful outdoor terrace. Sterling Vineyards is located at 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga, CA 94515.
While nearby McArthur-Burney Falls gets most of the attention, McCloud Falls, made up of three separate falls, is just as breathtaking. Both a riverside trail and an access road extend up the canyon to the lower, middle and upper falls. Phenomenal views of the McCloud River reward visitors along the way. At the top is a lookout with unobstructed views of the falls and the river canyon. McCloud Falls are near Mt. Shasta on Upper Falls Road off Highway 89.
Point Arena Lighthouse
Peering over the Mendocino coastline, this historic lighthouse provides commanding views of the Pacific Ocean. Visitors can hike along the clifftop trails and see sand dunes, sea arches and coastal bluffs. Down below, sea lions warm themselves on the rocks, while farther afield, gray, blue and humpback whales make their way south on their annual migration. Point Arena Lighthouse is located at 45500 Lighthouse Road, Point Arena, CA 95468.
Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park
No list of Northern California’s best views is complete without a mention of Yosemite National Park. And of all the views in Yosemite, none is as awe-inspiring as that from Glacier Point. The overlook showcases the park’s main attractions, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and Vernal Falls. More than 3,200 feet above Half Dome Village, the splendor and enormity of the Yosemite Valley is apparent. The Glacier Point Viewpoint is an hour from the valley floor along Glacier Point Road.